Saturday, 26 March 2011

The curious case of making metal look plastic...

As you can imagine from reading this blog, I'm rather interested in the technology and the ongoing development of technique in sculpting miniatures. I tend to have a slightly obsessive way of looking at models and how they form part of a larger picture. There's something I've been subconsciously noticing in the last few years and it kind of popped into my forethoughts recently when I saw a certain miniature...

For the last 25 years or so, the wider miniatures industry has been turning more and more towards injection moulded plastic as it's material of choice. Games Workshop certainly spring to mind but the last few years have seen a number of others entering the fray whether it be other fantasy manufacturers such as Mantic or the many historical setups such as Perry Miniatures and Warlord. The general way of doing things is to produce plastics for your core range and supplement with metal. Certainly makes sense for reasons I'm not going to detail today, but most of you are probably perfectly aware of.

Well, the last 25 years of plastics development has been seemingly driven by one overriding idea. How close can we get to metal quality in a plastic kit. It started out 'not very' and has inched forward over the years with plastic kits becoming ever more like metal models. At least up to a point. The quality of cutting edge plastics has been leaping forward these last few years and it's reached a point where I kind of feel that plastic models are superior in most ways to metal. Yes, there's the undercuts issue (promise to do an explanatory article about that sometime) but modern plastic sculptors are learning many ways to minimalise this to greater and greater effect. Frankly, plastics are no longer the poor cousin and metals are more an alternative than a superior option. You know there's still a style difference between your typical plastic and your typical metal figure. And something rather interesting seems to be happening. It crystalised to me upon seeing a certain miniature, as mentioned earlier. And here it is...

This is Wurrzag the Savage Orc Shaman. I'm rather fond of this figure. The curious thing seems to be in the style in which it's sculpted. Wurrzag is a metal miniature but appears to be very much designed to look like a plastic one. All that near-machined perfection in it's lines and the blank, crisp surfaces where before you would have had wild textures (take the feathers as a great example). Now, it's not gone to the point of not having undercuts, that'd be a silly thing to do as you'll want to take advantage of your casting medium but still it's very much in line with the plastic style and this makes sense to me. Plastic has it's strengths in it's ability to produce very fine detail in one plane but has very rigid limitations that can't really be worked around (undercuts due to steel moulds). The obvious solution towards having a cohesive range of miniatures is to stop trying to make your plastics look like metals and have your metals look like plastics. If it gives us lovely, paintable figures like this then I'm all for it. Looking back I see it a great deal in Seb Perbet's metal Skaven too.

So, a move towards metals emulating the plastic look or am I just mad? It's entirely possible that it's the latter and it wouldn't be the first time I was seeing patterns in things that weren't there but a curious situation regardless...


  1. got me thinking there - is it intentional or is the influence of three ups spilling into the more traditional green sculpting - im in the studio tuesday so ill try to remember to investigate - sebs sensibilities are firmly fixed in design which has a very strong sculpture lead flow as opposed to the realistic naturalism of alan and michael perry for instance so it just could be osmosis ........

  2. jes would know so perhaps he will illuminate ......

  3. This revilation of yours kind of surprises me becuase I always thought your sculpting style emulated plastic miniatures. The mini's you sculpted for Wryd, which are my favourite I will add, are obviously aimed at the painter with plenty of areas for smooth blends freehand etc. but this is what you get from platics as well. The first time I painted Seamus the Madhatter I thought then that the miniature would look exactly the same regardless of the cast material.

    BTW this is a complement to your ability:)and I have all the ones you did for Wryd.

  4. It would be interesting to find out whether this is an intentional thing or just something that has naturally evolved.

    As for my style, yes it's kind of along these lines. For my part it wasn't so much a case of emulating plastic as much as emulating the styles of other figure sculptors who particularly inspired me as I started my sculpting. These sculptors tended to be the ones with that bold, clean style.

  5. Funny that I like your style and I think it works well for certain minis, but the cartoonisation of GW minis (as seen above) that has accompanied the development of plastic minis is what has driven me away from them. ...that and rehashing the same old concepts and style.

    I hate plastic miniatures, they just look like plastic toys... Until they can replicate the textures and detail possible in metal/resin miniatures and find a way to reduce the undercut problem, I'm simply not interested.

  6. you aint seen nothing yet .......

  7. in fact you aint been looking of late at all ....

  8. had breakfast now so ill flesh this out a bit - an element of characterture is a good thing as it creates character itself - there is a great deal of stylisation in a figure of about 30mm - if the mini was an exact in scale replica then features would be as near as enough invisible - and gw is fantastical and imaginative not bland and literal - of course not all like this style dubbed heroic in some circles [ never used at GW tho ] - individual models are more successful than others - look at the cadians, bloodletters, dark eldar etc extraordinary models bi anyones standards - some races bi their very nature have their roots in human characterture - orcs and goblins to name but one - now the LOTR orcs are less so but are not as imaginative and exciting as warhammer orcs - each to his own tho, no problem - and as for the narrowing gap between metals and plastic - well its shutting and as for undercuts, whats left is being marginalised and put in a place where the modeler and painting make it not invisible - go to games day and see hundreds of miniatures that do not look like cartoons - and as for concepts and style its GW style why would we turn our back on 1000's of armies that have been lovingly created bi people over the last 30 years and lets face it its being copied bi so many others - but you dont have to like them thats not a problem ........

  9. Well, as you all know, I'm rather partial to what might be called 'cartoony' miniatures and love plastic in general. Resin is probably my ideal material but plastic is the close second.

    I suppose a lot comes down to the infusion of some of the boutique styles and how they don't really translate well to the plastic process. Take Enigma as an example. Raul's heavily textured and detailed style would be tough to produce with zero undercuts as said texture tends to be very much at all angles.

    That all said, as I inhale my morning coffee, it does fire out an interesting idea (that is gloriously impractical to actually do). Would be interesting to sculpt a 3up that could be successfully moulded in steel for a figure in the textured style. Basically a challenge for plastics technology and for the state of the art in 3up sculpting by working in the style that doesn't suit it. A wild style via the ultimate in measured technique. Would certainly require diabolical ingenuity on the part of the sculptor.

    Alas, impracticalities are everywhere. Primarily that such a figure wouldn't be reasonable to get produced due to the cost of plastics tooling so the project would be only for fun, needing time from the sculptor that'd be a waste except for the challenge of it and the end result would be a 3up so not really much use to anyone in itself...

  10. There is a very thin line between 'cartoony' and 'graphic', it existed way before the advent of plastics. Yes, a graphic style does lend itself to plastic, but Citadel miniatures have always tended to the graphic. It was originally a Brit response to the slight, fey, subtle style of most of the American manufacturers, we saw ourselves as the punks to the american 'hippies'[it was the late 70's]
    Distorted proportions, large weaponry, an almost comic book feel has always been the style.
    It was inevitable that the advent of plastics would affect the way some miniatures are designed, but then I would say that polymer clays have done the same.
    A lot of the trend towards a cleaner, more graphic style is down to the influence of Brian [although he'll hate me for saying it], he never uses a stock texture, always pushing for a better way to render things. Thats why that Orcs feathers are not textured, 'cos brian found a way that they look [ironically] more natural [ you cant see texture in a feather at that scale]
    Lack of undercuts helps a rubber mould as well as a steel one when your volumes are large, so there is pressure to make miniatures that are suited to manufacture.
    I always try to think of the plastic process when designing a figure, you never know when a metal may be 'translated'!

  11. I like the blank feather style. I've seen it a lot over the years in large scale anime garage kits and always thought it worked better. The detail sculpted into feathers is always far too thick and only really responds to drybrushing. Prefer to paint them with layers.

    I have a tendency towards low undercut sculpting in general. My mouldmaker often remarks that my figures cast easily which makes him happy :)

  12. Good point about the sculpted detail being "wrong". At least for feathers. I loved it as a younger painter, because yes, you could drybrush it and it'd look pretty decent. One could even get multi-coloured feathers/fur that looked quite sharp, with a little finesse.

    Of course, it's usually off-scale, since feathers or fur will be quite smooth when viewed from any distance. But texture scale is always going to be a problem, look at the WW1 airplane kits where they've helpfully put canvasy texture on the plastic! Varnished fabric would never look that rough, even from fairly close-up. But to the (novice) modeler it "looks right" because they see it as representing what the surface is supposed to be.

  13. and should the sculpt be the most realistic ? - or the most effective to paint especially if you are not capable of high end art or only interested in achieving a constant but evocative result for creating units - dry brushing has a bit of a bad name with some painters but with control and subtle brush use it can look stunning - so i would not like to see the demise of such detail - however a more scaled down and tighter sculpting of textures would be welcome to me - as jes says 'graphic solutions' which are only part of the language of style that can be used bi mini designers .....

  14. The lighter texture is an interesting one. If done right it can lead to a nice compromise for painters. I noticed this on the roots on the base of the Arachnarok Spider.

  15. kevinicus does the subtle texture with hair - its smooth but splits into clumps and has the suggestion of separate strands in the right places ....

  16. I have no hair of my own so I live vicariously through my minis, in a folicle kind of way.

  17. I think beginning sculptors would do well to look at plastic minis as inspiration when trying to make castable minis, helping them reduce undercuts and looking at the flow of materials.

    Personally speaking, considering the mould maker has reduced my creativity a fair bit. I used to just sculpt myself in to a corner and try to figure out a clever way to sculpt my way out of it. But running HF has meant that I need to consider the unit cost of minis more and multiparters are becoming very expensive to produce... so my minis are getting "safer".

  18. Wow!
    As a beginner in the sculpting world,to me, conversation like we have here, is more worth than gold!

    I have this question about the 3ups.
    They are used to solve the undercut problems in the bigger scale?
    Once the 3up is made it is then scanned for the steel mould??

  19. the 3 ups are for plastics .... and yes they are scanned - the originals can be either traditional sculpting or digital or a mixture of both - 30mm is still pretty much green ...... but not all ......