Light And Color

by | Nov 12, 2018 | The Modeling Conversation, The P48 Experience | 15 comments

The hardest thing I do is to keep the mindset of a student. When a reader emailed me and mentioned a book on light and color that he found useful, I looked it up on Amazon and purchased a copy. While a lot of the way light and color work in a painting doesn’t apply directly to what we do, there is a lot that does. Much of the material in the book was familiar although the truth is that most of what I know is from trial and error over many years. Simon’s comment on the last post helped me realize that many of the terms and concepts I take for granted are unfamiliar, even foreign to most of you. This post offers a (very) brief explanation of a few of them.

If we’re going to take scenery modeling seriously, a key idea to remember is that light has a color and temperature that impacts everything. Natural sunlight is a strong white light that is more intense than any artificial source we would consider for a layout. Volumes have been written and argued over about this topic and since I don’t have anything substantive to add, I don’t want to get into that useless drama. However, I’m eagerly waiting for someone to break the mold of our mediocre lighting techniques.

In addition to the sun, the sky is a giant reflector that influences the colors of the landscape. Consider the opening image. On a day with heavy overcast, the light will be diffused and soft. The cloud layer will cast a tint that renders the color of everything below quite dull. Thanks to the diffused light, the contrast between light and dark will be less intense because more light reaches into the shadows. Also, the forms of objects will appear flat and less defined. It’s counterintuitive but on an overcast day, color is often brighter and purer because the intense sunlight tends to wash out any color.

Color
Warm and cool refers to the amount of yellow or blue a given color has. In general terms we think of reds and yellows as warm and blues and greens as cool, yet that is simplistic. Reds and yellows can have cool properties while greens and blues can be warm.

Hue is the name we give to a color such as red, green and so on, while tint refers to the intensity of a color. Adding white to red lightens the tint toward pink, while adding blue darkens the tint and pushes it toward purple. Value on the other hand describes the degree of light and dark. That pink tint may be light in value while a deep rich blue has a dark value. Again, this is all quite relative and general but these properties are useful to know in modeling, as we can use them to great advantage.

We are more familiar with atmospheric perspective: the phenomena where colors and objects get less distinct the farther away they are. As we look through more and more layers of water molecules in the atmosphere, the color becomes less intense.

Rethinking Color On A Layout
It’s a matter of taste but the colors of commercial scenery products are too garish to my eyes. Using commercial products out of the bag fails to take the reflected light of the sky into account. Combined with the bright colors of unweathered buildings, rolling stock and even ballast, everything is competing for attention and the results are often unsatisfying.

Like many, I’m happy to slop on a coat of raw or burnt umber over the bare plaster cloth just to get rid of all that white. However painting the finished ground cover is something most don’t consider. Whatever comes out of the bag is what you see. With this project I’ve learned that’s selling the craft short.

As mentioned in the last post, I’m going for a very specific mood for this scene. Beyond that however, manipulating the color allows me to focus attention where I want it and away from places I don’t. An area I want to draw you away from is the end of the cameo and the transition to the staging. Inspired by military dioramas and other works, I’ve deliberately lowered the value of the colors here (photo below).

Our vision is drawn to light, movement and contrast. At the ends of the scene, I’m gradually building up dark tones on the ground, foliage and roadbed. You can see how the color of the rails shift from warm browns on the left to the cool gray on the right. To strengthen the impact, I used washes of the same gray on the surrounding landscape and roadbed near the cameo’s edge. Instead of trying to hide the transition with archaic tricks that would be out of context and fool no one, this darker area reduces the contrast so that the eye is naturally drawn back toward the lighter colors at the center. It’s important to reduce the value of everything, otherwise the eye goes right to any light color.

The effect on the right edge may not look that strong in the photo but it’s quite noticeable in person. I still need to adjust the values here and this is only the first step of more to come after the adjacent cassette is built and in place.

To create scenery with impact doesn’t take that much extra effort. Admittedly, the ideas presented in this series won’t be for everyone since old habits die hard and many people simply won’t care about them. If you want generic, paint-by-numbers scenery, the experts from you-know-where have it covered. I don’t believe in formulaic shortcuts and the hobby has enough to satisfy every taste. What I do believe in is sharing principles and concepts that help you to grow and follow your own path. I believe in challenging the status quo with ideas that might expand your understanding and enjoyment of what this craft can be and in the process, I’m learning right along with you because I want to remain a student of this craft.

Mike