Criticize. Simply hearing the word can stir negative emotions. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers two definitions of criticize: 1. to express disapproval of something and talk about its problems or faults and 2. to look at and make judgment about something. While the second definition is more applicable to us as scale modelers, many of us get caught up on the first definition, which is not pleasant. The phrase constructive criticism has more positive connotations, but it can still be a touchy subject for some. The modeling community is filled with those that want to do better work, and those that are willing to help, but there is often a disconnection between the two. Bridging this gap requires us to consider how to give and receive constructive criticism.
There are many modelers that are happy just putting together a piece with a small amount of work, with no intention of competing. Others may be content with only occasionally scoring a high honor at a show and may feel it is not worth the time and effort (and sometimes expense!) to move beyond their current ability. Considering that modeling is a hobby, only you can decide how far you want to push yourself, and there is nothing wrong with having a shelf full of models that you had a great time building, even if they far from “perfect.” Never forget that this is supposed to be fun!
However, at a certain point, many of us want to kick things up a notch. Whether you have a walked away licking your wounds from one too many shows, or just realize that you want to take more pride in your models, you have to find a starting place. This can be difficult. There are many passive ways that you can learn techniques. These include watching demos/videos and reading articles. While these can be helpful, they often assume that you have certain principles mastered already and, to achieve the same results shown in these demos or articles, you would have to skip over several levels of mastery. This can be frustrating, and no one should expect to go from point A to point Z without going through all 24 points in between. So don’t ask, “How can I get to the highest level of modeling?” Ask, “How do I get to the next level?”
To reach the next level, you must be more active and seek out constructive criticism. While it sounds simple enough, it is difficult to put your work up to be analyzed by someone else. It can even be more difficult than having your work judged at a show, because you are getting direct, face-to-face feedback. You have to prepare yourself to hear the good and the bad about your efforts, and you have to take your ego out of the process. You are getting a critique on your current skills as a modeler, not on you as a human being! Missing a seam line or incorrectly weathering a model does not make you a terrible person, but if no one takes the time to point it out to you, how will you know to fix it next time? Asking what someone thinks of your model and then acting offended when they tell you is a sure way to reduce the amount of feedback of any kind you will receive.
Once you are prepared to put your piece up for criticism, you have to find modelers whose work you respect, perhaps in a club, at a class or show, or on a forum. You will often find that modelers will gladly talk about how they achieve their results and, most importantly, what they did when they were at the level where you are currently. All experienced modelers were once beginners that went through several levels of mastery and many of them will freely give advice on taking that next step. Talk to multiple people, not just one. The more eyes you have scrutinizing your work and giving feedback, the more insight you could potentially gain.
The next difficult task will be to sort through all the information you get. Unfortunately, if you ask three modelers for advice, you may get three different answers. Obviously, if 2 to 3 people bring up the same issue, it is a problem you should address. But, if none of them agree, you may have to experiment with all three suggestions to find what works for you. Remember, if you ask someone for help and they offer a suggestion, you owe it to them and yourself to consider what they say fully before you dismiss it. If something does not sound right to you, get a second opinion on it. At the very least, you now have new options to try. A little practice and experimentation can lead you down some new paths, which may lead to a new level of mastery.
It should also be noted that even advanced modelers can benefit from constructive criticism. There are many different approaches to achieving particular effects, and you may find an easier and more effective way to get the look you want. You should also consider what less experienced modelers have to say. They may spot something you didn’t, or they may hold one small piece of information that can take you to the next level. Of course, most truly advanced modelers know this, as willingness to accept criticism is how they became advanced modelers!
The flip side of all this, of course, is giving the criticism rather than receiving it. Because scale modeling has a competitive aspect, a few modelers might be inclined to keep their techniques to themselves. We should consider that helping other modelers can cause the hobby to grow and advance. Fortunately, this is seldom the case, and most modelers are happy to discuss their work.
When someone sets a model in front of you and asks what you think, take it as a compliment, but you may also be in a difficult position. Do they really want to know what you think, or do they just want to hear you say, “Looks great. Good job!”? You may have to trust your gut on this. But, in any case, start by being positive and comment on what is well done, however minor it may be. Your comments can either inspire someone, or discourage them. Don’t overwhelm them with tons information that has taken you years to learn. Point out a couple of things that need attention and offer advice on fixing those problems. When they find success there, they will be more open to in depth critiques later.
If someone asks for brutal honesty, then give it to them, but do it in a constructive way. Just saying, “That’s terrible” or “You really messed that up,” doesn’t help a modeler that is trying to improve. Point out the issues and offer solutions to fix them. Even better, sit down with them and show them how to do it. In many instances, the modeler may not know how to fix it or believes the problem to be so minor that they didn’t think anyone would notice. If you don’t have a solution to a problem, refer the modeler to someone that might.
A tricky situation that may arise is when you see a model and you instantly think of something that would make a big difference on that piece, but the modeler has not asked your opinion, or you may not even know who they are. Tread lightly in this situation. Ask them if you can offer a suggestion. Most people are open to this, but you may have to read their body language before you proceed. Again, don’t overwhelm them. Keep it simple. If they are really interested in what you have to say, you will know it. If not, you can at least say you tried to help, and move on.
Giving these types of critiques to others can also help you improve your own skills. Often, when you take the time to explain how you approach something, it causes you to fully consider the steps you take. When you take the time to think it though, you may find ways to clean up and economize your techniques. Even putting together a demo for a club meeting or class can make you rethink every step involved in a particular process. At the very least, it makes you fully realize why you do things a certain way.
No one likes criticism, but if we don’t have this type of exchange, it is difficult to improve what we do. Never be afraid to ask for help, but keep an open mind and put your ego aside. When asked for advice, remember that you are not just helping one person, but you are helping to advance the hobby. One of the great things about the modeling community is the sharing of techniques, and the willingness to help each other. While it can be satisfying to take pride in our own work, it can be even more satisfying to take pride the work of everyone we have worked with along the way!