The Tyranny of Realism

Start any conversation about scale modelling, and sooner or later, someone tell you “the purpose of modelling is realism”. Indeed, many arguments centre around whether something is realistic, from the tired old ones like “panel lines aren’t visible from scale distance” to arguments about colours. The default assumption seems to be that realism is the goal of modelling for everyone.

It is not.

Nor should it be.

What’s Wrong with Realism?!

Nothing. It’s a totally legitimate aim, and I concede that it is the aim of the majority of modellers.  I’m all for rivet counters. I used to be one myself, and many modellers I hugely respect count rivets. They make highly detailed, highly accurate models and I love what they do. But that is only one way to model.

In addition I see a lot of people who, frankly, don’t make spectacularly accurate models, but complain about ‘over weathering’ and panel lines because “They aren’t realistic”. If these guys don’t like these things, of course they are entitled to. But projecting it on others, is a problem our hobby does not need.

One thing is bullshit, Ima gonna say it. The idea that what we are doing is making a model that looks like the real thing seen from the distance required to make it appear that small to your eye. What kind of mental gymnastics is that?! Holy cow people if that’s your argument, you might want to ask yourself how you need to work so hard to make it make sense. If that offends you, fair enough, stop reading here, but don’t try and ‘educate me’ on Facebook, when I post a link to this, because I could not give a crap.

The argument I will totally accept is that we are making scale models of real things. This should be more-or-less obvious to anyone, it’s the aim of manufacturers to make an accurate representation of the real thing, and it’s the aim of most modellers to assemble (maybe correcting) and finish it to accurately resemble the same real thing. So far, so obvious, and uncontroversial.

I Like Big Buts and I Cannot Lie

BUT, you don’t have to make realism the object of your hobby. This hobby is often referred to as ‘an art’. Art is not concerned with hyper realism. Art has something to say, and it plays with realism to get that over. The impressionists are probably the most popular artists of the last 300 years. Tens of thousands of people flock to the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris every year to see Monet’s “Water Lilies”. Tens of thousands visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam every year to gaze at ”Starry Night”, “Sunflowers” and his self-portraits, and the Sistine Chapel is nearly constantly full of people staring up at the work of Michealangelo and his apprentices.

None of these are photorealistic, but they represent things how we perceive them as human beings. Starry night speaks to us on an emotional level, the sunflowers still look like sunflowers, and the Sistine Chapel is obviously a narrative, and one that most people with even the most basic knowledge of a Judeo-Christian religion knows about the “creation of man”. We don’t need these works to be photo-realistic to be ‘true’.

You Can Handle the Truth

But I’m wandering into art again, and this is about models. Many modellers want to represent a conception of their subject. They want to make a tired spitfire that has flown a lot of sorties and seen a lot of action, or they want to make a Sherman that has fought its way from Normandy to Nuremburg, or a Tiger I that has seen a Russian winter, or A6M Zero that’s seen a lot of coral strips and hot pacific suns. They can look for a photo and copy it, and quite probably the photo won’t match what you see on these models. But these models still tell the viewer what the modeller wanted to say. Not that “this is what a Sherman exactly looked like”, but “this is a tired, war weary Sherman” (“war-weary” really is a terrible modelling cliché, but that’s a personal hobby horse I’ll die on another day, its still a legitimate thing for a modeller to do if they want). Using the heavy weathering, pumping the colour contrasts and adding a ton of stowage may not be realistic, but it creates the full impression the modeller wants to make, an impression based on their conception of the history of that machine. It may not be a story taken from an actual life, but it is their conception of the truth of the object that they are representing.

We Aren’t Inventing the Shrinko-matic

The fact is, for most people, we are not making shrunken versions of the real thing. I know some of you will be experience blood-pressure spikes reading that, but we aren’t. If we were then you had better be shaving edges to actual scale, adding every missing detail, and applying your paint in scale thickness because if you are trying to make a perfectly scaled replica of the real thing, and you content some modelling things are “unrealistic” then you are either opening an all-or-nothing can of worms, or your are cherry picking to suit your personal bias.

What we are making, is models. A model is a physical object that represents (representation is a very broad word, don’t get hung up that it means total fidelity) a full-sized real world or fantasy (in the case of sci-fi etc.) object. It is not the real think shrunk down, it’s a model, and a model, necessarily, makes compromises to represent the thing it is based on. How many compromises, and how big they are can be a personal choice. You do not have to worship at the temple of (perceived) realism.

Free Your Mind and the rest is Models

Once you break free of the self-imposed restriction of realism, you can give full rein to that creativity everyone claims to want to have with their models. You can firmly, and forever, put what you want to say, or the story you want to tell, in front of the need to faithfully and slavishly copy reality.

That doesn’t mean you have to abandon accuracy. I still like to make accurate models, for sure. But you don’t have to let accuracy get in the way of making the model you want to make, that tells the ‘truth’ you want to tell.

Unlike the compromises I was talking about with the idea of creating a true scaled replica, you can choose which ones you make in order to let you achieve your goals, some accuracy you can keep if you want, some you can discard, but you don’t have to slavishly keep them all if they don’t serve the purpose of your model, if you are no longer trying to tell everyone that your model is ‘realistic’.

Realism is Only One Way

To reiterate, because I know by now some heads are a poppin’, there is nothing at all wrong with realism as the goal of your modelling. For many people their ‘truth’ is to as faithfully as they can, represent the prototypical object. This is as valid a goal of modelling as any other.

But it is not more valid, nor should it be accepted as *the* goal of modelling. When it all comes down to it, we are one person, at one bench, making a model. The rest, how you do it, and why, is up to you.

About Chris

I'm Chris Meddings, Modeller, Author, Publisher of Modelling Books, Podcaster, and armchair wannabe thinker
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17 Responses to The Tyranny of Realism

  1. Peter Knaul says:

    I totally agree on that there is more than one way to do this hobby.
    On that note I would like to see that modeller talk more about what they wanted to achive. It is an different approach if I want to create an specific aircraft of one pilot at an specific date, or just an aircraft with multiple damages seen on 10 other aircraft.
    I do think it would ease up the dicussion, or better I hope…

  2. Terry Miesle says:

    Most model genres have their Style Guide. They have accepted finishing styles. These can be crossed, but it’s rare to see a Sherman tank painted in Gundam style – though that style could well be used to depict a comic book style.

    Some of the best entries I’ve ever seen have been painted to look like 80s anime shading, 40s comic book coloration, book cover paintings etc.

    Do what you want, but also remember getting stuck in your box leads you to getting good at one thing, but you’ll be doing that same thing over and over again.

    • Chris says:

      I was more thinking about the most ardent realism guys. the ones who complain about models being ‘overweathered’ or ‘panel lines would not be visible’

      I think the impact of the model is the most important thing. (after the pleasure of making it, of course)

  3. Dennis Loep says:

    Thank you Chris, well said and well put.

    As I have said before, I build (in) possibilities.
    Things that might have been, but are not unrealistic.
    That’s me.

    For others; please build as you please, but keep on building.

  4. Tim says:

    We’ll put Chris, except for the one statement “we are making scale models of real things”. You do concede Sci-fi and fantasy models fit in to the representations we build. Gundum, sci-fi and fantasy are figments of our imaginations but as of yet, not real things 😉

  5. Bruce Culver says:

    Well said, Chris. As I now build only for recreation as a pastime, I tend to build what suits me at the moment, and so have different approaches for each model. I do tend to overweather (just love jeeps in the mud in the Ardennes in December), but am trying to knock that back for most models. I want to practice modeling all sorts of weathering – from desert dry (Africa) to pouring rain (Italy) – we’ll see how that goes. With my damaged right retina, it all will be quite impressionistic I’m sure…..

  6. Stuart Halton says:

    Totally agree. I think of my models as three dimensional illustrations. I do use references to make my model ‘belivable’ . I add physical detail if it’s missing and try to replicate effects that I have seen but usually swap serial numbers around so it becomes a representative machine rather than a replica of a specific one. Towards the end of a build my focus is on what looks right on the model as an image rather than chasing ‘reality’.

  7. Stuart says:

    Having just slapped a load of Mig-15 decals on the special Hobby D.H. Vampire FB.3 I was building (I’d lost the sheet from the kit), I whole-heartedly agree with this post.

  8. Brian O'Donoghue says:

    Funnily enough, I’ve visited Paris to see some fantastic art, and I’ve seen a number of photo realistic paintings. If anyone hasn’t seen them you do need to.
    I like great looking realistic models, I know a thing or two about military vehicles. A few folks would be surprised about painting full size military vehicles. Sometimes we used the wrong paint, pretty sure I painted over mud too… sometimes we kept them clean other times only washed on return to camp.
    How a modeller replicates a finish is a series of compromises. Realism, I’m with you on this, it’s the modeller who gets to decide on the how it’s finished, but accuracy is something else.

  9. Nikos Kosmadakis says:

    Well gluing plastic pieces together, for me is all about learning something new (history, techniques, products. etc), and having fun. I try to be as accurate as i can without losing my sanity over the right shade of grey. I do this for stress release, not the other way around.

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