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.



  1. Jimbofin


    At the risk of repeating some of my previous comments I’m afraid this applies in the UK as well. Indeed it also extends to the content and format of several of the mainstream magazines as well, two of which are now running “How to build your first layout features” There is also a distinct orthodox approach to photographing layouts that has developed in recent years. It isn’t that the magazines are bad, and much of the photography is excellent. And also for those who want more depth we have magazines like MRJ, NG&IR and the society journals.

    On the one hand I think it is a positive thing that someone starting, in the hobby has access to good basic guides but both originality and observation get stripped out.

    If the “Reader’s Layouts” pages of the UK magazines are anything to go by there are a large number of people supporting the hobby who don’t see the need to move on from the toy train mentality

    Can this be changed? .

    Probably not as far a s the hobby as a whole, but there are things that can be done to encourage individuals to be more self critical whilst also building in confidence. Clubs, on line communities and individual blogs can play an important part here, though they can also be limiting if they are not open to debate.

    Perhaps magazines should be prepared to be critical at times. That either means having higher standards for the layouts that are featured, or being prepared on occasion to point out glaring faults. Perhaps that could be done most effectively by looking at some historic layouts whose builders are either no longer alive, or who are happy to admit the error of their earlier efforts.

    The thought that has been rolling around in my mind since returning to the hobby is that there is something inherently wrong with the way we, compared to other hobbies, suggest that people make the shift from the train set layout to proper modelling as if there is a seamless continuum.

    I’m still thinking this one through but here are three different aspects of it. The first might appear to be quite harsh, but effectively comes down to saying that the ideal beginners layout is not one that makes use of RTR track and buildings that can be built from kits in an afternoon. but one that signifies a clean break from all that has gone before. The second is somehow to bring observation of the prototype to the forefront, and to be honest I’ve not worked out how that might be done.

    The third might sound as if it is contradicting the first but is about ensuring peripheral construction issues don’t get in the way of actual modelling. Accepting that one of the good things about the hobby is it makes you learn associated skills, such as wood working and electrics I think they can also get in the way . Paradoxically perhaps this is where I think some conventions will help. but built on a new orthodoxy.

    Regards, and a Happy New Year


  2. mike

    Hi James,

    …”On the one hand I think it is a positive thing that someone starting, in the hobby has access to good basic guides but both originality and observation get stripped out.”…

    I think that is the heart of it James. Here in the US the major magazine has a clear editorial slant that people will only go so far in the hobby, with the bulk of their material clearly focused on beginners.

    The other trend I see with most articles is the assumption you have to buy some product even if you plan to modify it extensively. There is an unwritten assumption that you can’t have a satisfying layout without first perusing some catalogue. This is nonsense of course.

    …”Perhaps magazines should be prepared to be critical at times. That either means having higher standards for the layouts that are featured, or being prepared on occasion to point out glaring faults.”…

    I agree but don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen. Having been on the production side of a magazine, I can state with certainty that the quality of material submitted can be dismal. It drove me nuts but there was nothing I could do.

    As for critical judgements, just look at the banal comments on most forums. Somebody puts up some poorly built or detailed model and every one fawns all over it. Any one who dares to tell the truth, that the model is substandard, gets lambasted as hateful or elitist. The idea that mediocre work deserves the same consideration or merit as that of an accomplished craftsman is just wrong. Yet, that is the mentality that has taken over things. True critical judgement and discernment doesn’t seem to exist on these venues.

    As you suggested, the saving grace can be blogs or tightly moderated forums where the members are screened and dedicated to growing as modelers. It won’t happen in the popular press.

    It boils down to one’s personal commitment and standards, and as you mentioned, therein is the rub.


  3. Simon

    There is nothing wrong with imitation, just depends what is being imitated. You and Trevor Marshall have inspired me to look at simpler layout concepts. I have taken the time to learn about North American permanent way practice, and how to model it. If I imitate your concepts, is that not flattery?

    Here in the US the major magazine has a clear editorial slant that people will only go so far in the hobby, with the bulk of their material clearly focused on beginners.

    The other trend I see with most articles is the assumption you have to buy some product even if you plan to modify it extensively. There is an unwritten assumption that you can’t have a satisfying layout without first perusing some catalogue. This is nonsense of course.

    Therein lies the nub of the whole problem: mediocrity is not only tolerated, but encouraged. And it sells magazines, too.

    But if project layouts encourage new entrants to the hobby to have a go, then that’s good. It is sad if horizons are not widened by the “mainstream” magazines but if people are willing to try, then the net provides ample opportunities to ask for help and plenty of inspiration.


  4. mike

    “There is nothing wrong with imitation, just depends what is being imitated.”

    Hi Simon,

    As you’re aware, there is a big difference between imitation and inspiration. I won’t speak for Trevor but if we’ve inspired you to go deeper and apply what you’ve learned in a manner unique to you, then yes, it is gratifying to know I had a positive influence.

    As a imitator, if all you do is copy what we’ve done, then I’ll feel sad that you’ve denied yourself a deeper enjoyment of what the craft can offer.

    In the many discussions of this topic, one thing gets lost: the individual modeler and his motivation. If the hobby is rampant with mediocrity it is because people are being mediocre in their approach or thinking and they see no reason to be otherwise. This is the only endeavor I know of where working to be your best is actively discouraged at the institutional level.

    I guess being internally motivated to excel doesn’t sell product as fast as feeding the need for external validation of being part of the herd and basking in the temporary validation of others approval or the supposed status of being published in XYZ. This is deep water that I’m unqualified to navigate but I do feel it gets closer to the heart of the matter. As long as the emphasis is on stuff rather than people, motivations and ideas, not much will ever change. But none of us have to be bound by such shallowness.


  5. Simon

    How do you feel about aspirant artists starting off with painting by numbers? If they learn the basics of brush and paint handling, is this not a good thing? Likewise, many beginner’s projects provide the same opportunities, but I doubt even the promotors think that everyone should start out that way.

    In those circumstances, imitation is a good thing. If it inspires someone to move on, that’s a good thing. If someone has developed an operational bias, then it may be that they will head towards the “basement approach”. They may even imitate the current favoured topic. If this decision has been made as an informed choice, then why not? They will view the hobby as creation of a system, as building a complete layout. They want lots of trains, lots of operators, and lots of operations.

    This may not be our choice, and I agree that consciously striving for mediocrity is a disappointing attitude, but if they are happy (in their ignorance, or otherwise) then it strikes me as a successful pastime.

    Because I have made different choices, I don’t wish to be called elitist on that simple basis, but I am not going to decry anyone who has thought about what he wants, and decided to use RTR and flex track because he has neither the time nor inclination to get involved with scratchbuilding.

    The mainstream magazines have set out their stall (particularly in the UK where one used to describe itself as being for the “average modeller”): they know to whom they wish to appeal. We have other outlets for those who differ in their tastes.

    I am not a herd follower, but neither do I see the need to decry those who are – that really does run the risk of elitism.


  6. mike

    To thine own self be true as the Bard said.


  7. Jimbofin

    I’m neither a musician or an artist but it strikes me that painting by numbers is inherently different as a building block of learning to paint than practising five fingered exercises is to learning to play the piano.

    A picture painted by number swill almost always betray the method by which it was created.

    There are poorly paid copyists who can emulate the look of the originals much better, and increasingly technology can do the same. It is a tremendous craft skill, but still not comparable to producing an emotionally charged original.

    If I look at a layout and can name the manufacturer of all the road vehicles, the locos, rolling stock, buildings and people in the scene then we are still painting by numbers, no matter how well it has been executed.

    In the privacy of someone’s own house such a layout is fine, but it is what it is.



  8. Simon

    He who overcomes himself is mighty
    – Lao Tse.
    Sound like a good reason to try harder to me, but he also pointed out that a wise leader keeps the bellies full and minds empty of those being led.

    I had written a much longer comment, but it got lost in the ether. You have all been spared my demented rumblings, but a desire for an easy life is nothing new, and wise governments have acted on this knowledge. As Juvenal said, panem et circenses. Just the same as Lao Tse, really.

    Mediocrity is nothing new. The average person is happy being average. And “average” covers 66% of the population: this is an immutable physical law. A mainstream magazine must needs operate within those boundaries, possibly looking at the next 14% on the upside occasionally*. Accept this, move on, and continue to offer a forum for enlightened thinking and modelling: those that want to come, will come, and at the time of their own choosing. You know this.

    Running down the average person for being happy being average is, I think, too close to an elitist attitude. This not the same as wanting to self-improve, to become part of the top echelon, but decrying those who have chosen a different, less demanding path without such aspirations is elitist.

    *For the record, many years ago I obtained a BS in psychology, but have mostly earned my crust in the field of statistics. I do know something about this.

  9. Simon

    In the privacy of someone’s own house such a layout is fine, but it is what it is.

    And what, in your opinion, is it that it is?

    I am intrigued – genuinely.

    Why should a competently assembled and realistically deployed collection of ready-made models not be put in a magazine aimed at the typical,middle of the range, modeller? Surely it is a step on from a trainset on the carpet, or set track semi-randomly nailed to a piece of 6’x4′ covered in green mat?

    Do you remember “Bredon”, in the Railway Modeller? Train set track, train set stock, ready made signals, a slightly improbable location for an engine shed of any size, let alone one that dominated the goods yard so much. And yet, it was beautifully executed, and (rightly) raved over, particularly as it was, IIRC, built by a newcomer to the hobby. How would that fit with your opinion?

    Not everyone can be the best: there will always be a few with exceptional talent, and some who work hard to make the absolute best of their abilities, but the majority are happily reconciled to what they are, and also need to fit their dreams into available resources against other more important demands placed on them.

    The quality of modern RTR is superb: it is hard to improve on it. Ironically, the push for that came largely from the “finescale” end of the hobby: so maybe we have only ourselves to blame? (I, for one, started off by refining and replacing cast-on details. Not so much need for that now. It takes a lot more courage to start carving up mods nowadays!)


  10. mike

    Having painted by number as well as facing down many a blank canvas, I can say that all you learn from number painting is how to follow directions. Learning to handle color and a brush with the discernment required for original art is a completely different set of skills and way of seeing.

    Paint by numbers and an original work both provide something to hang on the wall but that is where the similarities end. I agree with James’s point and will simply acknowledge that there is a difference of opinion at work here Simon.


  11. Simon

    Having painted by number as well as facing down many a blank canvas, I can say that all you learn from number painting is how to follow directions.

    That will explain why I I was useless at it: never did learn to follow directions…

    We agree more than you seem to think, I just think that the mainstream magazines aim themselves at, well, the mainstream. But that doesn’t mean that they are purposely trying to stop anyone from developing beyond the broad band of average, nor that they wish to stifle progress, unless you know differently, of course.


  12. Simon

    Words are important, particularly getting the right one!

    I say this as a consequence of something on the Radio 4 news this morning, as someone used a word which I think squares this circle:


    I wish to emulate your achievements, not imitate them. If beginners see a new project layout and are inspired to emulate it, making changes here and there, then I has been an educational process. If they imitate it, it is a training process. Not bad per se, but training is about skills, education about skills and thinking. Of course, someone may imitate and then move on to developing their own layout as we all learn in different ways.

    But as to any intent on the part of mainstream magazines to hold people back, I am not sure: this would be a serious matter, and not an allegation I wish to make or be associated with.


  13. mike

    Words are important. I don’t believe I have ever said that the mainstream magazines are willfully attempting to hold people back, only that they will take a person so far, given the audience they seek.

    If I have given a different impression than that, I hear-by apologize publicly for doing so. Such is not my intent. The curse of having strong opinions is that they seldom play nice with clear language.

    To any and all who may have misunderstood, I apologize.


  14. Simon

    Well, it wasme getting the wrong end of the stick as much as anything else, but you do not need to apologise: you have created a blog where we can have these conversations without falling out with each other, and discuss ideas that frankly don’t appeal to the mainstream forums (fora?)

    My personal view is that current RTR is so good because over the years the finescale side of the hobby has shifted the average upwards, or at least the average expectation. Or is that the expectation of the average?

    Dang: words again.