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October 21, 2005

To The Artist’s Eye Everything is Beautiful
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 11:35 AM * 60 comments

Promoted from the comments in Open Thread 51:

Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 01:59 AM:

Model-builder Pete Feigenbaum has built some absolutely amazingly detailed slums for his model railroad tracks to run through. There’s a South Bronx-style industrial neighborhood with abandoned cars and burned-out auto-parts stores covered with layer after layer of tags; there’s an any-inner-city block with liquor store, pawnshop, and flophouse hotel; there are under-the-el street scenes a la South Chicago; brick warehouses converted to dollar stores. It’s all mindbogglingly detailed, gritty, and real-looking. You’ve got to look at it.

I found it via Jeffrey Rowland’s Overcompensating and I just submitted it to Boing-Boing, so you may all have seen it elsewhere by the time you get around to seeing it here, but I just had to pass this on. Wow.

The photos of the model railroad layout are here: Vestal Design.

Go, take a look. This is outstanding modelwork. Yes, there are illusion-breakers (the automobiles have out-of-scale tires, and could have been weathered) but on the whole, wow indeed.

This leads to one of my favorite metaphors for writing novels. To make a replica of the world, you have to be able to see it. If you see it, you can model it. A novel is as much a replica of the world as a model railway.

My father, W. Douglas Macdonald, was a chemical engineer and an electrical engineer. Most of his life he worked for building materials companies, including Glidden paint, US Plywood, and Eucatex. He died entirely too young, 72, of congestive heart failure secondary to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; that is to say, smoking killed him. (Note to everyone: If you smoke, quit right now.) I miss him very much.

That was his professional life; his hobby was modelmaking, specifically ships and model railroads. He won contests in the 1920s for his model railroad cars. Back when I was young, he let me help him with his modelmaking (talk about your love: the help of six-year-olds can be a challenge). That was where I learned modelwork, which I still enjoy.

All the arts are related; modelwork and novel-writing. Both center on making a world in miniature, a false seeming that convinces the viewer/reader of its reality.

Herewith some lessons I took away, and use in my own works:

No matter how good your model is, it won’t be perfect. No matter how much praise you get, no matter what awards you win, you’ll never be able to look at that model and see anything but its imperfections.

The rivets on model cars are badly out of scale. To have visible rivets, they’d have to have heads the size of softballs.

No one counts the rivets on a moving car.

If you suggest detail, the viewer will add his own details.

Therefore, you don’t need rivets.

Painted plastic, painted wood, and painted metal all look the same.

It isn’t a model until you add people. Before that, it’s a clever machine, perhaps, or a toy. Characters bring their own reality, and bring the person looking at the model into the story. Your models tell stories; if you have a car that’s got mud on it, or rust, or scrapes and dents, it has a history. The viewer won’t know what the dent came from, but he’ll know that the car has been places, done things, and subconsciously won’t think of it as something that just came from a modelmaker’s workbench.

Another thing: there were always hidden things, that only the modelmaker knew about. These made the model real to him, and if it was real to him, it would be real to the viewers. For example, once we made a model of the submarine USS George Washington. This was a plastic model with a hinged side that could be opened to show the interior. One of the interior spaces had a door that led to the food storage reefer. My dad built and painted scale model hams, hung them in the walk-in refrigerator area, then continued with the model, sealing that area off where it would never be seen. The fact that the artist knows something is there — even if the world doesn’t share that knowledge — will add realism to the entire project.

Sometimes the best model for a thing is the thing itself: nothing looks so much like a load of coal in a hopper car than crushed coal in a hopper car.

On the other hand, real water doesn’t look like water — it doesn’t scale.

Don’t put things square on bases; use diagonal lines. They suggest motion.

A frame makes the model seem more real than it otherwise would appear. Frames move the model into the world of art. Frames suggest completion.

Let the paint dry before you touch it.

If you can’t see the world you can’t model it.

I haven’t built model railroads, though I love doing model ships and model houses.

Herewith are some exercises for y’all; not too expensive, and (I promise!) will help your novel writing. (Or, anyway, it’s helped mine.)

First off, get yourself a nice HO scale paper model house. Two I’ve done are Cut and Assemble Victorian Cottage and Cut and Assemble Victorian Shingle-Style House. (I’ve used both of those in my various talks at Viable Paradise.)

Build one of the houses. In the building of it, add one interior room. (If you want, you can open doors and windows with your X-acto knife to give other people a chance to see the room, or not.) Note: while the instructions don’t say it, paint the insides of the chimneys black! If you leave them white, the illusion is broken. If you blacken them, the illusion is strengthened. Anything that doesn’t add to the illusion detracts from it.

Now place the model on a base. Landscape it. (Landscaping can cover a multitude of sins.) Spring, summer, autumn, winter scenes all have different feels.

Add people. These tell your story. If you put in a group of folks having a garden party, it’s a different story from the model that has a police car and an ambulance pulled up out front of the house, with detectives, dogs, uniformed police, and a stretcher with a sheeted form being wheeled out the front.

Don’t skimp on the people. In my model of the shingle-side house, one figure (of several) cost more than the rest of the materials combined. I found it in a hobby shop, and knew that this was the figure I needed. The more realistic the little plastic people, the more real the entire model will appear.

That’s it. Learn to see the world. Discover that tree trunks aren’t brown; they’re grey. See how the same basic, off the rack things, when arranged in various ways, with you choosing the arrangment, make different, unique, artistic stories. Discover that when you mix paint for your Pullman cars using paint chips taken from real Pullman cars, that they look too dark — you have to lighten the paint to make it look right. Looking right is more important than being right.

The models don’t look like much until you have them all put together, landscaped, populated, and framed. Then … they’re magic.

Comments on To The Artist's Eye Everything is Beautiful:
#1 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 12:20 PM:

One of my favorite places to visit is the Tee Ridder Miniatures Museum at the Nassau County Museum of Art ( but there are not good pictures . . . .

Tee Ridder made "dollhouses." They're not dollhouses, though, they are miniature rooms and homes. Models, in essence. She mostly did indoor scenes though there are some gardens on display. They are extraordinary creations. She built elements--mirror frames made of jewelry findings, for instance--as well as arranged already-existing items.

Many of the rooms include people, which, as Jim says, really bring them to life.

It's a truly wonderful little museum and worth visiting if you have a chance. The main Nassau County Museum of Art is pretty cool too--a big sculpture garden on the grounds, interesting rotating exhibits, usually Impressionists or later. I remember when I was younger seeing a really stunning exhibit of Louise Nevelson paired with George O'Keefe. They went really well together.

Anyway, I love going back to the miniatures museum because I see different things in the permanent exhibits every time I look, and the temporary exhibitions are usually pretty cool too.

#2 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 12:36 PM:

I like a model - or a series of them - that tells a story. Like the sequence I have hung against a black background in the front room. A 1/72 scale Lancaster bomber, just in a turn, and a Ju88 nachtjager, below and behind it. I'm thinking of adding a Mosquito intruder. It only works at night, with the light off, and moonlight coming through the window.

#3 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 01:06 PM:

"It isnít a model until you add people."

Bah, humbug!

There's models and models. I used to paint military minis -- toy soldiers -- and toward the end used to have fun flocking the bases and putting down bits of lichen and fake rocks. But without players to play these old games with, they were just static dust collectors.

That's why I switched back to flying models:



(A friend Photoshopped the above picture to remove the toddler channeling Buddy Lee, but I still prefer the original. There's something surreal about that little homunculous.)

#4 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 01:24 PM:

This is what marks out a good RPG designer (roleplaying game, not ruchnoy protivotankovye granatamyot) from a bad one: the good one will have spent hours listing the people in the roadside inn, their motivations, their skills, their histories, and then not mind when the players just ride on past. Because he realises that making up all that stuff is part of the fun.

#5 ::: Tim Illingworth ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 01:34 PM:

Taking off at a tangent: if you like detailed models, you might like this one. Come to think of it, it's been 35 years since I've visited it: they've probably done a lot in that time...

#6 ::: dolloch ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 01:49 PM:

There used to be a miniature museum here in LA along museum row, but it travels now. I saw a replica of the Vatican and the Forum there. The Forum had a pair of Centurions playing some sort of dice game near a pillar. The creator told the story of how after he built the model, an archeologist found the "board" for that dice game scratched into a paving stone in the exact place the modeller had put it!

The bit about details and telling a story reminded me of this site where a guy combined two forms of miniatures. I pimped the site to an auto body shop. They were amused.

#7 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 01:52 PM:

Some pluggage:

John McEwan is an eccentric miniature maker from the dawn-times of SF&F gaming. He makes some really neat cut-and-fold paper models of historical buildings and vehicles:

The Victorian SF stuff is especially neat:

His role play minis are wonderfully diverse: Gangersters, klansmen, Atlantean gill-men, 1930-ish film crew, Tong warriors, and so on.

#8 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 02:20 PM:

In the tiny cities division:

Updated only to the early 1990s, alas. It's expensive to redo.

So the WTC is still there, though they are planning to replace it with a miniature version of the "Tribute in Light". At the moment, the towers have a big red-white-and-blue ribbon on them.

#9 ::: Giulia De Cesare ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 02:53 PM:

When we went to Chicon, we visited the Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago, and I bought the book specifically to have as a resource for locations. They don't have models of people in them, but seemed so realistic to me that you'd think the occupants had just popped out. Having views from the windows and doors, all with appropriate lighting, made them seem real.

#10 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 03:21 PM:

I have a little story that expands on Jim's subject line, and may shed some light on why I reacted so to these models in particular.

When I was going to college at the University of Chicago, my final year I got to fill out my distribution requirements by taking several art classes - intro to studio art, intro to art history, etc. Great fun.

For one of these classes, which had a pretty small class size, the instructor arranged for one session of the class to meet at the Art Institute of Chicago and visit their print and drawing archive room. We spent an hour or two in their study room, with our teacher pulling out masterpiece after masterpiece from the Institute's storage files and laying them out on the table, for us to examine and soak in from inches away, while she pointed out details of the techniques the artists had used, or subtleties of texture, or how their composition directed the eye. I remember particularly a Durer etching of the crucifixion, Picasso sketches and etchings; I don't remember any other particular artists at the moment.

What matters more is what happened next: the class ended and we were left to make our way back home.

I took a city bus, which ran slowly back to Hyde Park where I lived, through a series of run-down industrial neighborhoods and slums. Everything I saw on that ride was overwhelmingly and breathtakingly beautiful. The discolored filthy red brick of an old factory glowed in the sunlight with unimaginably rich colors and textures. The crumpled black trashbag which another bus rider was carrying was a complex tapestry of wrinkles, reflections, and tones of black. Human faces were even more amazing; every rider was uniquely beautiful, shining with innate dignity.

Focusing my mind intensely on textures and composition and the artists' visions for only an hour or so had temporarily adjusted my mind, and disabled its usual filters. I was seeing things as they really appeared to my eyes, without the usual overlay of value information superimposed on top of them telling me that those things were dirty, this was a slum and it should look ugly to me.

These models made me feel that the builder had perceived the same thing. The feeling I got from these lovingly crafted scenes wasn't "I'm being so clever!", or "I'm criticizing society!", but "This is what is, I have seen it, and it is beautiful in my eyes."

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. - William Blake
I experimented a fair bit at one time with psychedelics and other drugs. That afternoon, without the influence of any drug, rivaled most of the psychedelic trips I've been on for sheer beauty and transcendence.

#11 ::: Laramie Sasseville ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 03:21 PM:

This reminds me of an article I once came across, about a woman who made a career of making scale-models of crime scenes (I can't remember which law enforcement agency she worked with.) She went into great detail; including items of clothing and accessories: blood-stained implements, tiny handkerchiefs, overturned chairs, etc.

#12 ::: Scott H ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 04:53 PM:

"My father, W. Douglas Macdonald, was a chemical engineer and an electrical engineer. Most of his life he worked for building materials companies, including Glidden paint, US Plywood, and Eucatex. He died entirely too youg, 72, of congestive heart failure secondary to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; that is to say, smoking killed him. (Note to everyone: If you smoke, quit right now.) I miss him very much."

My father, Monte Hawkins, also died entirely too young, 64, of congestive heart failure secondary to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; that is to say, smoking killed him.

Witnessing the process of his death was, by a wide margin, the very worst thing I've ever been through in my life. "Living nightmare" is the phrase that pops to mind. He was a very strong man and those @#$ing cigarettes took him down an inch at a time and there was absolutely nothing that anybody anywhere could do about it. It was 20 months ago and I still dream about it almost every night.

If you smoke, I'd encourage you to try the following experiment: fill a bathtub with water. Obtain one of those ~3mm diameter coffee stirrer straws. Submerge yourself in the bathtub. Breathe through the coffee straw for as long as you feel comfortable. With that accomplished spend a few moments trying to imagine that you didn't have the option of sitting up.

Most doctors--who have themselves seen the end result of smoking--will enthusiastically prescribe any number of things to get you over the initial hump of nicotine withdrawal. Just ask.

I myself smoked for ~13 years. FWIW, I finally quit (about 9y ago) by weaning myself down to .5 pack of camel ultra-lights / day. From there I was able to cold-turkey it.

#13 ::: Scott H ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 04:59 PM:

Sorry, that last post may have been a little more intense than appropriate for this thread.

Yeah, those dioramas are impressive.

#14 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 05:39 PM:

Scott H - I for one don't blame you one bit. Nor do I think it was inappropriate, really, though I may be in leaner company there.

#15 ::: Meredith ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 05:48 PM:

That Crash Bonsai link was painful for me, because the detail on the main page is my car (blue New Beetle). :}

For miniatures gone wrong: visit Roadside America in Pennsylvania. Make sure you're there at the top of the hour, so you can witness the splendor as Kate Smith belts out "God Bless America" as Old Glory gets raised in the middle of the village. It's truly unlike anything else I've ever seen.

#16 ::: Shunra ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 06:34 PM:

Scott H., I watched my mother go in a way that was smoking-generated and similarly horrific. Lung cancer. She smoked from about the time she chose to take high school physics - 'cause that way she could have ALL the boys to herself - unti the day she was diagnosed conclusively.

Her death hurt her pretty badly. It destroyed all four of her children - we've each had to rebuild our lives from less than nothing.

Smoking kills families. It's worth stating in detail.

#17 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 06:54 PM:

Probably my favorite paper-models site is (not to be confused with any other Fiddler's Green, living or dead). Their main areas are buildings and historic aircraft; they have a series of notable lighthouses.

Most of the buildings are not highly realistic, though the standards are a bit different for paper than full three-dimensional structure modeling with raised brick and window glazing. There's a fantasy castle that's fully modular -- the set builds various sorts of towers and wall sections, and you put them together until you're overlorded out. And they're the kind of company who, when I ordered one of the buildings CDs, sent along fifty sheets of 110# index just in case I needed instant gratification. (A half-ream of the stuff, which is major land development, costs about ten bucks at Office Depot.)

And I will also speak of the Superquick kits, which you can find well described (though not for sale) at I discovered these at Beatties in London twenty-odd years ago, when they were ridiculously cheap. If you need to build a tiny English village for your miniature Miss Marple to find wee stiffs in, this is your source. They're on matboard rather than tagstock, and are quite sturdy without extra bracing, and they're precut, which saves the greatest single donkey-job of papercraft (except for some Fiddly Bits like strips of paper that are supposed to be rolled into solid cylinders, as chimney pots).

I could also say something about the quantity elevated structure I have in the kit cupboard -- not quite enough for the West Side Line, but close enough for a living-room approximation -- but, well, we're actually going to try and start building the thing this winter, so maybe by this time next year there'll be pictures.

Does anyone else remember when MGM bragged about the incredibly expensive model city they'd built for Logan's Run, which, when finally seen on the big screen, was something Gojira would have been embarrassed to poop on?

#18 ::: Sam Kelly ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 07:15 PM:

I lost my mother to a heart attack nine years ago, at the age of 47 (I was 19) and I've always been certain it was brought on by smoking. Last year my godfather died of lung cancer. He'd been avoiding the doctor for a long time, and then he had a nasty fall. They took him in for an X-ray, and oh-god-what's-that-thing-in-your-chest. He was diagnosed with about six months to live, and that estimate went sharply down near the end. You always see descriptions of people fading and becoming detached from the world, in those novels that deal with terminal illnesses - I've seen so many descriptions like this in the fantasy/SF genre - but it was interesting to see just how accurate the descriptions really were. Of course, they're usually born of unfortunate experience, but one doesn't think too much about that, especially after getting used to reading them before one even thinks about the possibility that it might happen to someone you love.

#19 ::: Matt McIrvin ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 07:51 PM:

I remember that Logan's Run model had futuristic vehicles represented by what looked like ball bearings.

#20 ::: Bob Oldendorf ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 09:00 PM:

My dad built and painted scale model hams, hung them in the walk-in refrigerator area, then continued with the model, sealing that area off where it would never be seen.

In elder days of art
Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part
For the Gods are everywhere.
- Longellow

#21 ::: Bob Oldendorf ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 09:08 PM:

And yes - - if you smoke, stop.

#22 ::: Owlmirror ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 09:32 PM:
Laramie Sasseville wrote, among other things:

scale-models of crime scenes

I recalled reading this as well, but not where. However, a Google on crime scene diorama brought up the following article, which does describe it:

How miniature death-scene dioramas are used to teach modern CSI techniques.

and also

Tom Mauriello's Faculty page at UMD

#23 ::: Owlmirror ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 09:51 PM:

Oh, and the article I linked to above explains that Tom Mauriello is following in the footsteps of one Frances Glessner Lee, who created a series of crime scene dioramas back in the 1930s and 40s. Her name is unique enough that all of the hits are different articles about her work. Here's one:

And here's a description of the book about her dioramas, with some macabre photographs.

#24 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 09:59 PM:

The ultimate miniature?

I've been to Madurodam as a child and adult; I don't know how it looks to modelmakers' eyes, but the sheer scope (expanded since my last visit, says the web page) is impressive.

#25 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2005, 12:09 AM:

I was heartbroken when Shackman's, which made spectacular victorian dollhouse furniture, sold out and was replaced by a store that sells overpriced unattractive french clothing (because, dammit, there aren't enough stores selling overpriced unattractive french clothing in New York).

Happily, I still have a bunch of stuff I spent my allowance on to give HM to furnish (my) her dollhouse

#26 ::: John D. Berry ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2005, 02:53 AM:

"Discover that tree trunks arenít brown; theyíre grey." I learned that one long ago, from looking at real trees. Where did we get the notion that tree trunks are brown? Maybe there really are brown tree trunks, but I don't think I've ever seen any.

Of course, color is a complex thing. The American Impressionist Maurice Prendergast, when shipping his dog and asked to describe its color, described it as "purple, with yellow spots."

(In case you're wondering, I got that anecdote from the wonderful book "The Improper Bohemians," by Allen Churchill.)

#27 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2005, 03:04 AM:

Sabi, the word is sabi, from the Japanese aesthetic trinity of wabi (simplicity), sabi (age), and suki (elegance). Worn materials that show their history, places that look lived in--these have a beauty.

The use of models as a tool to develop finished work is an aspect of model-building that's not widely understood outside of the arts; at least I've seldom seen it remarked on. Architects, in addition to finished presentation models, also do study models--rough little things that don't look much finished buildings. Most of my better student designs started with a not-much-to-look-at study model, perhaps the size of a large match box. Gaudi made odd-looking models with chains and weights, which allowed him to design his complex three-dimensional stone structures.

#28 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2005, 03:31 AM:

I am somewhat of the impression, not having gone outside to confirm it with real-life examples, that tree-trunks are invariably mottled.

#29 ::: Sam Kelly ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2005, 06:13 AM:

Sabi reminds me of a comment by William Morris that I used in my master's thesis on acid-rain weathering on York Minster. It's from The Beauty of Life, in the collection Hopes and Fears for Art (1880, p. 69 if you're lucky enough to have a printed edition) - "the natural weathering of the surface of a building is beautiful, and its loss disastrous." He's referring specifically to the decision to restore St Mark's Church in Venice, and his own focus on craftsmanship is very much like Jim describes his father to be.

Regarding the use of study models, I don't know if the practice is analogous or not, but I remember doing quite a bit of what Randolph Fritz describes above when I did chemistry - looking at a simpler version of a real system in order to understand how it works. It always led to some confusion when we talked about "model molecules" and didn't mean the coloured balls on sticks.

#30 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2005, 07:02 AM:

From my experience of tree-trunks, thay have many shades of brown, grey, green & red-pink, even all of those on one of them.

The Apple Gum, aka Sydney Red Gum, tho most people now seem to call them Angophora (A. costata) is a one of my favourites.

#31 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2005, 09:58 AM:

Sabi, the word is sabi, from the Japanese aesthetic trinity of wabi (simplicity), sabi (age), and suki (elegance).

What I want to know is where the "Hello Kitty" phenomenon fits into all that.

#32 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2005, 12:01 PM:

Debra, I think the "Hello Kitty" and related phenomena are all the bits that don't fit into that -- the yang to the yin, or summat like that. Perhaps "ikusa" might be the opposite of elegance?

BTW, there seems to have been an outbreak of, not bird flu, but pandemic comment spam on several threads just now. I was relieved to see your name wasn't "Debbie Dallas" or similar. Grrr.

#33 ::: Richard Anderson ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2005, 12:19 PM:

In elder days of art
Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part
For the Gods are everywhere.
- Longellow

And I had always thought the devil was in the details....

Back in the Reagan '80s, a small, hip gallery in San Francisco held an exhibit of 1/72-scale American armored fighting vehicles and soldiers painted to look as if they'd seen combat, and which were placed in dioramas of modern suburbia. Not much of a message, of course, but I'm sure that there were others beside myself surprised and intrigued to find a hobby now elevated to Art.

#34 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2005, 01:42 PM:

for anyone who will be in NY around christmastime, I'm pretty sure that the Citicorp Center will be hosting their marvellous model train ride through time and space in the Atrium again this year. They recreate different spots up and down the Hudson in different decades for the trains to run through.

Great fun, as long as you can manage to get there at a time when there isn't a pack of those mommies who think admonishing their child in public for misbehaving is far more declasse than, you know, having a child who terrorizes everyone around them because they know ubermommy isn't going to admonish them in public.

#35 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2005, 02:29 PM:

Yes, the first time I saw the comment about tree trunks being grey, not brown, I immediately started thinking of exceptions (Some birch are an off white ivory with yellow tones... I've seen silver-and-russet trunks where I wouldn't try to depict the sivler bits with a single bit of grey so much as with various shade of blue and white.)

However, in the main, yes. Mottled grey makes a better model than mottled brown. The exceptions only matter if you're trying hard to make a specific kind of tree.

#36 ::: Tim Hall ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2005, 02:38 PM:

I don't think model railways are taken as seriously as they should be as 'art'.

I get the parallels with SF worldbuilding. A lot of people have made up elaborate fictional histories for their layouts, which sets the small area they have the space to model in context. I've even heard of people surveying the routes of imaginary lines that were proposed but never built.

We've seen a fashion in British model railways of moving away from 'chocolate box' rose-tinted views of the past towards realistic urban decay of the sort you linked to. There was a fantastic model at the Manchester exhibition of a weed-strewn urban terminal shortly before closure, surrounded by grime-encrusted buildings. He'd even modelled a glass platform canopy with 90% of the glass missing.

One advantage of living in the UK is that the most impressive model railways aren't hidden away in people's basements, but are designed to be portable and frequently shown in public. There's usually a train show within travelling distance on most weekends. And most shows have at least one and sometimes several layouts modelled to a very high standard.

To see the sort of standards, I uploaded some photos I took of some layouts at a couple of shows last year. Unfortunately my photos of the best layout, the N scale "Acton Main Line" don't really do it justice. That one's an accurate model of a real-life location, modelled exactly as it was in 1989.

#37 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2005, 03:24 PM:

Hello Kitty comes under the modern "kawaii" aesthetic, which describes anything ultra-cute. Babies and toddlers are kawaii.

#38 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2005, 03:50 PM:

From my experience of tree-trunks, thay have many shades of brown, grey, green & red-pink, even all of those on one of them.

Lemon-scented gum? That's my favorite not-brown tree bark. It's really pretty when the tree is moulting (about June in Los Angeles) and the bark is very fresh. It's also interesting to see the pieces lying around the base of the tree in a ring, like a sunburst.

#39 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2005, 10:18 PM:

John D. Berry: Jim may have been referring to the fact that many of our generation were ~taught as children to draw trees with brown trunks (in my memory, even when given better instruction in drawing itself, e.g. draw the trunk as )( and fill in with gradually straighter lines).

I'd say the birch outside our house has a cold-white bark, nothing even vaguely creamy about it. But I remember thinking of trunks as brown even when living in a scattering of locust, which are definitely grey.

#40 ::: Lois Aleta Fundis ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2005, 12:54 AM:

My dad worked for the Pennsylvania/Penn-Central/Conrail railroad(s) for over 40 years, and smoked for over 50 years, so I have a special appreciation for both the model railroading and the loved-one-died-of-lung-disease-brought-on-by-tobacco-use threads here.

There are a lot of model-railroading magazines, books, videos, etc, that explore the making of models and of layouts that are meant to depict real (or fictional but, to their makers, "real") railroads. Quite a few modelers try to depict a real railroad in a specific place and time-period, as realistically as possible. Thus slums, industrial areas, etc., are part of the overall scheme.

Some PBS stations run a program called "Tracks Ahead" which shows many of these layouts and tips on making them, as well as stories about real rail systems, past and present.

Dad never got more into model railroading than the traditional Lionel set under the Christmas tree. Heck, why should he when he had a real railroad to run?

But after he retired and aged, it turned out that he had emphysema, bronchitis, high blood pressure, and type II diabetes ... but it wasn't until he started coughing up blood that his doctor found that lung cancer had entered the mix. (My sister the nurse says there are only two causes for coughing up blood, and neither is good.) This was about eight years after he'd quit smoking, but he'd started when he was a teenager -- got kicked off the high-school football team for it! --, so the carcinogens had had plenty of time to do their thing. The cancer had apparently been there awhile, but the other problems had masked it until it was too late. His rapid weight loss did cure the HBP and the diabetes, but not in a way we would have liked. He died about seven months after he was diagnosed -- ten years ago next month.

Some of my nieces and nephews smoke. I keep trying to remind them of what happened to their Grandpap, but they don't seem to think it will happen to them. I keep nagging anyway.

I don't do model railroading either. But I have a small collection of toy engines and a few books on the history of the Pennsy in memory of my dad. One of the last things he ever asked me was if I remembered steam engines. I reassured him that I did; they were still running when I was little.

#41 ::: Melissa Mead ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2005, 10:14 AM:

The literally eye-opening piece of art advice for me was "Nothing in nature is ever truly black."

I immediately asked "Well, what color is my cat? And that wet rock, and that cow, and that man's hair, and..."

And then I had to go and REALLY look. Things have never been the same since.

#42 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2005, 10:52 AM:

Melissa wrote:
The literally eye-opening piece of art advice for me was "Nothing in nature is ever truly black."

I immediately asked "Well, what color is my cat? And that wet rock, and that cow, and that man's hair, and..."

My cats can't be black - their hair shows up on -everything- :)

#43 ::: hrc ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2005, 11:16 AM:

In the vein of eavesdropping on bystanders, I was riding the bus home Thursday night seated across the aisle from a young theater impresario on his cell phone. He must've been in one of the brave new companies as he talked about the actors refusing to go out when the audience did not equal the number of actors in the production. But one thing he said that caught my ear was that like chefs who could not enjoy a fine meal b/c of the demands of their jobs, many producers/directors could not enjoy a night at the theater b/c they could not check their producer/director hat at the door.

I wonder if that's true as well for book editors.

#44 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2005, 11:47 AM:

Even if a plastic model is molded in authentic colors: Paint it anyway. And put down a white undercoat first.

You're right about black: Nothing's black (except carbon). And if you're modeling carbon -- if you paint it dead black it still doesn't look right.

Oh, and COPD: Did I mention how the chest gets deformed over the years, until the breastbone is sticking out like a chicken's breast? Did I mention the scabs on the elbows from leaning on the table in the tripod position, trying to get more air? Did I mention that this is a slow, terrible way to go? The water rises until the island is just one room. Then it rises some more until the island is just your chair. Then it rises again, up your body, past your neck, above your mouth, above your nose, above your head?

#45 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2005, 07:11 PM:

"Even if a plastic model is molded in authentic colors: Paint it anyway."

And sand the undercoat! And file / sand away things that stick up and fill in the bits that dip in.

White primer and wet sanding and putty are your friends.

Another good thing for realistic looking models: Matte spray coating. Most things in this world are not shiny.

#46 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2005, 09:50 PM:

Art in the blood, Watson:

Jennifer Crusie makes collages for her works.

#47 ::: Carrie ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2005, 08:33 AM:

Speaking of RPGs (that's roleplaying games, not rocket-propelled grenades), if you want something a bit more substantial than paper you can check out I have one of their molds. It was fabulous fun to put together, though there are as usual scale issues.

#48 ::: Derek Lowe ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2005, 09:28 AM:

That submarine model link of yours really got me to thinking - I'd told my kids about the cutaway model submarine I'd built when I was about ten, and sure enough, it was made by the same company as the George Washington that you described. This one was the Andrew Jackson, and to my great surprise it's still available all over the Internet. I suppose that there are objects that still go away, but there sure are a lot fewer of them than there used to be. . .

#49 ::: David ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2005, 09:47 AM:

There are some companies in Germany that make very finely detailed HO scale model cars (the tyres are certainly the right size). I imagine that they started out as props for model railways but became an end in themselves.

Wiking is one of them (and in German only). The other is Herpa.

#50 ::: Zeynep ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2005, 03:19 PM:

Chip: I've often seen birch barks being described as "bone-white", but "cold-white" fits better.

One of the most vivid mental pictures I have dates from autumn one year ago, at a time when trees had just finished shedding their leaves. It was one of those days when the sky is the deepest sky blue you can get. I was walking past the tree when I looked up and saw the bare, white---yes, cold-white---branches against that intense blue.

It was a visual haiku. I didn't have the words.

#51 ::: Carol Kimball ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2005, 05:49 PM:

As children, we're led to make tree trunks brown because that's the closest to gray in our box of eight big fat crayons.

#52 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2005, 03:57 AM:

Redwood trees have brown trunks -- sometimes a brown so dark it's close to black.

#53 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2005, 11:37 AM:

I'll agree with the cold white in general, but I've aseen aged birches that are ivory and yellow and sometimes, if the underlying wood is starting to be exposed, bits of peach sneak in, especially where the layers of whiteness have been peeled away by people, or animals, or even wind. It's one of those I recall in my father's backyard.

I don't even know if there's an accurate description for the colour of a silver poplar's bark. I can visualize the colour, but not name it. I'd probably start by trying to blend yellow and green and tan and white paints. Then I'd have to figure out what was missing.

#54 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2005, 01:32 PM:

Zeynep: your 'visual haiku' straightaway reminded me of the image I have from this poem.


Once as I travelled through a quiet evening,
I saw a pool, jet-black and mirror-still.
Beyond, the slender paperbarks stood crowding;
each on its own white image looked its fill,
and nothing moved but thirty egrets wading -
thirty egrets in a quiet evening.

Once in a lifetime, lovely past believing,
your lucky eyes may light on such a pool.
As though for many years I had been waiting,
I watched in silence, till my heart was full
of clear dark water, and white trees unmoving,
and, whiter yet, those thirty egrets wading.

-- Judith Wright, Birds (1962), aka Thirty Egrets Wading

#56 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 07:51 PM:

Jim Macdonald @ 55 -

Wow! I had no idea anything like that existed. Amazing!

#57 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2009, 12:18 AM:

I've never had any particular desire to go to Germany before. Now I do.

As long as I was here, I went back and read the original post, and clicked on the link and looked at the pictures. This brings up a memory...

I have a friend who does modelmaking as a hobby, and once he invited me to a model show where he had a couple of things entered. I wandered around and looked at all the pretty shiny models, cars and trucks and trains and spaceships and dioramas and such. It was all pretty impressive.

The one model that sticks in my memory, out of all those? Someone had built a back-country working pickup truck. It was sun-faded Superman blue, and the bed was rusty and full of tools and work boots and machine parts and miscellaneous unidentified junk, and the cab was littered with old newspapers and junk mail and fast-food wrappers and beer cans and a couple of porn magazines and everything else you'd be likely to find in the cab of a pickup truck that's only ever driven by one guy out in the sticks. I stood there, absolutely entranced by the level of detail, my eyes picking out one dead-perfect thing after another, for a good half hour or more. I don't know whether the guy who entered that model won anything or not, but IMO he should have had Best In Show.

#58 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2010, 08:03 PM:

Some lovely car models. (Thanks to Laura Mixon.)

#59 ::: estelendur ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2017, 08:28 AM:

The link at the top to Peter Feigenbaum's model railroad work is dead. I believe this to be the artist's website, though.

#60 ::: P J Evans sees spam ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2021, 11:19 PM:

more wordy spam, no live links.

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