Inspiration is where you look for it.

I find the arts to be a rich source of inspiration for modeling. Learning about the working lives of world class artists and craftspeople has brought a new understanding to my modeling.

Apples and Oranges
Am I mixing two very different activities here? Perhaps, if one subscribes to the common notion of model building as simple recreation, something to wile away the spare hours of one’s life. Beyond those who manufacturer products as a full or part-time business, a hobby is the only definition they will ever use for model railroading.

The examples of the arts I refer to are people who have dedicated their adult lives to a professional career. Artisans who bring a seriousness of purpose to the work of their hands, who understand they’re part of a creative tradition that goes back hundreds of years.

Such professionals are a stark contrast to the weekend dabbler, who only produces a handful of amateur works when the mood strikes and with the sole intent to have fun however they define the word. So in that sense, yes, I am speaking of two very different pursuits.

I find the work ethic of the arts a refreshing contrast to the hobby mindset we’re all indoctrinated to. The two are so different that many people just tune out from this subject because they can’t get past the “it’s only a hobby mentality.” For me, the work ethic of professional artists is a more satisfying approach and, the more I learn and understand of that ethic, the greater number of applications I see for our craft.

Modeling As An Art Form
In the arts, pursuing excellence in both technique and a creative vision is a given. It’s how the work is judged. Artists are encouraged to grow and develop their craft and there are systems in place for them to do that. But what it really comes down to is the person must ask and answer a fundamental question: “What am I bringing to the work? Do I have anything to contribute in moving the craft forward, or am I a copycat with nothing to say?”

In the realm of the professional arts there is a different mindset, one that looks at individual works as part of a body of work created over a lifetime. Can we grasp such a concept in thinking about our work? In a handful of cases yes. The late Ben King comes to mind as one who found his muse and pursued it diligently for decades. In recent years, Tom Mix’s brass masterpieces in quarter-inch scale also stands out as an example of someone who found his medium and a subject matter that speaks to him, pushing it far beyond what most do. For the majority though it’s doubtful, as we seldom see our individual models or layouts as works in an ongoing cohesive series.

Such a narrow mindset is the result of how the activity has been presented and defined over the years. And yet, where could we be with a different approach? How would our thinking change, what questions might we ask? Would learning the craft be different if we thought about in the terms of the professional artist?

Am I willing to work at learning a craft or art form for years? I recently read an article about Cliff Lee, a potter who spent seventeen years in an effort to recreate the lost recipe for an ancient Chinese pottery glaze. He did countless experiments, enduring and discarding repeated failures, until he successfully recreated the glaze.

How many “modelers” would devote even a fraction of that time and effort to a single aspect of their work? How many layouts would you have started and trashed over seventeen years? Would there be a clear difference in the quality of your modeling over that amount of time? In my previous post I outlined my recent work on the box car project. Abandoning my original build and starting over along with rebuilding the underframe twice, doesn’t even begin to meet the standard of dedication that Cliff Lee brought to his search for that glaze recipe.

Expending this amount of work on a freight car model only seems strange because it shines a spotlight on the level of mediocrity we now consider “normal.”

Do I follow what’s been done or pursue my own direction? In the arts, one must choose one’s own path. I read of a woodturner who brings his experience as an aeronautical engineer to the art. He constantly asks questions of himself. “What if I did this? What would happen if I altered that? Could I do it differently?” By asking and answering such questions and drawing upon his engineering knowledge, he is moving his skills and the art itself forward. His work is that of a master, yet he continues to push and challenge himself, having discovered something few “hobbyists” will ever know: the deeper you go into the work, the more compelling it becomes.

Are you following someone else’s vision or pursuing your own?

Art sometimes changes the viewer but always changes the artist. One of the most interesting articles I’ve read was about the students of a wooden boat building school. I’m not just talking about rowboats and canoes, but seagoing wooden vessels built in the old school traditions. Many of these students enter the program with zero woodworking experience, coming from a variety of past jobs and experiences. Some come to learn a trade, others to find something they haven’t defined yet. All of them leave the program as changed people.

They have learned more than the skill of working wood, they’ve received the gift of knowing themselves. The gift of knowing they are capable of doing far more than they once believed. The gift of knowing they can pursue excellence in and dedication to their work and that such qualities are worth pursuing, because they bring rewards in other ways.

How has railroad modeling changed you? Are you a different person having participated in this craft or are you the same? Have you learned anything or sold yourself short by giving up before you even tried? This is why I call scratchbuilding a gift you give to yourself. It’s why I emphasize close observation and study of the real world.

It’s taken me decades to get here but now I see this as an art form that offers rich rewards to those who bring a disciplined work ethic and a student’s desire to learn. We are free to choose our pursuit of this craft. The casual hobbyist will always be with us, along with the weekend painter and woodworker but, the opportunity to go further is always there.

A reader once commented that my views aren’t mainstream. No they aren’t because the “mainstream” leaves me unmoved and unenthused. If you want mainstream thinking, there is no shortage of places to find it. This blog isn’t one of them.



  1. Jimbofin


    Interesting and thought provoking as always.

    I do think model railways pose the additional challenge of requiring skills and knowledge that cut across multiple disciplines. But then I guess it can be said that most true artists understand both the technical,craft aspects of what they are doing and the artistic dimension as well.

    True arts also depend, to some degree, on a body of critical knowledge. This is where I think our hobby is weakest. we have plenty of critics, but it always tends to be based on personal viewpoints..


  2. mike

    Yes. Constructive, focused criticism is rare as you suggest. Far too many experts and not enough humility to say “I don’t know. Tell me more.”

    To your first point, artists are comfortable with ambiguity, with not knowing how a thing will turn out. This state of not knowing the outcome is uncomfortable for many.