Advice Works (Blog or Die! Entry #15)

Accepted entry for the “Article” category.

Author: Caleb Inman (VAkkron)

Word Count: 1,282

Advice Works

I often see Lego touted as both an art form and as an application of engineering principles, because of its immediate tactile response and precision.  Fortunately for me and all those who choose to participate in the greater community, Lego is also a culture.  One that offers community and inspires me to learn about other people, understand our differences, and celebrate a shared passion for creativity.

Well, you already knew that.  You’ve all had that same realization.  Heck, maybe you’ve even put it all in a job application essay like I have!  Anyway, I want to tell you all a story tonight.  So fill a glass at the eternally flowing countertop that is the Manifesto, sit back, and try not to puke at the WIPs.

I want to explain what I did when both the science and the art of Lego failed me.  I had a great vision and a hopeful imagination, but not surprisingly, it was difficult to pull off.  This is a story about the creation of my Isaac Newton storytelling bust which I created in 2016 for a competition.  But I decided that I wasn’t content simply meeting the contest criteria, and Bricks Noir and Absurde were both inspiring me to push into the character-building genre.  The competition was Radley’s annual mad scientist competition, and the assignment was to build a crazy scientist in their laboratory, either real or fictitious.  I decided to make a bust of Isaac Newton, and from the first minute of my planning, I knew exactly how I wanted it to look.

I say that because I very rarely build with such complete vision.  But for this model, I knew that I wanted to build a super-realistic version of the man’s face in full or close-to-full scale.  I wanted his luscious wig to unfold with stories of his life built in miniature atop them.  I even wanted to build a Lego orrery coming out of Sir Izzy’s scalp.


Photo Credit

The problem was, I wasn’t very good at that.  I started out with my science, by building a Technic frame, which limited my size to roughly a ¾ model.  Fortunately, that helped my tan parts collection actually stretch across the entire model, which it would not have with a full-scale face.  The wig was difficult and I wanted the fold-out miniatures to be saved for the big reveal, But I knew I was having trouble with the face when it looked far more like your grandma than Isaac Newton (reference picture).  It was time to call in the big guns.


[First WIP Image]  Photo Credit.

I’d only seen closed-group WIPs talked about on the side a few times, and had maybe been a part of one myself.  But I decided to post a private photo of my senile, rat-haired freak to Flickr, because heaven knows I had no clue what to do next.  And that is where the beginning of my story becomes relevant.  Since this hobby has introduced me to so many engineers, artists, and everything-in-betweeners who know what they are doing, I asked them all for help.  I’ve seen carefully-worded, politically-correct posts about “comments and criticism are welcome”, but I didn’t want any criticism.  I wanted straight-up mockery, swearing and vocalized pain that my model inflicted on their eyes.  To my great delight, that is exactly what I got.

If I showed you the group of homies who commented on my model, you’d probably recognize many of the names.  That’s because the Manifesto is something amazing to me in a personal way: literally most of my good friends online are constant readers here.  Hi friends!  They breathed fire, they broke down my model step by step.  Absurde brought the technical expertise.  Keith brought the vision.  Matt brought the artistic commentary, Wolff brought the cranberry pie, and we all had a delicious collaborative Thanksgiving dinner.

Now I’m going to serve you some of the best comments that turned this build around.  I will include mostly the helpful stuff, so if you bear with me, you might learn something yourself (unless you were the person who said it).  Until further notice, please refer to the above eyesore that is a WIP.  This is what the comments applied to.

First off, Matt Rowntree chimed in early and gave some wonderful advice.  So useful, in Advice

fact, that half of my other responses were echoes of his advice, or rather, the advice of one of his mentors.


I’ve actually taken this to heart since, and try to see through all replicas that I make with this sort of inspiration.  Matt also kindly noted that my nose was too small, citing Izzy’s “massive proboscis of pugilistic proportions”, which sounds like it could be a disease description.  If that is so, I probably suffer from the same thing.  Keith commented with some professional hair advice.


Topsy also joined in the nose conversation, bringing some near-compliments to the table.  Unfortunately, her advice on color wasn’t going to work, but I had to make some concessions.  Luckily I took her and Keith’s advice regarding color tone and consistency, and this model made me realize the true power of color in a piece of art.


The undisputed master of the art form (imo at least, but hopefully that’s enough credit to his skill) Letranger Absurde graced my page with his presence and offered some frank and very specific suggestions.  I am so glad I changed the nose and got rid of those two awful studs above the round 2×2 tile as well.


My good buddy Josiah pointed out that the focal point of the picture was off, something that I hadn’t even considered when building it.  Again, that’s a piece of advice that has stuck with me for every model I’ve built since.


After all this welcome but challenging feedback, I took two weeks to improve the model.  In this case, improve actually meant scraping off everything but the lips and chin, which had been the only unanimously liked part.  The result is shown below, with the final version at the bottom.  Fortunately this second iteration was such a hit that there was very little to change.  Even I as the artist could just feel that this was almost spot-on, and I was expecting the minor critiques that I got.  Some of that second-round feedback is posted below.


I think the best thing I heard was “recognizable”.  I learned the valuable lesson that mimicry of real people with Lego is hard.  But fortunately, with the specific advice from people who had very good perspective, I was able to look past my creator’s blind spot and see this through their eyes.


[Second WIP Image]  Photo Credit.

I know SHIP-builders revel in the big reveal.  I know castle builders love to show their latest technique or greeble-intensive rock wall.  It is so easy to hold our visions to our chests and not let anyone else peek inside until we can vomit it out on an expectant audience.  But my best work, which was truly borne of my hard work, came at the behest of others’ advice.  I trusted those people with garbage.  As it turned out, if I hadn’t shown the garbage to anyone, I wouldn’t have created the treasure.  And in doing so, I learned that all the gents and lady who I counted on for frank and succinct advice really did want me to succeed and were willing to help me develop my best.  It’s a valuable lesson, and again one that I’ve used in internship applications.  So thank you to that whole jolly group who were my work-in-progress commentary.  I wouldn’t even have tried to do it without you.

33 thoughts on “Advice Works (Blog or Die! Entry #15)

  1. We’ve started to sound like a broken record of constructive criticism here, but this is possibly the best example on this blog of the process in action. Keith has ripped into a lot of builders including himself here, but this is a full, detailed revelation of both sides, what advice was given and how it was acted on. You admitted what is often obvious but not many have the balls to say: “I don’t know.”


    1. Thank you, Christopher. I can honestly say this article is the result of me taking advice from this very blog, probably from Rutherford’s FFA and responses from people like you. So thanks for being an indirect part of my building success.


  2. Excellent article. The skillful manner in which you integrated the various comments into the article is a reflection of how well you integrated the advice offered into your final build, which did turn out remarkably well,… and it was most definitely recognizable.

    I can echo your sentiment that mimicry of real people in Lego is difficult. The advice of rowntRee’s art teacher is spot on in that regard – “draw what you see, not what you know.” The are some basic rules, that generally apply, but perspective and lighting can do some funny things, and often the proportions are colors we “see” in the subject are totally at odds with what we “know” should be the case. You have to trust your eyes as your working, because it is often only when the work is nearly complete that it all fits together and makes sense.

    It would be interesting to see you tackle a different subject in this style, incorporating some of the lessons learned with this one from the beginning, and seeing whether there are any new lessons that could be learned.


    1. Thank you for your comment! I completely agree with you regarding Matt’s art teacher’s advice. It is one of those comments that has totally reshaped how I build with Lego, especially when I’m copying something organic. Other processes, such as studying your artwork (which convinced me to make the hair 2-D and layered) also gave me more confidence that what I wanted to build was possible in the first place.

      I know it’s been a year and a half already, but that’s about how fast I turn out projects. I’ve had my eyes on a second subject in the same style since I finished Izzy, and I hope to get started on her in a few months.


  3. This is so true. I think it is always a good idea to get some outside advice from fresh eyes on a build to really put it over the top. I even have recent empirical data to prove it from a contest host on FBTB (Keith’s favorite LEGO blog, Star Wars LEGO!). I sent WIP of my most starfighter over to Ted to get his thoughts on how it could be improved. A lot of the ideas he sent back I already had in mind, but there were a couple comments that really made me rethink the model and resulted in significant improvements. And lo and behold, I won the contest, beating Ted’s own fighter… sucker! Thanks Ted. 🙂

    Back to the article, it is excellent and well crafted in my opinion, an easy and enjoyable read with good advice for any builder. And the improvements from your first attempt at Newton to the final product are pretty remarkable, so congrats.


    1. Yeah you certainly did win that contest! I remember seeing some of your public comments back and forth with Ted, and wondering who was going to pull through in the end. I appreciate your thoughts on the article itself. Cheers Jake, thanks for your response!


  4. You know, giving advice and proper criticism is difficult. Yet, it’s equally difficult to adopt the criticism/suggestion and you did that in spades. Whether people offer clashing suggestions, things you don’t have a freaking clue how to implement or offer pertinent advice that simply doesn’t “fit” your vision, it’s definitely difficult to find a balance.

    I have to agree, every time I got advice on builds (especially during mocathlon, one of the aspects I always adored about it was working with the team towards improving builds – any chance it’s happening this year? wouldn’t mind it) they turned out much better.

    One of the main suggestions I got from pretty much everyone for my latest build was make it messier, add more decay – obviously a good one, yet it was the one I didn’t do – partly because I couldn’t find a satisfactory way to do it and partly because it just didn’t match the vision I had when starting the build. I like pretty, organized things and am willing to sacrifice realism for it.

    On the other hand, the suggestions I did implement certainly brought the build to life and made me end up with the part people seem to like the most – the water. Nobody really liked the color which made me look for solution and I ended up remembering about the wings, otherwise they wouldn’t have been there.

    I still have an “alpha” version of it –

    Rundale-Bren Pier

    Which reminds me to say another big cheers to you guys for the suggestions, some of you took the time to respond while at the convention if I’m not mistaken.


    1. I guess one of the best things about being an artist is being able to stand by your own work, and that is always difficult to do if the work is mostly someone else’s vision. Probably why commissioned builds feel more wearisome, since they allow for less creative instinct. In your case, I think you delivered on the improvements given your comments. (Thanks for the link to the picture, by the way. I wish I had tuned in and given you an extra voice.)

      One of the hardest parts of taking advice is mixing and matching super specific recommendations. For me, I prefer the “this feels off, maybe this would help” to a “remove that piece please”. You got a lot of the latter from the guys who commented on your model, Aaron especially. I know he likes to do that, and it can actually be helpful, but I feel like it’s more of a suggestion to fit your build to his artistic vision, and that doesn’t make much sense. You obviously have your own style and aesthetic which the final build still accomplishes, so I would echo your sentiment to me and say that you also nailed the advice integration. I also think the non-decrepit look gives a little more life to the model, while not sacrificing the “lived-in” feel.

      Your response to one of Matt’s notes on that photo is worth quoting: “Basically what you’re saying is add a little story to the different parts of the dio, no matter how insignificant. To give it a breath of life, making them more than just props. It suddenly makes things look more natural, less staged, despite being even more staged than before.”



  5. Outstanding article and as Christopher said above, we sort of sound like a broken record in regards to critique. There’s a reason for that in that it always helps. Having just one more set of eyes on a build starts the dialogue. And I swear that some of the most brilliant results come from some of the most innocuous passing comments. But that isn’t enough, it takes an artist that is willing to drop their ego long enough to see that. That alone is extremely difficult, but the most difficult part is to stop listening to their own mind and allow the process to happen.

    You did that, and it’s not only humbling for us giving critique but also an honor to be a part of YOUR vision. I am as proud of your build as you are. And seeing the process and progress documented here gives me a bit of hope for all you damn hairless monkeys out there with your rocking and rolling music! 😉

    Potential is an ever elusive bitch to live up to, but I think you are well on your way. Cheers VAk!


    1. I still feel like successful criticism is a two-way street, and I was very pleased that nobody said “It looks great!” on my WIP. That would have been an outright lie, but moreover, left me less keen on asking for their advice again. It’s part of my personality to admit that I have a lot of areas in my skills to improve. And I’ve found that the best way to get the help of better builders is a bit of well-meaning ego-stroking. If you all can give me some advice from your better talent, understanding, or depth of experience, I can benefit directly, while projecting myself as someone who is not only willing but also eager to improve via criticism. That strategy could be a double-edged sword, but it can also be a multitool. I definitely benefited from this experience, and it would be interesting to dig into the psychology of advice. There are a couple high-profile builders I could name who have a very hard time taking criticism (even when solicited), so it is certainly an artifact of personality. But being able to contribute honest, raw advice to a builder is just as personality-based. So, at risk of sounding like I’m locked in an echo chamber, I thank you for your part in helping me to improve this build and hone my skills as a whole.


  6. Always love an article about the impact of asking for help and getting criticism! Glad to see that it worked out so well for you. I do have a question though, since Builder’s Lounge (the actual forums, not the flickr group) shuttered it’s doors, is there really a centralized place for System builders to get and give criticism? Or do you guys just have to rely on constantly reaching out and asking your friends?


    1. I have a constructive criticism column here on the blog (see sidebar) and if you leave a comment on any of the postings with a link, you can get my jackassy, highly formatted opinion on the matter. More importantly, at least a handful of commenters are pretty reliable for advice and smack.


    2. That’s a really good question. I wish I could give you an answer, but I can’t. Perhaps this is room for improvement. Maybe there’s an opportunity for a new group in Flickr dedicated to WIP or completed model advice so you don’t have to throw down on Keith’s more public stage? I would be interested to pioneer a group like that, at any rate. I may be very slow at developing my building skills, but I have developed my critiquing skill far faster, so I might as well put it to good use with a willing audience.


    3. That’s a really good question. I wish I could give you an answer, but I can’t. Perhaps this is room for improvement. Maybe there’s an opportunity for a new group in Flickr dedicated to WIP or completed model advice so you don’t have to throw down on Keith’s more public stage? I would be interested to pioneer a group like that, at any rate. I may be very slow at developing my building skills, but I have developed my critiquing skill far faster, so I might as well put it to good use with a willing audience.


  7. Loved this article mate, and as others have said, it’s such a fine work of criticism in action! I can hardly think of what may have happen if you’d gotten a whole bunch of ‘This is great’ or ‘I can’t think of anything to fix.’ The effects of the helpful advice really pushed you to do better, and the final product is a truly masterful creation!

    As always, the power of friendship and support wins the day! Brilliant work mate 🙂 I’ll keep the pie stocked and ready to go.


    1. Man, if any one person had said “It looks great”, I would have clicked on their link and pushed the unfollow button. As I have mentioned, the best friends are the ones who tell you when you’ve screwed up. Thanks for being part of that group, mate.


  8. Official Contest Review
    Entry # 15
    Title: Advice Works
    Author: Caleb Inman (VAkkron)
    Views: 77 Comments: 8

    Favorite Quote: “I’ve seen carefully-worded, politically-correct posts about “comments and criticism are welcome”, but I didn’t want any criticism. I wanted straight-up mockery, swearing and vocalized pain that my model inflicted on their eyes. To my great delight, that is exactly what I got.”

    Favorite Comment inspired by the entry: “We’ve started to sound like a broken record of constructive criticism here, but this is possibly the best example on this blog of the process in action. Keith has ripped into a lot of builders including himself here, but this is a full, detailed revelation of both sides, what advice was given and how it was acted on. You admitted what is often obvious but not many have the balls to say: “I don’t know.” – Christopher Hoffmann

    Single Sentence Summary: An examination of a Lego model improved by constructive criticism.

    The Good:

    1. See the favorite comment above, I really can’t say it any better. We talk the concept of constructive criticism to death around here and even actively engage in it from time to time, but until now nobody has taken the time to show the “process in action”. I was kind of hoping this topic wouldn’t come up because I tend to look for the new topics for inspiration but you proved that we’re never really done with any topic, there is always something new to add to the conversation. You get points for difficulty on this one, because it could have fallen flat in the wrong hands.

    2. I love that you included screenshots of the actual critical quotes instead of just quoting them in the body of the text. Seeing the little icon next to the blurb definitely enhanced my enjoyment of the piece. Sometimes the delivery system matters to really hook in the reader. To extend that thought I appreciate the logical way you organized the piece, it flowed well and never got bogged down in the details or too many photos of minimal changes. You explained everything well without resorting to Rutherfordian style definitions and repletion of THESIS. From a purely entertainment standpoint this was the my favorite of your three entries, and it goes beyond the challenge to also add something to the blog that people can read long after the contest is over if they are interested into the depth of thought presented here on the topic of constructive criticism.

    3. This comment is by it’s nature much more difficult to quantify or even explain but I really enjoyed the tone and character of the writing, it was very much like I imagine you to speak and the whole thing was very conversational in style. It never got boring, it was funny and as I’ve said before considering the dead-horse nature of the topic I was never motivated to ‘skip-on-down’ the page or rush through the conclusion. This is a voice that should be regularly featured on the blog, because while a great many people can craft an effective essay, very few have a recognizable vibe that make you want to read more.

    The Bad:

    1. As per my second Flickr comment, you never did fix that creepy gap where the eyes show through Izzy’s skin…come on my, you can’t reject one of my genius-level observations and then expect to win, right? Ball-busting aside, I think a second round of comments and improvements would potentially improve the essay by reinforcing the concept. It’s not a big deal though, except that gap is totally creepy.

    2. Near the middle of the article you say: “Topsy also joined in the nose conversation, bringing some near-compliments to the table. Unfortunately, her advice on color wasn’t going to work, but I had to make some concessions.” There doesn’t appear to be any reference to color at all, there are plenty of uses of the word “aquiline” but nothing about color. I don’t doubt that Topsy gave you some key insight, but I’m not seeing that reflected in the actual quote.

    3. This falls under the category of possible improvement rather than a negative critique, but the essay might have benefitted (at least in the comedic sense) from a negative example. Obviously sometimes as builders we reject critique for a variety of reasons and that could have been an interesting addition to the positive examples without detracting from your thesis. I’m not even sure if you received any questionable or off-bas criticism, so again, take this one as brainstorming more than something wrong with the piece.

    The Whatever:
    I liked you observation about the “big reveal”, especially where the SHIPbuilders are concerned. Sometimes it seems really important and at other times it seems to be the enemy of improvement. Food for thought, and possibly a later article if you’re game.


    1. Hey Keith, I appreciate your comments on every article. That’s a lot of effort on your part. You’re the man!

      And I totally did fix that gap in the eyes. It bugged me too. I don’t have a final product shown above, just WIPs 1 and 2. You’ve probably already seen it, but here’s a link to the final build:

      And yeah, shoot, I didn’t include Topsy’s color advice. You’re right, I missed that in my photo edit. But I am glad that the in-text images worked well. I was afraid they would be hard to read or break up the article too much, but it seems that they did the opposite of my worries.

      You mention my writing style. That means a lot to me. I used to be a good writer, until sometime in High School when my thoughts started to become harder to put into words. Actually, conversation and communication on the Manifesto have helped me to arrange my thoughts better over the last year, or maybe just stop caring what people think when they read my comments. I’ve learned to speak my mind better, which contributes to the conversational tone. I appreciate that you pointed that out.



  9. Well since things are dead around here at the moment, could use some help.

    I keep trying to figure out a way to alter the jawline for the busts, to make it less “batman the animated series” (I should probably build that) and more feminine, while retaining the mouth, and I can’t figure out a way.

    Cyberpunk #5 - Cyberspunk!

    The only rather decent option is this one, but the mouth needs to be altered and the parts used create some ugly texture/gaps.


    Any ideas?


  10. If you are willing to go to a little bit wider than 5 studs for the face (these are all 5.4 studs wide), here are a few options. The top row uses 1×3 curved slopes on the sides, resulting in a slightly rounder face, while the lower row uses 1×4 curved slopes, resulting in a narrower face. I’ll concede that going to a fractional stud width could complicate the hair, but I think that is probably a problem you could solve.

    In my opinion, though, if you really want to get a more feminine look, I’d change the mouth to something with closed or pursed lips, as in my examples. The open mouth in your examples is a little too Family Guy for me.

    Face Options for Vitreolum


  11. I like the cartoony mouths a lot to be honest, the busts themselves are leaning towards cartoony rather than realistic, so it’s fitting.

    That being said, I have to admit that the closed mouth ones do look more feminine than the open ones one the left, that also have the same issue the version I posted does – that 90° mouth corner that looks terrible. That’s actually my biggest issue with all the versions I tried, can’t find a way to avoid that corner without using a 1×2 slope, which stops me from using the curved slopes on the sides.

    I’ll do one with closed mouth to see how it looks in a complete build and how the gaps between the cheese turn out in bricks.


      1. OK, how about these (the ones on the right)? The sloped part of the lower lip is built by connecting the 1×2 cheese slope that forms the lower left corner of the mouth to the 1×2 cheese slope that forms the lower left part of the jawline with a lamp holder, and then attaching that assembly to the rest of the face with the 1×3 plate that sits just below the mouth. There is a lot of “behind the scenes” ugliness, but I am assuming that all of that would be covered by hair, etc.

        Face Options for Vitreolum (2)


      2. I feel like the square mouth-square jaw work together pretty well. I’m not sure about the square mouth and round jaw look, and the round mouth compromises on the lower lip a bit. I wonder if any extra mouth feature, maybe a relocated tongue, would help that appearance.

        Pretty neat to see you guys collaborating on this. (I suppose this disproves a theory I had ages ago that you were the same person XD )


      3. What I think a lot of builders don’t realize is that whenever they put a slope next to tile/plate, they are creating the kind of “compromise” on the lower that you point out. All of the slope parts, straight or curved, have about a 1/2-plate step before the actual slope begins. Most people assume that the only way to build is have a +0.5 plate step as you transition from a flat plate/tile region to a sloped region, but a -0.5 step is just as valid, and, in many cases, more visually appealing. When I can’t manage the 1/2-plate offset to have a completely flush transition between flat and sloped areas, I often use negative half-plate steps instead, especially on the upper end of the “1×2 roof tile with 1/3 plate” part.


      4. I don’t think the complex connection is needed, a 1×1 plate under the 1×2 cheese should keep it in place, with the other parts surrounding it. I wonder if throwing this bracket into the mix will take care of the offset, will have to give it a try. Might have to rework things a bit and connect the hair to the torso or the base since connection at the neck may no longer be possible, but that’s of no consequence, as I couldn’t care less what the back of the build looks like.


      5. That compromise is unfortunately boosted when using a cheese instead of any other slope; the grooves makes the transition way more obvious. Hopefully we’ll see an inverted cheese released someday.


  12. The problem I see isn’t really in the mouth, although the red ones Bricks built hint to lipstick. The issue might be more in the shape of the jaw and chin. Bringing the cheeks towards the chin with a softer curve will take away from the squared jaw of the original, it becomes more feminine by being less masculine by default. Bricks’ second example on the right are the best by far if you’re looking for feminine while retaining a certain level of cartoony. The half brick skip won’t even register with the hair texture and booooobs. If you can utilize those 1×4 curved slopes for cheeks, you should be golden, Pony Boy.


      1. Looks good. That is a part use I hadn’t considered. The one thing you might want to try, though, is to build the upper part of the mouth along with this version of the lower half, to see whether the gap becomes too narrow at the upturned part of the mouth.

        I agree with you regarding inverted cheese – I could probably find several places on almost any one of my builds that would have benefited from some.


  13. Did some experimenting, and I think I only managed to make it worse. I avoided the 5.4 wide route to be able to use the hairs I already have, going that wide would require another layer to cover the difference and I don’t now how that would work. Also I don’t have the bracket in tan, but the mouth is not bad at all. Here’s what I ended up with.

    I couldn’t make up my mind with this one due to the colors


    So a altered it to fit LD


    … and I can’t help seeing Ralf Moeller’s Conan in it. :))


    1. That is a pretty reasonable compromise. The new mouth definitely looks good. You could even claim that the little discontinuity on the sides of the face is an attempt to represent the cheekbones.


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