Knowing What We Don’t Know


Most participants in model railroading, as with any leisure pursuit, are looking for a casual creative outlet, a break from the everyday without any overriding compulsion to be a master at it.  This is as it should be and I point it out without any condescension.   I enjoy surfing and playing basketball and can say in all honesty I have little desire to be that great at either.  The fact that I’m a “dabbler” doesn’t detract from my experience.

With any pursuit, however, there will be a minority that does strive to be the best they can be, to be “excellent” at it.  You can’t reach that promised land however, if you don’t know what the specific skills are that must be mastered.  This not knowing what we don’t know is probably the largest limiting factor in creating excellent models.  The disconnect comes from not making the distinction between a clean technical execution and a clean execution PLUS that hard to define artistic edge.  An edge exemplified by modelers such as Bill Henderson (Coal Belt), Mike Confalone, or John Wright (Federal Street).  Striving modelers reach the point of technical mastery, think they’ve hit the skills finish line, and stop.  There isn’t an awareness that the race isn’t over and there are major elements beyond being a good “assembler, detailer, and painter” that must be mastered if you are to be excellent.  The big three are scene composition, texture selection, and color selection/color placement (getting the ‘right’ color in the ‘right’ spot).  Mastering the big three takes time and study, both of which typically doesn’t happen because modelers aren’t aware of the importance (or even the existence) of the subject matter.

The above photo is an aerial of the intersection of Gifford Avenue and District Blvd. in Los Angeles.  The color patterns of the pavement and soils are very complex.  Simply putting down a monotone layer of Woodland Scenics ballast and a uniform gray street won’t get you close.  I count at least five soil colors with different feathering patterns in different locations.  The pavement isn’t any simpler when you look at the mix of various ages of concrete, asphalt, cracks, expansion joints, and faded markings.   A careful study and determined effort to match the photo will be rewarded with a unique show stopper of a model.  It’s one thing to say that such a study is delving deeper into the hobby than a person wants.  It’s quite another to be a striving modeler and not be cognizant that the subject needs study in the first place.