Tabletop Standard vs. Display Level Painting [Criteria]

Miniature painting standards: tabletop versus display quality painting - criteria for judging

This article is a descriptive overview of the differences between tabletop quality and display level miniature painting standards.

What do the terms “tabletop standard”, “display level”, or collector quality” mean in regards to miniature painting?

This seems to be a recurring question in the miniature painting community. And, it is an especially relevant topic for commissioned painters or clients who might encounter different project prices that depend on painting quality level.

The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart

Helen Keller

Read on to see 1) the general descriptions of each miniature painting standard, as well as 2) some thoughts on how time is a key factor in determining “standard”

What Does the Industry Say?

There are already standards to define tabletop paint quality. Games Workshop (GW) (e.g., Warhammer, Age of Sigmar, 40k) and Privateer Press (e.g., Warmachine and Hordes) have regulations for what they consider fully-painted tabletop ready models (i.e., tournament ready).

Games Workshop has published a set of model painting standards.

Tabletop Standard vs. Display Level Painting [Criteria]
Painting standards from Warhammer World: fully painted (left panel), basic tabletop standard (middle panel), unacceptable level (right panel)

In general, however, even GW doesn’t clearly define a “painting standard”, and acknowledges this issue is subjective and personal.

This is perhaps the most ambiguous as fully painted can vary from one person to another. Some people never consider their army fully painted as they could see room for a 4th highlight, some free-hand heraldry or some battle damage. Others consider an army fully painted so long as it has ‘3 colours’. Fully painted can thus be a question of perspective, and a tick-list of minimum standards doesn’t apply. That being said, we fully believe that deep down everyone knows what a fully painted model is, regardless of skill or time spent.

Model Requirements for events at Warhammer World (Games Workshop)

Notably, the requirements for a minimum painting standard does include instructions for bases.

All miniatures in your collection must be fully based. Fully based means a finished base of the model. Plain bases should be fully
painted and include some kind of texture – sand, grass, slate etc. Sculpted bases should be fully painted. Games Workshop’s Texture paints make it easier than ever to base your models as it is paint and texture all in one.

Model Requirements for events at Warhammer World (Games Workshop)

Tabletop Standard Painting

As far as I can tell, the most common definition of tabletop standard from community discussions is as follows:

Tabletop Standard Painting

  1. Each major element on a model is defined by appropriate color, e.g., flesh/skin versus armor/cloth
  2. A wash or ink adds dark value, whereas a dry brush or simple highlight technique adds a bright value (these are methods to increase contrast)
  3. Bases are finished with paint or flocking material, e.g., sand/grass
  4. No primer or bare metal/plastic shows anywhere on the model
  5. The model is clearly identified and looks “good” alone or in a group of similar models from 3 feet away (i.e., playing distance)
Tabletop Standard vs. Display Level Painting [Criteria]
Tabletop standard miniatures look great in a group (painted bases)

Overall, a tabletop standard miniature paint job includes painting and basing elements that clarify and demonstrate the purpose of the model on the table.

When you lift the model from the tabletop, the quality of the paint job no longer holds significance and its appearance may no longer “impress” you.


Tabletop Standard vs. Display Level Painting [Criteria]
40k Space Marines are classic models for applying minimum painting standards for the tabletop

High Tabletop or Display Level Painting

Any miniature paint job above a minimum “tabletop standard” is a high-quality tabletop or display level painting. Because we are moving away from the requirements of looking good in tabletop gaming environment, we can’t define the standard as firmly.

Tabletop Standard vs. Display Level Painting [Criteria]
Freehand details might appear on higher quality tabletop standard miniature paint jobs

Here’s what I found to be the points that most in the community might agree upon as criteria for each standard:

High Tabletop Standard

  1. Appropriate color, e.g., flesh/skin versus armor/cloth, defines each major element on a model
  2. Added free hand details, wet-slide decals, or other texture elements
  3. Contrast is well-done, not necessarily smooth, but closer to realistic lighting appears on elements of the miniature, e.g., color blending
  4. Bases are finished with paint or flocking material, e.g., sand/grass
  5. The model looks good in isolation, and stands up to closer scrutiny when held between 1-3 feet away
Tabletop Standard vs. Display Level Painting [Criteria]
Details and better contrast define higher quality tabletop standard paint jobs
Tabletop Standard vs. Display Level Painting [Criteria]
Models painted to a higher standard stand up to closer scrutiny, like this Zombicide board game hero
Tabletop Standard vs. Display Level Painting [Criteria]
The use of decals (well-applied and embedded) and strong technical approaches add to the level of miniature painting quality

Display Level or Collector Quality Standard

The sky is the limit. But, at a minimum, you should see the following on a miniature painted to standards described as “display” or “collector level”:

  1. Color, light, and texture define each element of the miniature
  2. Details, e.g., belt buckles, facial features, hair texture, are visible with close inspection
  3. Light and environmental context provide more information for the viewer. In other words, the artist has envisioned intrinsic or extrinsic environmental elements and successfully added these details to the painting (e.g., context from within the model’s sculpt, or from the external contextual-environment a viewer might perceive through the miniature’s paint job)
  4. Narrative elements stand out, such as through the use of a custom base or other elements that add to the context of the miniature (e.g., does the model tell a story?)
  5. The painted miniature is photogenic, i.e., stands up to the scrutiny of high-resolution photography. Photography tends to reveal even the smallest painting errors and flaws
Tabletop Standard vs. Display Level Painting [Criteria]
Can it rival the box art?
Tabletop Standard vs. Display Level Painting [Criteria]
Display level painted miniatures stand up to high-resolution photography, usually….
Tabletop Standard vs. Display Level Painting [Criteria]
Small flaws and overlooked elements clearly appear in photographs
Tabletop Standard vs. Display Level Painting [Criteria]
Grymkin Death Knell (Privateer Press) – a beautiful model

Final Word

Paint job quality is subjective at first glance. But, with a closer look, it is possible to discern what is “Tabletop Standard” from a “Display Standard” paint job.

Obviously, time and skill are the two major factors for how quality emerges from a miniature paint job. At the end of the day, a set standard for understanding the difference between low and high standards of miniature art is useful, but not always helpful.

You decide!

What do you think about miniature painting standards? Do you agree with the criteria described in this article?

Comment below!

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9 thoughts on “Tabletop Standard vs. Display Level Painting [Criteria]”

  1. Funny, just had this discussion recently. Also mentioned was “pro-painted”, which you see used on Ebay a lot. A fellow blogger said it usually means it was commissioned.

  2. A good post, I agree that things are subjective I would say the middle Marine is fully painted. It does niggle me a bit that someone new to painting looks at that image thinking they have done really well and then find they are basic… yep Pro painted is a weird subjective one too. Luckily I can class my miniatures as pro painted. I am a professional and it is my mini. I just aren’t a professional miniature painter.

    1. The whole art of painting is subjective…. just getting paint on a model, a single coat, is a challenge for some folks (not a put-down). It’s just not for everyone, whereas for others painting miniatures comes “natural”.

      1. Oh yeah, totally. But, you’re right though; I think that’s also why GW was careful to say that part I bolded (the GW Warhammer World quote), that the standard of tabletop quality is subjective, essentially. People generally know deep down what looks good.

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