Editorial Comment Thought for the day...

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT?

From a beginner to an expert in one simple leap? It may take a little longer than you think...

If you want to become a better modelmaker it is not about how much time that you spend at the bench, it’s what you do when you are there.

When Malcolm Gladwell espoused the idea in his popular book ‘Outliers’ that anyone could become an expert in anything if they spent 10,000 hours on it, many believed that time, no matter how well spent, would be enough to get their dreams over the line. Arbitrary though this number was, it stuck within popular culture despite being condemned as nonsense in many quarters (you can read about it here). The question to me at least, is whether or not time is enough to make you not only good at a chosen pursuit, but great.

The answer in my limited experience is no.

Overnight a thread appeared on one of the Interweb pages that discussed in part, this very idea. One of the commentators quoted me as saying, that to truly learn a craft you have to repeat processes again and again and again. I’m not sure when I said that, but I’m sure that I did, so it piqued my interest enough to delve deeper into the thread. The crux of the discussion was that a chap had bought three simple kits in order to ignore assembly and then concentrate only on painting, the completion each of one seeing incremental improvements that helped develop his skills. Solid plan and one that I would espouse, though to a point and no further.

Though time and repetition are important factors within any activity, it’s really how you use the time that matters, not simply using time for time’s sake. You could spend 100 hours repeating ideas that you already have down pat, and though that might be enjoyable enough in itself and a worthy use of time and in a loose sense, practice, if you are trying to learn and improve that really isn’t going to get you any further. For instance, I can spray a layer of primer perfectly well, so spending the next month doing that over and over again, isn’t going to make me any better at it; but if I spent that time learning to improve my figure painting skills, that would obviously be more useful and way more beneficial.

The use of your time will of course be a very personal part of your life and so will your desire to improve your modelling, should that be something you even want to do. I know plenty of modellers who have reached a level that they are happy with and have zero desire to improve what they do. To them, building kits is a pastime that takes them away from their day to day travails, allowing a few moments of distraction, so the drive to build and paint increasingly ‘better’ models is simply not there (which then opens up another question: better to whom? Me, you, them? Who gets to decide the metric for better models?). I have a great deal of sympathy with this viewpoint. All of us need distraction that move our thoughts away from work and life in general, distractions that many of us call ‘hobbies’. For me, they tend to involve playing drums, watching football with my wife and killing Templars in Assassin’s Creed. It gets me away from my job of building models, rewiring my brain and allowing room for an expansion of skills and ideas when the work day begins once more. But in each case, I’m happy that my skills are enough to enjoy each pursuit. I have no desire to play professional football, no desire to play drums for a living (who am I kidding – I would love to play drums for a living!) or Platinum every game I play on my Playstation. The time spent enjoying each one is enough, passing time is the goal, not becoming great at each individual pastime. That’s how it works for me in my hobbies – why should modellers be any different?

But of course some modellers want to be different. Some modellers aren’t happy to stand still. Some modellers want, need, crave, the improvements that come with time. And some modellers will get what they want as well. And some modellers absolutely won’t. And all of that is perfectly fine by me!

If you want to become a better modelmaker it is not about how much time that you spend at the bench, it’s what you do when you are there. I often read that a modeller has spent X number of months building a model, as if that’s a badge of honour. “I spent 18 months on this baby!”. Yeah, but how many productive hours was that? What did you actually do whilst sat at the bench? It’s the same with the physical process of learning the hobby. Though I don’t hold too much truck with the idea that you need 10,000 hours, I’m pretty sure that you aren’t going to learn everything that you need in less than 100, either. If you want to be more proficient, you are going to have to put in the time and then focus on what’s important. Can you remove parts from the runners, neatly? Can you apply glue, without spillage, runs or finger marks? How do you remove seams? Can you paint with a brush? Can you move on from just using a brush, to using an airbrush and paintbrush, together, to finish your models? And so on…

All of these areas require practice, but you have to know what to practice and how. You need to understand that you will make mistakes and will need to keep going when you are seemingly getting nowhere. This latter point is perhaps the most important when it comes to any hobby: the understanding that failure is part of the deal. The thing is that I see so many ‘modellers’ to whom that idea is anathema, something that is simply unacceptable in a world of instant gratification. There is, amongst certain quarters, the idea that because you can find everything you need online, videos, tutorials, blogs, websites and the like, simply following those will get your where you need to go. They won’t. Part of the hobby is understanding process as much as it is, carrying those processes out parrot-fashion. I can show you how to do something, but unless you understand why and how that fits in with everything else, you will find yourself with an itchy head when that problem arises on another model. Modelling is a jigsaw puzzle of ideas that fit together until you see the bigger picture.

Practice time is such an important part of this equation, it’s hard to understand how this is missed by so many.

In some ways, the Internet is to blame for much of the angst that I sometimes see within Online discussions, but it is by far not the only thing. Up towards the top of list of reasons is that newer modellers simply do not understand that this hobby features skills that you have to learn and the only way to do that is to carry out each one and keep doing it until the ideas stick. Airbrushing is a great example of this. If I had a pound for every time I’ve read a thread written by a modeller that’s bought an airbrush, spent a few weeks with it and then binned it because they can’t get desired results, I would be far better off than I am now! Of course you can’t get what you need after such a short space of time! What has happened is that the modeller has bought the kit, seen stellar work on the Web and figured that it can’t be that hard, completely ignoring the fact that those modellers will have spent years honing their craft. And heaven help you if you point that out! 

Practice time is such an important part of this equation, it’s hard to understand how this is missed by so many. If I’m learning something new –– and I use that word, learning, intentionally –– I figure it will take a long period at the bench to perfect it and then use that newly acquired skill with any kind of success. That may be a single period of endeavour, or it may be broken up into individual projects that allow development of my skills to take place, it matters not. Time will be needed, energy will be expended, curse words will be spoken. Equally, I know that no matter what, there will be areas that I won’t master, because of either an innate lack of skill on my part, or a subconscious unwillingness to spend the time on it when more pressing needs take centre-stage. Take figure painting for instance. I know that my figures need work and that I should spend more time on them, time that would be well served to improve their appearance. At best I’m a workmanlike figure painter, no more, no less. I know that they could be improved, but I’m cognisant of the fact that I don’t have the understanding, skill, or desire to paint them at anywhere near the levels achieved by the world’s best. And you know what? I’m okay with that. I never set out to be a figure painter, so, much like my travails with football, drums and the Playstation I will settle at the level I am at…

Will practice make perfect? In some case yes, but in some cases, no. But it is up to you to decide where your hobbies fits within this equation and how you want to approach it. If you are driven to achieve excellence, you will no-doubt reach great heights, but you’ll need time, energy and concentration to get you there. For some, it will no doubt be an easy ride, but for many, myself included, there will be bumps along the way. Failures will be annoying, but from each one comes the experience that allows the successes to be all the more sweet. 

Do you need 10,000 hours to master this hobby? Who knows? One thing’s for sure though, if you are in it for the long haul, you’ll have fun finding out!

See you next time.

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I'm formerly the editor in charge of Military In Scale magazine and latterly, Model Airplane International. Editing duties to one side, I'm now a full-time modelmaker with Doolittle Media, working to supply modelling articles and material for a number of their group titles, including MAI and Tamiya Model Magazine International. I'm also an avid fan of Assassin's creed, Coventry City FC and when the mood takes me, a drummer of only passing skill. Here though, you'll find what I do best: build models and occassionally, write about them!

5 comments on “PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT?

  1. It’s the same as anything else whether it is golf or playing guitar in that you only get out what you put in. In theory with all the available tutorials on the internet we should ALL be experts at whatever we choose to do but you still have to put the hours in to get anywhere.
    Just my humble opinion anyway .

    • I enjoyed your article. It rang true for me. I look at the models produced by some of my friends and am in awe of what they have achieved. Then I remind myself that these modellers are so accomplished because they practice their skills over and over.
      Another issue on the subject of modelling skills is what happens when one has not done any modelling or particular type of modelling (e.g. figure painting) for a lengthy period. You may be proficient at a particular skill (e.g. rigging biplanes) but I have found, through bitter experience, there are techniques and tricks that you forget! There are times when I have launched into a model with great enthusiasm and then came to a sudden halt when I stumble over something that is either new to my repertoire of applied skills or is something I once used to do proficiently but have since forgotten how to do! My point here is that even if you think you have mastered something, don’t get over-confident if you haven’t repeated it for a long time! As you note Spencer, repetition is the key to proficiency. I think it’s as much about training the brain as it is about dexterity and good eyesight, which in itself is a whole other subject.

  2. Reblogged this on Warhammer Adjacent and commented:
    An excellent article as always Spencer has some wise words on improving your model making. Some people are working towards becoming the next big thing in the hobby, others are happy to stick a kit together and move on. I’m in the middle; I want to get better but I don’t want my hobby to feel like work, there’s a fine line to walk there. Spencer’s words are thought provoking and leave me thinking about how I can do a better job of getting the balance right.

  3. baker24earthlinknet

    “It’s just like riding a bicycle, they said…..” Well, I remember learning to ride a bicycle….. My father happened to get a good deal on a bike that had literally been thrown off a train that didn’t stop at the destination station. The box looked like the wreck of the Hesperus, but the bike was undamaged. However, it was a tad big for a small boy – but no matter. we’ll have a go. I had much fun on that thing at first, though I imagine watching me tempt fate was more terrifying for my parents than it was for me. The thing is, I couldn’t reach the brake pedals to stop. So until I grew big enough to use the brakes properly, my ‘modus operandi’ was to aim the bike at a convenient hedge and bail out just before it hit. Somehow, both the bike and I survived the ordeal, and I happily used it for many years until I gradated to a car. Different courses for different horses…..

  4. B@kunin

    Couldn’t agree more Spencer: I work within a niche craft (repairing medieval/Tudor buildings) and the number of people who presume they can fall into it from a basuc or non skilled start point is ridiculous. Learning the actual carpentry is reasonably straightforward and if someone is dextrous and fit it can probably mostly fit within the 10,000 hrs maxim. However, the decisions that underpin our work, the value judgements we make, the subtleties of different eras and localities that we see within those structures, well that’s what makes a good conservation carpenter and that takes a lifetime to continually absorb, critique and refine.
    I always enjoy your thoughtful pieces, many thanks, Rick, MiddleofNowhere, Suffolk.

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