Small Layout Success (Part Two)…

Our conversation, across two blogs, continues and it continues to remind me of why I created Prince Street. This ongoing series of posts is thrilling because of the way it makes Prince Street feel like it has matured and as it moves through its second decade that is a wonderful feeling to enjoy. James wrote a beautiful opener so I’ll hand the keys to him:

In the first part of this series, Chris and I began to look at what makes a great small layout and gave some thoughts and reflections from our own thinking and experience as to how to make important decisions that materially impact the success of your own project…

James Hilton, March 2021
Creech Bottom, in 009, was just 26cm deep, yet the views were expansive. A muted palette yet consistently applied across all mediums tied the scene together. I was trying to evoke feelings of a summers day, a heady mix of nostalgia and narrow gauge, imagining myself to be discovering the lines in their twilight during the 1950s… to this end the muted palette took on a warmer tone, as well as giving the feeling of that fuzzy haze you get on a British summers day.

I began by introducing the concept of three suggested principles:

Deliberate scene composition

Consistent colour, both temperature and palette

Theatrical style viewing window

In that first introduction we focussed on scene composition – both from a visual and operational viewpoint. Today’s blog considers the user of colour.

There I was, wandering down a tangent, ironically transposing the concept of time travel in a tangible form and here I am realising that we discussed other things. Where we might use colour to support our story of how a warm summer day might look I think it affects how we navigate the scene. Looking at something we start to measure it and relationships between the parts of the whole by relating points. Just as the vivid colours of our summer’s day echo our story I think they also represent data to be interpreted in a number of ways.

Because we live in a time where most of us are disconnected from the moments our railways lived in we depend on the story others record to enrich our understanding. In this context colour is a function of mood. If I think about the colour of coal it’s hard to not also think about the feel of coal. Even though we’re consuming it to create warmth, somehow it still always feels damp and cold. As design elements should we draw from a palette that feels the same way so our coal belt cameo feels right when we look at it? Should the lines that differentiate between the home and the mine be blurred by the way coal dust hangs in the air and tempers the appearance of everything and everyone? The way it gets into our skin and can’t be easily washed out. By blurring these lines it’s harder to tell where the house ends and the mine begins which might also echo that sense of connectivity or codependency within the story of one life. Further, even in the limited space, this line that wanders ambiguously toward distortion asks us to not divide the components of our model scene into distinct parts we can visually measure but leaves us always with the outer extremes of its size; maybe no matter how small the scene always feels large when looking at it.

In my childhood I quite vividly remember saving up my weekly pocket money and looking forward to the Saturday trip in to Chester with Mum, Dad and my two brothers. We went our separate ways from the car and my first stop was always the model shop ‘Arts and Crafts’, every week, eagerly checking for a new copy of the Railway Modeller, un-aware in those days of the magazines publishing schedule!

The excitement of a fresh issue

James Hilton, March 2021

I promised I would stay focussed and then here I am but “the excitement of a fresh issue” reminds me of my daily, weekly, regular trip to Tweel’s on the corner of University and Kent streets in Charlottetown. While my early childhood in Ottawa had already introduced me to Model Railroader it was Tweel’s who sold me my first copy of Railroad Model Craftsman. In today’s richly connected world it’s hard to remember or imagine a time when connection between ourselves and model railroading was singular and only between the covers of that magazine. Not just articles connecting us to their authors, other people like me, but pages of ad’s showing models themselves as unimaginable. Imagine a layout in HOn3, whatever that is, or owning a GG1 to pull, I guess, passenger trains? Tweel’s and Arts and Crafts become like a charging station for our imaginations. Sorry James, I wandered.

I remember thumbing through and absorbing the greyscale imagery before diving into the articles at home. Often the layouts would look wonderfully realistic in a way my own didn’t, with it’s juvenile use of materials and colour… however often when reaching the ‘colour supplement’ pages I would be let down by the same layouts lurid greens and bright tones clashing, totally destroying that vision of reality imparted from a view in greyscale. Of course back then photography and colour reproduction in the modelling magazines wasn’t great, but there were exceptions, so it wasn’t a universal disappointment.

James Hilton, March 2021
This is ‘Didcot’, the British outline layout I built with my Dad in the late 1980s. This is how photographs of models in colour often looked with over saturation of yellows and reds and the greenery and scenery appearing washed out.
Mollington Road is a truly tiny 00 layout. The success of such a scheme has much to do with the scenic treatment, and muted colours again work well. Perhaps this muted colour gives us the feeling we’re stood further away, making the scene somehow feel bigger, and more realistic?

The few books on “real” railroads that I had all featured black and white photos. Even the magazines were often black and white too. As tools defining an understanding of the real world we are left reconciling the colours and textures of our model railway knowing that they just never looked like the ones outside and that third voice coming from our friend in the magazine who was doing it different. I don’t have answers but I do wonder how we could be having a conversation about colour choices? Model railroaders launch into petty feuds over the “right” shade of Boxcar Red but I wonder how anyone can take a side in that when there was so much variety in chemical formula, time travel is still impossible so we have no first hand experience, and our photos and films of that time are degraded by time itself? If all my photos of the Sandy River’s boxcars are black and white how can I measure the right shade of red? If that film takes on a yellow tinge as it ages how do I know green the grass is? How does our archive of appearance data affect our measure of what looks right? In a conversation about colour I tangent into a monologue on “this” being another place where we earn our identities as artists practicing the craft of our hobby by making aesthetic decisions about the presentation of our work and how we describe the choices me made and why we made them.

In reality, we don’t just see our layouts in greyscale and so with small layouts, where the eye can take in the whole scene in a very short period, the choice of colour temperature and palette becomes absolutely critical. In terms of that ‘feeling of space’ and the emotional connection to the wide open sky I talked about with my Prince Edward Island cameo, Kinross, it would be easy and simplistic to assume that small layouts need to utilise a pale, light and hence airy palette to be successful. I’ve a suspicion that although this can work, it isn’t an exclusive truth.

Instead, I believe the key is both a consistent colour temperature, and a restricted and muted palette.

James Hilton, March 2021
The colour shot here shows the muted palette takes on a more verdant tone than Creech Bottom (top). The lush greens an attempt to evoke the feeling of an overcast summers day in the damp Welsh valleys. An interesting trick I learnt from Chris whilst working on some of the scenery on Kinross, was to change a photograph into greyscale. The act of removing colour, instead, focuses on the texture and composition of the scene (see part one). This shows how my deliberate use of varied texture works to give the scene greater depth. 

If we don’t use a blend of elements within the scene can we instead lower its intensity back to where it came from? James mentioned Kinross and I wondered if we could merge the colour of the sky into the colour of the large Visser’s warehouse? The colour of sky creates the colour of water in real life and changes our impression of the colour of everything in real life. Can we leverage the same power? What if, instead of painting the whole structure one “correct” colour we determined it’s strongest corner, that defining one, and then as we move back from that prominent point we faded the colour back toward that of the sky? So that even though the physical form of the building remains it’s presence is muted as it fades away from the viewer.

James Hilton, March 2021
Although not terribly obvious in this photo, the effect in real life is much more pleasing. The fading from the front corner is a neat trick and has the effect of making the structure appear both larger as well as softening the transition to the flat back scene, a bonus. The temperature selected for Kinross, as with Creech Bottom (top), is quite a warm light, yet the muted colours give the feeling of viewing from a distance on a hazy summers day.

A model railway is the sum of models of natural things and human-made things. Today’s sky shares its colours with the water looking up at it. Water itself fosters life on the land and that is passed back into the water. We often discuss connectivity between natural things and this echoes into those things we make. Natural materials like the clay in our bricks are the colour of the ground they were made from and one brick colour identifies a sense of place more than any station nameboard could ever do. Even resilient things like metal rails or concrete paving are themselves slowly consumed back into the land they cross and even if their creation defies influence from their materials they are weathered by that same sky and that water; taking on colours that connect them to their place. A use of colour could be used to bed items from within the scene more intimately into the scene. James has added an exciting new dimension here by using colour to modulate the experience of moving within the scene. By blending in colour and maybe even the texture of a lesser structure we could maybe reduce its presence within the scene. Where a harsh colour choice would delineate between one component of the scene and the other and help us measure the small size of the space blurring those lines by blending together their forms feels like it visually expands the space. In choosing colours for the scene our design choices can include this register and how we can manipulate it to move key players in our model scene to step to the forefront and draw attention to their presence just as well as muting their form enriches and expands the context of the background. In the play we are staging each element is equal in importance and empowered by making choices that support their strengths without undermining their role.

This is an Intermountain hopper repainted by teenage me, and weathered, posed on the Canadian layout my Dad was building as I went off to college and university. It’s taken with print film in an SLR using a tripod and timer and more accurately captures he colours we achieved. What I learnt from a young age from my Dad was how to use muted and faded colours and combine that with the same tones used in weathering your models. On the Canadian layout on the prairies scene it was all Woodland Scenics burnt and yellow grass foliage, which was muted but warm, and evoked memories I had of watching trains in the shade of a porch on the general store. In addition, the Canadian Wheat board brown and yellow hoppers themselves, in reality, took on the colours of the ground and the sky as they weathered and faded in their use…

I love that photo of James’ covered hopper. Not just to pull colours from the scenery into the weathering on the car but how the livery of the hopper itself is reflective of the land where wheat comes from. We might think of the colour palette for the model railway as separate for the trains and separate for the buildings and separate for the scenery but why? Why not use one to inform the others as a medium to unify the scene and the message we’re offering to the viewer?

I’m so glad we’re continuing this conversation, across two blogs, because I know this is not one I would be able to kindle on my own. In my hobby I could create models or form thoughts on their design all alone but when formed in collaboration with my friends I see evidence of their contribution as fingerprints in the work I look at so when I see these things they bookmark a connection to that person and this becomes one more piece in the ideal of human-centric design.

James Hilton, March 2021

We share these posts across our two blogs. I am grateful that you read this here – thank you. This post appears on James’ blog too but when you visit that you get to see all the really cool models he makes like Terra Transport models, a string of completely attractive narrow gauge models, and just good things:

All these posts are gathered together by my Hilton and Mears category. Click here to read the rest:

Categories: hilton & mears duo, How I think, model railway design

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