It turns out that not all miniatures you buy for your tabletop RPG or wargame are created equal. If you've been painting miniatures all your life, this is probably obvious. But for those of us new to painting miniatures, this is an important lesson. Here are my thoughts on miniature quality.
Miniature game pieces are pretty common. You get over 40 miniatures with the D&D 4th Edition board games, you get 7 with Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu, you get 6 with Warriors of Krynn, and so on. You can buy packs of miniatures from Wizkids. And they all look great for most purposes. I know, because I own all of those myself, and the miniatures have served their purpose and they've gone above and beyond by serving as miniatures in other games, too.
Detail and physical "resolution" of a sculpture honestly doesn't usually matter if all you need is a game piece to move around a map. They're small anyway, and you're only looking at them from an arm's length. It honestly doesn't matter whether your 28mm toy soldier is scowling, shouting, smiling, or has no mouth at all. You'll never notice. At the most, you might care about whether a miniature has a ranged weapon (a bow or crossbow or handgun or rifle) or a melee weapon (like a sword or a hammer). And depending on your game, you might not even care about that.
If that describes your use of miniatures, then you probably haven't thought about who sculpted your miniature. In fact, you probably don't think of a miniature as being "sculpted" at all. It's a lump of plastic, and that's a step up from being one of those glass gaming beads, or a little wooden meeple.
All of that may change the moment you place a miniature under a magnifying glass so you can start applying paint.
When I finally decided to start painting miniatures, I started with the lumpy plastic miniatures that had come along with my board games. And they were fine to paint. I could more or less see where the head stopped and the shoulders began, I could distinguish the legs from the torso. It was fine.
The more I painted, though, the more I saw that some miniatures were more suggestion than sculpture. Boots flowed into pants, hands and sleeves were indistinguishable, cascading hair was just an extension of a shirt or a cape. I could force a line of distinction between elements with paint, but often it looked like I'd painted it wrong, not because my paint was out of the "lines" but because there were no lines in the first place. The sculpt was betraying my paint.
For about 60 miniatures, I just thought this was the burden of a miniature painter. It figured this had to be normal. Nobody every said miniature painting was easy, after all. People told me I could do it, but they didn't say it was something I'd be great out without a lot of effort, and so I assumed that the effort involved was, in part, figuring out whether that line was a mold line or a leather strap.
Imagine my surprise when I got my first kit of high-quality miniatures. I have no allegiance to any brand of miniatures, but because I'm new to this my only experience so far has been with Games Workshop's Citadel miniatures, meant for Warhammer. I hear varying reviews about Citadel miniatures, but even people who don't buy them almost invariably concede that they're beautiful. There are lots of other high quality brands, and I do intend to try some of those, but so far they're not easy to come by in New Zealand and, by contrast, there's a Warhammer shop just an hour away from me.
Whatever the brand, though, you'll see the difference right away, at least in the context of painting. I'll admit, the first time I picked up a Citadel miniature, I didn't notice the difference in the sculpt. I just don't notice those things right away, I guess. To me, it was a cool looking scifi miniature I could use for my upcoming Space Station Zero campaign. But the minute I put that model under a magnifying glass and started applying paint to it, I realised just what a great sculpt meant for the person doing the painting.
With a great sculpt, there's infinitesimal detail. It's detail you definitely don't notice from an arm's length, but up close you see it. And you realise pretty quickly that it's the lack of detail that's making your paint on lumpy plastic miniatures look so wrong. It's not your paint, it's just that the rosettes in your knight's armour aren't actually raised from the plate surface, and the leather belt isn't raised from the shirt, and that the hair really does just flow right into the shoulder instead of lying on top of it, and so on.
With a high-quality sculpt, different elements of a model are distinct. There aren't shortcuts. In fact, with many high-quality miniatures some of the distinct elements are literally distinct, because you have to assemble the model before painting.
And I'll admit, painting a face with distinct eyes and an actual mouth, and a discernible and emotive expression, is a lot more fun than painting a smudge of plastic with a bump for a nose. I don't know that I'll ever be good enough to shade a model's head with the ranges of warmth that's biologically correct (most blood capillaries are in the middle of the face, in the cheeks and nose, while the forehead tends to be cooler) but it sure is a lot easier to try on a model with cheeks and a forehead.
If you don't have a really good gaming store nearby, it can be hard to find a good sculpt. It's definitely one of those things you want to see before you buy. I bought a zombie pewter miniature that was supposed to be pretty high quality (I won't name the brand, because this one model probably isn't representative of their entire work) and was disappointed in the lack of detail. Right now, I'm buying Citadel because I'm happy with their quality, I'm happy to buy sight unseen, and anyway I have a store nearby.
The point isn't what specific brand you choose, though. What's important is that you determine whether you care about quality. You may not. I anticipate buying low quality miniatures. I always need classic D&D monsters, and I honestly don't care how detailed they are. But for the models you do care about, understand that sculpt quality does vary, and that it might make all the difference to your paint job. Shop around, find a sculpt you like, and see what it can do for your paint technique.
T'au soldiers photo by Seth Kenlon.