Starting in the mid-1970s I spent the better part of twenty years developing my skills as a watercolorist. Most of that work focused on the landscape and later, railroad subjects. I also painted in oils and created finished works in both pencil and pen & ink. I sold paintings and had work included in juried shows, where it won both merit and purchase awards over the years. In 1994, one of my watercolors won Best in Show at the local art museum’s juried professional art show. Of course, before any of that happened, the work was rejected many times because it wasn’t ready for exhibition. I wasn’t entirely ready for that step either, as there was much I still needed to learn.

What Can Art Teach Us As Modelers?
I have no formal academic training or degree in art, just a lot of motivated study and practice year after year. I like to think I’ve earned the right to speak on the subject from first-hand experience.

We are all drawn to certain things. A sunset, the power of the ocean, or the endless expanse of the night sky, may stop us in our tracks. We’re in the presence of something greater, struck by the splendor of it all and also the silence such beauty evokes. I believe that art is an expression of our response to beauty.

Much of the discussion around art and modeling is tactical: how to apply art materials and techniques to a model or layout. There’s value in such knowledge but this isn’t what I consider modeling as an art form. Art involves a different framework from simply recreating an object in miniature. The difference is in your mindset and the things you pay attention to.

Point of View
“If what we’re doing as modelmakers is itself an art form then our decisions can’t be limited to just reducing the dimensions of something real into our chosen modelling scale.” –Chris Mears

As Chris suggests by his comment from my last post, each modeling scale has its own native qualities. A central tenant in learning to draw is an understanding of form and proportion. Key to this is learning to see objects as they are instead of what we think they look like.

In my view, we apply the design language developed for HO scale to every other scale, which often produces unintended consequences.

The size ratio of each scale represents a viewpoint in terms of what we see. Trying to make one scale fit the criteria of another is a recipe for frustration. Quarter-inch scale is not N or HO. In N scale the focus is on the whole model in the context of its surroundings. Individual details fade away as they are usually too small to notice. Think of this like watching a train from a block away. You can see the train but the surrounding landscape or setting dominates your attention.

Quarter-inch scale brings such details forward due to its larger size that suggests a closer viewpoint. Like standing next to the tracks as the train passes. You see more of the train and less of the surroundings. Unless you have space to burn with this scale, a panoramic view is harder to achieve. HO attempts to strike the middle ground between the two. The train and setting feels about fifty-fifty in terms of what you focus on.

We typical pick a modeling scale by the amount of layout that fits a space or what’s commercially available and convenient. I’ve come to think of a modeling scale as a way to focus attention on the aspects of a subject I enjoy the most.

The point of view in my work is close up (photo below). Quarter-inch scale easily supports this perspective where, I focus on the right-of-way and areas next to it using a narrow shelf. I compensate for the lack of depth and distance by using color, detail and light in a similar way an artist uses them in a composition to lead the eye around the entire painting.

NS stack train south of Camden, Ohio headed toward Cincinnati.

There is an implied perspective with each scale that not only influences how much detail we see but also how much of the scene we take in.

Form and Proportion
In learning to draw, you are taught how to see and compose forms and shapes into a balanced and pleasing arrangement. Beginners have a hard time with this. They only see the object, say an old rusty bucket rather than a cylinder shape. Furthermore, beginners tend to string together a collection of objects rather than see the entire composition as a single shape that may be deliberately formed. Like many concepts of pictorial composition, it’s a counterintuitive way of looking at things that took me forever to grasp and I still struggle with it.

As modelers, we’ve been taught to obsessively focus on details at the expense of the whole. The thinking goes that if the details are right then the entire model will be right. In a related view, we’ve been conditioned to accept grossly out of scale proportions that give an impression of correctness rather than being correct.  As a result realism suffers.

It’s easy to get lost in a sea of unrelated details and lose sight of the greater picture we’re trying to recreate. This is a significant problem in layout design due to a desire to include everything from life by overly compressing distance in our modeling. Our scenes become a jumble of elements, where the sense of scale and proportion we expect is lost.

The way we look down at a scene is contradictory to how we experience it in actuality. It’s rare to have a layout view where we have to look up at a model or structure. This is one of those unquestioned design aspects we take for granted, until we see an alternative.

NS stack train south of Camden, Ohio headed toward Cincinnati.

Our viewpoint makes a difference.

Looking down at a wide area of train and landscape seems perfectly natural until we see things as we do in reality. This quarter-inch scale boxcar and warehouse have a strong  presence because both tower over us as their full-sized counterparts would.

NS stack train south of Camden, Ohio headed toward Cincinnati.

We Are Unique Individuals
“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.” –Chris Mears

As Chris outlines further, there are decisions to make about what to emphasize or downplay. As modelers, we respond to different aspects of a subject, yet we’ve been taught to blindly copy the subject instead of interpreting it through the lens of a personal vision. One may be drawn by an abundance of details while others less so. Setting the issue of scale aside for a moment, this response is unique to each of us, and it’s a mistake to lump everyone into a single frame of reference. 

Light and Color

(Above) The strong light and shadows not only outline the shape of the locomotive and train cars, it also adds drama, while the subdued overcast light below suggests a quieter, more contemplative mood.

To paint in a realistic manner, an understanding of light and its impact on the subject is critical. In a painting, light and shadow convey form and volume on a two dimensional surface, creating the illusion of depth where none exists.

Color suggests mood and emotion, time and place. The clear yellow light of sunrise is vastly different from the closeness of fog that shrouds and blends everything to together. As a part of their training, artists learn to see light along with shapes when composing a work.

In modeling we ignore such qualities. For a single model, the focus is on matching a vintage paint sample rather than the way light will affect the surface. The dead institutional fluorescent light we flood a layout with does nothing to enhance the mood or atmosphere of the modeling we so carefully strive for. For a large sprawling layout, I understand the difficulty of this however for a smaller layout, experimenting with light is entirely feasible.

Landscape artists use color with great skill to suggest depth and distance. Modelers are often content with whatever color of scenery material comes out of the bag. In a given scene, grass and trees supposedly miles away are as green as those directly in front of us. This, combined with the usual horrid lighting, produces a flat visual quality that destroys any sense of volumetric atmosphere in a modeled landscape. The use of color to suggest light and form or to direct the eye is practically unknown in model railroading.

NS stack train south of Camden, Ohio headed toward Cincinnati.

The darker muted colors of the scenery and track on the right direct the eye back to the crossing and turnout.

Done with care and understanding, we can use light and color in numerous ways to direct the eye or suggest a mood. The principles are there to be learned.

Regardless of the media used or the format the work takes, art is a form of communication between the artist and viewer. The depth of that communication depends on the depth of feeling the artist has for the subject and his or her skill in creating a work that others can relate to.

As artists we encounter something that generates an emotional response within. Looking at the world, I could see subtle differences in light, color and details that gave me a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction to study. Art became my way of sharing the nuances I witnessed in the landscape with others. Today, modeling also serves that purpose for me

“ If this is art then learning to see what we see is all a part of learning to describe, by our work, what is beautiful. ” –Chris Mears

Artists become known for certain subject matter, painting style or use of material. My use of sisal twine for tall grasses has become a signature element in my modeling, along with the winter season.

They are also a choice that speaks to my connection to the landscape and railroad. My modeling reflects the idea of a quiet spot along the railroad where one can study things as much as desired. As with many of my own railfan experiences, the railroad activity is implied rather than seen first-hand.

If modeling rises to the level of art, it’s because the modeler approached the work with greater intent and skill that reveals the universal in the ordinary. Such work then has the power to transform the viewer and, perhaps, change their view of the world.


Some related items that might be of interest.

Blog posts
Light And Color
Explains the qualities of light and color. I suggest reading this one first.

Drawing: Thinking With A Pencil
Sketching is an excellent way to learn about a subject.

Space, Light and Color
Using light and color to convey a sense of space on a narrow shelf.

Cameo Planning: Using Color To Set A Mood
Using light and color to set a mood and create atmosphere.

The Missing Conversation Vol. 06 Composing a Scene.

The Missing Conversation Vol. 10. What Do We Really See?


  1. Greg Amer

    Wow! These are lessons I need to learn to bring my modeling to the more theatrical level. How do I began to evaluate my own modeling more effectively.

  2. mike

    Hi Greg,
    How do I compress forty years of experience down to a soundbite?

    I suggest thinking about what attracts you to a model or scene. What catches your eye first? Is it color, texture, the shape or are you thinking: Oh, I need a bunch of those cars?

    In the photo of the covered hoppers, I’m drawn to the mass of trees on the left. It’s the darkest shape in the image and that’s what I notice. Then I’m drawn to the access road and into the background where the plastics plant is. I’m wondering how to model the texture and color of the road and grasses.

    As a professional looking at this scene, you’re likely thinking how much work do I have to do here? Is this good track to run on, where is my ground crew? That’s your training and natural focus kicking in.

    With any scene or object, these first impressions happen in an instant and we tend to overlook them completely. After a lot of practice I’ve learned to notice them and pay attention. That fleeting first impression is often the key to doing something good with the subject. Keep the questions coming if you want.


  3. Simon Dunkley

    “How do I compress forty years of experience down to a soundbite?”

    Please don’t: not only is it not possible, you would be doing that 40 years a great disservice!

    IMO, sound bites serve to trivialise the amount of work involved in getting to a good outcome, or to simplify the complex to a point so far beyond the event-horizon of meaningful understanding as to render understanding impossible.

    Actually, it could be reduced to three simple words:

    Read the blog.


  4. mike

    Not to worry Simon. If anything, I’m focused on how to explain the relevance of these concepts more clearly.


  5. Chris Mears

    MIke’s reply to Greg’s question is really interesting and feels like the seed for yet another tangent from this fascinating discussion based on what do we see, how we see, or how the hobby can help us see.

    As you note, Mike, that maybe Greg sees the area around the covered hopper through professional eyes. In seeing this way maybe there’s an instant memory from a time like this so there’s a sound that can be heard in that photograph from what it feels like to walk on that ground and evaluate the best way to secure that covered hopper, get ready to hook onto it to take it away, or otherwise interact with it as a facet of a working railroad.

    Which caused me to wonder if this is one more way in which model railroading can help us to see beyond our traditional relationship with place? Is there an aspect in here of using model railroading like a corrective lense in a pair of glasses?

    I think my question is overcoming personal myopia caused my being too close to how I instinctively react to a scene–the hobby not as a language but like a translation tool. If someone like Greg sees the scene of the covered hopper as a professional railroader and someone like Mike sees it as the artist does, each is deconstructing the scene into their own terminology but within a framework of common elements is an exciting opportunity to use those so we can talk to each other and learn to see as the others do. I guess, basically, how can we use this hobby to take ourselves outside the familiar and “the comfort zone”? At the least a chance to learn to see or relate to a place in a way we’re not usually able to; touch it how we’re not usually allowed to.

    I love how you write Mike and the places you take these posts. Thank you for this post. This is the kind of passionate writing that our lives deserve more of and certainly one to bookmark so I can return to it again and reread it. In a season of celebrating the good things that surround us this feels so easily appreciated as a gift of now. As Simon notes, there’s no way to compress a life’s work into a moment which is likely why lives are lived so long–well said Simon.


  6. mike

    Thanks for the kind word Chris.

    It’s important to realize we all see the craft through different eyes, with no two people expressing it in the same way. The notion of a monoculture comes from repeating the same ideas over and over for decades, leading one to think that’s all there is to the work.

    I like your thought of using the craft similar to a corrective lens in eyeglasses. Too often one gets locked into simply repeating the same theme over and over without any growth or change in their vision. Here’s my 1950s cliche. Here’s my bigger 1950s cliche and so on. The builder never questions the outcome or impact of doing the same thing over and over, while expecting the new to satisfy more than the older versions. I wonder what the point of it is?

    Let me say clearly, if that builder is enjoying the process and outcome then fine by me. It isn’t to my taste nor should I expect it to be. He (or she) is making different choices based on different criteria than I would use. Yet it seems that conversation is off limits in certain quarters of the hobby. I can only ask why must we restrict our thinking in such an artificial way? I’ve said this before: you can have practically anything you want in terms of product these days. That problem is solved. Therefore, where are we going next with the craft and why does that question matter?