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Photo essay: Warhammer’s biggest painting competition in three years

In late March, fans from around the world came together in northern Illinois for the 2022 Golden Demon, the world’s biggest Warhammer painting competition. It was the first Golden Demon held in nearly three years, and the first to be held in the United States in more than a decade.

The competition took place at AdeptiCon, one of the largest and longest-running wargaming conventions in the country. More than 500 different pieces were entered into the open competition, representing a backlog of models that simply haven’t been seen in public since the start of the pandemic.

In a crowded field of towering mechs and elaborate dioramas, the top-winning model was a single miniature of a lizardman that stood barely one-inch tall. The sculpt itself is cinematic, evoking the triumph of a hard-won victory or the cold-blooded rage of a warrior heading into battle. But the artistry on display was impressive. The shading on that little skink was immaculate, the blending of the light highlights into the dark shadows creamy, consistent, and smooth. Judges called it “literally perfect,” and it’s hard to disagree. The standing-room-only crowd on hand gave its painter, Gavin Garza, a thunderous round of applause.

A blue skink raises a spear overhead, an unseen light glinting from its obsidian blade.

The grand prize-winning model at the Golden Demon, a tiny blue beasty barely one inch tall.
Image: Games Workshop

Of course, the awarding of the Slayer Sword was just one small part of the five-day gaming festival. AdeptiCon included multiple tournaments and demos from Games Workshop, as well as companies like Atomic Mass Games, Corvus Belli, and Para Bellum.

But at the center of it all was a studious cohort of amateur and professional miniature painters doing their thing. Each one set up shop in public spaces, unfolded their custom lighting, wet down their palettes, and got to work — all while sharing tips and tricks. Visitors could easily spend all their time in the classrooms nearby, learning challenging techniques like wet-blending, glazing, and weathering from some of the best miniature painters in the world.

Dozens of painters at work in the painter’s lounge at AdeptiCon 2022.

Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

YouTuber Lyla Mev at work during AdeptiCon 2022.

Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

A painters studies a green bust mounted on a wooden handle.

Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

I’ve spent many hours over the last few years painting miniatures. It’s become an everyday ritual for me, an extremely satisfying way to spend my down time after looking at computer screens for a living. It feels good to slow down, pick up a beautiful figure, and then spend a few hours practicing.

A Space Marine in yellow, his armor marred by battle.

Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

A White Scars Space Marine with a falcon stands atop a rocky crag.

Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

A Sister of Battle, resplendent with wings spread and doves in flight.

Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

My trip to AdeptiCon proved without a doubt that I’m hardly alone in that pursuit. The hobby games industry is booming, with companies like Games Workshop and Hasbro (the parent company of Wizards of the Coast) pulling in record profits. More people are picking up a paintbrush every day, and I reached out to academic Ian Williams, a teaching fellow at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a big Warhammer hobby fan, to find out why.

What follows is just a portion of our conversation, lightly edited for brevity and clarity, alongside some images I captured around the show.

A purple-clad sorceress holds up a magical device.

Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

A troll, covered in giant mushrooms, pulls a beast out of the swampy earth.

Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Polygon: Ian, we probably couldn’t get this many people in one room to do watercolors of birds, but you put the demon god Khorne on a plinth in front of them and they’re all about it. What have you learned from studying the community that surrounds the art and craft of miniature painting?

Ian Williams: There’s this guy, Richard Sennett who’s a theorist, and he writes this book called The Craftsman where he’s trying to figure this question out. What is craft? Why do people craft? His answer is actually pretty simple: Craft is the act of doing a good job for its own sake.

There’s something about us that we want to do a good job at things. The trick is that most of us are stuck in shitty jobs where the quality of our work doesn’t really matter; where we are exploited in terms of wages; where we just don’t get paid very much. Why would you work hard under those circumstances? Or maybe you work a job in the classical, industrial mode of working where you don’t actually see what it is that you’re making in the first place. You can take pride in your work at putting a steering wheel on a car in your 1940s Ford factory, but you’re detached from the final product. It’s classical Marxist alienation.

A grot tank, no more than a few inches tall, covered in freehand designs.

Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

A grot tank, no more than a few inches tall, covered in freehand designs.

Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

A grot tank, no more than a few inches tall, covered in freehand designs.

Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

There’s a lot of stuff that I think that Games Workshop does not always do well. They raise their prices. They’re not operating at a monopoly level, but it’s not too far off. But one of the things that they do a really good job of is that they value the craft portion of this. They call it “The Hobby.” They capitalize it.

Now, that’s all a means of kind of enclosing this impulse in this corporate machinery. But I’ve also known enough people over the years at Games Workshop — I used to work at a Games Workshop store — to know that they value the craft side of things in a way that I don’t know that too many gaming companies do, either inside or outside the wargaming space. I think that they do a good job of tapping into that impulse, in a way a lot of other companies don’t.

A diorama of Adepta Sororitas fighting in gothic ruins.

Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Spirits covered in rags wield golden scythes.

Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Freehand work covers the shell of a purple mech.

Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

How does the Golden Demon specifically play into that?

When you’re part of a craft you’re always part of something social, even when you’re by yourself.

If you’re just painting by yourself, how do you know you’re doing a good job? Even if nobody else is around or you don’t have the pictures, you have this idea, which is socially constructed, of what a good miniature looks like: Because it was made by someone else. Or you watched a how-to guide. Or something like that.

So Golden Demon kind of serves as the pinnacle of the craft. It’s something to aspire to, it’s something to get ideas from, and it’s something that you’re participating in by viewing. Even if you know that you’re never going to become a Golden Demon painter, you still watch it, knowing that you’re never gonna do that. You’re participating in this larger community just by the act of viewing and paying attention to the awards and the output of these master craftspeople.

Eowyn kills the Witch King.

Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

An imperial fighter, just a few inches wide, passes over a delicately shaded backdrop.

Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

A winged medusa-like creature casts a fiery spell.

Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

It really feels like it has this basis in a county fair or The Great British Bake Off. Here’s my blue ribbon-winning apple raspberry pie, please consider me for the Golden Demon.

I would go so far as to say that it’s not different. It’s exactly the same thing. I don’t think that too many Warhammer painters, head-down, think of what they do as they do as akin to baking a pie, or whittling, or starting a knitting circle, or getting together and jamming with their friends on the guitar. But it’s exactly the same thing.

We all have that thing that just kind of piques our interest, and that’s the thing that we want to do a good job on. It’s exactly the same. They’re bakers, the Golden Demon guys. Master bakers.

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