Questions for Modeling Trees and Other Things

by Dec 11, 2018The Art of The Craft, The Modeling Conversation10 comments

Too often we treat trees as the enemy. They seem complicated and time-consuming to create and the quantity required seems endless. I see trees as a way to provide and strengthen the context of the story I’m telling. As I develop this composition, I’m exploring several questions and ideas.

What am I trying to say with this scene/element?
Beyond signature elements what gives a location the individual character that separates it from other places? The geography certainly, along with the built environment imposed by man, but also color, texture, the quality of light and weather. There are also intangible qualities such as the experience and personal associations we take away from being there. As much as the trains and other railroad features, scenery speaks to a time and place. With the scenery on this layout, I want to move beyond generic treatments and materials. My aim is to create a recognizable landscape and the trees play a huge role in that task.

Does it provide context or confuse?
If I’m modeling a specific region, do all the elements contribute to the image and context of that region? Is there a consistent theme that comes through? Is this species of tree appropriate for the region I’m modeling?

What is this element for?
In considering the individual pieces of the larger scene, what does each one contribute? I want to bring a discipline and intent to the decision process as well as in the execution of the work. Settling for a quick and dirty solution just to get something off a to-do list may be appealing but is it appropriate? If not, then it has no place on the layout.

If I remove it, is the scene better?
Editing is a useful and underutilized art. Will this area work just as well with less? This goes back to the previous question about what is it for?

What we leave out can speak more clearly than what we include.

If I add it, is the scene better?
Again, full consideration of all sides of the question.

What does it contribute?
Perhaps the fundamental starting point for all the other questions. In this case, Mill Road is the boundary between the open country and the built up areas of the unseen grain elevator complex. My thoughts cover two aspects: 1) to use trees to strengthen this boundary and 2) to use the vertical aspect to counterbalance all the strong horizontal lines of the track and flat terrain.

With those criteria in mind, there are series of decisions to make about the height of the tree model. Since it’s in the background and I’ve used some forced perspective, I need to consider the height in relationship to other elements. That said however, I also believe that if you’re going to make a statement with an element, then make it a strong and clear one. Balancing these two aspects should be fun.

As you consider that unresolved area on your layout, I hope that reflecting on these types of questions helps you probe beyond the surface appearances. Also, as you look at your situation, I hope you ignore my questions and come up with relevant ones of your own that help you find the elusive aspect of railroading that many of us search for in our modeling.



  1. Dave Eggleston

    Brilliant. I suggest not ignoring your questions, they are some key ideas, and coming up with more that apply.

  2. Graeme

    A important factor that trees provide is time of year as plant interact with climate very specifically. This then reflects into the other vegetation in the scene and how it should look. The size of the trees in my experience is also connected to the view angle, if you look down the trees will be shorter.

  3. Chris Mears

    In the typical model railway, the scene is predominantly horizontal and the motion of trains through the scene only further accentuates this bias. Trees could provide a vertical element that can act as a sort of visual punctuation both defining the end points of a scene (framing it) but also providing a certain focal point. In a focused area like the one of your layout, it’s that focal point that might be interesting to play around with. There’s just “something” about having a place to congregate. If we were railfans at that place along the railway, we might be playing with different methods of using the tree in the composition of our train photos. Design is the conversation around compromise or the relationship between things so just as we might create a photograph of a real train that contrasts the train to the tree could we create a similarly oriented model scene?

    I’m really impressed with your work on fading or transitioning the colours of your scenery into the backdrop. I wonder if a similar technique could be used in more dense plantings of trees on the layout? We tend to create a forest in which every tree is coloured and textured as if it were at the forefront of the scene. Perhaps as we move deeper into the stand the details become less defined and the colours blend together toward more muted shades that themselves eventually fade toward the backdrop.


  4. mike

    Brilliant Chris. As always.


  5. Jeff

    Been a fan since The Pieces of the Puzzle days. I’ve spent a few days enjoying your blog after stumbling upon it from a link on Trevor’s site. It is like the quiet room at a cacophonous party, where the quiet and insightful congregate. I like the idea of the cameo; it embodies many of the artful qualities of model railroading as discussed at a clinic of Lance Mindheim’s I attended that covered the material in his new book. It, as well as your blog, should be on the list of “must reads” for the hobby.

  6. mike

    Appreciate the kind words Jeff. -Mike

  7. Simon

    What we leave out can speak more clearly than what we include.
    That is the essence of oriental art, but frequently overlooked as part of composing a model railway. I still see people asking how to add more sidings, but it also applies to trees.

    With your ideas on diminution of colour, plus the idea that in front of it, less is still more, I am now wondering about improving a tree-lined area to the rear of the layout. Maybe fewer trees, better modelled, with a dark green outline behind them, rather than densely packed trees, with several rows in the space which should only have one.

    Food for thought.

  8. Dave Eggleston

    Simon, I couldn’t agree more. One thing I’ve been considering in those background tree shapes, that become more of a formless mass behind the modeled trees, is how much atmospheric perspective I should apply. Things in the background become fainter in color and outline and how best to play with that is a big consideration for me these days.

    A great trick in painting to sort out the noise is to squint when observing. It crushes down detail and shows the big shapes and light/dark contrasts more clearly. I’ve taken to squinting, which probably perplexes people around me, though I probably could do similar by simply removing my glasses. I am also thinking of playing with Photoshop to push images out of focus to help see and learn more about those amorphous shapes.

  9. Warren

    Thanks so much for this and your other post on interpreting trees, as this has really been on my mind of late. I live in the Pennyrile and work in the Western Coalfield regions of western Kentucky. On the way home from work the other night, just at dusk after the sun had set, but the sky was still light, I took notice of the differing shapes and heights of the trees in my region, thinking this winter might be a good time to snap some photos for future tree modeling in order to get the right shape for different species I wanted to feature.
    I am so glad I found your blog as you’re hitting on some things I had thought about in terms of what I want to do, but I’ve seen no one really touch on. I know the era and place I want to recreate, but it’s more than that. I want to recreate a time and mood as well, I want to tell a story. The trees, foliage, vehicles, buildings, colors, signage, etc. will have to work towards this end for me.

  10. mike

    Hi Warren,

    Winter is a great time to study trees. With the leaves down you can see the shape of the branch structure and how it is influenced by the environment. Good luck.