One day I saw a flash of blue out of the corner of my eye while driving past the grain elevator in Centerville, Indiana. I quickly glanced at the building but I didn’t stop. The experience left an impression that lingered for days, which was strange because I grew up only a block away from this building.

The artist in me saw a painting in the works and, a few days later, I went back to see if that initial impression was worth exploring further.

Art is more than capturing a likeness, mastering a technique or applying paint. In time, these things become second nature.

Upon reaching a degree of proficiency with the tools and craft of painting, art transitions into a long-term conversation – a series of questions asked and answered – between artist and subject. I think this was the serious beginning of that conversation for me.

Over the course of a month, I returned and sketched whatever caught my eye. I tried different compositions and studied individual details, both large and small. I noted textures and how light and shadow patterns changed throughout the day. Most of these drawings are quite crude and wouldn’t make sense to anyone else.

This process of repeated sketching and observation deepened my understanding of the building. It was a classroom that taught me what this subject was really about. The process also provided both questions and answers that helped me focus on what I was attempting to say.

We face similar challenges in railroad modeling.

Like newcomers to our craft, beginning artists are all about technique and materials, asking the same types of questions that we do about track, layout design, and benchwork or modeling tools. What brand of paint should I use? What is the best type of brush; what colors should I buy? How do I make things look real? There’s a serious volume of stuff to learn and people are impatient; they want to know it all right now.

Eventually, though, a serious student of both disciplines learns what he needs to learn and soon faces a different, more challenging set of issues: what am I doing with this craft? What do I want to do with this craft?

As modelers, we’re often poor students of reality. I agree with the statement that it’s difficult to render a convincing freelanced scene from scratch. We think we know how things look yet our models and scenes often fall short of that real world essence.

Part of the problem is we’ve been conditioned by decades of indoctrination to ideas and the way you do things in the hobby and old habits die-hard. We’re also hamstrung by an over-reliance on a handful of techniques and products that give our layouts a mind-numbing look-alike appearance.

There’s nothing wrong with the techniques, products or conventional ideas but on their own, they’ll only take you so far. To grow beyond a dependence on technique, you need to get out in front of your subject and learn how to see. (To be continued.)