One day I saw a flash of blue out of the corner of my eye while driving past the grain elevator in Centerville, Indiana. I quickly glanced at the building but I didn’t stop. The experience left an impression that lingered for days, which was strange because I grew up only a block away from this building.

The artist in me saw a painting in the works and, a few days later, I went back to see if that initial impression was worth exploring further.

Art is more than capturing a likeness, mastering a technique or applying paint. In time, these things become second nature.

Upon reaching a degree of proficiency with the tools and craft of painting, art transitions into a long-term conversation – a series of questions asked and answered – between artist and subject. I think this was the serious beginning of that conversation for me.

Over the course of a month, I returned and sketched whatever caught my eye. I tried different compositions and studied individual details, both large and small. I noted textures and how light and shadow patterns changed throughout the day. Most of these drawings are quite crude and wouldn’t make sense to anyone else.

This process of repeated sketching and observation deepened my understanding of the building. It was a classroom that taught me what this subject was really about. The process also provided both questions and answers that helped me focus on what I was attempting to say.

We face similar challenges in railroad modeling.

Like newcomers to our craft, beginning artists are all about technique and materials, asking the same types of questions that we do about track, layout design, and benchwork or modeling tools. What brand of paint should I use? What is the best type of brush; what colors should I buy? How do I make things look real? There’s a serious volume of stuff to learn and people are impatient; they want to know it all right now.

Eventually, though, a serious student of both disciplines learns what he needs to learn and soon faces a different, more challenging set of issues: what am I doing with this craft? What do I want to do with this craft?

As modelers, we’re often poor students of reality. I agree with the statement that it’s difficult to render a convincing freelanced scene from scratch. We think we know how things look yet our models and scenes often fall short of that real world essence.

Part of the problem is we’ve been conditioned by decades of indoctrination to ideas and the way you do things in the hobby and old habits die-hard. We’re also hamstrung by an over-reliance on a handful of techniques and products that give our layouts a mind-numbing look-alike appearance.

There’s nothing wrong with the techniques, products or conventional ideas but on their own, they’ll only take you so far. To grow beyond a dependence on technique, you need to get out in front of your subject and learn how to see. (To be continued.)



  1. Jed

    This is something I’ve been trying to teach myself.I do this by looking at photos and google streetview of the area I want to model(it’s over 350 miles away),over and over and over.Each time I challenge myself to ‘see’ something new,no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential.Color-patterns for instance,or how the weeds grow through the ties.And you are helping me do that.
    Thank you.

  2. mike

    You’re welcome Jed. That’s a great practice.


  3. Darel Leedy

    Like you, I’ve tried to draw the scenes I wanted to model for inspiration and details. I would always beat myself up thinking my drawing skills were not very good. But a few years ago, I discovered a method which has really worked for me. Mike Blazek suggests in his plan books, to take any photograph of the scene you want to model; place tracing paper over it; and sketch over the print (pen and ink style). Because you have to draw them, details will appear before your eyes which you hadn’t noticed just looking at the photograph (and when you’re done you have a nice drawing to boot!).


  4. mike

    Sounds cool Darel.


  5. Simon

    The human mind is very good at forming (often glib and frequently wrong) stereotypes, and looking for confirmatory data – and discarding/disregarding anything contradictory.

    The first step in real training for an artist is to “learn to un-learn”, and see what is really there. This isn’t easy, which explains why many artists repeatedly returning the same subject and why still life painting is so important. As you say, technique and materials can be mastered by diligent, focused and repetitive practice. A lot of what I did in my high school art lessons was, I now realise, aimed less at technique and materials and more at trying to get us to actually see what was there. Unfortunately, this aim was ever made clear to us (art teachers seemed to be interested in those who had some natural ability, but no one else), so we never understood the point of it. What a wasted opportunity!

    My (simplistic) way of dealing with this is to ask people what the colour of a tree-trunk is, and if they say, “Brown,” to suggest that they might want to look more closely at this.

    * The most tree-like painting I saw of a tree was painted using a small trowel to create vertical rectangles in graduated shades of mauve, showing the direction of light and shade. That’s “tree-like”, rather than “like a tree”.

  6. mike

    Well said Simon. As with art, I’ve come to see our craft in terms of an ongoing conversation. More on this idea to come.


  7. Nigel

    Hi Mike,

    As a modeller of a past era (1950’s) and a ‘proto-freelanced’ layout I find myself trying to examine old photographs more and more closely to see what’s really there. Since my layout is an imagined locality it’s almost unavoidable to ‘cherry pick’ features from different real places. I am still careful to keep those selected features in context with each other, but interrogating the photographs for the details is really hard. It’s also hard reaching back through time to try and decipher different work practices and equipment that no longer exists. I must admit that I suffer from some ‘tunnel vision’ in that I focus so much on one detail I become oblivious to others (I still reckon I’m better than some of my colleages who don’t see the fat wheels, wide flangways, tight turnouts and wrong trackgauge which are anachronisms to me). I ‘d like to hope that I’m getting better at spending time looking to see what’s there. I’ve been pinning photographs next to my desk at work so that I can spend a few moments looking at them inbetween tasks. Some of those photographs have been of my models too. This allows a kind of backwards ‘what do you really see’ examination, by seeing what I’ve left out and shouldn’t have (alright, I’m just doing what John Allen recomended).

    Mike, I am really enjoying your philosphical journey through this hobby. It’s something that I found in the early issues of Model Railway Journal but it’s been missing in the model railway journalistic stratoshere for a while.



  8. bagustaf

    A trick I picked up from a fellow model builder was to look at photos or models reflected in a mirror. This forces you to look at a familiar photo or model from a new perspective.

    Lee Gustafson

  9. mike

    Welcome to the blog Nigel.

    It’s always interesting what you see regardless of how many times you look at the same scene. While based on a specific prototype, my layout is also a composite of elements from different parts of the branch. I feel I’ve remained true to each one, taken together, they create a distinctive whole.

    Keep looking. Have you tried Lee’s tip below?


  10. mike

    Great tip Lee. It’s amazing what you’ll see by doing that.


  11. Jed

    That mirror idea is a good one I’ll have to try.
    I’ve always known that looking in a mirror make a scene look different…maybe I can use it to analyze as well.Thanks!


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