What’s the big idea?

Mike Cougill posted one of his thought provoking missives this week.  Then this morning, Lance Mindheim announced his new book.  Both encourage us to think of model railroading as art.  

Now, I’m absolutely looking forward to the day when Canada Post drops Lance’s book on my doorstep.  He has done far more research and education about art theory than I am ever likely to do, and I can’t wait to read his thoughts.

However, I’m a little impatient, and in the meantime, Google and Wikipedia are right here.  What is art, anyway?  

Art is a diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory or performing artifacts, expressing the author’s imaginative, conceptual idea, or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power.


Ideas alone can be works of art….All ideas need not be made physical.…A work of art may be understood as a conductor from the artist’s mind to the viewer’s. But it may never reach the viewer, or it may never leave the artist’s mind.

Sol LeWitt (1928–2007), American artist, “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” quoted in MentalFloss

There’s a lot of fluff in most definitions of art, and most famous artists appear to have an instinctual feel for the subject.  But at its core, art seems to be the expression of an idea.  So if a model railroad is to be considered a piece of art, there must be a central idea that is being expressed in form, sound and movement.  

Incidentally, prototype modellers like me are on shaky ground when it comes to creating art, at least according to Whistler:

The imitator is a poor kind of creature. If the man who paints only the tree, or flower, or other surface he sees before him were an artist, the king of artists would be the photographer.

James McNeill Whistler quoted by MentalFloss

Thank goodness our basement walls constrain our imitations and force us to curate our representations!  

We prototype modellers could start with an idea and choose a location to express it, or start with a location and choose to emphasize an idea that could be expressed through its realization.  Obviously, being well along with Pembroke, I need to take the latter approach, but fortunately there is still plenty of room to curate the representation to express an idea.  

I have a choice of ideas that Pembroke could express:

  • The second railway sneaking into an already established city and struggling to capture a piece of a market already dominated by the CPR.
  • The growing, bustling manufacturing hub of Pembroke demands a second railway to serve its needs.

Thinking bigger, the second idea reflects the optimism of prime minister Wilfred Laurier at the time I am modelling: “The 20th century shall be the century of Canada and Canadian development.”

This notion has always resonated with me, and if I am careful, I can bend Pembroke to reflect it.  My model of Pembroke naturally builds from right to left (unfortunate for us western readers that the land lies the way it does).  To the right, we are on the edge of wilderness, but this gives way to development and finally terminates at the bustling modern high street at the far left of the model.  

Emphasizing this growth and build, the two bridges across the Muskrat River in the foreground represent the wooden pioneer era at Mary Street, and the masonry developed era at Pembroke Street.   I can further emphasize the transition to Canada’s Century with the choice of materials and finish for buildings as we progress from right to left.  Perhaps I can evoke bustle with the addition of repetitive, rhythmic elements; there are line poles, fences and even trees to choose from.

I’m probably taking the hobby too seriously.  

Image: Wilfred Laurier at Mission, BC.  Thanks to wikimedia, copyright expired. 

39 thoughts on “What’s the big idea?

  1. René,
    I had similar thoughts: if art is indeed interpretation rather than imitation, where does that leave the modeller who strictly models a prototype location, road and stock?
    Then I thought some more.

    Not everything can be modelled exactly, and space constraints mean we frequently need to make adjustments. Also, a degree of licence (artistic or modellers!) is perfectly ok.
    But pure imitation does have a place, for example in museums.

    As hobbyists, we have the luxury of deciding how far we go, and wish to go, when deciding how “fine” our “scale” models are to be: how far along the continuum from crude representation to exact scale we wish to position ourselves. Personally, I incline to get close to the latter, but I accept that practical considerations make perfection unattainable.

  2. Simon states what I was thinking quite susinctly. My railroad model pursuits are certainly based in the plausible and inspired by real places but, in the end, the goal is to create art – visual, audible, and kinetic. Even the photograph I sent you a while back was manipulated to be other than what was “visible” so as to be a piece of art in itself. (The oil painting effect was a texture applied by the app and not actual. )
    I see the model railroader differently from the railroad modeler as well. To build models or to build railroads would be another good subject for musing.
    And, no, like anything in life you can’t take a hobby too seriously.


    1. One of the interesting questions is whether an individual model could be regarded as a piece of art, or are these simply parts of a larger oeuvre? Thinking about my flat cars, they are clearly part of the Pembroke model, and are not meant to be art on their own. However, there are special models like locomotives that could be art on their own. If they are art, does the idea they express need to support the larger idea of the layout in order for them not to clash and diminish each other? Do they need to be the same idea?

  3. I think your choices about what to model, the techniques you master, the aesthetic that infuses your work, the demands and self-constraints you place on yourself to stretch your abilities, and the choice to artfully blog about the layout and the hobby – say something more immediate and relevant than the history of Pembroke alone.

    Is the art in the layout one thing, and these other elements separate “pieces”? Maybe, but I doubt it.

    From what I can see, they are inextricably linked and together make a statement that has a more current relevance.

    Not wanting to put words in your mouth, but I think that larger project is your art. You are exploring aspects of living in the 21st century that are relevant and interesting today. The choice to accurately model “what was” is part of the manner or expression – kind of like using impasto. But the art is about more than the topic or style.

  4. I have been doing a lot of thinking since reading Mike’s blog, and then was surprised to see Lance’s book when I went to his blog today and now reading your blog. Defining anything as art is liable to open a giant can of worms. We may get artistic in how we decide on our expressing our miniatures and we increasingly tap into the artists’ toolkit to improve the impressions we make in our hobby, but we do so as craftspeople enhancing our craft technique. Creating art, specifically as I see the creation of fine arts, is not what I see most of us doing in the hobby, it is a very different pursuit. I lean to this hobby as heavily in the realm of craft. I wonder why this need to define the hobby as an art even exists. It’s as if craft is a lesser pursuit.

    There is a great deal of discussion about interpretation of our subjects and that that tips things into the artistic. It can, if the interpretation is plausible, well executed, and sincere to the vision overall but it is damn hard. I am curious how much interpretation is actually compromise or skill gap? How many of us enter into a new layout with a solid, focused vision that encompasses composition, value (light v dark), color, material, restraint and past efforts we’re trying to break from across every element to drive a very focused message?

    I do believe an individual model can be an object of art, much like a sculpture, if that is the intent and the execution pulls it off. However, that model might not stand well in any scene because it was intended to stand alone. To start organizing multiple objects together and still stay in the realm of art is more difficult. A layout is incredibly hard to hold together as a coherent art piece as it grows in size. Dioramas and cameo layouts are more logical for attempts at this.

    As to shaky ground being a prototype modeler pursuing art, I give you portrait and still life painters, such as Chardin or Ingres. Before cameras they brought us reality as art. One of my teachers, a brilliant draftsman drawing sublime portraits doesn’t worry about exact, he worries about plausible. Looking at his work you are both struck by how much it looks like the subject and how beautiful his work is. Getting closer, things change, details are missing, edges fade, colors don’t follow the reality. What he’s created is real and better because it goes deep. Prototypical and artistic.

    So, what even IS a prototype modeler? Is it a rivet counter or is it an accurate emotional and restrained response of the observed generated from the portrayal through a model or layout? Everyone has there own answer. The fact is that I’ve never seen a single model that engages all the senses as it’s prototypical basis does. Yet, can you pull the emotional response out of the object to support the message despite the limitations of the craft?

    At the end of all this, does it even matter if we create art? I argue that more important is doing. And then striving to do better next time.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Dave. There is a lot to digest here, but let me see if I get your points:

      1. The pursuit of excellence in craft is as worthy a goal as art.
      2. A layout is difficult to pull together as a coherent piece of art, and probably nobody approaches it with a focused vision, supported with the elements of composition.
      3. It is possible to be both a prototype modeller and artist at once, yet models that evoke an emotional response are rare.
      4. It is more important to strive to do better each time, than to consider whether we are creating art or not.

      1. Yes, Rene, that sums it up.

        It is never my intention to depreciate an effort by calling it craft rather than art. Nor the other way around, either.

  5. Dave’s comment triggered a memory of conversation I had with Phil, a co-worker, many times over before his death in 2010.

    First, I think he is being dismissive with “does it matter”? Yes. We practice the art of representing a reality as we see it. Why is up to you but I believe it is what drives us to build models in the first place.

    Phil would argue that we are craftsmen and nothing more. I would argue that all craft is the product of an artistic endeavor. A definition of our practice may help:

    Architecture is both the process and the product of planning, designing, and constructing buildings or any other structures. Architectural works, in the material form of buildings, are often perceived as cultural symbols and as works of art.

    How is a flat car a part of “the big picture”? It is a part of what made Pembroke the whole and, as a representation of that, necessarily a work of art. It cannot be the actual railroad, of course, but a miniature representation of what we imagine what it may have been. Because it is, and only can be, derived from your minds eye then it will never be historically accurate but as imagined. Being a unique depiction in as much as a landscape painting is of an actual place. It isn’t necessary for either but no one would argue that the landscape isn’t art.

    Architecture is about creating an environment that tries to express our individuality as well as shape our habits, thoughts, and lifestyle. This goes beyond the basic structural elements regardless of budget. It matters to me that what we do in the hobby is also an expression of our imagination about how a place and time may have been. It becomes a piece of art because of that.


    1. Thanks for your reply, Neil.

      I had a painting instructor, Kiff Holland, who differentiated between “pictures” and “paintings.” The implication was that paintings were artful, whereas pictures were not. So, clearly, for him while painting may have been an artistic endeavour, not all paintings were art.

      Would Phil perhaps have agreed with him?

      Some architecture is prosaic. Is a bike storage shed art?

  6. Perhaps art is not so much defined as it is discovered in the mind and heart of both the creator and the viewer.

    1. To a point I agree. Without an appreciative viewer an artist struggles. Yet many pieces of art now considered masterworks were reviled when created. Impressionism is a case in point. They were art when made but broke all rules. The audience had to come around to the shift in perception of the visual arts, heavily driven by the invention of the camera.

      I think all art is deliberate, since the first cave paintings and primitive sculpture to fine artists working today. Perhaps not in the mind as “I’m making art” but as “this object will represent something important to me that I need to express.” That said, I have also had several master painters admit that fortunate mistakes have been breakthrough moments during creation, something I’ve also experienced.

      One of my teachers, a master painter, clearly defined 25 points of what makes a great modernist painting in the lineage of modernist art since Vermeer and ending with Pollock. These are guidelines, foundational precepts, not rules, but omitting any reduces the impact of the work and breaks the lineage. He could point out all of them in paintings that are considered master works. Many are things learned in apprenticeships or schooling that become second nature, unthought. There is plenty of art by masters that I don’t much care for but I understand as being exceptional because of what it represents in technique, thinking and result.

      1. Some of the modernist points.

        A good painting is logical and consistent across canvas and convincing (statisfying/moving).
        The piece should bring questions, not answers.
        It must be interesting.
        Aesthetic is more important than subject.
        Idea, motif, reason: must exist or it is just wall paper.
        The painting is approached as the solution to a problem.
        Affectations are omitted.
        Entirety of space is taken care of, including negative space; nothing is neglected.
        Color is not noise, it is not random, it is part of structure.
        Brush marks describe, make sense, are not random.
        Edges of objects are played with.
        Objects and shadows are used to full potential to create rhythm.
        All of these items are properly considered for the image: scale, composition, paint density, color, brush marks, edges, contrast, perspective, zones, washes, layering, outlining, direction, rhythm, articulation, brush size.
        You’re pulled into the space.
        The total relationship in the piece has been considered and held. A painting must be a whole, a complete statement. Everything fits together, adds up.
        Elevate beyond a picture to a painting, to a visual game.
        Ambiguity is key element, more than one way to read the painting is inherent.
        Good painting requires completion by the viewer. They should not be overwhelmed, confused, bored. Why does the painting exist? They need to be engaged, be able to do something, have an interaction with the artist. Sometimes this means presenting paintings in not finished state, to let viewer compete them.
        Great painting turns ordinary into the sublime.

        Going through my notes there is a lot more, specific to the mark making, color choices, composition, space and perspective. What plays out is absolute control over the experience by the artist, often without the knowledge of the viewer, to drive a dialog. To illustrate the points, in the last class he projected a Vermeer and proceeded to take it apart. What appears on first look to be an absolutely realistic painting revealed perspective issues, anatomy issues, mysterious disappearance of objects, colors that confuse objects…what I first saw disappeared into a list of a dozen questionable objects and decisions. And then you realize that all of it was intentional, to hold the entirety together, heighten reality, drag you in. It was a painting instead of a picture.

      2. This is a great list, Dave. Thanks.

        Do you mind if I use this as the basis for a blog post (with attribution of course)? I’m wondering how many of these we can apply to our hobby.

      3. Technically they’re attributable to Charles Emerson. I don’t mind, though they are points he made in the depths of a class that involved lecture, in class painting, homework painting and critique. I’d be curious to read what you’re considering before you post it—or is that against blog etiquette?

      4. Yes. Charles will tell you 30 years ago he decided to ditch a lucrative painting and gallery career because he felt he wasn’t honest to himself, he was too derivative. He decided to move into a new space with his abstraction and has been hunting since. He admitted to the class he might not achieve his goal before he dies. He’s in his eighties. Like his paintings or not, he is striving to achieve a breakthrough into the modernist lineage’s philosophy. And like it or not, you’ll be hard-pressed to beat him in arguing against his path! I have never met anyone as attuned to the power of color; he would add a simple stroke of color to a student’s work and transform it completely. It was uncanny and humbling.

  7. My comment was “does it matter if we create art.” My point is not dismissive, it asks why the need to define what is craft as art, unless we feel what we do as craft is somehow less important? We do make artistic decisions, but make art? I’m still not convinced. And the deeper I get into the arts (painting and drawing) the more convincrd I am that what most of us practice is craft.

    Our bars are set differently. That’s ok. Art is subjective.

    My experience is much of fine art is a craftsman endeavor raised beyond the craft, not the opposite. Without mastery of the craft there can rarely be a move towards art. Craft comes first, not the other way around. We practice the craft of representing reality. We use artistic techniques in the craft.. Some of us push further and create art at times. Just saying because we interpret or imagine we’re making art doesn’t mean we’ve made something that works as art.

    I also think it important not just that we express our imagination but how we do it. Expressing imagination is creative, but you imply that automatically makes our efforts art. We both know it isn’t that simple. And of course it depends heavily on what you consider art.

    1. Of course Dave is right. A pianist cannot play a piece of music and have it considered a piece of art without mastering the craft first. Art, however, is in the eye of the beholder. I can only hope to raise the bar of my abilities to what Rene creates and posts here. The locomotive in his book is imho a work of art. If practice is required then I’m a decade behind despite being ten years older.

    2. Here are a couple more quotes from that same Mental Floss article:
      Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible. – Paul Klee
      We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth. – Pablo Picasso

      I agree with you that railroad modelling is not in itself art. Rare railroad models might reach beyond craft to art.

      As you say, art is subjective. However, if art makes truth visible, then I believe its creation is indeed a more challenging and therefore worthy goal than craft. As I am always stretching to improve then I should strive to craft not only a depiction of the town, but a piece of art – to make us realize a truth.

      Perhaps most model railways don’t succeed as art because their creators don’t start from a truth (a big idea), or even discover one along the way.

      1. Very interesting commentary. I do agree that what is considered good or great art starts with a truth (big idea), and that sometimes it is discovered as the original idea reveals other secrets. A wise artist runs with these revelations. Another thing about Picasso, he was one who said that if you really like what you see on the canvas, especially in the early stages, paint it out and try again.

        To illustrate what I think is great art in the context of railroads, I suggest looking at Ted Rose’s watercolors. Ted could draw a perfectly rendered boxcar, I’m sure, but that is just a picture of a boxcar. What he does is dive into the experience of a moment and tell us about it through the subtraction, abstraction and addition of elements he feels important to tell the story. Looking at them they are not prototypic in the sense they are missing rivets, etc. But can anyone not look at even the most atmospheric and not think “railroad?” I would argue he elevates prototypic representation to fine art. This is where I think the gap between craft and art exists in our model making efforts. Achieving that experiential totality is damn hard.

        As to one being more worthy, I was trying to stay away from that. Art makes a truth more visible, I think, but physics and other sciences reveal absolute truth. So, should we strive to consider ourselves scientists? 🙂

      2. It would take courage indeed to apply a more impressionistic style, like Ted Rose’s approach to painting, to railway modelling. Maybe we should look to the likes of Ken Danby, Andrew Wyeth or Richard Estes for inspiration, instead? Sadly, they are/were not into trains.

        The great paintings by realist masters seem to always draw upon imbalance or discomfort in the viewer. I don’t think anyone can look at “Christina’s World,” for example, without feeling a little uncomfortable or even desperate. I don’t know if aiming for great art is such a good idea for me, if that is the price of admission!

        Fair enough about one being more worthy than the other.

      3. I would argue that Rose offers many more lessons to approaching the hobby in an artistic manner than perhaps Wyeth. I don’t say we have to be impressionists…but we are. Look at what Mike at OST Publications is doing with his scenes, they are impressions, not reality, to support his message. Wyeth’s paintings are beautiful, and this mastery of egg tempera, a mind-numbing exacting process, result in high levels of realism. What is interesting is that much of Wyeth is fantasy. Christina actuality never passed through the threshold of her doorway; Wyeth fabricated that completely. There was another painting of her at the recent Seattle Wyeth show, of her sitting in that front doorway looking out to the field she couldn’t walk out to. It was surprisingly far more moving.

        Great art should drive questions, it should be immersive, it should be a dialog. I don’t see why model railroading can’t play in that space, the trick is that it is very, very hard to pull off because the entire effect needs to be logical, consistent and convincing. As the same teacher who gave me the 25+ points of modernist painting told me, it is far easier to control the many moving parts on a small canvas. Given that, a diorama (armor modelers pull off art at times, I believe) or one of Iain Rice’s cameo concepts that controls everything on a smaller scale, is the best way to get to art from the craft.

      4. Okay, I’m game! Let’s choose a painting or two by Ted Rose and see what we can learn from it that could apply to railway modelling…

        Got a favourite image?

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