Winston Churchill painted to relieve depression. I discovered the therapeutic effects of scale modelling during lockdown – Alastair Stewart

Lockdown is behind us, but some of the crazier habits formed in that grand interregnum remain. For myself, it was scale modelling.

An explosion rocks the Starship Enterprise
An explosion rocks the Starship Enterprise

“Heavens,” you're thinking, “he's spent for ideas and staring at his USS Enterprise on his desk." Not quite.

Like many during lockdown, I struggled to rebalance work, personal and family life, and a deluge of bad news. Home and office were the same, but I was never particularly good at switching off long before Covid.

One night in 2019, as my brother and I worked our way through an unpronounceable bottle of whisky, we decided to construct a model Starship Enterprise, a gift from years earlier.

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By April 2020, while some started a menagerie of plants and spoon whittling, I bought old Star Trek model kits. Before I knew it, I was assembling paints, buying soldering irons and even a blowtorch pen to create bespoke battle damage. Having never been particularly hands-on, I was, and I still am, amazed by the effect it had on my mental health.

In his brilliant 1921 essay, Painting as Pastime, Winston Churchill articulated how painting had the same cathartic effect on his unquiet mind. Shortly after the failed Dardanelles campaign forced his resignation, he was overcome with what he called "the black dog" of depression and anxiety.

His sister-in-law, Lady Gwendoline Bertie, encouraged him to try painting. From 1915, as a late bloomer at 40, Churchill never stopped and produced over 550 paintings until he died at 90.

For Winston, it offered a reprieve from melancholy. "Painting came to my rescue in a most trying time, and I shall venture in the pages that follow to express the gratitude I feel."

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A sleek starship floats in space, or at least a space (courtesy of Alastair Stewart)

My office shelves are packed with a mishmash of twin loves: books about Churchill and Star Trek models. Scale modelling has countered my obsessive thinking, anxiety and oppressive sense of worry. Sometimes it settled panic attacks. Mind and body can shift gear from overthinking into a calming, white heat of creation.

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Writing in 2008, American psychologist Andrea Macari's assessment of our deepening reliance on the digital realm to survive was eerily prescient of the pandemic to come.

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“Scale modelling is an excellent hobby,” she notes. “Not only does the activity provide much-needed leisure, which is beneficial in alleviating anxiety and depression, but it also enhances certain cognitive skills.”

It goes some way to explain why hobbies, whether they be exercise, reading, cooking, music or art therapy, were so readily picked up during lockdown.

Professor Kelly Lambert argues our brains are geared to derive pleasure from producing something "tangible, visible, and – this is extremely important – meaningful in gaining the resources necessary for survival”.

The addictive danger of video games, as Professor Jordan Peterson notes, is they are engineered to delay winning. The accomplishment is always far removed. Scale modelling delivers a shelf of tangible mementos and rewards.

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As Churchill observes in his essay: “In all battles two things are usually required of the Commander-in-Chief: to make a good plan for his army and, secondly, to keep a strong reserve. Both these are also obligatory upon the painter. To make a plan, thorough reconnaissance of the country where the battle is to be fought is needed.”

The same is true for the modeller. Lambert argues "hobbies and activities that use our hands are engaging in more of our brain's real estate. Gardening, building model airplanes, and knitting could be the key to mental health because they activate a lot of our brain."

When I began modelling seriously, I put myself at the mercy of online forums by asking elementary questions about the correct paint schemes, wiring, reference photos and materials. I knew nothing.

Groups like the Star Trek Modelers Group on Facebook were a godsend. Boasting over 15,000 members, it’s a wonderful community representing every skill level where no question is considered stupid. There is a sincere camaraderie of modellers worldwide.

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Wonderland Models, which celebrated 50 years of business this year, was an indispensable resource with staff only too willing to help a newbie. Before Covid, I would go into the shop on Edinburgh’s Lothian Road and stare at the completed models hanging from the roof. It still remains a place of special imagination.

The fun got messier when my adventures evolved into making dioramas from resin, contorted metals, and clay work. It has also given me a new skillset; researching electronics has challenged my resignation that I would never be good at such things.

Today is Scale Scotland 2022 at Murrayfield stadium. Come along and enjoy if you can. Covid meant the 2020 and 2021 events had to be postponed. Seeing modellers and their creations is a joy. For such a solo hobby there is a deep community, such as the International Plastic Modellers' Society, and its Edinburgh and Lothian Modellers Club, which has been welcoming and encouraging.

Nothing makes me happier than to set myself up with a cold-brew coffee, a new kit, and an idea. It brings the same relief and relaxation as writing, and reading Churchill's words on his love for painting reinforces the ubiquity and benefits of hobbies.

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As the world limps from crisis to crisis, these lessons still seem pertinent. A mental health crisis lingers in our society because we have never found the language to talk about how we feel without the suspicion somebody thinks you’re just being overly dramatic.

I was not too fond of art, technology, or design classes at school. Now in my 30s, with fingers glued together, a paint-covered desk and having just shocked myself with a 12V battery, I see the benefit and necessity of a creative outlet, whatever it may be.

If there is a drawback, it is my algorithmic social media recommendations, “models nearby” and “easy models”, were never going to yield simple-to-explain results.

Of scale modelling, let me borrow Churchill once more: "Try it then, before it is too late and before you mock at me.”

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