It’s been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Is it?

I read an entry from one of Leonardo daVinci’s many notebooks where the master lamented the shallow state of the arts in his day, which he attributed to mindless imitation from one generation of artists to another, with the result that each succeeding generation’s work grew more shallow and mediocre.

This is nothing new, nor is it confined to the fine and practical arts. One can see the influence of mindless copying everywhere, from television and movie programming to commercial products of every sort. As soon as anything achieves a degree of status, the knock-offs come in droves and quality plummets.

Art students in a formal degree program are encouraged to copy masterworks as part of their education, with the purpose being to learn the thought process the masters used in approaching a subject. However, the expectation is that the student will move on from copying and early imitative works and develop his or her own creative vision; a process that takes many years and serious effort. In sum, it requires a commitment to grow as an artist.

It’s a copycat hobby
The application of this thought to our craft is no less relevant, nor are the consequences any less important. The very nature of the how-to, step-by-step presentation format encourages a copycat mindset. During the 1980s in the United States for example, witness the explosion of Appalachian coal hauling themed layouts spawned by the V&O magazine series that ran in Railroad Model Craftsman during the late 1970s. Despite repeated admonitions that the series was not intended as a formula to follow, that is precisely how the majority of people treated it.

As such layouts gained exposure, even more imitations followed, with each being little more than a formulaic copy of a formulaic copy. These layout builders seldom took the time and effort to do the deep research that Allen McClelland did. Why bother? The Eastern coal railroad formula was already codified. Mind you, I’m not picking on Allen, the V&O or the article series. He was an original thinker who profoundly re-imagined what a layout could be and we’ve all benefitted from his thinking. What I’m criticizing is how followers of his ideas failed to probe deeply and, worse, how the majority were satisfied to be imitators rather than take his principles and explore new depths. As a result, these banal imitations failed to grasp the power and depth Allen’s concepts held.

We’ve seen this pattern repeat itself throughout the arc of the hobby’s development. Whether it was the John Allen copycats, the got-to-have a CTC panel in the ’80s or the timetable and train order operations that is the current darling.

The cycle starts when someone explores an original theme or concept. The new ideas gain exposure and get codified as a result of said exposure and then the watering down process sets in as the me-too copyists jump on the bandwagon until it collapses under the weight of the ensuing mediocrity. Then sooner or later the cycle starts over again with something new.

I don’t have an answer and, I’m not immune to copycat-itist. My teen years saw the creation of an HO scale farce called the Chesapeake & Virginian, a glorified train set that went nowhere and did nothing. At least the name sounded cool. My twenties and thirties were a time away from the hobby as my interest waned.

The inaugural issue of Model Railroad Planning in 1994 revived my interest along with the Chesapeake & Virginian theme but, as far as my thinking and approach went, nothing had changed. The resulting layouts were little more than superficial exercises in prettiness and devoid of any deep understanding of the subject matter.

I won’t revisit my journey with the I&W and P48 again but will say that what fuels both to this day is an intense dissatisfaction with doing things according to the gospel of the hobby. After much soul searching and endless questions, I’ve reached the point where I no longer need or care about permission from the herd to explore what I find interesting about the world via the medium of model trains. I’m discovering depths and layers of nuance to this work that beg for my attention and time is more precious with each passing day. It’s too valuable to waste being a copycat.

A mental housecleaning
I posted that I cleaned out my magazine collection a few weeks ago. I not only wanted to get rid of the physical bulk but also the mental weight all that paper represented. I no longer need to clutter my mind with somebody else’s opinions about how things should be. As noted earlier, the granular, detailed nature of the existing how-to format tends to discourage independent thought. The author has already done your thinking for you and, let’s be honest, most such articles are aimed at beginners who lack the depth of experience of those who’ve been practicing for decades. We’re all beginners at something but one needs to understand that such knowledge should be treated as a foundation to build upon and not as the final destination. There should come a time to follow your own muse. Full-size railroading is a fine teacher and there is an untold joy in opening yourself to a subject and asking: “What would I like to learn here?”

Hey you, get back in line!
The herd simply doesn’t encourage this. There is too much emphasis on convention and traditions that no has thought to question. To truly go your own way with this craft takes a strength of will few ever muster, yet we’re not without examples of those who forged their own path.

It’s a new year. What are you going to do with it? How far will you take your modeling into the unknown? Is the muse trying to whisper something about this craft in your ear? Do the answers to those questions feel too scary? That’s a good sign you’re looking in the right direction.