Tag Archives: building

Zen and the Art of Building Model Kits

Since I rediscovered the joys of building model kits a few years ago, I have wondered on more than one occasion why I find this hobby so absorbing? I don’t enter competitions, I certainly don’t try to sell the finished kits and I don’t even tend to show them to anyone other than my long-suffering wife who, I suspect, has come to dread hearing the words “Hey, look at this…” 

So, why do I do it? This ramble represents my thoughts about this hobby and what I like about it. You may agree. You may not. Either way, please do feel free to add your comments.

So, why do we do this?

On the face of it, the process of kit building is more than a little absurd. A manufacturer carefully produces a scale representation of a particular aircraft, vehicle or ship. Then, they spend a great deal of time, effort and money breaking this down into component pieces so that we can buy it and build it back up into something (hopefully) resembling what they started out with.

This is a perfectly reasonable 1/76 Churchill by Oxford Diecast. If you buy one of these, you won’t get glue on your fingers or paint on the carpet. But, IMHO, you won’t have nearly as much fun either.

Now, wouldn’t it cut out a great deal of mucking about if the manufacturer simply gave us a complete model instead of a box of parts? And if they’d paint it too, then I could avoid getting the marks on the carpet that cause my wife so much distress. But there’s the thing: the mucking about is what this hobby is really about. I don’t know about you, but I generally lose interest in a kit as soon as its finished. This is clearly about the process, not the product. But what is it about building and painting a kit that gives so much satisfaction. I suspect there are several parts to the answer.

Learning about what you’re building

I love learning new stuff, particularly on topics I’m already interested in. I suspect most people are the same. And if you’re building a kit of, for example, a Panzer III Ausf. L, well, you’re going to want to know what a Panzer III is and how an Ausf. L version is different. And how and where it was used and consequently, how it was painted and used.

That’s the Fleeting Cloud camouflage pattern. Not a lot of people know that.

That applies to any kit you’re building. One of the kits I have most enjoyed building in the last 12 months was the Tamiya Chi-Ha. Partly, that’s because it’s a decent kit but it’s also because, when I started out, I knew very little about Japanese tanks. Learning about this tank led me to discover, amongst many other things, something called the “Fleeting Cloud” camouflage pattern. I shared that particular interesting fact with my wife, though she seemed surprisingly ungrateful.

You’re an artist!

However much we might want to deny it, if you go past basic construction and painting, creating tiny versions of large aircraft, vehicles and ships is an art form. Unless you’re building in 1/1 scale, you can’t simply paint a kit in precisely the same way as the original and expect it to look right. Colours look different at small scale as do things like the effects of light and shadow.

Particularly if you’re working in a small scale, you have to consider these things. That’s why techniques like dry-brushed highlights and washes that emphasise shadows can make such a difference to how a finished kit looks. They aren’t there on the original, but once you have tried them, you won’t go back to flat painted kits.

Dry-brushed highlights and an oil wash to bring out the shadows. Does that make this Italeri Marder III a work of art? I’m not certain, but it’s about as close as I will come.

And while there are lots of guides available, the amount of this type of work (plus things like paint chipping and weathering) are entirely up to you. You’ll be working with acrylic and/or enamel paints as well as oils and pastels to achieve an effect that looks right to you. Face it, you’re an artist! And that’s hugely satisfying.

Making them better

Few kits are perfect out of the box, particularly if, like me, you have an interest in older kits. These often lack detail or sometimes they’re just plain wrong. I actually enjoy the process of researching how accurate and complete a particular kit is and in trying to improve it if I can. I’m not aiming for 100% accuracy, because I’m not even sure that’s attainable.

The Airfix 1/76 Tiger from 1964 is pretty crap by modern standards. Even with a few improvements, it’s only marginally less crap. But for reasons I can’t really explain, I enjoyed the process of trying to make it better.

But I do think there is a great deal of satisfaction to be had in attempting to improve a kit. And perhaps that’s one of the reasons I’m less enthusiastic about some recent kits. They’re just so damn good that there is really very little you can do to make them better. I think that’s why I often find myself drawn to cheap-and-cheerful older kits that give me some scope for adding my own improvements and extra details.  

Be in the moment

Finally, we come to the Zen part of this article and what is, for me at least, one of the least recognised joys of model building. One of the concepts explored in Zen is mindfulness, sometimes called “being in the moment”. There have been whole books written about this topic, but the basic idea is simple: you give 100% of your attention to what you’re doing right now, without being distracted by thoughts of the past or future. And there’s actually good evidence that this is good for your brain, helping you to reduce stress, reducing the effects of depression and helping you to sleep.

In today’s hectic world, actually spending time wholly thinking about what you’re doing now is rare: we often do something while thinking about what we’re going to do tomorrow or worrying about what we should have done yesterday. Mindfulness is about escaping this. Of course, you can find mindfulness in lots of ways. I used to race and ride motorcycles, and those activities pretty much demand 100% concentration at all times. Because if you don’t you’ll end up bouncing down the road or track. A good ride on a fast bike can leave you feeling clear headed-and relaxed. But a failure to achieve that can lead to additions to my already extensive scar collection, so now, I get my mindfulness fix through model building.

This person is preparing to paint the roadwheel tyres on a 1/72 Panzer IV. Probably…

Whether you are painting the frame on a canopy of a small scale aircraft, or the roadwheel tyres on a small scale tank, or just about any other aspect of building a model, you are giving all your attention to what you’re doing. That’s why a good session of kit-bashing can leave you feeling relaxed, more positive and less stressed. And that’s why I believe that kit-building is a Zen activity.

What do you think?

Related Posts

Confessions of a born-again kit builder

Growing up with Airfix kits

Scooby Doo Haunted House

Zoinks gang! It’s time for a very different bit of modelling to start off 2022. I mentioned in my last post (a review of a set of 1/35 German infantry from 1914) that I was getting a bit jaded in my kit building. My jadedness (is that even a word?) was increased when I messed up a shadow wash while painting those figures and ended up dumping the all-black figures in the bin. Sigh…

So, I’m now going to attempt something very different indeed. It’s a kind of, sort of, vignette in approximately 1/24 scale featuring Scooby Doo and friends. No tanks, no military stuff at all, and not a kit in sight… This is just about nostalgia-fuelled fun. I hope!

OK, now that most of my regulars have gone elsewhere for their fix of regular military-themed kit-building, what’s this new project all about?

Background

Way back in July 1969, man first walked on the Moon. Which I, as a ten-year-old, regarded as surpassingly cool and exciting. But just two months later, something else happened that had a huge effect on my pre-teen self: the very first episode of a new kid’s cartoon series, Scooby Doo: Where Are You? launched on CBS. Produced by  Hanna-Barbera, the show featured a truly Gothic aesthetic supported by wonderful painted backgrounds (even if some of the foreground animations were a little creaky).

How can you not love this? Like most of the art from Series 1, this painting was created by Walt Peregoy, a background artist who had previously worked for Disney.

The show was produced in an attempt to create a non-violent kid’s show that would avoid the criticism that many existing superhero series were attracting from parent’s and media groups. The outcome was utterly formulaic: in each of the 17 episodes of the first series, the four teenage protagonists (Velma, Daphne, Shaggy and Fred) plus their Great Dane Scooby Doo would turn up at a new location in the Mystery Machine.

When the Mystery Machine arrives in town, bad things are going to happen…

They would encounter some sort of paranormal (ghosts, zombies, etc.) or cryptid (Yeti, sea monster, etc.) problem. The gang would uncover clues and set a fiendishly complicated trap (that usually failed) before finally discovering that the ghost/monster was really a baddie in disguise. Nothing startling really, but the atmosphere (at least until the final unmasking) was rather dark and scary for a kid’s show.

Another of Walt Peregoy’s wonderful backgrounds

There were jump scares, a brooding atmosphere of menace and lots of scary establishing shots. As a ten-year-old, I found some of the episodes genuinely scary. But here’s the thing: I love the horror genre, whether it’s books, movies or television. I’m certain that my enthusiasm for this began with Scooby Doo and I still retain fond feelings for the original couple of series (but not anything that features Scrappy Doo, OK?). You could argue, if you were so inclined, that these cartoons introduced a new generation (including yours truly) to the tropes of Gothic horror – from a creepy house on a remote island to an abandoned airfield, all were laden with dread and the unspoken promise of very bad things.

If you want to remind yourself about just how great the early episodes were, the YouTube video below provides the first five minutes of the very first episode of Scooby Doo: Where Are You? from 1969, What a night for a Knight.

The Plan

Jump forward over fifty years and I was in a toyshop in a large town. I was hoping they might stock model kits (they didn’t) and instead I found myself captivated by a new range from Playmobil featuring the characters from the original series of Scooby Doo. I grew to love Playmobil when my kids were growing up – the sheer quality and diverse design of everything they make really impressed me. The combination of Playmobil and Scooby Doo was almost irresistible, but my kids are now rather too grown up to appreciate these as presents and as yet, there is no sign of grandchildren to allow me to indulge my joy in train sets and Scalextric.

My latest kit failure made me think about this again. Of course, I could simply buy the Playmobil Scooby Doo Haunted Mansion, but where’s the challenge in that? Would it be possible instead to use the Playmobil characters in a home-made haunted house that reflected the cartoon aesthetic of the original? Could this then be used as the basis for a series of photographs that can be presented as a comic-strip or even a video? Essentially, can I make a new episode of Scooby Doo using these models?

That’s a lot of questions and I really don’t know the answer to any of them. I’m not even sure whether this represents revisiting my childhood or the first signs of approaching dementia. And I don’t really care, I am looking forward to something that’s a little more light-hearted than my usual modelling subject. There’s a fair bit of work involved, so I’ll be updating progress in several parts. If I ever get the comic strip/video done, I’ll post that here too. Let’s start by looking at the cast for my new episode.

The Cast

Playmobil offer all the main characters from the original Scooby Doo as well as most of the monsters/ghosts from the early series. The monsters are particularly nicely done, because all can be revealed as being other characters in disguise…

I want to keep it as simple as possible, so I went for set 70287, Scooby and Shaggy with Ghost. This provides the figures fof Scooby Doo and Shaggy as well as a third character who can wear a glow-in-the-dark ghost outfit. I would have liked to have the other members of the gang, but they are only available as a large set that includes the Mystery Machine.

Scooby and Shaggy are presented in the traditional Playmobil semi-cartoon style and the ghost is particularly nicely done with a separate hood (complete with eye-holes) that can be removed to reveal the person underneath. It really does glow in the dark too, and how many 1/72 tanks can you say that about…

There are also some accessories including a bag of Scooby Snacks, a flashlight, a burger and a lead (though I can’t remember Scooby ever being on a lead in the series).

The next step will be to start to create the haunted house set and I’m looking forward to it. What do you think? Am I losing my mind or would you also like to try something completely different in terms of model-building? Stay tuned for the next thrilling instalment…  

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Scooby Doo Haunted House – Part 2

Scooby Doo Haunted House – Part 3