Category Archives: Opinions

Stop blaming others and seize the opportunity

I saw this on a forum I use:

But, as it seems I don’t build etched brass kits or even whitemetal ones some will say that I’m not a modeller

Who are these “some”? I haven’t met any of them.

Anyone who goes beyond simply opening boxes is a modeller and the idea that you have to build etched brass kits to become a modeller is nonsense.

This is akin to those who refer to, for want if a better way of putting it, “finescalers” as elitist. Well, I know some of the best modellers in the country, and not one of them is in anyway elitist. Sure, they want to make their models as accurate as possible, to the finest possible standards, etc, but not one of them has ever told me that everyone else must do the same, or that anyone who doesn’t is somehow not worth anything. And all of them, and I do mean every single one, are prepared to share their techniques with anyone who is interested. The only complaint I ever hear from them is that too many are afraid to try.

Personally, I am getting sick and tired of it. We all have limitations, be they time, money, space or skills, but we can increase and improve our skills given time a degree of time. And time can replace money, too: start with raw materials and learn their properties, and acquire the basic tools to work with them. Cutting out and embossing takes longer than buying etchings, yes, but the mistakes and hence the lessons learned are your own, and with time these mistakes are replaced with new ones, and new lessons.

The only times I see the idea that what someone is doing isn’t good enough to be “proper modelling” is from their own minds. There are no right and wrong ways to be a modeller: just putting some personal effort into making a model look more like the real thing, which is as much about careful observation of the real thing as it is about anything else. And you don’t have have to go back in time to see how dirt and weathering affect things.

No, when I see people refer to “some”, I generally incline to the view that the speaker is the “some”, and rather than admit that they feel they could do better, they project their disappointment onto a perceived elite which doesn’t exist. Feeling that you could achieve more and better is quite possibly the defining characteristic of the human condition: it drives us to self-improvement, to every model being slightly better than the previous one (in the early stages, to every model being significantly better than the previous one) until we reached a point where the law of diminishing returns starts to kick in.

From what I have observed, that doesn’t usually happen until one is well advanced into one’s dotage.

As the Bard put it,

From this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.

 

Connecting to Inspiration

Mike Cougill has posted a very pertinent post on our connection to real trains, and asks if we need it:

Do we need the connection to real trains? I believe we do without a doubt. Without inspiration from full-size railroading, I’m not certain what this work would become other than a flight of fancy. I believe a connection with your subject is vital but in the absence of first hand experience, friends and mentors can help us understand our strengths and help us explore the form our interests might take. Historical research can provide a strong sense of a different era. That said however, you still have to do the introspection required and make your own choices.

I posted some time back on a personal memory, way back when I was 13½, and yet although the sound, heat and smell of a class 08 shunter or a class 25 Bo-Bo is probably what ties me to the prototype, it isn’t what I model, or indeed want to model.

It’s a sort of chain reaction: that inspiration takes me back to my youth, when I was starting to find my way in the hobby. It is an essential link to my history, but the chain is longer than that. From this starting point, I became more interested in my local railways and their history, and that in turn expanded my horizons further, both in time and geography, and my modelling interests evolved away from that starting point.

And do you know what? That’s great. Trying to recapture my youthful starting point in model form won’t work. Sure, I can get the sound, but not the smell, and model smoke looks like model smoke and not like a model of smoke. And visits to preserved lines are fine, but the context is different: it doesn’t have the same impact on me as – it is slightly ersatz, and not real. But the connection to the trains of the past is still there for me, via a nearly 40 year old memory, still evoked by the smell of (of all things) the diesel fumes from buses of a certain age.

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.

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Mobile Modelling

I am a great believer in good technology liberating us from old ways of doing things, and this is a superb example that only appears to be obvious after it has been pointed out…

Pembroke:87

It’s hard to believe the iPhone is only a decade old, when the world has changed so much. Today, I had to wait in a parking lot for a few minutes, and as I was thinking about the look of 622’s truck wheels, and how they don’t quite match the photo, I thought I’d see what I could do there and then.

So, I opened the OnShape mobile app, and changed a number of dimensions until I was happy with it. Then I wrote this blog post on my phone too. It’s not the hours you can spend on this hobby, but the minutes that matter. Now there are more minutes.

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Out of Context?

I recently re-blogged René Gourley’s post, in which he quoted Marty McGuirk’s comment on Georgia O’Keefe:

Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.

This is a lot deeper than an initial reading might suggest: O’Keefe was talking about identifying the essence of something, so that it can be drawn out. She was not, necessarily, talking about eliminating every detail, but making the point that you can remove some of the distractions from what you are trying to portray, to make your creation clearer.

That said, I think a degree of caution is necessary when translating Georgia O’Keefe’s words to our hobby.

Our models are not static 2-d representations attempting to emulate the impact of distance on stereoscopic vision which makes judgements of size and distance based on relative angular displacement (“perspective”). We have depth as well as height and width. We actually have twice as many dimensions to play with, for we also have time, allowing movement, which in a painting may be portrayed by blurring some of the detail, and things which are far away and indistinct may come closer and resolve into exquisitely made tiny parts on a model.

Say, for example, that you are building a model of an industrial steam tank engine. There would be levers for opening the sand pipes, with flat rodding and various cranks running from the cab down one side to a sandbox, with a crank and rod running across the back of the smoke box to a sandbox on the other side. For the sake of illustrating the point, this is a scratch build.

How do you best represent this? In theory, you should have some rectangular strips of brass, pinned and soldered at each joint, using the head of the pin to represent a rivet or bolt. That would provide the ultimate in detail. Of course, if you were working on a 5” gauge live steam engine, it might well be assembled to work, but as you come down the scales, you get a point where the extra detail of doing it the “hard way” gets lost in shadows, so unless you are building for a competition, is it worth bothering at all? Possibly not, once you get down to Z gauge, maybe, but even in N Scale, a complete absence of the rodding may not look right. So, what you can do, is use a piece of wire to represent the rodding, cranks and joints: if you feel really adventurous, you might even squeeze parts of it flat, to improve the looks. This would work well on a “layout quality”/“3 foot rule” model in most scales, including 7mm scale, but especially so for scales smaller than this (I know, ‘cos this is what a friend has done). [b]But[/b] – and this is the crucial point – it still needs to be bent in the right places, and in the correct direction. You don’t simply take any old piece of wire and 30 seconds later say, et voila! No, you take care to select a piece of wire that is noticeable but not obvious, and measure and bend carefully. Say 5 minutes. Still easier and less time consuming than doing it all with separate pieces, and far better than leaving it out.

Another example. Geoff Forster, of Penhydd and Llangunllo fame, emailed me today about this and that, as you do, and went on to say:

I was comparing two recent 16T mineral builds with an earlier example that I put together. The latter has etched ‘V’ hangers, brake lever, ratchet and safety links, whereas the new builds have just had the kit parts refined, and a wire brake cross shaft fitted. Can I tell the difference on the layout, can I heck, which begs the question is it worth going the extra mile in 4mm scale?

Geoff went on to add that shape, colour and texture are more important than detail -which can be simply suggested by these three – in contributing to the wider scene, a sentiment with which I agree and which Geoff demonstrates oh so eloquently…

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My take on the O’Keefe reference is not that you simply omit features, but you decide on how you are going to represent the features – in this respect, I am put in mind of what Allen McClelland unfortunately called “good enough”. I say “unfortunately” as the phrase is ambiguous and could be interpreted as settling for second best, when really it’s about asking what level of detail is required to suit your purposes. If you are operations-focused, then moulded on details will be more robust, yet will still catch the light. You also need more stock, and the fist- and time- saving features of freight cars with mould details are not only substantial  but essential. If you are details-focused, where close-up viewing of your models is the order of the day, then moulded on details are definitely not if interest.

As René pointed out, “Marty is right: don’t sweat the details, unless that’s your thing, in which case, don’t expect anyone else to notice.”

But whatever your choice, you still make a neat and clean job of it: craftsmanship and workmanship are always necessary.

Details – they’re personal

How to approach the hobby, in your own way – and make sure you also read Marty’s post.

Pembroke:87

An entertaining post from Marty McGuirk reminded me that I wanted to expand on  Summons, which I wrote back in October.  There I argued that realism lies in the textures and colours between the details, rather than in the details themselves.

Consequently, some of the most realistic models you’ll find are taken out of the box and simply weathered by master painters.  Some freelance railroads ooze a sense of place that you believe you have visited.

So, why bother with detail?  The purpose of detail is to accurately portray the prototype – nothing more and nothing less.  Getting the accuracy of the model right is a personal quest for each of us.  Some of us prefer to go the distance, while the others prefer to stop off at the first pub.

But here’s the thing: once the model is painted, you and the other foamer who has also attempted…

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