The Artist Within

In a thread on one of the more popular model railway forums, a post was made with the following sentiment:

I now see railway modelling as an art form to be enjoyed rather than an exercise in trying to achieve technical perfection

If you read any of the blogs to which I frequently refer, especially Mike Cougill’s and Chris Mears’, then this will not be anything new to you.

My response (to be self-indulgent, but what is a blog if not that?) was:

I agree entirely, but as all artists will agree, it takes a while to develop the techniques required. In fact, you may have tapped into a better metaphor than you realise!

In fact, many artists return to the same subject time and time again, scrapping earlier efforts (either completed, or part completed) because what appears on canvas or in clay/wood/metal/stone/whatever isn’t what they have in their mind’s eye.

In this respect, you should take comfort from the blind alleys and false starts: like any great artist, they are but learning points on the path to ultimate success.

And make no mistake, whether we build an individual item of rolling stock, a small diorama, or a large layout, we are all creating a work of art which says to the the world, “This is what railways mean to me.”

Artists spend their lives trying to express what something means to them using their favoured medium/media. They will tell you that they often feel that they have failed, and try, and try, and try again. I know I am repeating myself, but it is worth remembering that.

Techniques do need to be mastered, but only to allow us to create what we want to create. This is not easy, but if we focus entirely on technique, we can only be technically brilliant, but our creations will be emotionally austere. If we want to get beyond the simple achievement (and great pleasure!) of simply playing with trains, we need to remember what we want to create: what is it in our mind’s eye that says “railway”?

There are no golden rules here. I can no more dictate what you must do to achieve your Model Railway dream than can anyone else, but it is worth putting some questions to yourself to help define your goal.

So, what inspires you? How does that lead to a satisfying expression of your interest?

  • It could simply be locomotives or rolling stock. They don’t have to move.
  • It could simply be the end of a rural siding, disused, rusty and strewn with rubbish. Nothing but some track, some form of stopping things coming off the end of it, just a few square inches of baseboard.
  • It could be the operations of unit trains – after all, shifting goods and minerals in bulk was how railways came about.

There are so many alternatives, each as different as each of us. The point is, to get beyond technicalities and toys, we can view model railways as art.

But only if we know what inspires us.


7 thoughts on “The Artist Within

  1. Jim Smith-Wright

    I approach the hobby from the artistic side (probably because I earned a living as an illustrator for nearly a decade). I have 2 guiding rules:
    1 model what I see, not what I think I know. I don’t have to understand it, I just have to copy it.
    2 consistency is everything. A model will only ever be as good as it’s weakest link. Try to detach yourself from what it is, and just think of it as a model. It could be a class 50 or a bus stop, doesn’t matter. Both require an identical approach and if something dissapears into the scene in real life, then it should do the same on the model.

  2. Trevor

    Interesting thoughts, Simon – thanks for sharing.

    I think the key phrase in the original post is “I now see…”, for two reasons.

    1 – “I see” – This hobby is what participants make of it. There are many examples of artistic interpretations of railways… from the whimsical to the serious. (And outside of the hobby, too: Rowland Emett was an artist, and (as I know you know) he used kinetic sculptures (and drawings) to make an artistic statement about UK railways and poke fun at UK society.) What makes one interpretation “art” and another “craft”? I believe – and this is only my interpretation – there must be something beyond technical achievement. Poet Robert Frost believed, “The thing that art does for life is to clean it – to strip it to form”, while painter Paul Klee said, “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.” For a model railway to be art, it has to express the builder’s intent. And for that, the builder has to have something to say. A layout that is a technically perfect recreation of a scene (from a photograph, let’s say) may be a fine example of a craftsman’s work. But it’s not art – not anymore than a blueprint would be considered art. Now, if the builder makes the conscious decision to take liberties with reality, in order to better express something – for example, to capture the decline of the Victorian Age, or the rise of globalization, or the impact of colonization, or the almost universal childhood fascination with machines – then it might be considered art. (Providing it is combined with technical achievement – in the same way that a painter must know how to use brushes and paint to capture what she/he is trying to express). The first step towards moving from craft to art is seeing – seeing that there’s potential for the hobby to become art, because that allows us to explore how it could become art.

    2 – “Now” – the original poster did not originally see the hobby as an art, and now sees the potential. For some people, their engagement with the hobby can evolve into an art form. Not everybody will go there – and that’s fine too. The hobby, as it is currently defined, is a “big tent” hobby where the only rule is, “If you’re having fun, you’re doing it right”. Some people will never yearn to learn to build better models, or more convincing scenery, or engage in historical research in order to better understand what they’re doing with the little trains. Others can’t imagine participating in the hobby without pursuing knowledge, honing skills, and always challenging themselves to do better.

    Perhaps the real issue is not whether railway modelling is an art form, but whether the “big tent” definition of the hobby is really the appropriate one? The person who uses railway models as an art form has more in common with a sculptor, while someone interested in the research to create an accurate representation of the past has more in common with a historian. The locomotive builder identifies more with an engineer or machinist. And those who enjoy operating sessions have more in common with gamers. So why are they all considered railway modellers?


    – Trevor (Port Rowan in 1:64)

        1. Trevor

          Yeah, “fun” is a loaded word in our hobby. It’s often used as a crutch. “I’m having fun – don’t make me think about what I’m doing”, etc.

          That’s why I said, “the hobby as it is currently defined is a big tent hobby” in which that’s the only rule. The problem, as I try to address later in my comment, is that big tent nature of the hobby. We can’t judge whether the hobby is an art form, or how that’s defined, when the hobby includes people running RTR models on EZ Track on the carpet. We have to carve those guys out of the “railway modelling” hobby, while acknowledging that they are having fun, so doing the hobby right – for them. We can call them “model train enthusiasts”. And then we can do the same with other groups within the big tent hobby.

          This doesn’t mean that a person has to be consigned to one pigeonhole. One can be an operations enthusiast AND a locomotive builder – in the same way that a person could build an exquisite model of an X-Wing snub fighter and also enjoy playing the tabletop miniatures game, “X-Wing”. In the first instance, they’re a plastic modeller – in the second, they’re a gamer. But they’re not considered the same hobby, despite the common element of an interest in Star Wars.

          In our hobby, they would both be considered the SAME hobby.


          – Trevor

  3. Simon Post author

    But they are very much two different hobbies: the models are rarely used within role playing.

    I don’t mind the big tent, but I do mind when it is used, along with your example of the word fun, as an excuse for not being bothered.

    I do think there is a difference between a (possibly glorified) train set and a model railway, even if the latter is quite basic and it could even use EZ track on the carpet, if it was replicating prototype operations, and trains were driven properly.

    I like that there is no clear boundary. I think it makes it easier to progress from playing with a train set to Playing With Trains.

    Ultimately, and I do get your point, if someone gets enjoyment from a train set, then that’s fine by me, but I probably wouldn’t think of it as installation art, even though some might.

Comments are closed.