Is Modeling Art?


Spend any amount of time in the online modeling community – on forums, on Facebook, YouTube, blogs, wherever, and you’ll see it pop up.

Modeling as art.

Or modeling as an art form.

Or modelers as artists. There are actually modelers who self-describe as “art modelers”, whatever the hell that means.

And of course…”art is subjective”.

Now, my instinctive reaction when I see modeling equated with art is to roll my eyes, but I want to dig into it more deeply.

Art is a Shitty Descriptor

My fellow modeler Will Pattison is a big fan of finding precise language to describe things as a way of trying to make sure everyone is reading a conversation the same way.

Art is about as imprecise a word as you can find. It’s highly subjective, and with such a broad scope of meaning that it’s essentially meaningless.

Art can be the Mona Lisa or Swan Lake. Or it can be my kids fixing pieces of macaroni to construction paper with glitter glue.

Which is modeling? Personally I find equating modeling with what I’ll shorthand as “high art” to be utterly pretentious. We are not artists on the same continuum as Monet or Magritte, Mozart or Mendelssohn.

At the same time, equating modeling with preschool “art” devalues it.

Art is a shitty descriptor.

A Better Definition

Merriam-Webster defines art as: “something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings”

I would add a wrinkle to this:

Art is imagination made manifest, and able to be experienced by others. Seen as in sculpture, read as in literature, heard as in music.

At the broad, Platonic ideal level, art is subjective, sure. Because at that level it’s more concept than reality.

But what about a painter going for a realistic landscape? If they paint the sky green, or paint a cow that looks like a raccoon, it’s objectively wrong. If a director is tasked with making a Star Wars movie and it features the USS Enterprise…it’s objectively wrong.

On Intent

Intent matters.

Intent sets objective boundaries. For Michaelangelo, recreating realistic human forms in stone was the intention, and we can objectively judge his success in doing so.

Modeling, in general, is geared toward creating a miniature facsimile of a real thing (or in the case of sci-fi, real fictional things like X-Wings). There is a goal there. There is intent there.

When you’re trying to represent a specific subject, there are more-or-less objective points of comparison. Reference photos. Actual, real-life examples. Detailed blueprints and plans. Paint samples. Things everyone can see. Common points of reference.

Now, if your intention is not to represent a specific subject to the best of your ability, fine. Do whatever the fuck you want. Put monster truck tires on a biplane and call it a fire truck for all I care.

But when I see people bitching about how a kit is 1mm too short, or obsessing over just the right shade of olive drab (which is in itself laughable, but that’s another rant), I read that as intent to recreate as realistically as possible. At that point, objectivity is in play.

When that happens, and the build skews well away from realistic representation because, I don’t know, its panel lines are so overdone that it looks like a tartan blanket or it’s painted entirely the wrong shade of gray or the insignia are put on upside down, the “I’m an artiste! Art is subjective! You can’t judge me!” thing is…an excuse.

Prowess is a Different Animal

Prowess is the thing that sits between imagination and its physical manifestation. Creative ability, technical proficiency, call it what you will…if it’s lacking it creates a gap between intent – what we picture in our minds eye – and the finished product.

I will happily own up to having my own prowess gaps. I would imagine most who claim to be artists would say the same. There’s always room for improvement. For honing techniques and learning new methods.

To my mind, feedback on prowess – or I guess you might say on the technical aspects of a build – exists outside of the art question. Why does your canopy have paint overspray on it – mask it next time. I’ve had that dusting problem with that type of paint before, here’s how you can get a smoother finish next time.

I can’t for the life of me imagine why somebody wouldn’t want feedback on the technical elements of modeling. Even if someone does only want to treat it as a silly diversion, there has to be some desire to get a bit better at that silly diversion, to gain that sense of accomplishment that comes with improvement. Right?

Is Modeling Art?

Back to the question then. Is it?

Fuck if I know – or if I’m even qualified to know. I think that an argument can certainly be made. But I also think the way it’s usually trotted out, the “it’s art and you can’t judge me” thing, is more of a dodge against actually grappling with feedback and facing our own flaws as modelers.

Whatever the case, it’s still a shitty descriptor.


34 Comments Add yours

  1. It’s art. Absolutely. Even by “macaroni glued to painted paper” standards, it’s art. It might be crap. It might be a perfect, tiny copy of the original, right down to the working Nav Lights, and it’s all art.

    It’s art.

  2. Yoav Efrati says:

    Picaso is art same as Rembrant, it’s a matter of style.
    You can like it or you can hate it, it’s still art.
    Yoav Efrati

  3. Steve woods says:

    Maybe just keep it for what it simply is. Model making, A time to chill out and be creative making cool stuff.

  4. Biff Modeler says:

    It’s a physical manifestation of a personal passion. It’s an activity (for lack of a better word) that inspires us to simulate in miniature form, whether based in reality or imagined. It’s not just about fastening plastic together with glue and decorating it with color. We all strive, to varying degrees of success, to produce something that has sparked our imagination. It’s a journey to learn more about a subject that in someway is near and dear to us. It’s not something you can define with one word.

  5. Dirk E. says:

    I mean, if 10000 people enjoy the hobby of sticking coloured q-tips into marshmallows, nobody would say that is art. If these group members describe each other as artist, the public would shake there heads. But, if these marchmallows would be shown in art galleries for the public or sold on street fairs, then (!) they might me looked at as art. Otherwise more likely not. So, my point is, to be called an artist within are more or less closed group, doesn´t make sense and won`t make you an artist for the public. So, model-building is in my eyes not art.

  6. R_G says:

    In my mind it most definitely is art. I consider it to be 3D art. Some of what I’ve seen is incredible and shows true talent and others not so much. Being relatively new to this hobby I hope someday to at least come close to the better builds that I’ve seen. But I don’t care if I’m considered an artist or not. I build for pure pleasure.

  7. Chris Bumgarner says:

    It’s not art. Check the curriculum at any art school: you won’t find any classes on scale modeling.
    There may be certain artistic element that are occasionally used, but overall modeling is not art. Few scale modelers actually know anything in depth about art. Most misunderstand the concept of contrast, and couldn’t even appreciate a work of art if they saw it.
    However, I think figure modeling might be an exception. Some of those guys actually sculpt figures. Sculpt your next aircraft or tank and then we’ll talk art.

    1. chewwiehime says:

      So Picasso drawing a woman with a stupid fish on her head is art? So Someone drawing scribble and calls it art is art? Nice one. Schools only don’t do it because it costs loads. The models, paints etc. It’s definitely art. Picasso isn’t.

  8. In short, I think it is fair to call our hobby art. An ‘artist’ goes to Michaels or Hobby Lobby and buys a new canvas to start a new painting. We go to the hobby shop or order online to get our new canvas (model kit).

    They paint…we paint…what we do has more steps. We also assemble, weather and apply decals. Our method of project completion is developed through individual interpretation of existing processes and principles.

    So, yeah I think what we do is art.

    1. Jim's Models says:

      Eh…I disagree a little bit with you on the Michael’s and Hobby Lobby thing. I’ve done a fair bit of oil painting, drawing with pencil and charcoal, and even some sculpting, and I, now anyone really serious about any of that stuff, buys supplies at those places.

      1. Fair statement Jim, but I ask this…Are we really elitist enough to divide our hobby into classes?
        My biggest goal when attending a club meeting or attending a show is to be an ambassador for the hobby. I’m not going to automatically classify a person as ‘serious’ about the hobby or not because he/she bought a model kit for 40% of at Hobby Lobby instead of ordering it online from Hobby Link Japan. That person would still be just as much of a model builder (or artist) as me, regardless of where the kit was purchased from.

      2. Jim's Models says:

        That really wasn’t my intent, but I can see where it can be read about that way. What I mean is that say with art supplies like I was talking about it’s usually people with a casual interest that will buy things like paint, brushes, and canvas from these places. And usually it works one of two ways. 1) these folks just dabble and are happy with what they get, or 2) they get more serious and realize there’s better materials out there and they move up in their hobby.

        I think the same probably applies to modeling. In fact, I bet these two stores are responsible to intorducing the hobby to people…like dudes straggling with their wives, etc. I just think a lot of folks, as they get more serious, would move on to other sources.

        Now I used to get a lot of kits from Hobby Lobby. They actually used to carry a lot of Dragon and Tamiya and keep new kits on the shelves, but as they are now, there just isn’t much option. Even if you don’t mind the older kits, you’d have to get tired of the same dozen or so subjects eventually.

        But despite what people think of me based on my hyperbolic blog editorials, I don’t remotely advocate grouping people, of in any way dividing people in the hobby by what they choose to buy or build.

      3. Great reply and I agree with your expanded thoughts.

  9. Spalding Craft says:

    In my opinion, scale modeling is too imitative to rise to the level of art. For the most part, we start with a kit (not a blank canvas) that we use craftsmanship, not artistry, to assemble into something hopefully greater than the sum of its parts. But, just as Renaissance sculptures of the human form might be considered imitative as well, you could argue that scratch built models (or even components of models) might be considered art. To me, though, what’s missing in the case of scratch built modeling is the expression of something greater than just the technique itself. We are only trying to faithfully reproduce subjects that are more or less expressionless, emotionless.

    Mediocre artwork is the same way. Think of the types of landscape paintings you might find in the average hotel room. There is good technique, sure, but no spark that makes it anything greater than what it probably was: a technical exercise meant to pay some bills, not to make a statement. It might sound callous, but I think really excellent work in modelling only rises to about this level. That’s not to denigrate any of our work, but to me, trying to elevate our hobby to the level of art just exposes even the best work to the type of criticism that it just isn’t meant for.

    1. Spalding Craft. You definitely make some good points.

  10. Tim Wilding says:

    I am no artist, but I do use some art techniques when building a kit.
    I agree that when some calls it art to deflect any criticism, then they are just using this as a cop-out.

  11. Casssandra Branch says:

    “Art” encompasses a vast universe of creativity. There’s 2D portrait art, 2D landscape art, 2D photography, 3D sculptures, and so on — and there’s miniature airplane / tank / ship art. Landscape art, for example, is completely different from 3D sculptures. No one would criticize a sculpture because it doesn’t portray a landscape. Likewise miniatures art falls into a different category from gluing macaroni on paper.

    The key point is that all “art” makes use of certain standard techniques; or it follows certain universal rules. Modelers can follow those same rules to achieve their goals — in particular, they can use color to create an illusion of reality:

    — They need to make a small object appear to be large
    — They need to make plastic seem to be metal
    — They need to make a new object appear to be old, worn & rusty
    — They need to mold some kind of solid until it seems to be a stormy ocean with a ship wallowing in it.

    Your website teaches those artistic techniques: the best way to create the illusion of varnished wood using paint, for example. Various modeling artists use various techniques for achieving the illusion: some techniques in the hands of a gifted modeling artist are really successful (you can’t tell the difference). And alas, there are some techniques that don’t create the illusion at all.

    And so we come to panel lines. I researched this post by going to an aircraft museum. I was astonished to discover that real airplanes don’t have a black line painted between every metal plate. They don’t even spray paint along the lines with light smokey color. So why would modelers do the “blacken every panel line” thing, thinking they’re miniaturizing reality?

    The answer is, it’s done to artistically create the illusion of shadows created by overlapping pieces of metal. Some techniques are successful in creating the illusion, some are less successful. I think there’s some benefit in recognizing that the panel discussion is really about artistic techniques to create the illusion of shadows — and surface irregularities, uneven soot collection, capillary oil propagation, and so on.

    It’s an “art” because grinding actual dents in the plastic surface, pouring actual motor oil & soot on the wing & engine DON’T lead to the desired illusion.

  12. William says:

    The late Sheperd Paine elevated modeling, (or diorama building) close to the level of a fine art. His dioramas contained an emotional content well beyond the parameters of techincal acuity.

  13. MDO says:

    To write off the artistry of model making is the equivalent of dismissing aviation art altogether. Nicholas Trudgian’s sketches are indisputably art of the highest order but there is
    no discussion of the shade of olive drab in relation to his work.

    It is easy to sit on a high horse when your “prowess” is high, but less so when you are painting in block colours and washing in a hope to give your model realism (as many do).

    It is all very well to be a crusader for the cause of quality modelling, but when your defamation is squarely aimed at people who garner the same amount of enjoyment from what they do as you, with less impressive results, the argument is diluted.

    Eloquence does not equate validity.

    1. Doogs says:

      Huh? Nowhere did I write off the “artistry of model making”. My conclusion was basically “I dunno” – and as I mention multiple times, art is a shitty descriptor.

      As to the high horse…I want to get a high horse but I’m not sure where I would keep it. And I think it’s illegal to give weed to equines in Texas (but I’m pretty sure we can give them guns).

      Not quite sure where I defame others, either. Other than pointing out that prowess and art are not the same thing, that we all have prowess gaps and room to improve, and not understanding why somebody would NOT want to improve.

  14. Gregg James says:

    In my opinion art and scale modeling only overlap on the fringes. I think it depends on what the goal is. I consider myself a scale modeller. But I can see where modeling can be art. They are not exclusive. But they are not the same.

  15. Dave McGowan says:

    There is an another benchmark often used to determine if something is art, and that is: “Does it trigger an emotional reaction?”
    In this case, I would say that there are diorama and vignette builders that qualify as artists, and there are -as pointed out somewhere up the response thread- figure modeler/sculptors that would make the grade under this added standard.
    Frustration over somebody’s unweathered propeller or glue-fogged headlight lenses probably doesn’t count.

  16. stonelynn says:

    I am somewhat taken aback that all the commenters but one missed young Mr. Doog’s point, even when he restated it in response to a rather mean piece of work. A quiet re-read may be instructive.

  17. Bill says:

    I don’t think scale modeling from kits, regardless of how expert the technique may be, qualifies as art. It certainly qualifies as craftsmanship.

    My definition of art is an original work translated from the maker’s mind through their hand. Some art does include unoriginal components but these are generally repurposed in a creative way and given new meaning. Scale kit modeling is nothing more than assembling and dressing someone else’s work, regardless of how expertly executed.

    I think the white elephant in the room is that modelers get all butt-hurt when someone suggests that is isn’t art. As though craftsmanship is somehow the lesser of the two. It isn’t. I know many artists who aren’t as technically proficient as even a serious but mediocre modeler. People who simply don’t have the skill to turn a grey piece of plastic into something indistinguishable from wood or metal, with nothing more than a few colors of paint and a good technique.

    But, they’re still artists because they create original work, and the modelers are still craftsman because they don’t.

  18. Greg says:

    Beethoven didn’t write art, he wrote sheets of music. He was a musician. Ansel Adams didn’t photograph art, he photographed nature. He was a photographer. When you build a model tank, plane or other object..your not building art…your building a model. I was a model..the human kind. That was what I did and got paid for. I wasn’t art, but perhaps the resulting product was. Art is not the act of completing an objective…it’s the result. Music, photographs, paintings, models. They are EXERCISES. Activities. Hobbies. Therapies. They are any number of pursuits whose result may be seen or heard by others and interpreted as art. From there, the art is subject to interpretation. That song sucks, a five year old could paint that, your abs are shit…or your panel lines look like a rubix cube. Asking if modeling is art is flawed in reason. Before modeling I was into body building. The work I did was not fucking art..but the pictures taken of me after…to some may have been. Define the result, not the exercise.

    1. William says:

      Good stuff. Well put.

  19. max says:

    Good text. “Dunno” is probably the best answer, since it can’t be answered easily.

    But, maybe that’s why modelling is part of being an artistic experience, because it faces the same questions that art usually encouters, also when being judged.

    I have found my own definition and that is modelling to me is “artistic” craft. But it’s not solely art, or
    even at all ( :D) because you can learn so much like a craftsmen. How to glue without fucking up the clear parts, how to use putty to get stuff right. I mean that’s all craftsmanship. Maybe that building part is the craft part, and the paintjob is the art part?

    But I totally agree in that modelling is recreating the reality. I don’t mind a plane in circus colours that never existed, but then PLEASE weather it in a way a real plane WOULD look like if it were painted that way. Then I’m ok.

    So… I would call modelling an artscraft… craftart…crart …artft …fart.. but for either art or being a good craftsmen you need talent. That in any way.

  20. Steven Lewis says:

    Art is the expression of emotion and ideas. The purpose of building a scale model is typically not to generate an emotional response. Just because painting a model takes some artistic skill it doesn’t make it Art. Just like throwing a football around in the backyard doesn’t make you an athlete.
    Modelling is more of a craft than an art form.

  21. greg says:

    Define’living’. Fuck art. I think we can (probably) agree we have A “life”. Is that living? Are you living or just alive? That’s art bitches

  22. Peter payne says:

    Art is art. Gluing macaroni to paper is arts and crafts. Acting (which is what I do) is performing arts. Painting is visual arts. We just had this discussion about the needs for artists of all disciplines, from arts and crafts to high art, to collaborate, network and create cross organizational partnerships such as diverse art festivals. The arts are losing money. Government funding is decreasing. Digital entertainment such as video games and streaming movies are diverting people’s disposable income from the arts to mass media entertainment such as cable tv, Instagram, YouTube videos etc. Art management leaders have said time and again that we need to stop segregating ourselves and bickering over what is and is not art and instead collaborate, because if we don’t the art community will continue to lose funds, shrink, and become irrelevant in today’s world of instantaneous free digital gratification. I just attended a collaborative art festival that had traditional Thai dancers, cosplay attendees (yes, some of them deign own costumes, and fashion design is art), actors, musicians (which is performing art), modern dance (dance is performing art), retired senior citizen painters and jewelry makers (it’s art), etc etc. The festival turnout was great and lucrative because we accepted and networked with a wide range of artists of all disciplines and treated them all as equals.

  23. Peter payne says:

    Ran out of space. Yes, modeling is art. Just like performing art dancers it involves poise and body movement in front of a camera and/ or audience. It is a performance…. an artistic performance. And when you throw in costume design, make up, stagecraft, lighting (and all the other duties found in acting, musicals, operas, etc, you can clearly see that modeling is a very complex, highly evolved art form that takes training, skill and artistic creativity to pull-off well.

  24. Peter payne says:

    And finally, after. Covering all other bases, lets adresss your specific question. Have you not seen the astounding LEGO building, cities and other structures in art museums. They are probably touring exhibitions and not permanent collections. Museums need money and they want to attract a diverse clientele. If showcasing Star Wars model kits from 1979 will bring in patrons and fill their coffers (and it will) then they will do it. Modeling is very similar to sculpture. It’s mass produced so it would be considered commercial art. Now if you actually crafted your own model pieces and then assembled them, that would be more like a sculpture that you could sign and showcase as your own complete creation. Art organizations, actually nowadays they call them cultural organizations ( to Braden the umbrella and include theater, visual art studios, museums, etc). The one caveat is that great art (not mediocre art) attracts attention and recognition. So if you build an awesome Millenial Falcon, cultural organizations will want to showcase it as another fantastic art piece to display. They even have a Star Wars museum (visual arts). Google it.

  25. jolula says:

    Hi guys,

    So I am an artist from Europe and I enjoy modeling as well.

    There’s no clear definition of what art is or what art can be. And it tends to shift regarding time periods.

    But it needs to be done by an artist.
    The identification of someone as an artist (and by art institutions, curators and other artists) is THE key element.

    The Chapman Brothers used models in their works (huge diaporama representing hell composed by millions of figures). So the fact the artwork is a model and not a painting or a sculpture is irrelevant. It is you that matter (and the context you’re in). Isek Kingelez create crazy architectural model out of colored carton and paper, but his creation goes beyond the simple replication of an existing construction, he’s creating a kind of social comment with the models.

    Modeling is not art. It’s modeling. A scale modeler is not an artist, he’s just a scale modeler.
    An artist assembling a model may be doing art ( I’m not).

    The idea that good craftsmanship = art belongs to the XIV century (seriously look it up) and is not up to date.

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