Creativity is a mystery to many. There is a tremendous amount of mythology and jargon surrounding the creative process and, because of this, creative people may have a hard time sharing their ideas and enthusiasm in understandable terms.

We face a similar situation as modelers. As a craft, railroad modeling is one of the most creative I have found. One can bring almost any kind of interest and apply it to this craft. We often speak of the opportunities for using hand skills such as woodworking, painting or other craft oriented skills but the work will support intellectual and conceptual skills too. We have done a poorer job of emphasizing those opportunities because our focus is often on the areas we feel more comfortable with. Layout design is one of those topics we obsess over, partly because it is incredibly interesting to a number of modelers and also, because it can be hard to understand.

Not Knowing Is Okay
The arts teach a number of useful skills modelers can benefit from knowing, such as how to be comfortable with not having the answer to questions right away and to keep looking for better answers beyond the first one that pops into your head.

People dislike ambiguity. We learned in school that questions have answers and we were rewarded for finding those answers. The answers to design and creative questions aren’t as absolute as 2+2=4. With creative concepts, you are asking broader questions that are subject to a wider and subjective interpretation. Most of us get lost quickly in this world because we don’t have the tools to find our way around.

Consider the challenge of blending two scenes that aren’t found together in real life such as the concrete canyons of a dense urban switching district combined with the image of a quaint rural feed mill. Both images speak to you strongly and you have a hard time choosing between them. If you are honest, you want to have your cake and eat it too. But the two images represent a stark contrast and are at odds with each other, making it hard to create a plausible scene. Although the way forward is unclear, this ambiguity is where new answers are found. Learning to move past the discomfort of not knowing how to proceed and to keep looking even if you think you have the answer are useful skills in this situation.

Another key skill the arts teach is how to see the essence of an object. Artists use this skill to clearly focus and to distill their ideas down by removing non-essential clutter. The Japanese have turned such focus into an art form via their art of flower arranging. By careful selection and presentation, the beauty of a single flower makes a more powerful statement because all the other visual clutter and distraction has been removed. In applying this concept to railroad modeling, we might ask what is the essence of the railroad image we are creating? What clutter can we remove to distill that image down into its most powerful expression?

Learning To See 
The primary skill the arts teach is how to be a better observer of the world. Connecting this to layout design, becoming a more careful observer helps you understand both the big picture and the small details as you learn to see the relationships between objects and the impact those relationships have. One solution to the urban switching district/small town feed mill dilemma is to move beyond the surface impression of each image and look for elements they might share. What are you really drawn to in both of these images? Is it the textures, the impression of space in each? Is it the lighting or atmosphere? Are there elements in common between the two images? These are the sort of questions an artist deals with every day.

There Is More When You Are Ready
We dismiss resources like the arts because we don’t see how it connects to our purposes. I’m well aware that the vast majority of hobbyists couldn’t care less about any of this and that’s okay. No one is forcing anything on anyone. Yet there are those who do care and are trying to express something they find interesting, even important on some level.

The arts provide many of the answers to our questions about how to design a satisfying layout and experience, yet that conversation is seldom heard and often poorly framed. We can do better and we owe it to ourselves to try because in my view, the default language of layout design is insufficient for the task some of us are now asking of it. This is a conversation worth exploring.


TMC Vol. 06: Composing A Scene

In this volume you’ll discover:

• How to see the different aspects of a scene.

• How to determine what’s essential.

• How to apply that knowledge to your modeling.

In addition, well known modeler James McNabb shares how he combined photo backdrops with the 3D scenery on his Iowa Interstate Grimes Line. Using these simple techniques, you can create better, more convincing layout scenes.

The Missing Conversation Vol. 06

Discover more


  1. Simon

    The arts teach a number of useful skills modelers can benefit from knowing, such as how to be comfortable with not having the answer to questions right away and to keep looking for better answers beyond the first one that pops into your head.


    This is an interesting point. It is also true for the sciences, engineering and philosophy. Basically, everything we learn about at school as being incontrovertible facts might be built on a solid foundation, but until that foundation was established, there was doubt and uncertainty.

    Yet another advantage of our hobby is that we can try out new ideas and develop new techniques knowing that at the end of the day, there is nothing lost apart from some time, and although “lost”, it isn’t wasted as this was a step forward in the journey.

    A hobby, designed to do nothing more than enhance our enjoyment of life and the “human condition”, is a great way to develop vital life skills such as coping with uncertainty, because it is on so many levels a trivial thing, yet also turns out to be so important for that self-same reason.


  2. mike

    Hi Simon,
    You’re right. There are lots of disciplines these apply to. And, I agree that a failed attempt isn not time lost if you apply the lessons to the next project.