From my painting experience, I learned the hard way how shallow our first impressions of an object can be. Initially, all we see is the surface of things: a basic shape, color, texture and such. Only after prolonged exposure to an object do we begin to penetrate its depths. This is just as true for building a model as for painting a still life or landscape. Therefore I tend to take dozens, if not hundreds, of photos, returning again and again to the same subjects. Sometimes I will make sketches too. What I’m doing is teaching myself to understand the nuances of the subject. Over time and I must admit, with some mental effort, I’m probing beneath the prettiness of the surface appeal in order to understand the essence of the thing. Knowing this, I can render it more powerfully.

West Richmond Siding-golden hour morning light.

West Richmond Siding-early September, golden hour morning light.


West Richmond Siding-early October, golden hour morning light.

West Richmond Siding-early October, golden hour morning light.
Similar vantage points, close to the same morning hour and light conditions. By returning to the same location, I’m teaching myself to see it anew each time. Learning to probe beneath the surface and understand the essence. We can apply the same mindset to modeling by stripping away the surface clutter so that what we want to say comes through more powerfully.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the entomologist who was so intent on looking for a specimen of some tiny insect that he never saw the elephant that was standing ten feet away from him. (Insert the critter of your choice: lion, tiger, rhino, crocodile.)

The story is meant to illustrate how narrow our vision and thinking can be as we become conditioned to see only what we want to, while completely ignoring something obvious that’s staring us in the face. As modelers we are prone to this, the result of repeated articles that only focus on limited subjects and techniques. As a consequence, we begin taking our knowledge for granted, working from assumptions rather than reality.

Long time readers will know of my ongoing encouragement to study the prototype but just what exactly do I mean by that? When I’m doing my homework, what am I looking at?

I tend to be obsessive about details and my desire to know how things go together. When building a model I want to know everything: what size is that siding board; how many boards are there; how wide is the door and how tall is that window? And on it goes to a ridiculous degree. Yes, I have even counted bricks in a wall. How many courses, how many between those windows, and above or below them?

My model of the Cedar Grove Mill is the centerpiece of the layout. When I built the model, I used a collection of photos, plus a host of dimensioned sketches and notes made on site.

Cedar Grove Mill study notes

In looking at this photo from Vol. 06 of The Missing Conversation, what do I focus on? In addition to what the caption boxes say (which I added for this blog post only), I look for the color of the siding, the pattern of the boards, how are they weathered, or are they weathered at all? I’m wondering about the character of this particular building. Can I replicate it in the model and, what techniques or materials will be best to do so?

It is easy to get lost in minute details like these and lose sight of the bigger picture, which is to also study the relationship between the building and its surroundings, asking if these can be modeled also?  For the mill building I didn’t have the room to model both sections; so I chose the one that interested me the most and concentrated on capturing its characteristics in the space I had. Much of my focus centered on the limestone foundation piers. I took note of how individual in character they were, down to the individual stones and their coloring. Sadly, I fell short in capturing these qualities in the model. I also paid particular attention to the pattern of the corrugated tin siding on both ends of the building. I feel I did better at replicating that.

From the photo, notice the openness of the surrounding area. There are some houses behind the mill but the lot to the right of this view is open. To the left of the building there is also open ground containing a bunch of clutter (at the time I took this photo), some of it related to the mill, some not. At this time the team track was out of service, with the turnouts at both ends dismantled, hence the turnout frog seen here. Notice further the condition of all the trackage and the subtle changes in elevation in the photo. Capturing that look is a modeling project in itself.

All of these aspects aren’t immediately noticeable. One has to learn to see and to appreciate them. Many modelers will be satisfied to work from two or three basic dimensions and a couple of photos, and the whine (not a typo) will be poured that studying something to such a degree is too much work for a simple hobby. I don’t understand that mindset anymore. People claim they love this hobby over and over, and there is always an opportunity to dive deeply into an activity you claim to be so passionate about. So why wouldn’t you?



  1. PKelly

    Hello Mike

    This comes down to that adage, the difference between looking at something vs really LOOKING at something. There is a big difference.

    Visual stargazers and astronomers have the same dilemma at the telescope eyepiece…you have to “teach your eye to see”. It’s a matter of clearing your mind and becoming one with your subject. Or as you have put so succinctly and repeatedly…FOCUS; though at the telescope this entails both the physical and mental. It’s amazing how quick looks and glimpses of anything, while initially shallowly satisfying (and are just as quickly forgotten), pale in comparison to getting down and personal with say, Jupiter’s cloud belts or Saturn’s rings…the nuances of shading and shadow, depth and textures, changes and motion (Jupiter’s moons or the model train through the scene), the play and differing reactions of light and mood on different areas of the trained eye whereby the brain fills in the pixels to form a complete picture. Constructing a building model or drawing an at-the-eyepiece sketch of your subject takes the biological based educated-seeing one step farther as now we (attempt to) transform and replicate, with the added sense of touch, a biochemical process into something lasting, multi dimensional and tangible. I have some favorite sections of historic, abandoned or lightly used rail I love to walk and speeder-experience; it never gets boring because each visit is like building a relationship, seeing (and smelling, touching etc) new details, looking beyond the superficial. I get strange glances when I crouch to touch and feel a rail or tie or whatever; it adds that valuable physical element to the experience, reinforcing “seeing”, and allowing us to go full circle replicating the prototype on the layout or diorama.

    Pat K.

  2. mike

    Hi Patrick,

    Sorry for the delayed reply.

    Your experience of the night sky is far richer than mine for all the reasons you’ve outlined. My wife is a trained musician and her experience of music is also far richer than my untrained ear provides.

    People who have never put in the time to learn something intimately and deeply don’t understand these distinctions and nuances and therefore wonder what all the fuss is about. The same with the hobby. The negative use of the term rivet counter by casual hobbyists who don’t understand or appreciate the subtle differences between classes of cars or other aspects of accurate modeling is but one example.

    As with your favorite sections of track, the increasing depths that intimate knowledge provides need never get old or stale.