The golden age of modelling – 1968

When Chris Ellis first published ‘How to go plastic modelling’ in 1968, I was ten years old and utterly captivated through youthful innocence, by a world of unbridled imagination and creation. Kits were relatively crude in comparison to today, specialist tools were similarly few and the handful of finishing techniques only needed a page or two to fully recount.

Communication between modellers was provincial, confined mainly to club meetings and landline telephone calls. It was a time of comparative simplicity but unbeknown to the modelling populace, there was one facet of the period that is now only apparent looking back – a blissful absence of the insidious unhappiness, introspection, complaint and dissatisfaction that has entrenched itself in today’s hobby culture.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that with stratospheric quality and quantity prevalent in kits, materials, techniques and tools, that pleasure, satisfaction and contentment in the hobby would be at commensurate levels. On an individual basis that may certainly be so but collectively the prevalence of blog posts and forum commentary spin a different tale. Like any coin, there are two sides to this. On the one hand, the procession of self perpetuating complaints about product releases, accuracy, complexity, simplicity, application of techniques, et al carry on ad nauseam, while on the flip, modellers themselves obsess over a raft of introspective psychological insecurities – shelves of doom, ocd, ams, lack of confidence, habitually starting but never finishing, huge stashes, it goes on and on.

The causes of this paradigm shift don’t interest me – because it’s tedious. There’s nothing inevitable about being caught in this tar pit though. You can still model like it’s 1968 but first you have to accept that ‘it’s only plastic’, that it’s only a hobby and that the world is already full of issues, enough to satisfy the most prodigious appetite for angst. For some bloggers, recurrent introspective and mock self deprecating confessionals are a staple and also tedious. Thankfully, returning to innocence is a choice, so climb down from the critical carousel, disconnect from the ‘dis’ brigade and plough a furrow back to 1968.




Bad Wolf




Are you for real…?

Realism in modelling. It crops up periodically here and there, engenders a usually prompt response that (if a recent discussion on Facebook’s anything to go by), boils down to the popular view that the hobby only really winds up pointing in one of two directions – ‘realism’ and the pursuit thereof, focussed on perceived replication of detail, colour and the other facets of the full size object or ‘art’ in rendering said object in a stylised manner, principally also through the use of colour but in a perhaps more dramatised and extended way. Like so much in modelling philosophy (and the most prominent key speakers), the conclusions demand adherents divide into camps; it has that tedious ‘billy goat’ intellectualism that pre-supposes that both sides are right, while catering for the expressed need to regard the other side as ‘wrong’.

The Facebook thread I mentioned too’d and fro’d and was all very good natured as it happened but didn’t mention (at least overtly) that in order for a model to be mistaken for the real thing there has to be a filter between the model and the observer – photography. Put a 1/35 M4 Sherman on the museum exhibit you based the model on and no-one will mistake the former for the latter. Place the model on a meticulously crafted base, with the tank equally skilfully finished – photograph the combination sympathetically in natural daylight and Photoshop the whole lot seamlessly into a photographed background and you have the right cocktail for fooling the eye into believing the ensemble is the full size object.

Quite some years ago, I saw this done with a 1/32 Hawker Hunter. The paint was realistically given a sheen that tallied with what I was used to seeing in the flesh. The finish had been applied over an extremely smooth surface – no give away texture in the paint. The low angle of the photo was commensurate with an image taken from a standing position and the bright overcast nature of the daylight matched the photographed background that the model was immaculately stitched into. It was quite startling to realise it was all a representation of reality and not reality itself. It was also a fine achievement by the author (who’s name escapes me now), as success in this doesn’t come easy…or often.

There. I’ve done it. I’ve mentioned a word you’ll likely never find crop up in this debate. Representation…and when it comes to modelling, it’s what it’s actually all about. Even the astonishing 1/5 Spitfire by David Glen, that resides in the RAF Museum Hendon, is a representation. The attention to detail in that momentous model is rarely matched elsewhere, down to his re-creating the same number of knurled ridges in a hand wheel for instance…but it’s still representation not replication. That realisation in no sense diminishes David’s legacy achievements but instead enhances it in tandem with the conspicuous care he took in creating his masterpiece.

When you accept modelling as representations of reality, suddenly there is no longer any need for divisions between ‘realist’ modellers or ‘art’ modellers. Both represent the full size object and both have much to teach the other – when ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are removed from the dialogue.

Until next time.


Bad Wolf



Serial killer…

Do you find yourself starting more kits than you finish? Do you ever complete anything? Do you eye up the plastic in the box, as you stand in the hobby store and picture the model on your display shelf with spotless construction and a flawless finish? If so, you are likely already firmly in the grip of ‘the serial killer’, that murderer of motivation, the annihilator of ambition and crusher of confidence. It is ‘The Babadook’ of modelling…

The Babadook enters your life through the boxes of kits you bring hopefully into your home (ie ‘hoping’ your significant other hasn’t 1. Noticed; 2. Already compiled a detailed inventory of existing guilt; 3. Kept up to date with the joint account…or all three…). It lurks just out of direct sight, in the shadows of your mind. The Babadook thrives and flourishes on a diet of high ambition and lofty ideals and greedily strips its victims of these notional concepts, leaving the modeller bereft, as the latest project loses its shine and appeal and is relegated to the burgeoning pile of false starts.

But The Babadook has a weakness. A chink in its armour. It preys on fear of failure; of somehow not living up to the standards victims set for themselves, standards that are often nothing more than simply those of other modellers, rather than truly of ourselves. That’s nonetheless understandable – we’re all bombarded daily, across the gamut of our lives, with intense and highly focussed advertising, promising perfect skin, teeth and appearance, health, wealth and fairy tale relationships and these unrealistic and misleading messages also extend their groping tentacles into our hobby and beyond. ‘Buy this book’, ‘read this magazine’, ‘watch this DVD or online video’ and become an all-conquoring ‘champion of plastic’. Some can. Some do. For most though, the chase leads rapidly into the welcoming arms of The Babadook and thence, into the dingy basement of the mind that serial starters are doomed to call ‘home’.

And there’s the rub; The Babadook isn’t ‘real’. The high ambition and lofty ideals exist only as abstract concepts of the mind. None of it is ‘real’ unless you think it so. The solution, as well as the problem, begins and ends with you. Step one is to let go of expectation, just enjoy the ride and finish the project. Step two is to use your knowledge and experience to best advantage while again, relinquishing expectation and finishing the project. Step three is to understand that the root of happiness and contentment is ‘acceptance’.

I read once that ‘nothing is good or bad, only thinking makes it so’ but the author of this piece of quasi-psycology clearly hadn’t considered the prospect of being thrown into a live volcano for instance. We can be sure that if he or she were dropped into a lake of molten rock they’d think that that was ‘bad’ all the way down…and no-one with a working majority of their marbles still intact would argue with the veracity of that judgement.

So, stop the rot, be happy in everything you build and look forward with keen excitement to what comes next. I’ve always expressed the intent (as a one time, long, long, long time serial starter) that my modelling would thereafter be a journey in which I’d be always travelling but never arriving and there’s no room on that train for ‘The Babadook’…

Until next time.

Bad Wolf

A Photographic Memory…?


Dawn, 1943, somewhere in Lincolnshire. As the cold light rapidly intensifies, a lone photographer moves quietly among the stained and battered olive drab B-17s parked around the periphery of the base. As he captures his images, Autocars tow F1 fuel trailers from bomber to bomber, while 500lb ordnance is busily loaded and boxes of .50 cal carried aboard to feed the voracious appetites of the heavy machine guns that will later that day punctuate the cacophony of battle, high over Europe, with their signature ‘thunk’, ‘thunk’, ‘thunk’.

With all 36 frames of the Kodacolour roll exposed, the photographer re-wound the film, popped the back of the camera and slipped the cassette into a rucksack pocket. There it stayed through the heat of summer, before finally being developed and printed.

Dawn, present day. Somewhere in the US. A modeller stands in their local hobby store, attention riveted on the pages of a book about B-17s. Within the pages were colour images from England, 1943; fine references all and highly valued as an aid in determining that thorny issue of the appearance of well weathered olive drab. Around the world, other modellers cheerfully absorbed all that the photographs conveyed and translated those observations into paint shades and weathering that adorned numerous scale models.


The two scenarios are hypothetical but nonetheless representative of an aspect of the modelling psyche that has quietly remained unqualified for as long as photographs have been utilised as key research material. In essence, the status of picture references within the modelling community is sacrosanct. The broad belief is that ‘the camera never lies’ and in many respects it doesn’t but there are certain considerations that I’ve routinely found aren’t overtly publicised or discussed in connection with those images – the end product of the photographic process.

Let’s shift sideways for a second. Modelling is a visual hobby. Every element of it; from standing in the hobby store, soaking up all that plastic loveliness, to the build, painting and finishing, display, shows, clubs, competitions, instructional DVDs and more – all universally reliant on the Mk.I eyeball. We trust in what our eyes communicate to us but do they really tell all? Is that image from 1943 something on which we can rely at face value? I don’t consider so and suggest we can, as a modelling collective, perhaps better do so with just a little extra background information.
Photography is a science as well as an art and while I’m not in any sense an ‘expert’ on either, I do have the benefit of a City & Guilds in General Professional Photography. Applying that knowledge and experience to our hypothetical 1943 scenario, it’s interesting to factor in some missing information.

First up, few references (if any) come with a verifiable list of the basic technical attributes extant at the point of exposure and subsequent development and printing – the camera used, lens fitted, shutter speed and aperture used, whether the film was ‘pushed’ (deliberately under exposed, then over-developed to compensate for declining light or the need for a higher shutter speed). Beyond this, (in the case of our 1943 hypothetical example) there is the delay in film development, while the film was subject to heat exposure in the rucksack (affecting the emulsion and consequently the latent images), whether development was correctly carried out (temperature, agitation and so forth). The potential list goes on to include whether filters were used (in black and white affecting tonal reproduction), the film type used and so forth – these are just some of the factors that affect the resulting image and what is recorded here is in no sense exhaustive.

Our film, having been developed and printed has other considerations to reveal. The olive drab on the B-17s in 1943 was photographed early in the day, when the light contains a higher proportion of the blue end of the spectrum, rendering the drab in ‘cold’ tones (the opposite is true towards evening, with red light predominating, which would provoke a ‘warm’ record of the drab. Between these two extremes is daylight at midday in the northern hemisphere – about 5,500 degrees Kelvin, a blend of light temperatures that might be described as ‘neutral’.

When light strikes a surface and appears to be ‘blue’ for example, it’s because that surface reflects blue light but absorbs the other colours of the spectrum. Our 1943 photographer observes the olive drab and his eyes signal his brain accordingly, resulting in the visual perception of ‘olive drab’ but his ‘perception’ will likely differ from that of you or I by simple virtue of differences in the biological signalling and interpretation equipment. This means that even direct observation of an object is not definitive but subject to interpretive variations.

Let’s take a step forward and say the 1943 negatives are now developed and extant. The emulsion in the film negative does not replicate per se, the colour ‘seen’ in real life by the camera, it imitates it. This colour interpretation varies from lens to lens among manufacturers, further diversifying the resulting colours recorded. We can call our negatives a ‘first generation interpretation’, subject to all the vagaries previously mentioned above.

The next stage is to produce prints and these are simple interpretations of the information captured in the negatives. We can call our prints a ‘second generation interpretation or ‘an interpretation of an interpretation of reality’. Prints are also subject to exposure issues and whether the prints were ‘dodged’ (deliberately under-exposed in places) and/or ‘burnt’ (deliberately over-exposed in places), all things affecting the resulting image. Beyond this, correct development is essential in avoiding changes to image density and as before, this kind of information is never carried forwards into the present day.

Our mythical prints now journey towards modern times but regrettably aren’t stored under certifiably archival conditions (few are) and so colours and tones fade and alter and in so doing, migrate further still from the reality of that early morning in 1943. Eventually, the prints find their way into the hands of a B-17 researcher who incorporates them into the pages of their forthcoming book, requiring a scanning process, which generates a printable file we can call a ‘third generation interpretation’ or ‘an interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation of reality’.

The printers reproduce the images in each edition of the book using a suitable print process and give birth to a ‘fourth generation interpretation’ or (roll of drums and a deep breath) ‘an interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation of reality’ until it reaches the eyes of that happy modeller in the US, who shows the book to a friend, who’s eyes and brain perceive the colour and tonal information differently, though neither are aware and neither will ever, as a result, speak of it. Unless they’re reading this…

All of that might suggest I’m out to terminally undermine the confidence expressed through the possession of photographic references – sincerely, I’m not but what I am advocating is a broader awareness of the weaknesses in claiming colours, tones or hues are ‘so’ because there is a photograph that appears to support the view. In tandem with that, I’m concentrating on ‘wet process’ photography here, rather than current digital technology, although that too is subject to broadly similar cautions. All of which, are gently offered as grounds to unfurrow that brow, chill, relax and apply the law of ‘TLAR’ (That Looks About Right).

So, the next time someone at the club or on-line or at a show tries to give your leash a tug over this, tell them about an early morning in 1943…unless you painted your ’17 pink…then you’re on yer own…


Bad Wolf


It’s only plastic…

“It’s only plastic”; a succinct quip that came from Ted Taylor, as we discussed modellers in general at a club we were both attending at the time and their reactions and responses to kit building. What he meant was, those folks who might, for a variety of reasons, regard themselves either as ‘serious modellers’, who strive for excellence or those recognised and applauded as ‘gifted’. Ted also had another segment of our community in mind – those who routinely fret over perceived inaccuracies, engineering issues and questions of fit.

Today, I’d add another category – anyone who expresses discouragement or finds demotivating, ‘modelling excellence’ when they see it. So, what does all this add up to? What is the casualty here, if any? I believe it’s ‘happiness’. If I return to Ted’s observation, the advice he intended to convey to everyone was ‘relax and enjoy it, whatever your ability, whatever your interest – it’s only plastic’. I support that. It doesn’t prevent anyone from still doing their best but instead emphasises what should be the bedrock of the hobby – fun, enjoyment and an absence of taking yourself and the plastic too seriously.

And what of those who jokingly or seriously express discouragement on sight of something they otherwise regard as special? I guess the problem boils down to a lack of awareness of the actual root of happiness – ‘acceptance’. I regard myself as a ‘mid-table obscurity’ modeller (to coin a footballing turn of phrase – that’s ‘soccer’ to our American friends). I’ll likely never be a blue riband, gold medal winning modeller but neither am I a beginner either. I sit in the ‘obscure’ middle somewhere and ‘accept’ that that’s likely to remain the case and in that, I’m totally happy. If I see something from another modeller that lights up my admiration and interest, I cheerfully accept that it’s beyond my current capabilities and at the same time feel profoundly inspired – inspired to be witness to what’s demonstrably possible with the right techniques and tools and that in turn spurs me on to push harder, while never forgetting ‘it’s only plastic’.

There can’t be too many modellers who’ve never heard the term the ‘shelf of doom’; that place where abandoned projects go to die. If ever there was an expression of a failure to understand ‘acceptance’ as the root of happiness, the shelf of doom is it. Does it matter if what you envisaged is different to how the kit has panned out? Do you only do ‘perfection’? Did ‘Advanced Modeller Syndrome’ burn you out? All indicate an absence of happiness in your hobby, a lack of acceptance of ability and a damaging presence of over ambition. Dial it down, wind it back. Have a beer, relax and chill. It’s only plastic. Pull that kit back off the shelf and finish it. Accept the result. Learn what you need to from it, then take another off the shelf and apply that learning. Keep building, keep enjoying, keep accepting, keep happy.

It’s only plastic.


Until next time.

Bad Wolf