Look Again

Modelling, like any visual medium, has its own language. There are obvious tropes, like Tigers and Shermans and Spitfires and 109s, and there are modern modelling tropes like “‘heroic’ German retreats from Russia” models, whitewashed T-34s and Panzers with rusty metal and primer red panels, that have become clichés in the last 20 years. But I’m not here to bash tropes and clichés (as much as I LOVE to).

At the same time, there are finishing tropes. accepted ways to depict rust, bright Olive Drabs, rain and dust streaking, and panel streaking on aircraft. These are looks that are accepted as the way something looks, somewhat divorced from how something may have looked. But again, I’m not here to complain about realism (I already litigated that HERE.)

What I’m getting to, is that modelling has become so full of clichés and tropes, and accepted ways of depicting things, that an expectation has creeped in: that you must use these things if you want your model to be understood.

What Are You Looking At?

This has raised its head for me recently with Will Pattison’s 1/48 Easy 8.

When Will posted this on Facebook, people assumed it was intended to be the improvised wooden armour on Shermans in the Pacific theatre, like this one on Tinian:

But it wasn’t.

Will was making a what-if speculative model where some crew had welded steel angle to their tank. This didn’t stop people telling him his wood looked wrong, he needed more woodgrain chipping, and just generally lots of comments about his wooden armour. If you look closely at the picture, you can see its angle metal.

The problem is that people were seeing what they expected to see, rather than what was there.

Will took that as a failure to communicate; that what he was doing did not translate to what people were seeing, but I don’t think the failure was his.

Some time ago I did a museum diorama of the Cobbaton Combat Collection‘s Centurion AVRE, using the superb AFV Club kit.

A feature of the museum is that they use mannequins in the exhibits and they like to make the vehicles look ‘lived in’

I decided to paint some 1/35 figures like the mannequins and pose them like them.

When I showed progress to Will and Tracy they said they didn’t work. That people might just think they were badly painted figures. And they were right, but for me, they were also wrong. While people may think that when they look at the figures, it was more important to me to paint them as I wanted them to look, to be true to the actual thing, than to fit what a modeller may see through the lens of their conception of the hobby.

Later I painted rust on a vehicle and I had the same dilemma. The rust on the real thing did not look like rust on a model. There are many many many kinds of rust of course, but in modelling we more commonly go for a very uniform look, that is usually tending towards oranges and reds, with some grey, and a lot of speckling. But my reference didn’t look like that:

(Photo by Sergey BOBOK / AFP) (Photo by SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images)

I tried to replicate the photo and failed, but again it was more important to me to try to do this, than to conform to the common visual language for a subject like this.


That’s what happens right? Often when a modeller makes a poor model, they blame everyone else for not getting it, that’s what I’m doing right? No. I’m not blaming anyone who doesn’t get what I’m trying to do, for not getting what I’m trying to do. I understood when I did these things that they may be misunderstood because they don’t conform to the usual way we see models.

When you come up against something like this, you can decide, is it more important to be understood, or to make it how you want to make it? Why do you make a model?

Its up to you

About Chris

I'm Chris Meddings, Modeller, Author, Publisher of Modelling Books, Podcaster, and armchair wannabe thinker
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7 Responses to Look Again

  1. Doogs says:

    Excellent post, Chris. For me it all leads to a question – so what? What does a modeler do with this awareness?

    It all starts with understanding that there are tropes to begin with. Things our eyes will expect to see. Wood armor. Badly painted figures. If people look closer, sure, they may realize what’s up. But you can’t assume people will look closer.

    So that leaves two paths. First, you can say fuck those people, and leave it subtle, as an easter egg for those who do look closer and “get it”.

    Second, you can draw attention to your trope subversion. I don’t know that I would paint a mannequin poorly so much as either go for a physically impossible pose, like if the mannequin’s arm broke off or something. Or, go for a more minimalistic, single-color mannequin to tell the message more effectively. In the case of Will’s lil Sherman, I’d probably lean into more bright orange rust tones, throw in some brighter metal areas where the crew is clambering up them or scraping past branches, etc. Separating the paint even further from the tank would also help. The more they stand out, the more the eye looks, the more clear the real intent becomes.

    • Chris says:

      in the case of my diorama I posed them very stiffly and unnaturally

    • Jake says:

      Love that! I was thinking about Will’s armor while listening to y’all talk about it on the podcast. I was thinking that maybe it was a story problem, so to speak. Meaning: there’s a story that Will had in his head about some angle iron being used might not been enough to guide him. Maybe the angle iron shouldn’t have been camouflage painted to match the tank? If it’s a field add-on, would it have gotten painted to match the tank? Maybe? But if you tweak the story to allow some of the mental constructs to better adjust, true as the original idea may have been, would this help actually *communicate* better? This is the same thing movie makers have to do when compressing a true story into a entertainment drama… they have to make sure the spirit of the true story is there and not venture too far into non-reality while also holding the audience’s attention.

      It’s a hard balance. I like the odd poses of your diorama and I love the base plate for the one standing in the far left corner of the image. But it might be hard in our space, where toy soldiers have bases like that to get the message across. Would a rope and stanchion in front of the figures helped? Or putting the figures in a glass case? The missing arm of one of them? Maybe. Hard to say until you play. It might of been too much. Or leaving an arm off might have given the impression the museum was abandoned.

      (And for the record, I love this diorama. One of my favorites)

      • Chris says:

        Thanks Jake,

        I actually think that figure is the easiest to tell is a mannequin, because I painted his flash gloss black. In the end with that diorama I decided making it more obvious in order to communicate more was a compromise I was not comfortable with, and for me that’s the point. Its a choice we make, and I think its one to make consciously.

  2. Dan Feldman says:

    For the Rusty Russian, Would having a Violet tones and paynes grey been on your painting pallet. One nice thing about modern photo is you can put the in an image color picker. Like adobe or a free one They will list the tones as a pallet

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