Tag Archives: plastic kit

Diecast replicas, instant gratification, and the vanishing art of model kit building

Today I had an interesting conversation with the manager of a local store specializing in aviation related merchandise. This store just underwent a major revamp. The most striking change was a huge increase in the amount of floor space devoted to ready made diecast aircraft replicas. This section was not only expanded, but also moved to the front of the store. In contrast, the plastic kit section was shrunk down in size and relegated to the back of the store.

When I asked about this change, the manager confirmed that diecast replicas were outselling kits by a huge margin. He went on and on about the quality and fine detail on these replicas and how much they’ve improved over the years. I pointed out another trend, which is that people are losing the patience to build kits. He agreed with this but didn’t seem concerned.

In our world of instant gratification, it should come as no surprise that fewer and fewer people are building model kits. Instant gratification has become a core Western value, and you can see it in the short-term planning that corporations use, the tactical (rather than strategic) mindset of politicians who can’t see past the ends of their own noses, and the effects of technology.

Communication technology is probably the biggest cuplrit in training ordinary people to expect instant gratification. While everyone blindly praises the uninterrupted 24/7 contact which digital telephony has enabled, no-one seems to have noticed the ugly side effects.

For the first time in human history, verbal conversations are being replaced by snippets of text. These text messages are to face-to-face conversations what finger paintings are to a Rembrandt. They’re devoid of poetry and depth, not to mention basic punctuation. Instead of witty banter, we have emoticons. No wonder children are so easily addicted to smart phones. These devices are a grammar-free playground of reassuring smiley faces, ideally suited to short attention spans. As our minds are remapped to favour brief, careless messaging over communication with content and substance, we are reverting to our preschool selves.

The other danger of this new technology is the way it undermines our mental focus. A mobile phone conversation is invariably conducted while running for the bus, ordering at a restaurant, or doing any number of other activities. So only a fraction of the user’s attention is focused on the conversation. This is akin to an Olympic sprinter running a race while trying to tie a shoelace at the same time.

Harried urban drones like to flatter themselves as multitaskers. Although the term “multitask” sounds full of promise, the hard reality is that the human brain is akin to a one-CPU computer. We pretend to multitask by switching frantically from task to task every few seconds, only raising our blood pressure and shortchanging the task at hand. We ignore the fact that the human brain is simply incapable of concentrating on more than one thing at a time.

So back to diecast replicas. For those lacking the motor skills or hand-eye coordination to build a model kit, there’s a place for these products. But most of the time, they’re a cop-out. The buyer is taking a shortcut to the end result, not realizing it comes at a cost. Gone is the joy of artistic creation, with all its ups and downs, and that sublime moment at the end when you can proudly display something you made with your own hands. For those who thought about building a kit and succumbed to the instant gratification of the diecast option, it’s a choice they’ll eventually regret.

-Ivar

 

Taking it to the next level: the diorama as an artistic progression from the model kit

In a previous post, I commented that most diorama artists start out as plastic model kit builders. Then at some point in their evolution as a modeler, they progress to dioramas. This is the typical path for most diorama artists, and for good reason.

Plastic models are the three-dimensional equivalent of paint by number kits in the world of painting. When you buy a paint by number kit from a craft store, you get a board or canvas with pre-marked outlines indicating areas to paint. Each area has a number corresponding to a paint colour to use. And all the required paints are included in the kit.

With a plastic model kit, much of the work is already done for you as well. All the pieces that go into the model are pre-formed; you simply snap or glue them together and then paint the model. Detailed instructions are given, with numbered steps guiding you through the assembly process. There is also a painting guide included with the instructions. Much like paint by number kits, plastic model kits are an easy way to get into the hobby for an aspiring artist.

More seasoned hobbyists will go a step beyond the basics. The experienced kit builder will not only paint the model, but will also weather it to enhance the realism of the finished product. The more advanced paint by number artist will mix colours and create skillful transitions from light to shadow, creating a much finer result.

After successfully completing several dozen plastic kits, the kit builder may wish to take on a new challenge. This could involve modifying a kit (for example, converting a Spitfire Mk1 to a Mk2), or adding something to it (for example, scratch building a landing chute for a Vulcan bomber, as shown in the photo at the top of this page). Kitbashing, in which parts from several models are combined to create an original result, is another option for the experienced builder. Other modelers will want to go a step further, creating an entire scene which incorporates one or more plastic kits. And so goes the evolution from kit builder to diorama artist.

The word “evolution” connotes progress, and I think it’s the right term in this case for several reasons. First, creating a diorama requires the artist to use his creative imagination and come up with a scene he wants to depict. Second, it requires that he apply design principles to maximize the visual impact of the scene. Third, it requires knowledge of specialized modeling techniques, such as miniature landscaping. None of these skills are needed to build a plastic kit out of the box.

Dioramas aren’t the only evolutionary path available to the plastic kit builder. Some modelers go on to create original works from scratch. A miniature ship or plane can be carved out of a block of wood, or crafted from other materials (large museum miniatures are usually custom built, since there are no commercially available kits of the subjects in sufficiently large scales). Other modelers want to see their creations perform the same functions as their real life counterparts. So for those who aren’t content with a static helicopter, they can build a radio controlled one that actually flies.

The path that you take in your evolution as a plastic kit modeler will depend on your personal interests and skills. Will you sculpt original pieces out of a block of wood, build aircraft that actually fly, or create compelling scenes in miniature as a diorama artist? The choice is yours.

-Ivar

The model railroad and the diorama

German toy maker Marklin produced the first model train set in 1891. According to www.marklin.com, it consisted of a wind-up locomotive with cars and an expandable track system. Electricity came to model railroads much later, and wasn’t popularized until the introduction of a 20-volt system in 1926, which replaced the former household current setup. These early train sets were commonly in O Gauge, which translates to 1:43 scale.

In 1935, O Gauge was “halved” into HO (1:87 scale), opening up model railroads to a wider audience. Although little historical data exists on the subject, it seems likely that this was the point when it became practical to begin creating realistic miniature train layouts. By the latter half of the 20th century, HO was the worldwide standard for model trains. To this day, many model train retailers continue to emphasize HO stock in their stores, although N Gauge (1:160) is also very popular.

About half a century after model railroads appeared, plastic kits came on the scene. Like model train companies, kit manufacturers introduced a series of scales (including 1:32, 1:48 and 1:72 for aircraft and 1:35 for military kits) which have been adhered to consistently ever since.

It would have made things far easier for the diorama artist if model railroad and plastic kit manufacturers had agreed to a common set of scales, but you can’t have everything. This lack of matching standards means that we sometimes have to resort to a bit of poetic license when adding items from the model train store to our dioramas. If you’re creating a scene in 1:72 scale, HO scenery and landscaping products will work quite well, but HO vehicles will look a bit too small.

Whether or not you like to get diorama accessories from the local model train store, diorama artists owe a great debt to the model railroad world. The whole concept of recreating vehicles—and entire scenes—in miniature was introduced by model railroad manufacturers a century ago. There were commercially available model trains well before plastic kits came out. You could argue that diecasts also predated plastic kits, but unlike trains, they weren’t usually used to create a complete scene like a model railroad.

It would be oversimplifying things to say there was a direct evolutionary path from the model railroad to the diorama. A better suggestion might be to think of them as following parallel paths, with the model railroad getting a head start on the historical timeline. There’s a lot of overlap between them. Both use realistic miniatures to depict places and events. Not all dioramas feature the lights and moving vehicles common to model railroads, and not all model railroads place as much of a premium on realism as do dioramas. But the similarities are there.

A good example of the overlap between model railroads and dioramas is Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg, Germany (http://www.miniatur-wunderland.com/). Billed as the “largest model railway in the world,” this permanent HO exhibition features several distinct sections depicting both actual and fictional locations.

What’s interesting about Miniatur Wunderland is that it’s much more than a model railway. There are moving cars, buses, ships, and even aircraft (not only can you see planes taxiing on the runway, but taking off and landing as well). To call it a model railway doesn’t really do it justice. With the variety of vehicles and scenes featured, you could call it a mega-diorama.

For the diorama artist, no trip to Germany would be complete without stopping in to marvel at this impressive exhibition. Is it a diorama or a model railway? The answer is “yes.”

-Ivar