A painting of painting. A record of movement.

I thought this presentation had some real potential as a conversation subject in terms of model railways. We are masters of a scene “frozen in time” as Kentridge describes and I wonder what we could do to move the finished layout toward a record of the scene’s creation itself as William Kentridge describes when he speaks of a Jackson Pollock painting: a “painting of painting”. What evidence of movement could we record on our layouts?

A terrific first option is to weather the elements in the scene. Going beyond a wash of thinned colours, when we add dents and scrapes to the sides of a gondola we create evidence that the car has carried scrap before and wasn’t always unloaded carefully. We build in other evidence with trails of oil dribbled along the track recording the movement of trains over the mainline.

Could we go further? In the scenes that we build around the railroad itself how could we provide further evidence of the people and their lives in the worlds we create? I think this needs to fit somewhere between “women hanging washing” forever frozen in time and an animated cattle loading dock.

This history layer extends our layout by providing context in the form of the role it plays in the community it serves.



    1. No worries at all. I’m sorry to hear you’re having trouble with WordPress.

      If you do get a chance, I look forward to more of your thoughts on the subject.



    1. Hi Mike

      Take your time. It’s been a while since I first watched the video. I remain a fan of Kentridge’s work and still don’t know exactly how I think it could also apply to model railways. Then again, it doesn’t need to apply at all. I can enjoy both together or separately.



      1. Chris,

        I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this series of posts Thank you for writing them.

        In terms of movement, life, atmosphere or other intangible qualities in a scene, a study of what the military modelers are doing may be useful. With the inherently static nature of the models, they’ve become adept at composing mini-dioramas that tell convincing stories of a moment in time. The frozen action syndrome seems less an issue with them, or perhaps they simply handle it more gracefully then we do.

        With our relentless focus on the trains we have blinded ourselves to the reality of the landscape and environment they operate in. We treat it like filler or a safety net to keep the trains off the floor. Part of the problem is the fact we are immersed in it constantly and no longer see it (for example: how, I wonder, does a fish experience water?). It takes a deliberate effort to fully see what’s right in front of your eyes. We have to look beyond the trains and become a student of the entire scene, even we only model a tiny portion of it.


      2. Thanks Mike. Great points.

        There certainly is so much that we could learn from the military modellers. We both share a fascination with large machinery in not perfect environments. We both seem to revel in machinery that shows its age. Where the military modellers seem to have the advantage is that in their diorama work the entire thing is static. Not to rely on the art metaphor too much, but for them, they’re creating something not unlike a painting but in a three dimensional form. We start that same way with a similar end in mind but then undermine the whole thing by making only the trains move.

        Reflecting back on the layouts I’ve been involved in I’ve certainly fallen for this compromise often enough. Our responses to this issue can vary between just sticking the figures in their static poses down anyway to just not including them at all. In my later work, I’ve opted for the latter more often than not reasoning that it might be better to not include the element at all than include it and leave it as evidence of the problem: I’m moving around, the trains are moving around, but everything else is stuck in one single instance in time.

        I mentioned weathering in my original post but this is the place where we can really respond powerfully. I have always enjoyed aging and weathering models but realise that much of what I’ve done was an effort to capture the look of the prototype at a point in time. What I need to do, perhaps, is shift that perspective to using the act of weathering a model as an effort of documenting how the prototype was used and the life it has led to now. I mentioned gondolas beaten from years of hauling scrap metal and not careful efforts at unloading them but it goes further to including subtle effects like mud kicked up from car wheels. Along the track, grain spilled on the ground near the feed mill is perhaps a chaotic record of cars being unloaded. Maybe weathering isn’t about “making something look old” but telling its particular story? (I regret the gondola example I used now, wish I’d used salt hoppers instead since they’re much closer to my area of interest.)

        All of these elements from effective weathering remain as static elements yet are themselves records of motion. Unlike “women hanging washing” or “commuter running to train” figure sets we’re not freezing animated elements to tell the story but providing evidence of what happened. Basically, the mud is there not because somebody put it there but that’s where it winds up when the tank is swimming through it.

        As you mentioned in your last paragraph, this is an opportunity for us to learn from our prototypes. It’s an opportunity to recognise how the trains or like elements from the immediate scene we’re recreating looked. Some of these stories I still need to learn how to find and the rest I just need to get better at realising were there all along.

        I’ll get there in time. I usually do.


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