Editorial Comment Thought for the day...

IN THE SHADOW OF OTHERS…

If you want to create your own style, stop copying and plough your own furrow...

Using systems to learn the hobby is nothing new and frankly, if it gets people to sit at their desks and stick bits of plastic together and paint the results, it matters not one jot why they do it, just that they are.

Several weeks ago – or so it seems! – I wrote an essay for this website entitled “Stop Competing With Yourself” which can read once more, here. In that piece I discussed how sometimes we can be our own worst enemy when it comes to the assessment of our own work, especially when a completed project is then put up for attention online, where affirmation can often take the place of personal fulfilment. 

Over the last week or so, I’ve had plenty of feedback on those words, the basic tenet of the argument seemingly striking a chord with most modellers. Last night during the New Year’s Eve celebrations – that in our house were curtailed by my positive COVID test and subsequent isolation – I came across a Facebook post written by a good friend of mine that perhaps added to the conversation, in a way that I’d not considered when the original article was written. In his post, the gentleman concerned opined the idea that he was somehow missing out by being unlikely to reach the heights of a particularly well-known modeller, no matter how many of that chap’s videos he spent his time watching. What made the comment hit home was the simple fact that the modeller in question is not only talented, but had already hit heights that others can only aspire to. So why does he feel this way and do others have similar reservations about their own work?

Modelling in the 21st Century is certainly far-removed from that that I remember when I was an aspiring builder learning the ropes at the end of the 70s and on into the 80s and beyond. There is now so much information out there, websites, forums, blogs (who reads those?!) and videos, that you are literally overwhelmed by the information that is now at your fingertips. Though I would argue that that is a good thing (after all no-one has ever said that too much information is a bad thing) sometimes it is easy to conflate aspiration, with the need to actually become the modeller or modellers that you instinctively admire. And when you spend your time trying to do that and in your own head you fail, that can become a millstone around your neck that’s very difficult to untangle oneself from.

Over the years I’ve been inspired by dozens of modellers, talented individuals that have guided my work and made me who I am today – and no, that doesn’t mean a cantankerous, ill-tempered, impatient, adult! My first and most abiding influence is obviously François Verlinden, a modeller whose work I aped for some time. Indeed, last year that influence manifested itself in the ‘Legacy Collection’ when I not only built models that were inspired by his, but in a number of cases, were almost direct copies. But, and here’s the important point: though that formed the bedrock of my modelling, my own work over the years allowed me to develop other ideas, other techniques and other systems. These have combined to allow me to build models that I think – perhaps hope – are now very much my own in terms of appearance and style.

Copying other people’s models is easy these days, but I would argue that it is ultimately self-defeating and in many ways, shows a lack of understanding of those being mirrored. I can say with some conviction that the best modellers in the world (whatever that means in a subjective medium such as ours…) have spent years developing their own style and though, cuckoo-like, they will have been inspired by others, those ideas will only be an ingredient to use in meals that they come up with, try, and then file way for another day when need arises. What they haven’t done is sat down and actively decided to copy another’s work. Why? Because these people see their work as an extension of their own artistic desires and their models are a way of expressing what they want to reveal about themselves and the way they view the world.

I can only speak from personal experience, but my models tend to be on the subtle side in the main, where weathering effects are only visible from short distances rather than far away. I’ve tried to paint with a broader brush, using heightening accents, highlights and shadows, but no matter what I do, my mind doesn’t work that way. I return to the start with ‘effects’ that capture in miniature what I feel I see in reality. At no point do I think that mine is the only approach to follow because I really love other modellers  that do things differently. It’s just the way that my brain and hands connect when models are in front on me and painting begins in earnest. What I hope this means is that my models can be recognised – much like others – within collections, without my name being near them and that reduces the chances of hearing the comment that one of my models looks like that ‘built by someone else’ to an absolute minimum. It’s not about ego, not about that nonsense ‘who’s best’ argument, it’s simply about being able to plough my own furrow and being distinctive as a result. I simply want my models to look they have been built by me and not by someone else…

The other aspect of 21st Century modelling that impacts on this, is the rise of modelling companies that offer complete systems of paints and finishing products and then use modellers to show how those products are used. Now, before I begin, I should say that I have absolutely nothing against such things and indeed, use many throughout my own projects! This is a discussion in the round rather than pointed finger in the direction of something that might be unintentionally seen as a negative aspect of the hobby. Anyway, shall I move on!

These products are wonderful and have certainly revolutionised what is possible on the surfaces of the model kits that we build. Where I feel that modellers can sometimes be held back in their path to creating their own style, is that it is easy to slavishly follow the systems that they see demonstrated, either online, in magazines, or in person at shows. That can often create a ‘painting by numbers’ culture that infuses the workrooms of those keen to learn, but then doesn’t allow flexibility to deviate from this prescribed processes when need arises, or products are no longer available. Parroting steps within a system might help you initially, but where are you going to go when you want to build something that’s not offered as a guided path, A to Z? Young children might be able to recite 1 – 10, but they will not necessarily understand what those individual numbers mean. What this does in modelling terms, is create a whole host of modellers who are building models that look virtually identical in colour, finish and style and when you add into the mix the inspiration that is driven from seeing well-built kits in front of you that you might want to have a go at, there is the very real risk that modellers are no longer building miniatures of real subjects, but models of other people’s models

Using systems to learn the hobby is nothing new and frankly, if it gets people to sit at their desks and stick bits of plastic together and paint the results, it matters not one jot why they do it, just that they are. The modern world is a busy place with pressures that seem to grow and grow, so if there is a way to help individuals gain more satisfaction from what they do, in the limited time that they have to do it, I am not going to stand in their way. That said, I do feel that it is important once in a while to consider that one of the great things about any art form, is that it is driven by the uniqueness of the individual that is taking part. Great art (art being a term used loosely in this case, for fear of overblowing what I do!) is not created by slavishly copying others, but by finding something that will set your work apart from others, even if that step is but a little one. There is no doubt that my love of François Verlinden’s work 40 years after I first saw it, still percolates through many of my builds but his early systems ‘The Verlinden Way’, have developed over the years into the style that you see today. I love what he did and how he did it, but I don’t want to be him.

We all find our way through this hobby and all learn from others. It’s now such a broad church that it’s difficult to even define genres within the hobby. Hopefully, this little stream of consciousness will go some way to helping you walk your own personal path and along the way, allow you to see it’s possible be your own person, with your own style and find a place in the world of modelmaking, without feeling you need to stand in the shadows of others.

See you again, soon.


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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!

8 comments on “IN THE SHADOW OF OTHERS…

  1. baker24earthlinknet

    Excellent commentary, Spencer….. I have seen this at shows and on the web and Facebook – the tendency, especially among armor modelers, to copy a style of rendering a model to the point that achieving the style is, or at least seems to the be, more important than having the resulting model look like a real vehicle. I do agree that watching a generous expert explain his (or her) approach to building, painting, weathering and such can set a modeler on the way to greater achievements with somewhat less pain and fewer binned models. But sometimes, that pain of failed efforts teaches lessons in adaptability and resourcefulness that can save a model that has gone off the rails….. I have read complaints from some who have served in the military, that many of the models that are entered at shows do not in fact look “real” in that they are so stylized that they lose the authentic look of real used vehicles. I suppose some of the problem might be that relatively few do serve in the military these days, but also that certain trends in building and painting become the “standard” and one must stick to the standard to build “competitive” models at contests….. Those of us who no longer build for contests are free to seek our own paths to modeling satisfaction, and perhaps we are the fortunate ones after all. It is a big table after all, with plenty of room for all sorts of dishes – a meal of all the same thing is not as satisfying…..

    • Chris Hughes

      Hi, I’ll admit to being one of those “ex-military”, whose experiences of working with and around armoured vehicles/military equipment often leave me looking at models and asking “WTF??”. Even Maitre Verlinden’s penchant for disassembled personal web equipment scattered around an AFV or bunker gets me hot under the collar! What would that hapless squaddie do if he had to bug out? Which bit of his personal kit would he grab and run with under fire?

      I also appreciate that not everyone has served, and lacks that visual database which is peculiar to we veterans!
      However, there is a rich reference library of imagery, both still and moving, of recent conflicts. Whether it’s combat footage on Youtube, or printed matter in books and magazines, the material is out there to absorb and inspire.

      I suppose we modellers are like artists; some of us are like the pre-Raphaelites, who try to create the “still life” in as realistic a manner as we can, to be almost photographic in our style. Others are more like the Impressionists, whose bold expressionist strokes try to convey a “feeling” of what they see in their mind’s eye!

      As tincla posts below, the legendary Al Superczynski said it all with his famous quote! At the end of the day, we’re modelling for our own enjoyment and satisfaction.

  2. tcinla

    Number one: best wishes on your recovery from COVID Spencer. I hope it’s true that a vaccinated person gets only a mild case from the Omicron. Damn! I thought modeling and writing – two activities best done at home, alone – would keep things safe.

    This post is chock full of excellent advice. I know it’s true because it’s how I do my models. When we’re learning, of course we take from others. I wouldn’t be the modeler I am had I not seen the models of Dave Boksanski back in 1972 and realized “Oh, you can *do* that!” George Lee and John Alcorn were founts of constructive criticism back at the meetings of Golden Gate IPMS. Also Pete Chalmers. (that was a helluva club when one looks back at the membership)

    A very famous screenwriter once said “When you’re starting out, steal from the best, then make it your own.” That’s essentially what you have elaborated to solid detail here. It’s true that the real masters – you can tell their model when you see it. It’s like the great cinematographer John Alonzo (Chinatown among many others) said to me in an interview: “People hire me because *nobody else* can shoot a John Alonzo movie.”

    And I can *always* tell it’s yours when I see a photo of one of your models.

    I hope my models are as distinctive as my books. Whatever, they’re done following the Al Superczynski Rule: “Make YOUR model the way YOU want, and above all, HAVE FUN!”

  3. Please, let us not overthink this. Its a hobby, ok, a source of income for some I admit and yet it can become tedious after a while. Personally, having spent several years as a builder for commissions I can say that I became heartily sick of cancelled orders (after the subject was 50% finished) painfully pedantic customers who seemed to want the Moon on a stick or just having to build yet another ‘blinking’ Mk.V Spitfire. I therefore take my hat off to anyone who can ‘stick with it’ and keep the coppers coming in. I love the Spitfire but honestly after a while interest can wain. So now, yes, I have bastardized the old Airfix 1/24 scale Me.109 (not such a brilliant kit if you look into it in detail) but even given that I have been chastised at shows for ‘wasting a perfectly good kit’ (it cost me just £24 when I purchased it) I remain unrepentant. What I did with it, grafting the fuselage onto a Heller Scania chassis (£19.95), remains a great source of fun and ongoing amusement for me. It is utterly absurd even within the post apocalyptic cannon but I really do not care..
    Having given up on the commercial side of model building it has reverted to a more pleasurable pastime.
    I do appreciate that this is not possible for all concerned but that is just my opinion of course.

  4. Simon Connell

    Nothing wrong with copying others as a method for building up skills and experience which then over time allows you to realise your own vision for projects. All the great artists used to do it.

    • As a very gifted screenwriter once put it, “When you’re starting out, steal. Steal from the best, and learn to make it your own.”

    • baker24earthlinknet

      Really good model clubs usually have some programs to mentor new modelers and allow them to meet the more experienced ones and learn from them, not only the physical techniques of building and finishing a kit but also the philosophical part (why do you model [goals] and what do you want to accomplish with the model you want to build?). Fairly soon, even a new modeler will take what he has learned from his mentors and go on to develop his own style and approach. And so on…..

  5. Hello Spencer,

    You’ve hit the nail on the head with this editorial. The current mania with aftermarket weathering and painting sets leads to a false sense of security: “I’ll really be good when I purchase X”….

    It’s one thing to purchase one of these sets, and quite another to learn how to use them. And you won’t learn how to use them unless you are willing to step out of your comfort zone and make mistakes first. Every time I have tried a new technique the results have been completely unsubtle and heavy handed. Until I figure out the how and why for myself first!

    Jacob Russell

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