I organize the Painting Conference and Competition for both Genghis Con and Tacticon here in Denver Colorado. I have been painting miniatures off and on since I was ten, lets leave it at I have been painting a long time. I am a very good painter, good enough to win medals and trophies but definitely not in the upper echelon of those that win Golden Demons and Slayer Swords (for those that don't know these are the awards from what is currently the most prestigious painting competition held at the various Games Days hosted by Games Workshop). Almost every game convention has a painting competition of some sort. The national conventions; GenCon and Origins both have competitions and Adepticon is now hosting the Crystal Brush Competition (huge cash award). There are other military modeling groups that hold their own competitions as well like MMSI in Chicago.
I have seen the frustration of entrants when their pieces don't do as well as the expect them to yet they never ask why their piece didn't do well and I know some of them go away angry and disappointed thinking that the judges are in league against them. So here are some thoughts on what you can do to improve your work from the perspective of an entrant, a judge and an organizer.
As entrant my best advice is ignore the comments of your friends. Unless your friends are all excellent painters their comments on how great your are don't really mean much (harsh I know but true). If you are thinking of entering at this stage (and I think you should) you should start looking at some of the forums and see the quality of the work that is being shown off online. This is what you are going to be facing in a competition. Don't bring in one of your gaming pieces (even your best gaming piece) to the competition. Odds are that it is showing some use and abuse from your gaming sessions and that is not what you want to show the judges. Pick out something new that you want to paint and give your self plenty of time to paint it (i.e. three days before the event is not enough time), Take the time to clean the miniature, remove all the mold lines, make sure its a good casting (details are crisp and fully molded). Make sure you apply a primer coat that is thin and even. A good primer coat goes a long way towards a quality paint job. If the primer coat is rough then the paint will not go on smooth. Then you can start painting, use your best techniques and I recommend not trying a new technique on a competition piece unless you are sure that you can get it right the first time. For competition pieces I stick to my strengths or only use new techniques that I have been practicing on other miniatures with. And when you are finished, DO NOT apply a dullcote. The application of any type of matte finish will kill your highlights and blend all your careful work into a single color. It will survive without a matte finish for the length of the competition.
Judging is a tough thankless task. You are often under a time limit maybe facing upwards of several hundred entries to get through. There are two distinct judging styles as well; Podium/Trophy judging and Medal judging. Under the trophy judging judges are looking for the best three pieces in each category and are probably working with 2-3 other people and trying to come to a unanimous decision. So the team is first going to eliminate anything that just doesn't measure up. This can sometimes mean that half the entries are eliminated in the first run through of the entries. After that it gets more and more difficult as judges look for the elusive top three. What you need to do to survive here is something that will catch the judges' eyes and keep your piece in contention. A nicely finished base, nice clean paintwork, and unusual miniature will all serve to keep you in the running. In the end though it comes down to who has the fewest number of flaws in their paintwork to get that elusive first place finish.
Medal judging is a whole different process there can be as many as five judges with a couple of alternates involved. In this style the judges will select your best miniature to judge. If you enter three pieces in the single fantasy category the judges will decide, as a group, which one is your best work and that will be the only piece they judge. There are variations to this but in general that's how the selection is made. Then without discussion each judge will give the piece a numeric score from 0 - 4. A tabulator will take the scores, toss the high and low scores and add the remaining three. A score of 11-12 is gold, 8 - 10 is silver, 5 - 7 is bronze and in some competitions 2 - 4 is a certificate of merit. In this type of judging everyone that deserves a gold will get a gold and so on down the line. For this competition you don't need to catch the judges' eyes quite as much as you need to make sure that your miniature has been prepped properly, your paint work is nice and smooth and the techniques you utilized (layering, wet blending, washes, drybrushing, OSL, NMM) are executed to the best of your ability. A nice presentation helps, so don't ignore your base work.
From an organizer's standpoint I want you to enter and enter often. The more miniatures I have in the case the more excitement is generated to see who wins the gold medals. If you don't win a gold then I hope that it inspires you to get better and try again. What I want you to do is to ask questions about what you can do better to get to that next level. My conventions always have painting classes and if you want to try out a new technique like NMM then take the class and see if its something you really want to try. A successful show for me is one where everyone who enters asks a least one question on how to improve and is excited to start a new miniature (or two or three) for the next competition.
Genghis Con is coming up in February so let's get those brushes to work!
Life is short, break the rules. Forgive quickly, kiss slowly. Love truly, laugh uncontrollably and never regret anything that makes you smile. - Samuel Longhorne Clemens (Mark Twain)