Words Carry Meaning
I think of scale modeling as a craft, and yes, as an art form. I strive to bring a craftsman’s mindset and ethic along with an artist’s eye for grace, form and simplicity to the work because I don’t make distinctions between scale modeling and crafts such as woodworking, sculpture or pottery. Craft is craft, art is art, creating is creating.

Putting aside stereotypes and outright ignorance, what does an artist actually do? We observe the world, form impressions about it and use our knowledge of design and visual language to share those observations with others. We make value judgments about what’s important and interesting based on what we respond to and why.

What do we do in model railroading? We observe the world, form impressions of it and use our knowledge of design and visual language to share those impressions with others. We also make value judgments about what’s important and interesting based on what we respond to and why. It’s the intent you bring to the work, not the medium you use.

Lots of people may think this is nonsense because, for them, it isn’t an idea they can embrace and that’s okay. I’m not here to force feed my views to anyone. However, if there is no aspect of art to model building, then my question is: why do we bother with painting and weathering effects? Why worry about whether the paint is accurate or what shade of orange that rust streak is? Why do we bother with scenery and buildings? Why does context matter?

Over the decades, the bar of excellence has been raised again and again. Few serious modelers would be satisfied with undecorated models on bare plywood, even though some operations enthusiasts would be fine with it. Regardless, I think many of us agree the intangible qualities that paint and weathering bring to a scale model count for something more than surface appearance.

If there is any issue between the two I think it’s this: art wants to be self-directed, while model building, as we understand it, tends to follow a predetermined process.

Think of the difference between scratchbuilding and a commercial kit. In scratchbuilding the choices of materials, process and sequence are wide open, while with a kit, the majority of the choices have been made for you. The parts are premade, the instructions lay out the assembly sequence and so on. It’s the difference between exploring a new path and following a map.

Explorer or Follower?
At various times we are both students and hopefully, explorers. Exploring a different path is hard. Given the amount of time pressure people face today, most won’t make the effort at all. Eighty plus years of how-to articles have conditioned us well to follow instructions. However, we have the choices we do today because people in the past were willing to explore new ideas and think for themselves. I’m thankful for that and I hope that modelers today understand the opportunities that are wide open to them.

We all develop a philosophy of modeling, whether we know it or not. Your philosophy will impact how you model as well as what you model. The degree of craftsmanship you bring to the work is a personal decision and your mindset plays a huge role in the choices you’ll make in this craft.



  1. Jonathan Jones

    Hello, Mike.

    Another great post, as usual.

    I wanted to mention that I think one thing that is left out of the debate about art and model railroading is that model railroaders tend to rely on strict replication as the main, or only, tool for creating what is in their imagination or what captures their heart. Problem is, this is not what artists do, mostly because it is one of the least impactful forms of creation. Artists almost always add some amount of interpretation or transformation to what they do, something that model railroaders can learn from. If you look at a train painting by a model railroader or railroad artists versus one by an established fine artists like, say, Thomas Hart Benton, you can see what I am talking about. I think a greater degree of interpretation and transformation would open up a lot of new and interesting pathways for model railroaders, and lead us further down the oath to becoming artists.

  2. mike

    Hi Jonathan,

    I’m going to challenge both of us toward a fuller expression of ideas. What do you mean by interpretation and transformation? Those who create On30 flights of fancy are interpreting their subject. Call it abstraction instead of realist representation. My decision to represent the feed mill on the cameo via a staging track rather than a literal model was an interpretation that also transformed how I represented the entire scene. Because of the space restrictions we deal with, we interpret full-size railroads with every choice we make, so what do you feel is still missing?

    For my part, I don’t see this topic through an either/or framework, as implied by the word debate. Rather I see where an approach can be valid for one person but not for every one and that’s okay. Rhetorically speaking: this approach isn’t a good choice for you but it might be for another. I seldom understand why people get so agitated at this idea. If I view the work through a different lens, does that mean everyone has too? Not hardly.


  3. Ryan

    I gotta say… this is one of the most thought provoking blogs of any subject I’ve come across in a long time. I tend to view the world in a design/art/story/craft sort of way, and as I tip-toe back into model railroading after a 20 year break from my ‘train set’ days, I found myself completely underwhelmed and discouraged by the mainstream of the hobby. It was only after spending some serious time searching that I’ve started to find modelers who echo my own philosophies and aesthetic.

    In my other hobby, making bamboo fly rods, I approach the design and creation in a pretty pragmatic way initially – what do I want this object to *do*? As I’m developing my layout, I keep a note posted asking what do I want this scene to *say*? The art is the vision to create something that answers the question. The craft the execution.

    Thanks for taking the time to write. I for one keep finding myself nodding along and then stroking my beard as I consider what new thought you’ve embedded in the think-stuff.


  4. mike

    Hi Ryan,

    Thanks for taking time to comment. As a writer, it’s gratifying to know you’re getting good stuff from the blog. I like the idea of a reminder note as a guiding star.


  5. Jonathan Jones

    Hi, Mike. Thanks for your thoughtful response. These are all concepts which I have been thinking deeply about, hence the reason I’ve been drawn to your blog and your books. First, I would agree on a couple of your points (a) that there surely is interpretation and transformation in how we adjust the prototype and real world to our small, compressed one, and (b) that the On30 guys (and others!) with flights of fancy definitely are interpreting their subject.

    What I am really getting at, and attempting to achieve myself, is to get past the point of using exact replication as the primary tool and mix in some less literal methods to render our subject matter and its surroundings in a way that shows the viewer the subject in a new way. I feel that this is what artists do: They show us things in a different way which can enlighten us or make us see things we didn’t see before. While this is not an easy task, I feel this can be a more powerful way to display our railroad subject matter. Put another way, transformation or interpretation can mean taking something beyond replicating it literally. This could be done by placing a familiar thing in a different context to show it in a different way, for example, kind of like when an artist decides to, say, paint a familiar landmark, or portrait, in a hazy, deliberately out-of-focus style, or perhaps all in shades of red. When rendered that way, it’s not “realistic” but it shows us the subject in a different way which can impart a feeling, or show us the subject in a new way, instead of just showing it like we already know it. That is what I am chasing, and I see some of that in your work too.

    Lastly, I would agree with your notion that this isn’t an either/or framework. Perhaps it could be described as both/and. Either way, it’s just one of many ways to do model railroading. For me, it’s something I’ve always admired in fine art and architecture (my background) and I just want to put more of that into my layout design and construction.


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