Is it Art Though?

Yeah, I know, the perennial question: “Is modelling Art?” This is not an answer, more of an opinion, I guess.

What is Art? Mirriam Webster can swing; I’m not going to bore you with a dictionary definition that fits my bias. Defining art is like wrestling jelly (Jello. if you are a north American), you can’t get to grips with it, and you end up with a mess. However, we need a frame of reference, so I suppose I had better give it a try. Before I do though, bear in mind this is an opinion, and the arguments thereafter will hang on this opinion. Others are very much available, and I encourage everyone to always seek a plurality of opinions.

The short answer, to quote United States Supreme Court Justice, Potter Stewart, is “I know it when I see it?”

The long answer is this:

Most people in modelling fall back on the same basic argument: modelling is creative, and art is the act of making an object using creativity. However, I have two issues with this.

The first is that creativity means to make something using your own imagination or conception. When you talk to most modellers, nearly all I have spoken to, there is a need to conform to the reality of the object they are making. They try to get the colours right (or at least in the right ballpark) and to make the model so that it looks like the prototype. So how is this creative? You can argue that there is some wiggle room, you can put it in a scene, or weather it a certain way, or use non-kit decals, but really, isn’t this just fiddling with the detail? The aim is to faithfully replicate something real. So, if we accept that (yes, I can hear teeth grinding as I type this, but bear with me), then necessarily the second part of the basic argument outlined above, falls flat.

So, I am saying modelling isn’t art, right? No, that is not what I am saying. Well…. OK, it is. A bit.

Most definitions of art say that it elicits an emotional response. I can agree with this, although I would also argue it can challenge intellectual responses too. In other words, it makes you feel, or think. So, can this apply to modelling? Yes, it can.

Let’s look at some models that I consider good examples of this:

Marijn van Gils: “Zappa”

The emotion that sizzles off Marijn’s “Zappa” like steam of a volcano is sheer, unalloyed, joy. Marijn captures Zappa in an exultant moment of unselfconscious abandonment to the power of the chord he has just struck. You can hear it ring from the speakers even though there is no speaker on the scene, and you can feel the feeling Zappa is feeling right now. This feeling, and the power with which Marijn communicates it, is Art, with a capital ‘A’.

But it’s not just the feeling. It is successful because Marijn gives you only just enough to make it work; we have the figure, the guitar, a tiny piece of monitor, and the stage. That’s it. Any element which does not serve the piece, is removed. Any distraction from the main area of focus is removed. It is of single purpose: the message, and anything which does not communicate that message is noise. Marijn eliminates the noise to allow you to purely engage with the signal.

Of course, the main element is the figure. Here, Marijn references Marcel Duchamp’s 1912 cubist painting “nude descending staircase” and the pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s work on capturing human and animal motion with multi-exposure sequences (which he made between 1878 and 1886).

Nude Descending Staircase 2 -  Marcel Duchamp 1912

Eadweard Muybridge, "study of man running"

Motion is expressed by multiple sculpts of Zappa in stages of his motion forward and upward, which have been compressed into a single multi-limbed figure, with each stage differentiated by colour saturation. This is incredibly difficult to sculpt and paint, especially so successfully, and the deceptively simple scene belies the outstanding technical achievement, as it should. You don’t want the technique casting shade on the message.Clean, audacious, with an emotional blast that you can’t ignore.

Exuberant Art.

Peter Usher: “Mind the Gap”

Peter Usher, "Mind the Gap"

Like Marijn’s work, I could have picked almost anything Peter makes, but I’ve chosen his famous “Mind the Gap” diorama.

This is the kind of scene that a lot of modellers try to do, and most fail. They fail because they don’t put enough thought into the composition, and the details. Peter has kept it very simple, dividing the scene into thirds. These remind me of classical altar piece triptychs of the Calvary, such as Paul Peter Reubens “the Raising of the Cross” (1610) In the centre is the suffering. On the left the onlookers, and on the right the loved one in anguish.

In artistic terms, the central two protagonists are perhaps most reminiscent of “The Creation of Adam” By Michaelangelo. Although the theme of “Mind the Gap” could obviously not be more different, Peter mirrors the reaching action of God and Adam, to create the message and drama of the diorama in the wounded soldier in the centre, and his comrade reaching for him.

Of course, the message of this piece is that relationship, and the anguish of the situation. Everything else around the diorama is set up to support the emotional impact of these two figures, and once again, nothing is redundant. The trains either side create a channel down the centre of the diorama that indicates the sniper’s line of sight, which adds the aspect of threat, which creates the anxiety, along with the central figures exposed position. We can read the situation immediately, but it’s the reaching hands and the men holding the would-be rescuer back, which turn the emotion up to 11. The men on the left of the scene search for the sniper, but the viewer knows that the wounded man has maybe minutes to live, and he is just bait for his comrades.

Although I have compared this piece to classical art by old masters, and I don’t want that to seem pretentious, it is important to look at how models can borrow the artistic language of great artists to amplify their effectiveness and impact. They help us see how the elements are used to focus on the emotional impact of the two figures.

No matter how many times you look at this piece, you won’t be able to escape that emotional gut-punch. Even understanding how it works, does nothing to reduce it. That fear for someone you care for, in immediate danger is visceral, and universal. This is Art.

“With the Asaro Mudmen. Goroka Highlands, German New Guinea, 1915.” Alexandre Duchamp

Alex is a master of the small vignette, but this form comes loaded with constricting elements. You can use only one or two figures, and you have only a small space to establish a setting or context. Because of these factors, it is hard to tell a story or explain a complex idea clearly. Alex works with the constraints of the form using mood, symbolism, and allusion. Let’s have a look.

The setting is tropical. We have lush ferns and plants, bright green low foliage and a single palm tree that works to suggest woodland or a forest. The setting is high contrast with the bright plants and dark earth, which gives the feeling of tropics and a forest canopy above.

Stood in this scene, is a rather surreal character. He is wearing boots and khaki brown jodhpur style trousers which suggest German military in the late 19th or early 20th century. He is shirtless, and wears full head mask of aboriginal origin, (some googling on the title lead me to the Asaro “Mudmen” of Papua New Guinea, who craft these full-head masks from mud). He is holding a framed portrait of Kaiser Wilhem II (A portrait photograph made by T H Voight in 1902) and appears to be presenting it to the viewer.

If you want to do what I did, and do a bunch of googling, you can deduce the exact historical context and view it purely as a historical figure piece. But if you stop there, you are missing the point. You don’t need to know the exact date, or the historical context, to read Alex’s intent here. Essentially, it’s a piece about European colonialism.

Overall, the mood is like a fever dream. The setting is hot and humid, you can imagine rain dripping from the canopy above, and the shirtless figure hints at the heat. The man has discarded most of his uniform, and his sober bearing. Something strange is happening here.

The military trousers and boots in this setting, shout “colonialism”, but the portrait nails it on. This is the military coloniser as cultural coloniser. When European powers grabbed land all over the world, they didn’t just take from the indigenous peoples and their land, they attempted to assimilate them culturally, exporting their European laws and symbols, and religions, and forcing them on the colonised.

But the mask, tells a more complex story, Part of this is the theft and cultural appropriation of the art and culture of the colonised. Thousands of artefacts would be taken for display in museums and private collections, but also words and culture would be absorbed into the culture of the coloniser for their own purposes and uses, in a system that ultimately sought to neutralise the culture of the colonised through acquisition. But the cultural assimilation is not always one way. In colonial circles, there were always those who assimilated part, or whole, into the culture of the colonised. There are disdainful words for it ‘going native’, ‘gone Asiatic’. Is this figure looting or is he teetering between two worlds?

The colonisers would invariably see themselves as more civilised than those they colonised. Alex challenges this with this figure. He appears to have discarded part of his western identity, but he still carries his holstered pistol. Is he losing his mind, or is he losing his morals?

This piece in one single figure, in a deceptively simple setting, challenges our beliefs and memories, or concept of European vs African, Asian and South American. Our understanding of European history and the actions of our ancestors, and our concepts of civilisation, humanity, and quality.

A very powerful piece of Art that challenges us on a more intellectual, rather than an emotional level, but with some emotion in there too.

Does it Need to be Art?

So I’ve laid out what I think art is, and how it can apply to scale modelling. But what about all the stuff I do not consider art? Is it not as good? Is it somehow less valid? Hell NO. Any model you make is as valid as any model anyone else makes.

People use the word “Art” to legitimise what we do with models, perhaps because of modelling’s historical connection with being an activity associated with children, the idea that some have that they are “toys”.

But here’s the thing, you don’t need it to be art for it to be legitimate. You can make something with no more intent than just to enjoy making a thing, whether it’s an out of the box 1960s Lindberg kit or a multi part diorama with sublime detail and fidelity to reality. It’s all the same. It’s all worth doing and it’s all as valid as anything else you can choose to spend your time on. The fact it isn’t Art (or at least 99% of it isn’t) doesn’t mean it isn’t *yours*, and it doesn’t make it any less valid.

If you don’t make actual Art with your models, that’s great! You are making something, and you get all the same rewards from it as anyone else. Celebrate it for what it is, making models. It doesn’t need to be anything else. Not art, not engineering, not history (don’t get me started), just being modelling is more than enough.

But if you do want to make art, you can do it. Anyone can. But look at what you are doing. Look at how things read, what they can say beyond what they are and a vague historical connection. Try to evoke a strong emotion or challenge the viewer’s ideas and beliefs. Go beyond the object you are modelling and make a connection to the viewer. You won’t always be successful, but it is very fulfilling and will change the way you do the hobby.

And if you just want to make accurate representations of a prototypical machine, do it! I love to look at those too!

Thanks for reading and see you next time.


About Chris

I'm Chris Meddings, Modeller, Author, Publisher of Modelling Books, Podcaster, and armchair wannabe thinker
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23 Responses to Is it Art Though?

  1. James Cann says:

    excellent thoughts and examples Chris !

  2. Tim says:

    It seems to me you are advocating the “tell a story” aspect to modeling. Take it beyond constructing just the mere model to the next level, art! Or in other words, add the model in a diorama. Not just any old slapped together scene, but really think about telling a poignant, compelling story.

    A good post Chris, one that made me think.

    • Chris says:

      no, I’m not, story telling as a separate but related thing, Marijn’s Zappa does not tell a story to me, its a frozen moment of elation. We don’t need to know what came before or after for it to work. Same with Alex’s. we can put it in a story, but the symbolism doesnt need it. Peter’s is narrative, and narrative models can be art for sure. but also a tank rolling down a road is narrative, but its not art on its own. They overlap, and narrative can help, but they are not the same thing

  3. Gordon Ferguson says:

    Being completely honest I usually keep clear of blogs and especially modelling related ones which include “art” in anyway .

    However I did end up reading this article which I thoroughly enjoyed …….. whither I agree or disagree with the various points raised is immaterial , it a well researched and carefully constructed article which provided interesting information and it certainly got the “little grey cells” working ……. So many thanks Chris

    • Chris says:

      Thanks Gordon, as I say, it’s just an opinion. and everyone has their own opinion on this, each as valid as the next. If it gets people thinking about it, or even how Marijn, Peter and Alex achieve what they do, that’s a success for me.

  4. Doogs says:

    I think my take and your take largely agree. Building a model by itself is not art. How to capture certain things in miniature certainly takes some artistic approaches, but the final work I just don’t think of as art. Unless you go with the “anything fashioned by humans is art” approach that incorporates macaroni glued haphazardly to construction paper as art.

    But, modeling can be a medium through which art is created. Your examples shine, but I’d also point to the work of Thomas Doyle. Individual pieces would never place or get a gold/silver/bronze at any contest in the world, but the combined compositions elicit more from me than most of what I see on contests tables:

    • Chris says:

      thanks Matt, thats a new name to me.

      I don’t like the ‘everything is art’ thing. If you apply a definition to everything, its no longer a definition or a concept worthy of a name.

      Also, everyone reading, check out Matt’s blog (in the links) it was my bar in measuring what I wanted to do with this, and an essential read

  5. Pingback: Chris Meddings on Art – Warhammer Adjacent

  6. A life long friend, my best friend and I have had this discussion. He is, by profession, an artist. He has painted presidents, for presidents, fellow artists and musicians and a myriad of others but his specialty lies in sports art. Every year he commemorates the winner of the World Series for MLB. His work sells for thousands. He has studied art, makes his living creating it and his answer to this question is yes. Modeling is art. Once you start to manipulate color and light laying medium on the surface of plastic, it’s art. Now, whether it is fine art or the equivalent of the finger painting of a 2nd grade elementary school student is a totally different conversation.

  7. Derek Austin says:

    Great article, very thought provoking!

  8. Peter Knaul says:

    “You can make something with no more intent than just to enjoy making a thing”

    That is for me the best quote of the article. Great read. Really like what you are doing here.

  9. Clay Williams says:

    A very thought provoking post Chris, really enjoyed it. Imo “art” is less about any particular medium and more about the nature and level of accomplishment. For instance, painting, writing, music, photography, sculpture, whatever, is can be shlock, utilitarian, or “meh,” but every how and then it’s “wow.” It’s stunning. It moves you in some way. You can “feel” it. What’s the differentiator? What’s the metric? I don’t think it’s as subjective as many maintain. As a graphic designer, when faced with a timid client, I preach that the most compelling communication strikes three chords: aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional. That’s not an easy lift. It’s about “chops” in music parlance, which typically refers to technical skills but true “art” nails all three imo. It exhibits technical skill, and conceptual brilliance, and beautiful execution. It appeals to the head, heart, and eye. Your examples – both the fine art and scale models – demonstrate that equation at work. And speaking of work, I think I be working a little harder at my build “presentation” going forward!

  10. Leaving aside issues such as the quality of the work, my thinking on this matter can be simplified to the two things I look for in a model. The first is how the model was made, which is technique (which might be considered craft). The second is, what does the model (piece) say? That’s art. Most scale models don’t say anything although many are very high quality craft.

    The interest in your article on this topic is the way in which you explain how craft (technique) is used to say something (art). I am perplexed, however, that the final piece only makes sense if you understand the context (or story?) that it expresses. If you don’t know that context it is curious rather than affecting, but perhaps it is saying that this is something you might want to understand and so go off, like you, to research and thus understand what the story is.

    It seems to me that you final two or three paragraphs are apologetic. It assumes that ‘art’ is superior to ‘craft’ which is not necessarily true. It reflects what is, I think, a cultural stereotype and discounts the value of high level craftwork.

    • Chris says:

      thanks for the very well thought out comment Leigh. I don’t my final paragraphs say that at all, but for the avoidance of doubt, art is not superior to craft it is parallel. in fact I have seen some craft which is at such a high level of skill and refined aesthetic that it leaves most are in the dust! like really fine Japanese lacquer work, and some medieval stone carving in England and Europe. it can be simply sublime. The same is true of course in modelling

      I think its true to say that art is art, whether or not we understand it. There are enough clues in Alex’s last piece that I personally think it is obvious more is going on with it. I actually did not know about the Mudmen when I saw it. I saw a soldier or coloniser with an indigenous mask in a jungle and it set of thoughts about Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and I researched the rest.

  11. John Murray says:

    Ah, the old (Insert pastime here) debate again. Over the last few years I have refined my thoughts on this subject.
    For me it is quite simple although hard to describe. Whether in my photography of people, scale modelling or other pursuits I generally think of my work as a craft.
    In my photography, I see so many tropes being displayed that nevertheless inspire me. Images from these thought processes I class as craft.
    The rare occasions I can visualise, construct an image from scratch, then process it it to my vision are what I consider to be my art. I recently brought to life an image in outback South Australia that I had been visualising for decades after being exposed to the landscape. I class that as an example of my art.
    Others may disagree with that but when I know what I have gone through to bring the vision to life, then I class that as my art.
    In modelling, I may buy a kit, do amazing work with it but for me it will only be a craft.
    I have yet to make art in my scale modelling time. I do not have the skillset nor the time to develop the required skillset.
    There are recent examples I have seen of scratch-built works that had only a vision and then construction and finishing to bring it to life. That is art in scale modelling for me.

    • Chris says:

      People hugely undervalue Craft, as Leigh has also said. The highest levels of craft are sublime. we should learn to celebrate craft and stop trying to call it art to legitimise it

      • John Murray says:

        Yup, I agree Chris. I was not intending to devalue craft.
        Craft and Art sit side by side as worthwhile pastimes.
        I follow a number of people who are craftspeople of the highest calibre.
        As I tried but failed to say, Art for me is a thought process on the creative individual. This is why some people see something as art, and others see it as craft.

  12. Jamie Stokes says:

    It’s interesting to read both the article and the comments.

    We assemble a 3 dimensional representation of a object, that was mass produced (usually) and we get and use some markings, apply them along with paint, to depict a vehicle (or similar) in a predetermined way, with a bit of latitude on how clean, fresh, tidy, or otherwise we wish our version to be.

    It may be art, however there’s some boundaries laid out before we open the box, and further boundaries reinforcing what looks acceptable under the “plausible/ realistic” expectations.

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