Monday, October 27, 2014

5 hard truths about scale modeling

Like any endeavor or hobby, scale modeling is full of challenges. Here are five hard truths about our hobby that you need to accept.

1. There are no “tricks”

Is there a trick to scribing around external fuel tanks? Are there any tricks to painting instrument panels? Is there an easy way to paint ejection seat handles? These questions have recently been asked in one form or another on the forums. All too often I see modelers looking for easy solutions or “tricks” to the challenges of building, painting, and weathering models, and with few exceptions I find myself wanting to be brutally honest and tell them that nothing is easy.

My favorite example is modelers looking for a trick to paint the eyes of a figure. There are none. It's fucking hard. No, decals don't work. You need a high-quality brush, a steady hand, and practice to apply the white of the eyes, the iris, the pupil. If you’re looking for an easy solution, you’re going to be disappointed.

2. There’s always someone else better than you

A few months ago someone wrote on ARC that the last time he’d entered a contest he saw that other models were much better than his. Welcome to the real world. No matter what you do in this life, someone is going to be better than you, make more money, own nicer things. For example, I exercise regularly. Many of the guys in the gym are stronger than me or can run farther than me. So what? I have my own path to follow based on my body type, my genes, and my fitness goals. Comparing myself with other people only sets me up for frustration.

Same thing applies to scale modeling. I’m a good modeler, but there are others much better than me. That doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of the hobby. Changing your mindset from intimidation to inspiration will make you a happier and potentially better modeler.

3. Airbrushing is difficult

One of the most difficult skills to master in our hobby is airbrushing. It’s easy to ask questions about paint preferences and thinning ratios, but ultimately you have to spend a lot of time with your particular airbrush/compressor setup, different types of paint, and dozens of experiments with thinners and thinning ratios to discover what works for you. And once you find that perfect formula, you’ll still need to spend a great deal of time learning how to apply the paint to the model so that it’s not too thick, too rich, or out-of-scale. If you’re new to the hobby, expect this process to take several years, at least.

4. Models are expensive

I remember balking at the $21 price tag of the first Hasegawa 1/48 F-4 Phantom that I purchased in the mid-1980s. Today that would be a bargain, even for a 1/72 scale kit. We need to face the harsh reality of our hobby today: kits are expensive. We can debate price relative to accuracy, but it is what it is. If models are too expensive for you, find a new hobby or do what most of us do, which is to wait until they go on sale or you can find one up at a contest. The incessant complaining about prices is pointless and annoying. And frankly, I believe the hobby is still a good value relative to other ways you could spend your money.

5. Figure painting is a completely different hobby

Have you ever tried to paint a pilot for your aircraft or paint figures for an armor diorama? It’s hard, right? I built plastic models – aircraft and armor – for years before I first attempted a figure. When I did, when I started using artist oils that most figure painters use, I realized that figures have practically nothing in common with plastic models.

If you’re looking to incorporate figures into your models, be ready for a steep learning curve or be willing to accept figures that detract a little from your otherwise excellent craftsmanship.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Scale modeling is not art

A few days ago a friend shared a photo of a model on Facebook he thought was particularly well done (it was not my Gripen pictured below) with the comment, "Work of art!" I sent him a private message and told him not to use the word art, because scale modeling is not art. We had a brief exchange over whether scale modeling can be considered art, my friend taking the position that it is. It wasn't the first time this question has been debated, and it certainly won't be the last.

One of these is a great work of art, and the other is a plastic model.
I declare with as much finality as I can muster that, no, scale modeling is not art. Here's the conversation that I would likely have with the "Artist Wannabe" in our ranks.

SMS: What we do is not art.

AW: Of course it is! We use many of the same tools, media, and techniques.

SMS: Big deal. I used geometry, a saw, and sandpaper to fix the framing around a window in my house, but that doesn't make me a carpenter. Another example. I love to cook, and I'm very good at it. That does not make me a "chef." There's a big difference between my following a recipe to prepare a meal -- even when I improvise along the way -- and a trained chef who knows how to combine ingredients in new and unexpected ways. Calling myself a chef is an insult to the men and women who are.

AW: But we create things and make artistic decisions in the process.

SMS: We do create things, but we generally use parts and components that have already been created for us and follow a fairly strict process to bring them all together...using instructions, mind you! When we assemble the parts of a kit, there's only one "correct" way to do so, so there's negligible creativity in the output. If both you and I build a P-51, the results will pretty much look the same. Ask two artists to represent the feeling of love with paint and canvas and you'll likely get two very different paintings.

AW: Wait, I make artistic decisions. I decide what ordnance to use, how to paint my models, how to weather them.

SMS: Yes you do, but those decisions are constrained by norms about what is expected and even acceptable. That P-51 flown by Robin Olds can be painted only one way. Show too much creativity and scale modelers will dismiss your efforts as "fun" or "silly." Your decision to weather it -- often using off-the-shelf washes and pigments, by the way -- requires very little creativity on your part. The fact that there are so many articles and books that show us step-by-step how to achieve certain looks is evidence that many modelers are dismissing any desire to be creative in preference for proven techniques that are intended to achieve same result model after model after model.

AW: Wow, I never thought about it that way. Well what about modelers who scratchbuild models? Surely they're artists.

SMS: Nope. I'd consider them craftsmen or engineers. Like the kit builder, there's only one way to create a B-17, a Sherman, or the USS Kidd, even if you're scratchbuilding them.

AW: What about modelers who scratchbuild hypothetical vehicles or spacecraft? Are they artists?

SMS: Hmmm....maybe. Those guys are making some artistic decisions, so I'll give you that. But I'm uncomfortable saying they're artists because there's rarely any desire to convey emotion, feeling, or experience, which is often the desire in art.

AW: And the guys who sculpt figures?

SMS: I feel comfortable calling them artists. The difference between them and the majority of us is they're creating something out of nothing. That requires a great deal of creativity that we kit modelers don't use. When they bring original figures together in a vignette or diorama, there's great potential for creating something that anyone would describe as art.

AW: You make some good points, but I still like to consider what we do art.

SMS: Obviously you're free to do that, just as I'm free to call myself a chef. But do this the next time you meet a painter or sculptor; when he asks you what you do, tell him you're an artist, that you build scale models, and watch his reaction.

What say you? If you think I'm wrong, how would you argue all this plastic modeling stuff is art.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Jerrie who?

I wrote this article about two months ago after learning about Jerrie Mock but was holding onto it for a "rainy day," when I was desperate for something new. This morning I learned that Jerrie died yesterday. She's one of the more obscure characters in aviation history, so today is as good a time as any to learn about her contributions.

Do you know the name Jerrie Mock? I didn't, until I ran across this article about her on My Flight Blog. She was the first woman to fly solo around the world. I won't re-state what's in the article, so I'll just provide the linkage and let you explore.

I was surprised to find that Mock's granddaughter has a Pinterest page with more pictures of her. You see what you can discover when you play with the Google machine!

And here's her bio from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

P.S Her airplane, The Spirit of Columbus, hangs in the Udvar-Hazy Center, which should be among your favorite aviation destinations!