It’s said that you can spot an artist in a museum or gallery by the way they look at paintings. Most people simply amble along spending a few seconds with each work. An artist however, will linger by certain works, move in close and then step back. Move in again and step back. I do this myself, so what’s going on?

When we look at a two-dimensional painting, we’re actually looking at an arrangement of shapes and colors that suggest recognizable forms, like a landscape for example. As an artist looking at the work, I’m also seeing it through experienced technical eyes to understand the process of how the work was done. When I move in close, I’m looking at individual brushstrokes or an area of color to see how the artist created an effect such as texture or the illusion of light. Stepping back I’m looking to see how that particular area contributes to the whole painting. Does it gracefully support the rest of the image or command too much attention on its own?

I’ll do this analytical back and forth dance several times for a painting that captures my attention. I also did it during the creation process for my own work. Because I painted at a table, my viewpoint was very close to the work, where it’s easy to get lost in a tiny area of the painting. For a break, I’d often prop up the watercolor board vertically so I could see it, then step back and evaluate the painting as a whole composition rather than a collection of individual details that, may or may not blend together harmoniously.

By stepping back some distance, I saw the work differently. It was easier to see areas that were drawing too much of my attention at the expense of the entire image. Once I could see a problem area, it was often easy to fix and bring the work back in line. Sometimes though, such areas were irretrievable and the work couldn’t be salvaged without drastic measures. At worst, I had to start the piece over. I’ve noticed that the same phenomena can happen in model building.

Back To Modeling
For quite a while now I’ve focused intently on the individual details of this covered hopper. It’s time to step back and consider the entire car.

With the body nearly complete, I decided to spray a light coat of primer to pull all the various materials and textures together and see if the work is headed where I want it to go.

While it’s simple to verify if a model is dimensionally correct, at this stage, I’m looking at the whole car. Is my emphasis on thin cross sections working in terms of the scale appearance? Are vertical things like the side posts truly vertical? What about the spacing, is it even or is something off? Is the workmanship neat and clean or does it need more care and attention? (Yes!) In other words, is this work going well as a whole composition rather than a collection of details?

I lightly sprayed the car with a coat of primer so I could evaluate the work so far. What you see here is unfiltered for the camera. None of us will learn anything without seeing the work as it is.

I’m happy so far. The scale cross sections work well and things look good at first glance, though I’m certain I’ll find glitches as I study the images thoroughly. Looking at the model in photos helps me see the work more objectively and from a fresh perspective. For example, I thought I cleaned up the rubber cement residue around the side posts. Clearly though, as the final image shows, more work is needed on this chore.

In a painting this process of evaluation is what lifts an ordinary work into a different category. We respond to art on an emotional level and I suggest we do the same for a well-done model. It’s not only satisfying for the model builder but the viewer also benefits from such attention to the craft, whether they understand why or not. It’s simply a gut feeling that whoever created this thing not only cared, but also expressed their love for the subject well.



  1. Dave Eggleston

    Yesterday, in a zoom critique session, one of the artists showed a photo of one of her paintings and remarked that it looked so much better in person than in the photograph. But I doubt that it does. As good as the image looked in the photograph, the comment raised a red flag for me. Something must be not quite right.

    Stepping back regularly was hammered into me in art school, as was turning the painting upside down or looking at it in a mirror. It breaks the attachment to the image and shows it without the predisposition brought from working closely. It makes you stop the process and take a breath and be honest with yourself.

    Photography does the same and I have long seen it as one of the most important tools in model making. I first read about a famous modeler (name forgotten–John Allen?) asking Cliff Grandt about a model. Grandt told him to take a photo–and it revealed a lot the modeler had missed. A camera lens is honest to what is in front of it.

    This is so fundamental to modeling that taking clear, well lit photos of a model or scene should be a part of the process every time, at least when you think its done but preferably more often in this world of phone cameras, as a critical self-examination of the work.

    Yet so many modelers seem to skip this. Often when they do take the photo and share it glaring issues are ignored but are obvious. They are so excited by what they’ve done they miss the learning opportunity. This is exacerbated in today’s social media world where everyone just “likes” the image rather than risking getting flamed for saying something constructive. Just yesterday someone posted a picture of a scene with his thumb blocking a quarter of the frame and asked for input. Ummmm, right.

  2. David Eggleston

    Of course after sending that I see a typo in the final paragraph! Doh. “Often when they do take the photo and share it THERE ARE glaring issues ignored but obvious.”

  3. mike

    Hi Dave,

    I learned the power of using photography as a modeling tool from Tony Sissons. Seeing how he used it to improve and proof his own work helped me see the connection between my techniques for evaluating a painting and modeling. I’ve been slow to realize how the two work may together. Your point about empty praise and the lack of genuine constructive criticism online is why I avoid most modeling forums or groups. I’ve also realized that I approach this work from a fundamentally different mindset and I appreciate folks like you who understand the difference. -Mike

  4. Chris Mears

    What a treat to wander into your blog this morning to catch up. Fantastic conversation, as always.

    I do that same dance. When I look at paintings my interest is in the way that the paint was applied and how that affects my reaction to the work. In my training as a draftsman our focus was always to draw lines of consistent weight along the full length of the line because a weakening line might communicate a different message to the drawing’s reader — as much as I think of architectural drawings themselves an art form their reason is purely to document and describe the construction process — when a painter paints the brush strokes move paint around on that canvas leaving behind a texture and my eyes move around the painting guided in the same directions and motions as the artist’s brush was; decisions made in how we modulate where paint accumulates communicate the intensity or value of this component of the overall work.

    If what we’re doing as modelmakers is itself an art form than our decisions can’t be limited to just reducing the dimensions of something real into our chosen modelling scale. I argue this time and again when asked about simply scaling a 3D printed model up or down to suit someone’s chosen modelling scale. It’s wrong to do that. When I sit down to create the CAD artwork for that 3D printed model I’m making decisions about how I want the part to “read” when printed to the eye. Where will shadows accumulate and how do I order parts on that surface to read in a kind of hierarchy that prioritizes major details over ones I think less interesting or important. In this way the model in one scale is not simply a bigger or smaller copy of the other scale’s one. They are each a unique interpretation of something real voiced in the language of that modelling scale.

    When studying the real railway car to create drawings from it we’re not just transferring dimensions from a ruler to paper, we can’t avoid inheriting an appreciation for the car builder’s craft; how they joined metal together in a way that was structurally sound and yet efficient; leaving behind a signature of how they react to the key challenges of a project. If what we’re doing in making our models is an art form our decisions are guided by the same path of prioritizing key decisions about how we’ll modulate the appearance of each component part of our models to prioritize them as the voices in a story we’re telling about a model we created to share with friends in the hope they’d see in our work what we saw so powerfully we just couldn’t contain our emotional response to it. If this is art than learning to see what we see is all a part of learning to describe, by our work, what is beautiful.

    Rereading my opening paragraph and in a thought complimentary to seeing how the paint was moved by the artist’s brush is also a way of connecting from human to human through the medium of the paint. The memory of their work is stored in the data of those brush strokes and seeing, even feeling them, is a way of touching the work as they did and there is no more powerful connection or communication than that of touch. As modelmaker’s we have an opportunity of the same by leaving signature decisions in our work that distinguish it as our own. This need not be that some parts are rendered out of scale in some clumsy way but instead how their representation is a record of our voice as the maker of that model reaching out to invite a connection.

    This blog, time and again, remains the cornerstone of a powerful conversation about this work in terms way richer and I’m so grateful it’s here. Thank you


  5. Chris Mears

    I’m having one of those moments where I can only apologize for feeling like I’m talking to myself through your comments section but also your writing is a kind of connective thing that seems to nurture these moments of great contemplation and I’m grateful for that

    If we were “just” miniaturizing the real thing I worry that what we’re creating feels cold to the touch. There is not now or ever will be one way to be in model railroading and what I’m writing is not a universal code; just words about my experience. Evidence like the kind I described in my comment, above, describes data left by the people who create the models and that creates places in the model to connect to another modeller. It’s not that scratchbuilding, kitbashing, or ready-to-run is any better or worse because it’s not that simple. If it’s just that simple than it would be easy to just scan and reduce the real thing into miniature but instead if we can see in that finished model connection points that visually read stories we connect to than it animates the model in our response to it.

    I was thinking that sometimes this is the problem when we pick up a model that is dimensionally correct but hard to relate to. We need some invitation left behind by its makers that makes us want to study it.


  6. mike

    Hi Chris,

    What this blog and conversation do is force me to be a better writer; to think deeply and more clearly about what I’m trying to express. I want to digest these thoughts and respond in a separate post, where I can give them the space and respect they deserve. -Mike

  7. Dave Eggleston

    Chris, the term in art for the marks left behind, the construction lines or other such marks, is pentimento. It is one of my, and I think a lot of artists, favorite details to find. It’s an indicator of decision, of design, of intent, part of what we call the technical conversation, the internal discussion around creating a work. I find art that leaves these technical conversations open and visible to some extent are the most interesting. I’m not saying leave a model unfinished or with some random board hanging off to the edge, but perhaps as you point out, something that helps understand the intent buried in the “mark” made as you work through construction.

    Of course on top of that is the beauty of the paint, pencil or chisel marks themselves in art pieces, when done with true intention and joy.

    This also brings up how exciting it is to see jigs alongside models. It reveals so much to see the tools, often more than the words describing the model.