Happy little accidents

I like watching Bob Ross’s television shows about painting. Of the things he did that I liked was the way he interacted with the painting he was working on. He’d start with a vision and then just start painting. As paint moved onto canvas the development of the work was no longer guided by that initial plan but a conversation he had with the canvas through the language of paint. He’d joke about “happy little accidents” and like turns where something appeared in the canvas because of the way elements already in place interacted with each other and created invitations to create something new in that space. It’s a very different process from one that plans everything to exacting detail and then moves from planning to production and surrenders all of thinking to a state of doing. I like the conversation.

When I used to do “ballasting” I would spread an even layer of ballast along a length of track then coerce into place according to plan noting my own pet peeves: I dislike ballast glued to the sides of rails or random grains caught in the act of escape halfway across the face of a tie. Regardless, I treated it like a process with sequential steps. When I started ballasting Coy I started working in a different way. I was applying ballast almost one tie at a time, spooning small loads of ballast into the space between the ties and interacting with just that small area at a time. Sure, it’s very slow; it’s incredibly meditative and I emerge from it refreshed in mind and body. I like that. (“Prayer and work”?)

It’s also like washing the car by hand. As my hand runs over the body of the car I study it and can see things that require attention. In this way washing the car isn’t just an act of presentation but a component of maintenance estimating need. As a scheduling tool I could anticipate things I’d return to later. By studying the evolving landscape of ballast I am learning to apply a similar study.

I’m learning that “ballasting” is only a part of the process of building up the colours and textures of the kind of older grassy track I adore so much. Like Bob Ross talking with his paintings I find myself relating to the ballast. As it dries and settles, between each set of ties, I see small valleys in which water and soil might collect and, in turn, provide a home to some stray grass seeds whose journey in the wind couldn’t continue forever.

Watching a stream of water trickling into the ocean, dividing our beach on the Island, I’m always amazed at how temporary that moment is. You can watch the sandy walls of that stream’s borders washing away and you can place your hand into its faint current and further interact with that change. In moving through these iterations, toward this current one, I see how each informs the next. Design nurtures the process but does not define its identity; only creating a nest for it to grow from. I know I want to see grass growing in and around the rails my trains will follow but I’m learning to trust that the layout itself will help me to see where that grass grows from.

There really is story here that is broader than just trusting that the layout will create places where the next layer of models will reside. As I contemplated the grades and colours of ballast I thought, this morning, that this is not about making the decisions but about asking the questions. Not “what colour is right?” but “where does my railroad get it from?” A term like ‘realistic’ can be so much more than converting a photo from two to three dimensions and instead becomes a conversation about what makes sense in human terms: what do we do?

Categories: How I think


8 replies

  1. Waxing poetically, are we now? 😉 Or waxing philosophically? Either way, an interesting perspective on doing something as seemingly mundane as laying ballast.

    • Sometimes, just waxing the car?

      I believe that we leave a bit of ourselves in our work. My good friend always reminded me how bread knew how you were feeling inside and good bread happened from a good mood. I figure if I remember how good these parts felt that’ll propel me through times when the path isn’t so clear.

  2. It’s certainly a nice alternative to the metres-long yards (oxymoron there) I see online of straight tracks and even ballast on mega-layouts. So hypnotic but not terribly realistic. This feels better and realer.

    Brother Lawrence and his washing-up kitchen calling would be proud!

    Thanks for sharing your process and thoughts, Chris.

    • I think, someday, I’d like to try the larger format layout to see what it would be like – it’s something I’ve never done. I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited to help friends on their empires and that has been a wonderful education.

      Thank you, as always, for meeting up here to talk about these things and share this journey together. I always enjoy that.


  3. We also watched a story on Bob Ross this weekend, I believe it was on CBS Sunday Morning. He died around 52 yrs old with lymphoma. That was 26 years ago. He’s left a legacy. Watching him create in oils and being able to teach others to do something they thought they couldn’t do, was simply amazing. And his easel looked to be a short step-ladder!

    Connected but rather tangential thought!!

    • That sounds really interesting. I wouldn’t mind watching that and I took note of your suggestion as something I should look out for to look forward to on TV.

      Being able to develop a craft is a thing but seeing the greater value in it is always so much greater and then to able to communicate that back out is such a gift.


  4. Your writing is finding its audience as your modeling is finding its technique and your vision is finding its process.

    People go their whole lives without anything like this happening to them.

    • I’m grateful for this in ways I will never find the words to describe. Not just the interest but the time people take to invest here from their lives is something I can’t take for granted.


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