Deep Thoughts

Self-appraisal In Model Building: Facing Reality

As a young boy in the late 1970s and early 80s, I built plastic models. I can’t say it was much of a conscious choice, really. A kid in that time in the US just did certain things. Baseball, riding a bicycle, climbing trees, engaging in “army” games, building plastic models…  all were just part of what you did. No one pressured anyone. It was just what was done.

So I can’t say my modeling as a youth was with any particular eye towards growth in the hobby. I did get better, simply from repetition. Occasionally I’d “discover” something new, and that would add to the list of simple techniques I could apply to my models.

I recall finding out about dry brushing. A friend had “discovered” this wonderful way to make models look beat up and worn, and told me about it. Grabbing my trusty bottle of Testors Silver enamel paint, I began drybrushing the model airplane that was currently underway, a Monogram 1/48 scale P-47 Razorback. There wasn’t an edge on the airframe that escaped my newly discovered dry brush method. Though I have no photos of it, I can only imagine how horribly overdone it must have looked.

Yet what I do recall was I thought it was the coolest thing ever. From then on, everything was drybrushed. I think I was able to single-handedly keep Testors in business through silver paint alone.

The teen years brought about changes. Sports, girls, cars, guitars, girls, concerts, trips to the beach, and girls began to occupy my time. The models were tucked away and forgotten.

My first model upon returning to the hobby in February 2006- an Academy 1/72 P-40N.

In my late 30s, I began to read model airplane magazines when my wife and I went to a local coffee shop. She urged me to get back into model building, but I resisted. “It’s for kids”, I said. But in February of 2006, she gave me a wonderful birthday present- a model kit, paints, and some glue. Feeling nostalgic, I built it, and when I was finished, I was fairly happy with it. My recollections of my childhood models told me this was a far superior result, and I was fairly proud of myself.

Having enjoyed the process thoroughly, I decided to head over to a local hobby shop, and get another kit. Walking in, I immediately felt at home. It was just as the model shop of my childhood had been. A feeling of slight age to the shop, models hanging from the ceiling, and stacks of kits and paints. I was drawn to a display case of models, most of which were aircraft. Drawing close, I began to examine the work that was shown.

And I was horrified.

Evaluating Results Honestly

I realized that my original assessment of my own work was completely out of line with the reality I saw in front of me.

Now- I did have fun building it. And I don’t want to take away from the fun factor by any means. There is a great deal of enjoyment to simply building a model, regardless of outcome.

But what shocked me was how my perception had suddenly changed. I saw my work not in light of my own estimation, but rather in light of the possibilities. And I knew I wanted to know more about how to mimic those results.

Thus I began a process that continues to this day.

So for what it’s worth, here are some notions that I use to drive my growth in the hobby.

Look For Work That Inspires

As a kid, I didn’t know about model magazines, model clubs, conventions, or any of the trappings that seem such a familiar part of the hobby today. I knew my work, my friend’s work, and the work of some mysterious fellow named Sheperd Paine who built the best models ever and then stuffed little pamphlets in the boxes. At the time, his results didn’t even seem like a feat that could be achieved by mere mortals.

Yet as I returned to the hobby, and began to notice the names of people who were the standouts, the notion occured to me that they were all around my age. And presumably at one time had been 11 year olds drybrushing everything in sight too.

So I began to look at their work as a source of what could be done. As a way to inspire me. Whether it be the overall look of a model, or very specific, minute details. I looked for things that seemed better to me than what I was doing.

Copy, Copy, Copy

I can say with all honesty that I’ve never invented a technique, or even formulated a derivative of one that is unique. Anything I’ve accomplished has been through the process of copying others. Pure and simple.

But that’s OK. The whole hobby is built on that.

Sometimes I may directly mimic what I see someone demonstrate in print or in video. I go through steps A, B, C and D, just as they show, and (hopefully), get the same results. I may get better at it, but I’m really just parroting the process. And there’s no shame in that.

In many cases, I find a technique difficult, or expensive, or maybe just not as efficient as I’d like. So I may “strip it down”, or modify it, and transform it into something I can understand and work with. But in all cases, anything I do is mimicking something I’ve seen someone else do.

Set Short Term Achievable Goals

When I was initially confronted with my desire for growth, I felt a bit overwhelmed. It was as if I’d just learned to play the triangle in the kindergarten orchestra, and then was introduced to Beethoven. 

But somehow my pea brain 🙂 realized that a productive way to get where I wanted to go was to look for achievable tasks. The paint is a bit rough? Learn to airbrush. The decals don’t look right? Learn to use setting solution. The color is a bit monotone? Explore various shading and fading.

By setting some simple goals for each build that introduced a new method, I was able to slowly build on what I’d learned. And seeing progress in those small areas contributed to a good outlook on the big picture.

Don’t Believe Your Own Press

I’ve always thought that, at best, I am a reasonably experienced modeler who is familiar with a reasonable range of techniques. I know I can do pretty good work, but I also have begun to grasp how much there is I don’t know. And how much room there is for improvement.

Yet often, when people give me back slaps (heartfelt or not), I’ve had to realize that I can’t let them get to my head. Yes, it is encouraging. Who doesn’t love encouragement? But if I listen too much, if I start agreeing with those assessments in a prideful sort of way, it inhibits my growth.

I saw this clearly demonstrated recently. In late 2017, I made what was for me a seismic shift in my modeling focus. After a decade of building aircraft, I turned my attention to scifi/Gunpla. A few friends that encouraged me in this told me I’d do really well, because I could apply all of my knowledge of aircraft building to the the new models I was assembling.

And I believed them. A bit too much.

So when I finished a few, and started showing them around, I suddenly had the horrible yet familiar feeling that I’d encountered with my P-40N back in 2006. I had to confront the fact that much of what I’d learned really didn’t matter, and whatever “skillz” I had might only marginally apply to this new area. It was such a humbling experience that for a brief period I considered walking away from the hobby entirely.

But reason took over. And (hopefully) a dose of humility.

Don’t Undervalue Your Skills

Now, having said all the previous stuff about believing your own press, I’ve also found that I need to be careful to not ignore what I have learned. To see the progress I have made. Because the very growth of what skill I do have is proof that I can grow, that I can learn, that I can stretch my “hobby muscles” in areas that I had not done so before.

And I think seeing one’s own skills properly also helps avoid the pitfall of false humility.

In this regard, I believe viewing my own skills as arrows in a quiver, or tools in a chest, is the most helpful analogy. I try to look at any modeler’s work, or even my own, and simply ask “what can still be applied, stripped down, simplified, or refined?” I can then look at my “tool chest” and see if I have that wrench, or hammer, or whatever is needed. And if it’s not there, find out how to get it.

Develop Some Trusted Critics Who Are Friends

In today’s hyper-connected world, a modeler can post their work, and within minutes get dozens of helpful opinions, criticisms, and sadly, even personal attack at times. It can be overwhelming.

What has helped me is to learn those voices I can trust. Because I know there are people who know me, who understand how I model, and when I ask them “what do you think”, if they offer a tidbit of praise or criticism, I know that it is ultimately offered because they care for me as a modeler. 

I do try to find people whose work I admire and strive to emulate. Those are always helpful. But I can’t overlook those who are right there with me “in the trenches” so to speak, because we’re eating the same mud. They can say with clarity “Yeah, I tried that, it didn’t work”, and I know I’ve received an honest, helpful assessment. 

Have Fun

I suppose the underlying current to my modeling growth has been fun. At times a particular part, technique, or even an entire kit, can be very challenging. To the point of frustration. What I’ve had to realize though if I ultimately focus on “am I having fun”, I will see real growth in my ability as a modeler. 

During times of frustration, I have trouble seeing my work objectively. It can be difficult to see growth. Heck, it can be difficult to even find the desire to sit down and work on a model.

Eventually I found that quite often the best thing I can do is set the model aside, and move on to something else. In the end, hobbies aren’t supposed to be a source of long term disappointment. (Although my golfing friends tell me otherwise… 😉 ) When it’s not fun, it’s not a hobby.

Wrapping Up

Now, having said all of this, please don’t see it as a “if you’re not into improving you’re not a modeler”. That is not my intent at all. If you are having fun- stick with it. Do what you enjoy.

But I think most modelers do like to learn new things, to improve the skills they have, and to even open up new areas that may be a bit uncomfortable. I hope these thoughts on my own journey can be helpful in some way. It’s of no consequence whether you are just starting the trip, are moving along in it, or have reached a level that you find few others are around you.

There’s always something new ahead. Keep building, keep exploring, keep sharing.

(Written in honor of my friend Tom Meyers, with whom I had many discussions about this. I miss you Tom. “Now shut up and go build something.”)

This header image is a work of a United States Department of Energy (or predecessor organization) employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

4 comments

  1. Good points all around. Keep yourself grounded but never set your horizons short. Thanks for sharing your inspired words and advice.

  2. Great post, Jon.
    I think you have summed it up nicely, at least for me. My favorite part is the Look For Work That Inspires section…. my youth in a nutshell, right there!

  3. Greetings Jon!

    Been lurking on your webpage awhile now and totally see where you are coming from. I experienced that myself about 4-5 years ago when I wanted to build a special model car for my Dad for what was supposed to be his birthday (due to delays it ended up being a Christmas present!). The model was junk, but for the first time ever, I learned how to do Bare Metal Foil. It was a technique I had NEVER done before because up until then, I had mostly built model aircraft and Warhammer 40k figures and vehicles. Now I find myself doing other little things to improve each time. Great post and advice! Build on!

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