[Read and Respond] False Machine on miniatures as an art form

The old question of “how many parts is too many parts?” has been hanging around my awareness of late, as has the old “plastic or metal?” dichotomy. Partly it’s painting all those little SAGA undead, which have despite their reluctance to stay blu-tacked to the top of a paint bottle, otherwise been fairly effortless to crank out, and which have about them an air of both reassuring solidity and blatant game-pieceness, exactly as planned. Partly it’s building all these second edition Orks, the uncomfortable halfway house between solid one-piece first-generation metal Citadel and the multi-part heavily posable plastics of the late Nineties and beyond. Partly it’s the old post of Porky’s to which I’ve already responded but never been sure I’ve truly grasped. Mostly, though, it’s this series of posts from False Machine’s Patrick which have been archived on HiLobrow. Of particular interest here are the first three posts, which I’m going to bounce some ideas off on a one-by-one basis.

  1. Completely enclosed in the palm of his hand

    The most triumphantly struck chord here is the part about what different models have to do (and I realise now what Porky was on about, I think). Small models often have to convince you that they represent something powerful and coherent; they need form and presence in order to do that. The larger pieces are the ones which can afford to be fiddly and busy and indeed have to be because they’re big enough that an absence of detail becomes apparent.This is why, for all their character, my Skeleton models are not actually as ‘good’ as the old Nightmare Legion ones and especially not as good as their metal contemporaries: they are fussy and detailed as individuals and they draw the eye down to the wrong scale, since it’s the unit as a whole that needs a clarity of form.

    By contrast, the Zombie Dragon that’s just arrived from Australia is a glorious piece of work despite its flaws (the bolt-upright rider, for instance), because it is large and noticeable and so needs to be detailed in order to avoid offending the eye. It operates under a different set of constraints. It’s like what I’ve been saying about paint jobs since forever: a model can impress alone, as part of a unit, or as part of an army, and your ordinary infantry don’t have to be individually impressive if they’re all rammed into a tight square. If anything, that might actually make them look slightly worse, since it should be the unit level that dictates their visual form.

    (Also, going back to a painting style that celebrates the sculpt feels even more legitimate than ever.)

  2. Small objects that can actually be handled

    The ethereality of elves and the mass of dwarves are interesting concepts. I’d add only that I think good undead models should look either extremely permanent, as in the lich or vampire or ancient ghost, or extremely disposable, as in the common skeleton or zombie who lives, dies, and lives again. The difference is that between a statue and a scarecrow, between ancient English oak and flimsy Ikea pine. However, this isn’t the revelation. The revelation is that I finally understand why a couple of things bother me so much, specifically the resculpting of the Malifaux Gremlins and the direction of the Hordes Trollbloods.

    Patrick argues that the goblin is a haptic homunculus: it has big hands and a big head and exaggerated sensory organs. We encode that kind of sensitivity to haptic feedback into a particular kind of grotesque and oversensitive creature and, true to form, goblins are easily personified as squealers whose skin and eyes are overwhelmed by the light and warmth of the sun, or as cunning little rotters who can feel their way along in the dark. Look at it this way: GMort’s helpfully given us a side by side comparison of the old and new Ophelia models and I hope you’ll agree that one of these looks much more ‘goblin’ than the other.
    If you sculpt her as this skinny, sprightly upright thing without the grotesque proportions of the haptic homunculus, she doesn’t look like a goblin any more, does she? Now, consider the Hordes Trollbloods in light of this.

    What do the comically oversized hands and chins connote here? Is it strength or is it haptic sensitivity? Are these things basically big goblins, with all the comedy and vulnerability to little things like having their senses stimulated that their proportions imply? I realise that slamming Privateer Press for making ill-proportioned models is a bit daft really, especially given where Patrick’s about to take us for the closing thoughts in this post, but when you compare these homunculi to some of the more restrained, older Trollkin you start to see the problem.

    These guys aren’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination but at least they look boss-hard. They don’t have the accidental sense of the goblin about them; they are wiry, their strength is connoted by the size of their weapons and their height rather than by exaggerated body parts that end up totally off-message. A range that can have both of these units fielded in the same force (and indeed will because the rules make it so) is going to look a bit off even if you happen to think that both these sets of models are entirely fit for purpose.

  3. God likes your backpack

    Kvetching about microphotography and how close-up photographs of extremely detailed hyper-realistic airbrushed paintwork is not really what miniatures are designed to enable is hardly a novel behaviour on this blog, but Patrick manages to articulate it at much greater length and with much more artistic justification than I do, and without the whiff of the false binary that always hangs around my protestations. Miniatures are designed in such a way that they can be admired from the front through lenses of exquisite precision but they are also, or should also, be designed in such a way that they can be identified from above and behind at a glance.

    This is why Space Marines have those backpacks and also why the squad numbers and insignia traditionally go on the shoulders; this is why I get lost when I have two units of the same dudes in a Warmachordes army; this is why my Zombies are greenish and my Skeletons more yellowish and why I now realise repainting my Zombies hasn’t ultimately done me many favours since now I have two units that are black/purple/offwhite blurs from behind. Goodness alone knows what I’d do with it… but if I had those metal Wights and Skeletons, the Wights would be recognisable because their weapons pointed forward, the Skeletons because theirs pointed upward, and the characters because they’d sit horizontally on their bases instead of diagonally. It’s a start.

    This is also why Orks, back in the old days, wore those backplates denoting their household identity. Even then it didn’t make masses of sense to me, but now I get it: it’s the fiction justifying (alright, inadequately justifying) the necessity for the models to be visually distinctive to the player standing behind them. All the lads with that symbol on that background are in the same unit, and the identifying factor is located in the same place each time. Oddboyz have banners so that the other Orks can find them but they also have banners so that the player doesn’t lose them and again, can easily tell who’s who by looking at the flags.

    That’s something to bear in mind, going forward.

Author: Jon

Sententious, mercurial, and British as a bilious lord. Recovering Goth, lifelong spod. Former teacher and amateur machine politician, now freelance writer and early-career researcher.

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