“Art is not a study of positive reality, it is the seeking for ideal truth”. John Ruskin.
No, that’s not an accidental transposition of words in the heading; the practice of weathering in the model railway hobby is currently in a bit of an odd place in my estimation. My thoughts about this were somewhat crystallised recently when the banners for one of the model railway red tops screamed out ‘Weathering Made Easy – We Show You How!’ We hear a lot about ‘dumbing down’ in the hobby these days and whilst I’m all for things being made accessible, realistically there are limits to how much you can simplify things that are not simple.
It sometimes seems that almost every time I look up, there is some magazine or Internet piece extolling the wonders of a particular technique or a new product in this field, the implication being that it has to be better than what’s gone before and implying that skill in application is pretty much irrelevant. And yet, the standard of much of the work around doesn’t necessarily reflect any overall improvement. Leafing through Tim Shackleton’s loco weathering time, he says weathering is 10% technique, 10% tools and 80% observation. I’d probably mildly disagree about those precise percentages, but I’m very much with him on the ‘what’ (the need for observation and perception), and a much reduced emphasis on ‘how’.
I notice a lot of weathering where the technique is actually quite good and well executed, but it isn’t well observed. It’s not appropriate to the subject model and hence to anyone who does know that subject, it fails to convince. Some other work doesn’t even reach that benchmark, but appears to rely on the impact of sheer blather – this is often associated with the ‘wonder product’ mentality, and powders, I’m afraid to say, figure large in this. But how convincing can it be to have (for instance) a supposedly working steam loco with faded green paintwork (for some unexplained reason, for a machine that would surely be cleaned with the legendary oily rag), and yet which shows no sign of oil or grime on its running gear?
Perhaps it’s this sort of work that encourages the (incorrect) impression that weathering is all about dirt and decay, or even just making things look a mess. It isn’t; admittedly the term is a misnomer but it should encompass every aspect of making a scale model look like the real thing viewed from a distance. Quite apart from dirt, rust and oil, that includes the diluting effect of the atmosphere through which we view it and the discolouring effects of that atmosphere on substances like new wood and roofing felt.
Whilst powders certainly have their uses, I’m increasingly standing by my feeling that they are only a secondary medium, best suited to providing tonal variation and perhaps a suggestion of texture. And yet they continue to be promoted as the ideal weathering solution for the diffident newbie, usually on the grounds they can be washed off. Well that may be so, but I’d be surprised if it was possible to remove every trace and leave a factory-fresh finish. Not only that but most powders are notoriously difficult to fix, and putting any sort of varnish over the top, if it doesn’t blow them off, is very likely to change the refraction and to dull or even eliminate any subtlety.
And why on earth do people always want to start with a favourite but expensive model, and quote the corresponding risk of spoiling it as a deterrent? For a few quid and a few hours spent at a swapmeet, they can obtain some old models they can practice on – or is it that they don’t really want to commit to the apprenticeship in developing the skills?
Examples of worn bauxite on wood and rusted grey on steel, achieved with relatively small, targeted applications of paint and selective blending and abrading techniques. If anyone can achieve these effects solely with powders, I’ll be very interested.
Another example of ‘professional’ weathering I’ve happened upon lately involved the interior of an iron ore tippler. The first thing I wondered was ‘has the bloke who did this ever even looked at the interior of a real steel-bodied wagon’. And whilst ores do vary in colour, and I can’t swear that there isn’t one somewhere in the UK that’s the colour of chocolate, I doubt that there is one that sticks in neatly-edged spots and lumps to the wagon side, two or three feet off the floor. The whole thing looked apathetic and clumsy, and frankly undermines the ‘pros’ that do take the time to research what they’re doing and have a pride in their work.
In similar vein, I’m pretty bemused by some of Humbrol’s latest products. As to the above noted powders, there are some interesting and useful videos on the ‘Net showing them in use by someone who is obviously a skilled modeller. But I was to say the least bemused to hear him say at one point that he was ‘turning the water/powder mixture into a slightly sticky layer of colour’. Um, so that’ll be a bit like paint, then?
The idea of pre-mixed washes, which have also made an appearance from Humbrol, is another odd one. Maybe I’m missing something here, but mixing your own washes on and ad hoc basis gives you variety and more control over the viscosity, not to mention an unlimited range of colours. And it’s hardly difficult, in fact as I say elsewhere on this very blog, it’s the one technique that I’d encourage any newbie to start by experimenting with. Do we really need to make it that easy, or is it just that everyone wants to be an instant expert? Or are these products destined to sit in the ‘someday cupboard’ of tyro purchasers who are impressed by the hype?
The contrast becomes even more marked, of course, when compared with what the military modellers in particular are doing. There has always been something that sets aside our hobby from other modelling disciplines; it’s been a talking point but I tend towards the fact that ours inherently features movement. Trains move, and do so relatively easily, whereas working road vehicles or aircraft are more difficult. Consequently I assume that the military guys are that much more focussed on appearance.
One particular outfit that really brings home this contrast in a high profile way is Mig Jiminez’s AK Interactive. Their ‘Weathering Magazine’ was brought to my attention by Wirral FRM’s Mike Turner late last year, and I’ve recently tracked down a copy of the reprint of the first issue dealing with rust effects and the fourth, covering oil and engines.
Admittedly the mag is something of a vehicle for AK’s own products, but it should be evident from the cover that the intention is to encourage the highest of results and not just another of the ‘it’ll dos’ so beloved of our own media. The credibility of the modelmaker’s art, often in doubt it seems, is enhanced in that Mig himself is no nerdy anorak in appearance, and the presence of the charming Akatsiya within the pages doesn’t hurt either! But it’s not even necessary to go to the length of ordering this publication – a quick browse of the military and aircraft modelling mags in your local Smiffs will soon get you an insight into a very different world than the one most railway modellers seem to inhabit. Another potentially useful resource, which is specifically rail-related albeit more US, is The Weathering Shop and its forum – you’ll find newbies there but you’ll also find a better class of feedback and advice than tends to be the case this side of the Pond.
But most of all, if you’re seriously interested in weathering, don’t make too many assumptions. Don’t think that a factory weathered model is anything more than a convenience for the manufacturer, or that everyone who’s showing you his weathered model has any more on his mind than his own brilliance. Use your own eyes and your own perception of what convinces. Look at photos of real trains, in books, magazines or on the Internet. Look at the world around you – the fence at the bottom of your garden and that Transit pickup you’re sat behind on the way into town use the same materials that are used in the railway environment, and they’ll degrade in much the same way. Develop your own ideas of colouration and contrast and how different effects interact with each other. Most of all, be prepared to put the time in, make mistakes and learn from them, and develop an eclectic approach that in time you can call your own.