Overcoming stereotypes

To quote The Beatles, and (with more relevance) Mike Cougill, “Tell me what you see”.

More years ago than I care to remember, I graduated in psychology. One of the things which really interested me was the processing of data. If we take vision, there is so much information streaming into our eyes and yet we can only process a fraction of it at any one time. To cope with this, we have evolved strategies to filter out the usual, and attend to the unusual, on the reasonable evolutionary basis that we need to identify things that might be food, friend or a threat and everything else is background. (When in a state of heightened anxiety, colour vision can cease to function as it requires a lot of energy to process the data, energy which might be needed for the purposes of a fight or a flight.)

A consequence of this is that the human mind is very good at forming stereotypes, particularly when it comes to uncommon things (like, for instance, someone not in the family group, or someone who models to finescale standards). If we see a coincidence of uncommon things, for example most railway modellers are normal people, and that includes finescalers, so a finescaler with a somewhat obsessive attitude becomes doubly unusual, then we form a stereotype based on the distinctiveness, but wrongly attribute the cause: so finescalers are seen as somewhat obsessive. The real problem comes when this becomes an archetype, and unfortunately this happened many years ago in our hobby. What the human mind then does is to look for confirmatory evidence to back this up, to preserve the distinctiveness, and myths arise and the “evidence” is routinely put forward to bolster the opinion of those who are threatened by things which do not conform to their way of thinking.

But it doesn’t end there: we do it all the time, and model what we think is there, rather than what actually is there. Hence, I think, the number of poor models of trees out there. Ask any young child to paint a tree, and you will be surprised to see omething which is not a variant on a theme of brown stick with a green blob, yet trees rarely have a brown bark, and the foliage is anything but a single colour blob. Clichés abound on layouts: “clutter” is added to improve the “atmosphere”, and we see lengths of rail (in anticipation or consequence of relaying work) left in yard areas where railwaymen on th night shift would trip over them. The result is inauthentic and, well, cluttered.

It is possible to train oneself to become aware of these processes, and to counter the negative stereotypes which can arise, but it isn’t easy: in fact it can be very difficult. This is one of the first things that art students have to learn: how to un-learn their preconceptions. When it comes to our hobby, I am afraid that lazy acceptance of the norm (well, it is a hobby and therefore supposed to be relaxing) is the norm, but for those who can be bothered to overcome this hurdle, the world is a much more interesting place!

I began with a quote, and will end with another fom the same song:
“Open up your eyes, now.”

9 thoughts on “Overcoming stereotypes

  1. Martin Field

    Anyone involved in art of any kind is usually taught how to see early on in their training, even in my case a s a technical illustrator. We have to have a knowledge of sciagraphy (the study of shadows). Indeed we had to not only appreciate them, but work out the size of an object by measuring them and their angles! Textures, colour perspective…all taught as part of how to see.

    And your comments on trees are bang on. There have been almost no really good ones since George Stokes! You have to go out and really SEE an actual tree, bush, shrub, etc., before you should attempt a model of one.

    1. Dunks Post author

      There was the Pendlebury Group in the 70s, Bob Barlow in the 80s, Barry Norman in the 80s (Petherick) and 90s (Lydham Heath), and latterly Gordon Gravett. I suppose that there were others, but none spring to mind. They stick in the mind, as much as anything because of their rarity.

      1. Martin Field

        Of whom, only Gordon impresses, I’m afraid (though I am not aware of the Pendlebury group)…and the post Office engineer who used to wire all the layouts at the Ilford and West Essex club and make our trees. He would always ask what kind of tree and which season. What he could do with ex PO wire, horsehair (from his upholsterer chum) , dried and dyed tea and a cheap hairspray was utterly remarkable. His weeping willows and silver birches were legend.

  2. Martin Field

    I tried to find pics of the work of those you mentioned, with no luck, apart from Gordon’s which I’ve seen “in person”. I’ll look up Tony Hill’s. When I googled model trees, it was the products of two companies that impressed most, to my surprise, but I guess not everything is yet on google images!

    1. Dunks Post author

      This post isn’t really about trees – although I am happy to digress, being famous for it in some circles! An example of Tony’s work can be seen here: http://www.scalefour.org/shows/scaleforum2009/showcase/showcase17.jpg

      Tony has published books, and is a regular demonstrator on the UK exhibition circuit and features frequently in the model press (maybe not MRJ or the Railway Modeller). Bob Barlow’s trees featured in the first British Railway Journal, and also on the East Suffolk Light Railway layout, Orford, built jointly with Iain Rice. Pendlebury appeared in the Railway Modeller (Jan 1978, I think) and more extensively in Model Railways at about the same time – it was one of the early P4 layouts. There was also Dennis Moore.

      I am surprised that Barry Norman’s work doesn’t impress you. I agree that it was perhaps not quite up to the lightness and delicacy of Iliffe Stokes, but against that the buildings were, and the railway side was in advance of “Ravensbourne” by orders of magnitude.

      1. Martin Field

        Thanks for the links, Dunks. I did find some Tony Hill trees and they are indeed very nice and clearly models of trees rather than generics. Pleasing to see him use the same system Stokes and I have always used. Except I start at the bottom and move to thinner and thinner limbs and twiggery.
        I thought Barry Norman’s trees on his layout which I saw at a show somewhere were a bit of a “vegetable concentration camp”, to use Tom Rolt’s expression.
        I agree that the trackwork on Ravensbourne let the layout down, but I never regarded it as a layout, more separate scenes. I saw a building of George’s
        at the Model Railway Journal’s one-off show in London and it was as fine a piece of work as any I have seen. I saw George’s article in an early RM and have been inspired ever since. I find his buildings every bit as inspiring as his trees, but yes, shame about the track! An odd incongruity.

        1. Dunks Post author

          Hi again Martin, and anyone else following these comments, have a look at my friend Trevor Marshall’s work (link via the sidebar), and have a gander at this video. Mike Cougill’s work is cool, too.
          Enjoy if you visit!

        2. Martin Field

          I never know quite what to think of American layouts. I think it’s because the stock and scenery is so alien to me. That appears to be a nice layout where at least the trees are not obviously bog brushes or bits of dried nature as so many are, but they are nonetheless obviously twisted wire. I can see the twists! And the foliage is a bit clumpy. By comparison, Gordon’s and Tony Hills’s are superb. No concerned criticism here, btw, just observation and OK, I am a fussy swine!

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