For many, the railroad is all we see of a place

For many, the railroad is all we see (along with the gaping hole).

Modeling is a strange endeavor. We have the full-size objects to observe, yet we miss seeing so much of what is actually in front of us. Whether we are recreating a real location or constructing a composite of several, the results are often lacking. Our outcomes seem off or something is missing and we are at a loss to explain what or why. I keep coming back to the questions asked and the way we outline the work.

Back in February I wrote a post titled the Power of Place, in which I asked if we can truly model the intangible aspects of the landscape. Things like sound and motion that are ever present in the full-size world. The post also suggested that for our purposes, much of our impression of a place is based on the presence of the railroad, or railroad activity that occurs there.

What if you eliminated your favorite element?
In doing your homework what if you completely ignored the railroad and focused on the surroundings themselves? How would you approach the work then?

What is the power of place without the railroad?

What is the power of place without the railroad?

This is the same photo as the first one. It was cropped at the top and the track and the gaping hole in the scenery was cloned out with Photoshop, otherwise nothing else has changed between them.* Without the distraction of the track, is it easier to analyze the qualities of the scene? What do you see here now? What kind of place is this? What sort of vibe does it have now? While this is obviously a model, does it remind you of a place in the real world? And, here’s the question to make you squirm: without the railroad, would you even give this landscape a second glance?

We really don’t like the ordinary
We’re told it’s better to model the ordinary or commonplace but we really don’t like the ordinary. This new scene is non-descript, even dull. As a result, most modelers would ignore it, or think of how to fill it with track, buildings; anything that would attract the eye or be more fun to model than a bunch of weedy gravel. And that, I suggest, is part of the problem we have in capturing the essence of a place. We don’t see what is there, we see what we want to model and looking through such a strong filter greatly skews our vision.

Looking at the landscape in the second photo, I’m struck by how open the scene is without the track and that openness is the very essence of the scene now. Would you even consider giving that much space to nothing but gravel, ground cover and dirt? As I did originally, most would fill it with track, so we could have more options for operating “interest”, whatever in hell that’s supposed to mean.

Track, track and more track. Never have too much track.

Track, track and more track. Never have too much track. Oh yes, you can.

Is there a balance between the amount of railroad needed for the operations we desire and creating a profoundly believable setting? Yes, I suggest there is but it’s hard because the design emphasis is so one-sided toward trackplanning first last and always. But, is this the best way? It depends of course, on the objectives you’re shooting for. A large layout lets you get away with things because you have more space to play with. Yet rather than stretch a scene out and let it breathe, we compress everything in order to include still more. On a smaller endeavor, you must learn to distill and focus on the essentials and I suggest that character is just as important as playing train. I also contend that the character of a place doesn’t automatically mean crowded, dilapidated or cartoonish. Empty space has character and power.

As the I&W matures, I’ve discovered that a truly believable scene has breathing room. As I focus the scene that is called Sycamore, it’s becoming more captivating than my original vision ever was. As the amount of track and other elements on the layout come into balance, I have a greater sense of place and I like what I see.

(*Because there is always someone who misinterprets things; I want to be really, really clear, that I have not physically removed anymore track from the layout. The second photo was digitally manipulated. The track from the first photo is still there and I have no plans to remove it.)