For most children of a certain generation model making was part of life, whether it was a fleeting pastime or something a little more long-term. Some of us grew up in a time when the simplicity of crafting your own model from a kit was all we needed. Yep, DLTM are in old fart mode as we reminisce about those ‘good old days before t’internet’. Model making will still inspire lots of children around the world today and just as many adults we’re sure. One person who has reintroduced model making into his life and made it a vocation is Peter Cowdy, a talented chap from the Swindon area whose creativity extends into many different spheres, from painting through to 3D model design (which he does by hand). His work really impressed us so we thought it was only right that we showcase it to our faithful following and get some insight into what makes Mr. Cowdy tick, so here it is… enjoy!
Where does your passion for model making come from? Any early inspirations? What model sets did you collect as a child (if any)?
My Dad and Granddad both tinkered in the garage a lot so being around them was the subconscious foundation. I remember being really impressed with scale boats my Dad made and how he would just find old bits of wood and whittle them into ornaments. Playing with my Granddad’s hand carved chess set, on a table he had made complete with veneered chess board.
Another early memory was being taken to see my neighbour’s Dad’s loft railway, it ran around the edges of their loft and immediately sucked me in to the miniature world he was lovingly recreating.
When it comes to toys my 10th birthday was the key to it all, I received the board game Space Crusade. For those that don’t know it was a game that pitted space marines armed to the teeth against a range of chaotic aliens all cast in coloured plastic, with snap fit parts and a cardboard spaceship where the action took place. I was totally invested in the narrative that went along with the game and soon branched out into other similar games which involved spending all my paper round earnings on pewter and plastic 36mm fantasy models. This is when I first started to independently spend my time painting, kit bashing (swapping bits from different kits to create unique models) and building scenery for the models to inhabit.
Did you have any other key inspirations, creatively speaking, around this time? Even if it was cartoons on TV, or anything outside of the family unit?
Star Wars has always captured my imagination, me and my best friend at primary school even declared our names to be Han and Luke at one point (it lasted about a day). I enjoyed a lot of cartoons, some of my favourites were Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors, Ulysses 31, Cities of Gold to name a few. Looking back at some of the children’s cartoons they seem so thoughtfully crafted and some of the plot lines in the longer running shows were deep and full of emotion, perfect for inspiring young minds. It’s interesting to think back to childhood and what was influential to me, I certainly sucked up a lot more than I consciously remember and I guess everything we go through serves as a base for where we are at any given moment.
Where do you think your creative streak comes from?
As I said, it started with my family but I have always been surrounded by creative people and feel lucky to have met a lot of talented and inventive people whose resourcefulness continues to inspire me. I feel like creativity needs nurturing and lately have been seeing a positive correlation between discipline in my daily habits/choices and my creative energy.
How did to get yourself started with learning the craft itself?
I suppose a lot of the foundation skills and interest for model making where unconsciously presented to me from a young age. Watching family and friends making things, DT class at school and my aforementioned love of fantasy miniatures. Having moved from painting and playing with models, to spray painting, which in turn developed to canvasses, murals and other bits and pieces, I was in a good groove creatively, constantly working on something. That was until I moved house and left a spacious place, where I had a studio space set up, to a bedsit with no room for canvasses or a large amount of supplies. The creative funk it induced meant I decided to dig out the fantasy models, set to work learning how to paint to scale and started trying some sculpting and diorama pieces. I had a lot of fun and decided to pursue model making further. Another change of location and I decided to enrol as a mature student at Bedford College to study 3D Design.
At college my tutor and technician where both hugely talented and I felt blessed to be learning from them. Although the course was primarily focused on product design I was supportively challenged and motivated by the staff to fit my own agenda into briefs written for products.
Brilliant. Creativity can be stunted as we get older, particularly by the societal pressures we endure (get a full-time job, earn money, get a house etc…). On top of this creative industries are suffering in our extremely capitalist world – how do you deal with these pressures and maintain your creative focus?
Discipline… I’m still learning, and every moment is a choice to create habits that serve you and your dreams or ones that don’t. I definitely catch myself getting stressed out by responsibilities and all the stuff that we get by choosing to live in an economically-controlled societal system. I find acknowledging my stressful thoughts and accepting that it is my mind that is creating the stress helps me to ask the question, “What other options do I have?”. A lot of what happens in the world seems like it is out of reach for the individual to effect, so I like to keep positive and focus on the things I can do to progress or change my circumstances.
When it comes to creative focus I enjoy the progression that daily involvement in the process brings. I’ve learned to be patient with myself and when I have creatively slow days I try to make sure that I continue practicing even if it means creating dodgy prototypes or sketches bound for the bin, it’s all part of the journey. I like to remind myself at the end of every day that as long as I have done something to progress towards a goal, no matter how big or small, then I’m winning.
You also have a progressive approach to life, would you mind speaking a bit about how some of your spiritual practices influence your creative output?
To me spiritual practice is a way of refining how good my life can be, emotional, physical and mental health. I’ve tried a lot of different things over the years and I suppose to begin with I would follow written or spoken instruction on how to improve things, TCM, yoga, meditation to name a few, now though I find my life practice is about trusting my heart/intuition for direction and most importantly for me, trusting the universe’s grand plan no matter how it may appear. I find the way it relates to my creative output has to do with discipline, by doing some form of exercise, meditation and becoming more conscious about what I eat and do every moment I help cultivate a healthier internal environment for my creativity to grow from. The most basic things any person can change in their lives are breath, movement and sustenance, I feel the more discipline I exercise in these areas the more simple other areas of my life become.
It must have been a steep learning curve getting to grips with the model making process. Are there any funny mishaps you’ve experienced along the way?
It still is a steep learning curve, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Every project seems to present a new challenge or two and usually highlights the importance of thorough planning and testing. I don’t think there will ever be a time I won’t have something new to learn, which excites me and also reminds me to be patient particularly when it comes to mishaps.
Mishaps are usually not funny at the time but thankfully the mind moves on and what made you swear and stress one day soon turns in to a lesson learned and sometimes a funny one.
One thing that comes to mind was at the end of my studies we had a college end of year exhibition and New Designers Graduate exhibition within a week of each other. I was displaying character sculpts in bell jars, one of which was made with a lit set that was far too big to be in the bell jar or to transport to London easily. I was considering making a new scenic base the week before the first show when it was suggested to me to find some old wood to display it on. This was a great idea, all I needed to do was find the wood and cut it to size, easy peasy. I found a tree near my house that had been blown down in a storm and selected the perfect piece of branch to fit the bell jar. The first exhibition opened and all was well… until it came to taking the pieces down. It turned out that after the opening night the log (which I hadn’t dried thoroughly enough) let out a lot of moisture which trapped under the bell jar and turned to condensation. By the time I came back to it was completely covered in a fine layer of mould! Thankfully the sculpt itself was saved easily as it had been sealed to minimise surface damage, the quick fix log however had to be replaced and I learned first-hand the importance of properly drying fresh wood.
The Bear And The Piano is one of your most recognised works so far, can you tell us a bit about that and the working process behind it?
My final project at college allowed complete creative freedom and I was given a tip that one of the graphic design tutors, David Litchfield, had just written and illustrated his first children’s book. I tracked him down and suggested that if he “acted” as my client I would build him a display model of ‘The Bear and Piano’ for promotional use and he could give feedback throughout the process.
The first thing to do was study the book and find as many reference pictures of the bear, the piano and backgrounds as I could to help me translate a 2D character into 3D. Once I had visualised how I wanted it to look I made a prototype from styrofoam and card board, which helped me to get an idea of scale and how the different elements would fit together. Deciding on what materials to use was next and meant researching possibilities for each element and trying them out. Then it came to the step of actually building what I had set out to build, with this project I really pushed myself and made multiple prototypes. I even remade some of the final elements a few times until I was satisfied. I think it’s really important not only to challenge yourself to push for higher quality but to also know when to say you are done, some mistakes and errors are best left as lessons for future projects and may not be noticed by viewers anyway
Throughout the whole process I was really seeing the benefit of feedback from other people even if they may not specialise in the area you are working, it allows you to step back from something you have been totally immersed in and challenges you to look at things from a new perspective. I find the final build of any project carries a mix of emotion as you have invested a lot of effort to realise your ideas. It can be nerve wracking to maintain working standards you set yourself, sad to see the end of projects you love working on coming to sight, but ultimately very satisfying to see what starts as a doodle, conversation or a few notes become an actual thing in front of you.
Yeah it’s a lovely piece, definitely one of your benchmarks. Can you tell us a bit about the reaction of the public to your work, as you exhibited in London a while back?
The model was well received by visitors and got lots of nice comments, I even had some people interested in buying it – however, I had already promised it to the author! I think the best chat I had was with a secondary school student who asked me if she could do work experience with me. I was honoured but had to explain that working from home and not having any work lined up at the time would make that impossible, it was being exhibited at a graduate show after all and I was there hoping to get work not get someone to work for me!
What do you get, personally speaking, out of model making?
Joy, it’s something I resonate with. I believe learning is the point of life and the journey of emotions my creative endeavours gift me enrich my experience.
What are up to at the moment? Any exciting projects?
I’ve been working on a lot of different projects lately and definitely enjoying the variety. I’m batch producing smaller scenes for sale as well as taking on new commissions. I’ve just finished work on a large diorama depicting the great train robbery for Buckinghamshire Railway Centre in Quainton, it has been fun to work on but I’m glad to have my desk back (it’s 1.5m long). It was unveiled on the anniversary this August.
This sounds brilliant, how did it come about?
I took someone I know to the railway centre for a day out hoping to see some scale models to get inspiration, they only had full scale though. We spent some time talking with the guys who run the Post Service exhibition and they were incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about the details and story around the robbery, so I dropped into the conversation what I did and showed them a few pictures, it all fell into place from there.
What are your hopes for the future?
In terms of model making I have goals for how I want to work, but my hope is that I can continue to grow and support myself while I practise what I love doing.