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“Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world.” “ If you could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.” Edward Hopper

What a person gets out of the hobby is as varied as the number of people participating. For some, it’s casual recreation. Others enjoy the intellectual gamesmanship of prototype operations. Maybe you just need the relaxation that comes with the satisfaction of assembling a kit. Where you fall doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you know what you want, particularly if it’s something you spend a significant amount of time on. Knowing what you want is the starting point, actually getting it is the often elusive destination.

For many, model railroading goes far beyond dabbling, far beyond casual recreation. They are totally immersed, have been so for decades, and spend hours a week on it in one form or another. As satisfying as it is I get the sense that, many have a vague sense that something is missing from their end results, something they have a hard time pinpointing. This disconnect isn’t limited to entry level modelers alone, it’s equally prevalent among the very experienced. In fact, it may be even more common among those modelers that have mastered the skills necessary to assemble even the most advanced subjects.

It comes down to why we model. Whether we realize it or not, at a level that doesn’t always reach conscious awareness we want to be transported to the place we are creating. We want something that evokes an emotional response. We want to make the leap from creating an assembly of plastic to “art”. You could have a closet full of awards from modeling contests, but if you aren’t aware of your end game and don’t put your efforts forth in a way to get there, you’ll end up with that nagging feeling that something is missing when you look at what you’ve created.

The vocational website, defines an artist as follows. “Artists use art to communicate thoughts, feelings, and ideas”. For our purposes, that means that we choose a specific theme not simply for the satisfaction obtained by gluing two pieces of plastic together but for reasons that run far deeper. We want to create something that elicits emotion. We want a miniature world that, simply by looking at it, transports us to a place that evokes positive feelings. How effective we are in that endgame, and it’s a very personal one, is dependent upon how good of a job we do of creating something that will trip those emotional triggers.

Unlike other fields of art, model railroading is different from the standpoint that artist and customer are one and the same…it’s you. Your layout room is an art gallery with one photo and one patron.

If you stick with the hobby long enough and, put in the years of focused practice you will, at some point, be what most would call a “good modeler”. Therein lies the trap. You could build a model that has every glue seam perfect, every rivet in the right place, wins contests, and yet still falls flat against the standard of art (as you define art for yourself). You may have enjoyed that satisfaction of assembly. You may enjoy the chess game of operating it. But does it send you to that far off emotional place you had hoped for? The trap is not being aware of the distinction between clean, perhaps masterful assembly, and art. Art is the final rung of the ladder, is far more difficult, and takes far great skill to obtain.

The analogy is the distinction between a painter and a technical illustrator. An artist’s goal is to trigger emotion, the technical illustrator’s simply to convey information. A documentary on television might be interesting but it won’t create the emotions that a masterfully produced movie will. Comparing that to model railroading an artist triggers emotion a “master assembler” simply does a great job gluing parts together.

Take a look at the three images above related to Hopper. Compare the two images on the left to the final painting. Notice the difference in mood between the two left images vs. the painting? That’s why his work goes for forty million at auction! In the early years of his career, he paid the utility bills through his day job as a commercial illustrator. The left image is an example of one his illustraton assignments. The middle image, the photo, is the subject used to paint the drug store scene. The final image, of course, is the famous painting.

So, if becoming an expert assembler or perhaps bringing home the bling at a model contest isn’t taking you to where you want to be, what does it take? How do you put an image on canvas that moves the needle for that customer that is you? There are four elements:

  • Choose a compelling subject

  • Interpreting it

  • Execution (assembly)

  • Presentation (vantage point and lighting)

Subject Matter. Does the theme you’ve chosen have personal meaning to you? Does it tie to something in your past? Does it tie to something you’ve seen or watched? Or, is it just the ubiquitous model railroad station, grain elevator, and trestle that holds no personal significance for you?

Interpretation. Take a look at the photo of the drugstore and compare it to Hopper’s painting. The photo transmits information, the painting creates a mood. Interpreting a rail scene has to do with how we compose a scene and color the elements. What elements do we pick? Which do we exclude? How are they positioned? How far apart are they? What size are they? Finally what color and weathering treatment are we going to apply? This is a tough one and goes far beyond “Oh, I’ll just paint that station Floquil depot buff”.

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