“This gets at a question I asked you a few years back about techniques to translate what we see into model form. I don’t immediately think of breaking things down into contrast, texture, light and color. These are valuable concepts to understand.

I see a good many European modelers who seem to make more effective use of these than their American counterparts. Is this a matter of study of these concepts or imitating modeling techniques?”

-Rhett Graves.

Hi Rhett (and everyone else too),

I wish it were simple but it isn’t.

Because design concepts are tough to understand, we’ve been encouraged to copy stuff instead. Find an interesting object or location and just copy what you see as closely as possible. Of course any location chosen won’t fit your space so compress the hell out of the objects and spaces in between and stuff in as much as you can get away with.

Copying stuff is easier. You don’t have to think about the design, the function or make hard choices; somebody has already figured that out for you. While learning to copy makes for a popular shorcut, it’s a lazy approach. You’re at a disadvantage because you don’t know the underlying principles involved.

Stop and think about what we’re being asked to do with layout design/planning. We attempt to reduce a complex portion of the world to a very finite, restrictive space that must also accommodate different functions like circulation for people along with storage. It’s a challenge even seasoned design professionals would struggle with.

We all deal with the cliche’ of inadequate space. How do you make hard choices of what to include? How do you suggest space and volume where none exist? Track planning can’t answer such questions. You have to look elswhere.

You asked if using contrast and the other tools is a matter of practice and study. Yes definitely, just like any other tool. They don’t come naturally to me anymore than they do to anyone. It’s taken me decades to get this far with my thinking and I’ve only scratched the surface. I’m disgusted by how much old school model train thinking I still have to root out.

Like you I’m also in awe of what many European modelers are doing. Europe has a centuries old and rich history of the arts and it stands to reason our friends over there would be influenced by it. Model building is still a respected activity in Europe and that helps too.

How do you learn this stuff?
I spent years in the library checking out books on art techniques. Today YouTube is a PhD level resource for almost any topic. I’ve included a few of my personal favorites. Watch them or not, it’s your choice. When I was learning how to paint, a mentor would have been a godsend but I didn’t have one. I did have a family friend who helped me with drawing skills but I outgrew his level of understanding quickly. Anything I know I learned on my own through sheer determination, reading and practice.

I have a distinct and specific viewpoint. I’m well aware that the concepts I offer on the blog are foreign sounding and of little interest to most modelers. It’s discouraging if I let myself think about it. Instead, I just follow my curiosity and try not to think about it. I hope I came close to answering your question.

 Video Links

Developing A Design Concept (30×40 Design Workshop)

The process of coming up with general design ideas to making hard choices for the final design. In both of these videos, ignore the fact he’s talking about architectural design. The value to me is in the thought process used to solve problems and make choices.

The Outpost Project (30×40 Design Workshop)

This video illustrates the complexities of fitting a building to the site. The issues involved are similar to those encountered in fitting a layout into a space.


Large Scale European Modeling at its Finest

This is a stunning 1:22.5 masterpiece. Unfortunately the narration is in German and the closed caption translation for English is unavailable.




  1. Chris Mears

    When we look at European model railways or the models our colleagues, who build model tanks or airplanes, is part of what makes their approach seem so advanced that it’s foreign? We see a German steam engine running through a model German scene and we can only relate to what we have in common: grass, trees, and 16.5mm gauge track. The rest of the model is cloaked in mystery no different than just not understanding the language itself and that language barrier interrupts our ability to relate to the lyrics in the song. We begin to ascribe attributes, born inside that mystery, touch-deep, right on the skin of the work rather than deeper were it a subject we were more familiar with like another modeller’s work who works in the same scale and gauge as us and models the same place and time as us. A language barrier that becomes part of how we navigate the experience of taking in the work?

    Sometimes not understanding what they’re making models of prevents us from knowing more about their process and leaves us isolated traipsing around inside our own cultural algorithms?

    Your examples are, as always, on point. Approaching them as model railroaders we look for familiar landmarks in their process but can’t hear the vernacular nuances that make how an architect makes models different from how a model railroader does. More importantly, not “how” but “why”.

    The architect is trying to pass a vision of the finished building from their head to the client’s. Their priority is to describe their intimate emotional responses in an accessible way that invites the client to feel them too. That creates an attraction to the work they can both reference as the project unfolds.

    I think the big problem we have is we emerge from our hobby’s safe space but only look for variations on patterns we already know. We think that we need to listen to military modellers to learn how they apply paint to weather a model or how an architect would design a train set.

    I think what we need help on is learning how to communicate our vision in a way that is honest. Honest first to ourselves. We might be getting good at learning how to describe what we’re trying to achieve but is our own comprehension of that itself derivative (corrupted) by a foundation still formed in that place we’re trying to escape? You know, that feeling we feel when we “say the wrong thing” compared to how good it feels to have said the right words, at the right time, to your love.

    When we see something foreign how can we learn to deconstruct it into familiar references so we can identify things like it? And apply that lesson as a form guiding the development of our future work. When we see a tank model or building that we like, that “inspires” our work we don’t just take home and adapt their construction process but wisdom about their creative process; why their prototype looks like that but also why they work the way they do?

    I love this conversation. As always: thank you.