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…


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…


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.


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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Taking the bait?

MRJ issue 259 is out, and features a lengthy letter from no less than Iain Rice in response to Tony Wright’s somewhat immature jibe at P4. Personally I think Tony was rather rude, having been invited to write for the leading finescale magazine, to then proceed to trash his hosts, but more importantly, I am not sure that it was worth dignifying with such a thoughtful and lengthy reply.

There are a lot of words in Iain’s letter, but essentially it boils down to the following, which can be applied to any general standard compared to “Proto:N”.

00 started out as toy trains for kids, and had to be robust enough to cope with uneven floors and carpets, as well as fitting onto table tops. Even after refinement, commercial 00 still has a lot of slop available to cope with less than perfect track and supporting structures, and will go around curves that are much tighter (in scale terms) than the real thing could, and therefore you can fit more layout into a given space. Mechanically, it is designed to be robust, requiring little maintenance and to simply ignore minor irregularities in the track.
P4 is different. It started out with the scale of 4mm to one foot, and asked the simple (!) question of how close could one take the model to (scaled down) prototype tolerances. As such, it requires greater precision in manufacturing so that it can accommodate irregularities in the track and supporting structures – which also need to be made to finer tolerances – and (depending on how well engineered things are) possibly more maintenance. Any layout based on a real mainline location will also need a lot more space, as although some physical forces scale down differently to others there is still a limit to what is an acceptable minimum radius.

Iain also mentions a private layout, but overlooks “Heckmondwyke” with a 42” minimum radius, and also the “Irish P4” layout Adavoyle, which apart from being an unusual subject, demonstrated that properly designed and made, Proto standards not only work, but work in such a way that the trains ran through the station (at speed) with just the right amount of movement, something which is not achievable in 00. And that the work involved to get to this level of reliability is not that great, either.

That is a shame, as simply pointing out that either Tony hadn’t seen either of these layouts, or had simply chosen to ignore their existence, means that Tony’s point was simply wrong, as well as being irrelevant.

Ultimately, this is simply yet another example of someone who has chosen not to follow a particular path inferring that those who do are somehow wrong. Psychoanalysts call this reaction formation (the tendency of a repressed wish or feeling to be expressed at a conscious level in a contrasting form), but to the rest of us, it is simply inverted snobbery or anti-elitism, possibly from someone who feels that they could have maybe done better.

The hobby is better without such childishness.