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A miniature of a green ork pressing a button. The miniature is delicately shaded, from yellow on the tops of its shoulders down to a dark green in the shadows. A tiny cigar is pressed between its smiling lips. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon

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Warhammer and 40K fans unite for America’s most prestigious mini-painting competition

Inside the Golden Demon, a photo essay from AdeptiCon 2023

Artists from around the world flocked to the AdeptiCon wargaming convention last month for the 2023 Golden Demon, the biggest Warhammer painting competition in the world. It was the second such competition to be held in the United States in more than a decade, and featured work from some of the best miniature painters around.

At the end of the weekend the top prize — the legendary Slayer Sword — was given to Neil Hollis for his work on Dark Angels Space Marine Master Lazarus. Publisher Games Workshop, in its official announcement, noted that Hollis’ work made use of some of the most difficult and time-consuming painting techniques, including non-metallic metal and freehand work. After hundreds of hours spent on the roughly 1-inch-tall figure, the results are absolutely stunning.

A green-armored Space Marine looking stern. His armor is glowing like metal. The gold and silver details have been painted so that they look mirror-smooth, reflecting an unseen light source. Photo: Games Workshop

Dozens of other models filled the cases in Schaumburg, Illinois. Polygon sent photographer and Warhammer fan Jim Vondruska to capture the scene. You can click on individual photos below to view even larger versions of his work, all captured with a medium-format Fujifilm GFX 50R.

Two tyrranids flank a red-armored Space Marine miniature. The floor of this space hulk is covered with a bright green ichor. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon
A sliver armored Space Marine from AdeptiCon 2023. He wears a massive book on his backpack, and his armor has a white sheen to it along the edges. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon
A Black Templars space marine plunges a sword into a dreadnought miniature, ribbons streaming behind him. His sword is inlaid with the words “Deus Imperator.” Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon

The first day of AdeptiCon, a Wednesday, is usually the slowest and most lightly attended of the event. As guests start to trickle into the venue, representatives from Games Workshop are already on hand setting up lighted glass display cases. The smell of window cleaner fills the air.

A giant squig — a two-legged, rolly-polly fantasy creature with a massive jaw and a lolling tongue — rampages through the underbrush, chasing a villager. The foliage is vibrant and realistic, with many different shapes and layers. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon

The Golden Demon has multiple categories, including small-scale models and dioramas. There’s even a category for young painters, the so-called “young guns” who will carry the hobby forward into a new generation. Artists patiently line up for their turn, before gingerly handing over their work to be judged.

A Golden Demon participant signs a document, handing over their miniature to be judged. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon
A painter stands in line waiting to turn in their work at the Golden Demons at AdeptiCon 2023. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon
A white and blue drake stands on a table waiting to be placed under glass at AdeptiCon. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon

Models are placed on display without the names of their artists attached. The anonymity is intended to even the playing field somewhat between hobby painters, professional artists, and popular YouTube presenters. Everyone is invited to participate in the Golden Demon, regardless of their skill level, and no fee is required to enter the competition.

A single miniature backed with a landscape painting of a mountain scene. Clouds gather against a peak, and the texture of that mountain scene flows down into the foreground of the base, which is tall and square. A chaos warrior raises an axe. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon
A larger miniature inside a white photographic tent for even lighting. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon
An employee wearing white gloves gingerly places an award-winning miniature back on display. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon
Two hands, and gloves, are used to carefully move the delicate art at AdeptiCon 2023. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon

Over the next few days, Games Workshop staff carefully judge and photograph each of the winning entries. All the while, AdeptiCon’s many thousands of attendees make their way around the cases. Cell phones and SLR cameras held high, there’s really only one rule — please, no touching the cases.

Fans, a man and a woman, admire the pieces on display at AdeptiCon 2023. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon
A half-dozen finished pieces at AdeptiCon 2023, including a ship, a robot, and a tank, arranged in a display case. A central miniature is an ork plane, with two fuselages fused together into a singular monstrosity. Below, a large knight strides forward with its shoulder lowered, like a linebacker blitzing the quarterback. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon
A photographer with lighting takes pictures through the glass cases at AdeptiCon 2023. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon
A red-haired man with a cell phone takes pictures of the miniatures on display at the Golden Demon. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon

While the shelves are overflowing with models from the Warhammer 40,000 science fiction universe, many other Games Workshop properties are represented as well. They include the fantasy-themed Warhammer Age of Sigmar, of course, but also a fantasy version of American football called Blood Bowl and the Middle-earth Strategy Battle Game based on the works of author J.R.R. Tolkien.

A white-armored spirit, its shoulders made of mountains, stands in a display case in Schaumburg during the Golden Demon 2023. The intricate chasework on its armor has been highlighted with a gentle silver that plays off the mountains. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon
A giant yellow and purple monster on display. Behind it is a virulent green demon. Both miniatures use a strong base and layered colors to draw attention to the different details and textures on the creatures — from worn teeth to cracked lips. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon
A mega-gargant with pale, pinkish skin and a Sigmarite on a blue drake fight in a duel at the Golden Demon 2023. Both miniatures show their details differently, the mega-gargant its folds of taught skin and the drake its many thousands of scales highlighted in white paint. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon
A single miniature with a crossbow stands on an elaborate plinth. It’s wearing a red hod and steel-toed, pointy shoes. Its fingers are long, ending in talon-like claws. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon

Various scales of miniatures are all represented at the Golden Demon. The most common is 28mm scale, where individual soldiers stand roughly 1-inch tall on their circular bases. Figures for games like Adeptus Titanicus and Aeronautica Imperialis are much smaller, with single-seat space fighters that can practically fit in the palm of your hand.

A robot steps from the cockpit of another robot. Both are yellow, with black and white checked accents. Both miniatures are remarkable for their smooth texture and even gradient — a challenge especially with yellow tones. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon
A wide shot of a robot stepping out of the cockpit of another robot. The figure is backed by rows of glass display cases vanishing into the background. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon
A massive titan, rendered in fractional scale for the Adeptus Titanicus game. It is elaborately painted all over with alternating blue and yellow panels, with rust and wear and energy coursing through its weapons. It head is up, its eyes looking at the viewer even as its gigantic guns traverse to meet its gaze. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon

The most imposing miniatures on display are called knights. They represent ancient and esoteric robots piloted by small, highly skilled crews. Some stand as tall as 1 foot in height, and their many armored panels leave plenty of room for artists to show their freehand painting and weathering skills.

A knight, patina’d by thousands of years of age. A skull is depicted on its large tilting plate. Its eyes are large, shiny, and green. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon
A four-armed demon in purple, from AdeptiCon 2023’s Golden Demon contest. It’s notable for the sculptural highlights on its major muscle groups. It’s legs are also clad in sheer cloth, which has an entirely different, more lustrous texture than its bare torso. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon
A wide shot of a massive ork with a yellow, metal contraption on its back. It’s walking forward while looking left, staring at the viewer with a cigar clamped in its mouth. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon
A frog on a throne, casting spells. The throne hovers over a simple, wooden plinth. Large, ruined stone shards orbit the throne, seemingly floating in the air but in actuality cleverly connected. Despite its apparent movement, it looks solid and ageless. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon

The Golden Demon is held several times each year, and often serves as a showcase for the previous year’s most beloved new miniatures. There were several mega-gargants on display this year, likely inspired by Chris Clayton’s award-winning piece presented in England late last year.

An ork with cobbled-together night vision stands with a finger to its mouth, urging silence. On its left shoulder a hand-painted tattoo shows a heart that reads “Waugh.” Its bright silver knife glints purple, reflecting the bounced light from the scene’s dimmest shadows. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon
An ork warlord in magenta and light blue — the colors of the trans pride flag. The model is of an ork that has transformed itself mostly into a machine. Its guns are silent, but show wear and age — as if cobbled together from four or five other firearms. Different metallic finishes complete the illusion. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon
A Leagues of Votann off-road vehicle, a kind of combination potato and submarine. It had a rigid exterior frame and thick, shell-like green plates below. It is beset by a tentacled creature, hand-carved into the base, which is reaching up and through the superstructure that surrounds the vehigle. It appears to be pulling it down into a basalt surface, pockmarked by micro-meteorites. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon
A Dark Angels deredeo pattern dreadnought, all thick shoulders and round profiles. It is painted in green and black, with a light dusting of pigment on the feet to connect it with its base — which has a few skulls glued on for good measure. Photo: Jim Vondruska for Polygon

Other popular subjects included the Leagues of Votann, better known as space dwarves or “squats,” which were reintroduced to the 40K pantheon just one year ago.

Ironically, the Golden Demon awards themselves are not actually made out of gold. The resin sculptures are spray-painted and lightly weathered ahead of time using Games Workshop’s own line of Citadel paint. We found judges touching them up by hand Thursday afternoon after a long trip from overseas.

A Golden Demon award standing next to a dozen examples. Its arms are crossed, its face locked in a rigid grin. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon
A silver Golden Demon award standing next to a dozen of its peers. Its face is locked in a rigid grin, its arms crossed. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon
Pots of gold paint, used to paint the Golden Demon awards. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon
The Slayer Sword, given to the overall winner of each Golden Demon. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

While we weren’t able to capture images of all the winners, you can find the complete listing on the Games Workshop community website.

The next Golden Demon will be held at Warhammer Fest in the United Kingdom on April 29.


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