Mill Road is built on the idea of creating a sense of place. On the surface the lack of specifics (this is the east end of the PRR yard at North 19th Street in Richmond, Indiana of 1965) may seem at odds with that theme, yet there are specifics within the generic. Let’s have a look at some of them.

When we’re watching trains outside, there is a sense of space. It may be open country or the urban congestion of the city. Each has a set of distinctive characteristics that we can identify with a bit of thought. Our position relative to the tracks, also creates an impression of space. Are we close up, at mid-range or far away? Each distance creates its own impression that shapes our experience of the train. Close-up can feel overwhelming. The sheer physicality of the train’s presence can be hard (not to mention dangerous) to ignore. At mid-range, we’re less viscerally impacted by the noise yet still aware of it. Our impression includes more of the surrounding contextual elements. From a long distance away, the train is primarily just one aspect of a much larger scenic context.

Mill Road attempts to capture the expanse of mostly flat, open farmland. The long horizontal line of the track and fascia emphasize this aspect. I’ve been careful about including and placing vertical elements like trees or utility poles, as I don’t want to break up or lose the open sense of space the cameo has.

In contrast to the open scenery, the viewer is in close proximity to the tracks. The shallow depth of the cameo leaves little room for nonessential filler. The track and right-of-way fills the space and the size of quarter-inch scale models reinforces this viewpoint. In the photo above, the camera lens is placed as close to a scale eye level as possible. The boxcars tower over us and we translate their size accordingly based on our real world experience. Even though the field of vision is fixed in a two dimensional photo, you have to shift your eyes from side-to-side to take everything in because of your proximity to the cars. These visual clues and ratios are important and deliberately chosen to shape a viewers’ impression of the scene.

I want to convey the chill of a late fall/early winter day. I’ve spent countless hours taking long walks in the country during this season and hope to express my love of it with the model.

Color is something many of us don’t understand or use to full effect. On Mill Road the color of things like the grasses and groundcover helps convey a sense of depth to the narrow scene. Color also helps direct the eye where I want it to go.

Painting the scenery is a new technique to me but one I will use without hesitation from now on. The painted grasses match the gray colors of dormant winter vegetation. This also gives the effect of reflected light from the gray overcast sky. I found this is especially powerful at the transition to the backdrop. Here the cooler gray color of the distant tree line is carried onto the 3D scenery, easing the eye smoothly across this awkward area. Near the foreground and fascia, the contrasting warmer colors draw the eye,  giving an impression of depth. Returning once again to the photo, notice the background scenery to the far right. It’s subjective but to my eyes there is the effect of great distance. The colors of the grass behind the tracks merge easily with the gray of the fog shrouded tree line on the backdrop. The shallow depth of field from the camera setting also enhances the impact.

The lighting however, creates a situation that needs fixing. If the mood is to be an overcast day with no sun, then the layout light produces too strong of a contrast. Notice the sharp shadows from the grab irons and ladder rungs on the boxcars. On a true overcast day these would be less distinct than seen here. I want to experiment with a soft diffuser cover of some kind for the lights and see the effect.

Furthermore, the colors here seem too vibrant for a cloudy day. The oxide reds of the boxcars stick out to my eye along with the bright tones of the foreground grasses. The scene doesn’t look this harsh in person, so perhaps the white balance setting on the camera is off. It’s good to evaluate these things. I could further desaturate the colors with more filter washes to blend them in with the rest of the scene, as the slightly altered image below shows.

Forgetting Photoshop trickery, the lesson I want to convey is this: we can manipulate the color of a model and surroundings far more than common practice suggests. We simply don’t it in our work, even though other modeling disciplines do. My question, as always, is why? I strongly suspect the answer is tradition. Our scenery techniques are well established and somewhat carved in granite from countless repetition over decades of time. 

The color was desaturated and a gradient layer applied for atmospheric effect. The sky was also extended upwards. In this image, everything seems to be under the same light.

I’m aware that the principles I outline here are strange and unfamiliar to many folks. However, by reframing the parameters of a design and asking a different set of questions, the answers open up possibilities we wouldn’t have considered before. My hope is you’ll find that a satisfying layout can take many forms.



  1. Stephan Wintner

    This is gold, Mike. Thank you and more please.

  2. mike

    Glad it’s helpful Stephan. More is coming.


  3. Peter Hopcroft


    I’m loving your recent posts. Your tie weathering prompted me to work on ways to paint my sleepers. And you’ve developed a convincing alternative to the picture frame layout, which has the sky curving round at each. I call those coffin layouts because there is so much unnecessary structure.


  4. mike

    Thank you Peter. Happy to know the posts are helpful for you.


  5. Simon


    “ I call those coffin layouts because there is so much unnecessary structure.”

    When such constrained-viewing layouts with side wings, fasciae and pelmets first appeared on the UK exhibition circuit about 30 years ago, they were given the nickname “tank-slits”.

  6. Chris Mears

    This is always such enjoyable reading and another installment enjoyably fresh thinking. I particularly like your comment wondering if we could filter the finish on the railway cars to better fit into the lighting of the scene. If we were painting this to hang on the wall, we’d blend colours on our palette so they fed into each other and that would unify the finished work. It’s a different approach to the collage-like thinking that’s more popular. You could easily use this post as a shining example of “The missing conversation”. There’s nowhere else in the hobby where someone’s talking about composition the way you are and I appreciate that you do.

    Thank you


  7. mike

    Thank you Chris. I appreciate your thoughtfulness. Yes, if I were painting the scene I would blend the colors harmoniously. Strange how that seldom occurs to us when modeling.