Art can seem intimidating if you haven’t been exposed to it in a way you can relate to. You find paintings and works you like and some you don’t; while other stuff just makes you scratch your head as you try to figure out what it’s supposed to be. Believe me, for all my time around artworks, I know how it is look at something you don’t understand and feel stupid as a result. I’m that way with music. I don’t know a thing about reading sheet music or music theory or any of the terminology, I just know what moves my soul when I hear it.

I’ve spent thirty years noodling around the art world, learning the language of art as best as I could. And yes, every discipline of the arts has its own vocabulary, just like our craft does. To an outsider who doesn’t understand the words and their meaning, it’s hard to see how the concepts are relevant to your situation. This is the hurdle I face when I try to share concepts from the arts and show their relevance to modeling.

I no longer think like a modeler
I see this craft through an aesthetic lens rather than a technical one. With the I&W I’m attempting, in my own way, to express something about trains and a sense of place that goes deeper than surface appearances. This is why I dwell so much on the question of why and speak in terms of expression rather than technique.

There’s a great thought from David duChemin’s photography book: The Visual Toolbox, that says, every technical decision has an aesthetic impact. The author is saying that every choice of shutter speed and aperture setting, where you stand and all the other decisions you make before pressing the shutter button, impacts the quality of the photo. The same premise applies to our modeling and layout design choices. That No. 4 turnout may let you squeeze in another siding but that decision comes with a cost to the visual and operational realism of the scene.

There is more than meets the eye
When I speak of capturing the essence of a scene, I wonder to myself, for example, what is it about Richmond that makes it Richmond? Beyond the specifics of location and geography, what is the atmosphere, the feel, the essence of this spot that makes it like no other on earth? These questions can’t be answered by conventional thinking or rules, you have to go deeper.

This is why I prefer the word principles in these discussions. The concepts behind rules and standards are both too rigid for such work in my view. One purpose behind establishing a rule is to reduce complexity and uncertainty down to a simple solution (when faced with that, do this), which of course, is why many people prefer rules. They take the guess work out of things.

Thinking in terms of principles or qualities, allows for flexibility in their application to the specific. For example, when we picture an urban setting like LaSalle Street Station in Chicago, the quality of density comes in play. Trains, buildings, streets, cars and people are packed in tight. Things feel congested, cramped and closed in. How do you make a rule to ensure you have density? Well you could come up with a formula to calculate the number of buildings needed per square foot of layout space but, would such a formulaic process capture the essence of LaSalle Street? It would not. In this case, the intent of such a rule is too narrow for what we’re asking of it. The thing to study is how has the available space been utilized in this situation? In lieu of spreading out horizontally, how have vertical layers of activity (streets or buildings extending over or under the tracks) been handled? Are there spaces between buildings or has common wall construction been used? And so it goes.

We have to let go of the idea that the essence of a place can be discovered via linear, rule based thinking and, herein lies the heart of the problem: the hobby doesn’t have an aesthetic language that equips people for this task. We have all manner of technical terms (and yes, rules) to guide track planning, operations and the like but to go beyond the technical, we have to think differently and look to other disciplines for the vocabulary we need.

The path we want is found in understanding the quality or characteristic of an object or place and the words we use to describe them. One has to study the pieces and the whole along with the relationship between them. A particular landscape may have dozens of qualities but I’ll only touch on a couple for now, since this post is already long.

Mass plantings
I’ve spoken of this before but it bears repeating. When looking at a scene, notice how profuse the vegetation can be. Grasses, taller weeds, woody shrubs and trees may all be in abundance. Yet modelers are often stingy, especially if using commercial products. I get it. Such products aren’t cheap and simply putting a weed here and another over there stretches the hobby budget a little farther. And of course we’re told over and over, that anything that comes between us and the trains is asking for trouble.

A mass of plants is needed to replicate nature.

A mass of plants is needed to replicate nature. This is just a beginning.

Wild grasses also need to cover a lot of ground.

Wild grasses also cover a lot of ground.

When I think of mass, I picture large clusters of the same plant covering an area. In the first photo above, I used at least three packages of these dead leaved branches from JTT to cover this embankment. That’s nearly two hundred pieces just in this small area (I placed two and sometimes three pieces in each hole for more fullness). Yes, it was expensive but worth every penny, because the context this landscape provides is as important to the story I’m telling as the trains are. Another freight car would add nothing to the layout.

From the finest moss to the tallest trees, vegetation forms distinct layers throughout the landscape. I’ve employed this principle with my scenery by creating four distinct layers of plants ranging from the short sisal grass to taller weeds, then woody shrubs made from thicker sisal rope and finally the trees. Combined, these elements provide a quality and character to my landscape that ground foam never will. Paying close attention to such layers brings the landscape into closer scale with the trains. In quarter-inch scale this relationship is critical to realism, otherwise, the trains tend to dominate because everything else is undersized and flat. The texture and verticality we expect to see is absent.

Random growth patterns should be kept in mind

There are many other qualities and principles such as depth, texture, proximity, rhythm, height and scale. How color and light affect our perception of the landscape is worthy of its own book. (One I’m not qualified to write.) There are ways to increase the sense of space in a modeled scene without adding more square footage. In sum, there’s another world to explore beyond the technical limitations we’ve imposed on this craft and I’m happy to share what I’m discovering. I understand how strange and esoteric these concepts can seem, yet they’re not beyond anyone’s grasp with a bit of persistent study. And that is the key to anything in this craft. Read that opening sentence in the second paragraph again. I spent thirty years studying art and I still consider myself a rank novice. Such knowledge doesn’t come overnight but it will come in time. If you have specific questions or something is unclear, or you have topics you want to cover, just say so in the comments.