Experiments With Light and Dark

by Feb 2, 2022Modeling Techniques, The Modeling Conversation, The P48 Experience4 comments

It’s been nearly twenty years since I converted from HO and in that time I’ve clarified and focussed my thinking about what gives me genuine pleasure with the craft. In addition, my views on our design practices have changed.

Design is design.
Recently I’ve reached the point where I want to bring all my experience and understanding of design to this work. I believe the basic principles of design apply regardless of the medium used to express them. Good design not only considers the surface appearance but how an object will be used.

We typically handle the transition from full scenery to staging with a hard break, usually via a hole through the backdrop or wall. Convention says to disguise these unnatural breaks with an overpass, a building, a tunnel, a screen of dense trees and such. Whether the ruse is believable or not, the story we tell ourselves is that it’s necessary. The train has to disappear from our sight in some fashion to convey the idea it’s going “somewhere.”

On earlier compositions I’ve used all these gimmicks in one form or other and find them less than ideal. The one instance where I had the track pierce a wall, it required me to stand in a doorway to watch the progress of the train. In other situations where I had to navigate hidden track, I never knew where the damned train was. Both circumstances left me soured because they were poorly designed for the user’s experience.

Why Does Staging Have to Hide?
If the entire train doesn’t have to come from somewhere else, a number of options open up.

As a cameo of railroading, Mill Road is designed as a single scene that you can enjoy at your own leisure by walking the track to see what’s around or watching the local work if you’re lucky enough to catch them in town. These choices reflect my real world preference for finding a good spot to study and enjoy whatever subject is in front of me.

Long time readers of this soap opera may recall that I placed a 24-inch long, two track staging module that represents the local industry on the left end of the scene.

With all surfaces painted the same charcoal gray as the fascia and lighting valence, it fades into the background yet is completely visible. It has no lighting of its own, only the spillover light from the main scene. All of these features are by design.

Where the two meet the transition from full scenery to staging was initially hard and abrupt. Even with the dark colors and subdued lighting, it proved a bit jarring though workable (photos below). Looking at  the area again, I felt there was room for improvement.

(Above) Initially, I had a hard break at the threshold from full scenery to the staging module. It worked but felt a bit jarring to the eye. Since then I added a bit of scenery texture to the staging and gradually darkened the colors to ease the eye across (below). This proved the concept but the execution seen here could use further refinement.The section of fencing is under review. If it stays, I’ll blend the color in more than what you see here.

I recalled reading a book about the design of Disney theme parks and how the transition from one theme area to the next is handled. According to the book, Disney designers included nondescript areas for people to walk through between each attraction. In these zones the textures, colors and other sensory cues gradually shift from one thematic area to the other, smoothing out the experience of going from one wildly divergent theme to another. It felt like there is a useful application here.

With the Disney example in mind, I brought the scenery textures further on to the staging module and de-emphasized them with stronger washes of the same charcoal gray. The scenery textures continue on and smooth out the transition from one zone to the other without the unwanted attention the vibrant natural colors produce. The trial experiment helped but the technique could be developed further, which is what I did on the opposite end of the scene.

The transition for the long switch lead is handled the same as the industry staging.  Here, the track, ballast and natural scenery colors gradually get darker and grayer the further from the light you go.  Just to the right of this area, the textures and ground cover stop completely and everything is the dense charcoal gray of the front fascia.

A More Graceful Exit.
Past the turnout and grade crossing, the former through line now serves as a long switch lead. As outlined in this post, this module is also eight feet in length with a solitary track on a fill.

My first plan was to light this module to the same intensity as the original with the track visible for its entire length. I also planned to continue the overcast sky onto this area and gradually fade it out. A problem quickly developed as the competing light took my focus away from the core scene of the crossing and siding.

I truly enjoy the contrast of the strong light on the scene to the darker areas on both sides. This contrast creates a strong focus that I find captivating. No matter how I tried to light the new module, the lack of a strong focal point bothered me every time. I realized later that the extra light wasn’t necessary.


Here the room lights are off. The lighting of the staging module is darker than what you’d see in person but you get the idea of how the strong light pulls you to the left away from the staging area. Painting everything on the staging module dark is the key.  Anybody notice the box car?

Below, A preliminary stand of trees softens this column structure that hides the end of the sky and power cord for the lights. Again, this is an experiment that calls for more refinement in modeling but I think it will work.

Just Because You Can See It.
With a dark scene I began to question the idea of having the entire switch lead dressed with full scenery. When I’m engaged with the scene I typically remain near the crossing, so I can work the ground throw on the turnout. If I remain stationary, then why do I need full scenery everywhere? Answer: I don’t.

I painted everything on the second module with the dark charcoal color. To continue the experiment from the other end, I extended the scenery textures until the spill over light from the original scene is too dim to notice them. Near the section joint I matched the existing scenery colors and gradually darkened the grasses and soil color of the staging module to full charcoal to complete the transition.

While the switch lead is mostly dark, there is enough ambient light in the room to walk around. Both staging areas are fully accessible and one can see the train, yet not be so distracted by it that your focus is taken away from where I want it to go.

Using light levels to lead the eye or manipulate our sense of space is a core design principle of art. When it comes to crafting a scene, it’s one I’ve ignored until now. There’s a tremendous opportunity in such techniques, which takes me back to the point made at the opening of this post.

Good design is good design regardless of how we use it. We treat this craft as a closed loop with its own rules and thinking that give little reference to the larger creative design principles and practices. This siloed thinking often proves more of a straight jacket than an asset as it locks us into counterproductive designs and experiences.

The ideas I present here work for my needs but in no way are they the answer for every situation. As always take what seems interesting or useful and modify it for your specific needs.



  1. Dave Eggleston

    Brilliant thinking on this type of transition. And I especially enjoy the long discussion around your thinking.

    I’ve been designing a single-town layout based on the Colorado & Southern running into the compact yard at Central City, Colorado, and have toyed with ideas around transition into a staging area off one end. My design has moved to an idea of running a the single track main a few feet beyond the main layout section (a non-descript hillside which was treeless) and then into a small 3-track staging area. To soften the blow and define the staging separate from the main yard, I was thinking of lowering the light level quite a bit in that single-track non-descript area and then raise it again at the staging, maybe to 75% of the main layout level. The idea would be a non-hard mental separation for the operator and viewer. Your experiments, though somewhat different, are providing interesting feedback on the possibilities of the concept.

  2. Chris Mears

    I love how this works and how well it simplifies something that we otherwise make unnecessarily complicated because we’re just not thinking about what we’re doing. I like how it plays with lighting as a way of guiding our attention within the scene. As things move into the wings of this space they fade from view but their silhouette remains, easing that transition. Instead of a harsh on-off of staging this feels like a more natural movement; more like in a larger piece of music as the conductor moves through the symphony modulating each part of the orchestra by drawing out more voice from those instruments delivering their lines and then softening those in wait.

    And, in your side on photo (“Here the room lights are off”) doing what you’ve done creates an emotionally charged moment. You’d think my attention would remain where the spotlight is trying to command it to be, on stage on the main layout, but the boxcar whispering off stage is such a tease inviting me to listen and be curious. Where the traditional model railroad experience is either “build it” or “play with it” this is a case of feeling active and participating in the layout without doing either and more listening to it.

    This work excites my imagination in a way that makes me want to try more.

    Thank you


  3. mike

    Hi Dave,

    That sounds interesting. We seldom play with different light levels, which is a loss in my view. I like the idea of lowering the light in the staging area to 75% or so. I would be tempted to take it down even more to 50% or less for a greater degree of visual separation. Of course you need to see car numbers and such but I’ve found there’s a wider range to play with than we think. Keep us posted on what you come up with.


  4. mike

    Hi Chris,

    In my view it does simplify the transition from full scenery to plain staging. As you’ll see in the most recent post, the train and other details just gracefully fade into the dark. Will it work in every circumstance? Probably not but, it feels more natural to me than the contrived solutions we often default to. In these experiments I’ve discovered the biggest hurdle to overcome is my own lack of courage and willingness to try something different.