rough edges and smudged thoughts

I spend my day working on a computer but recently starting distinguishing that while I may work on a computer I think on paper, in pencil. It seems even the most open white board from a collaborative space still feels like prioritizing how I’ll tell you over what I think about. No wonder the quality of the ideas feels like less–we’re wrestling with typefaces and margins and starting to tell the story even long before we’ve written its second phrase. Anyway, beside my keyboard is a pad of paper and on it are the notes accompanying my work and in its margins are the things that happened not of work but during work when my mind needed to get away for a few moments to think about model railways and someday layouts.

I think in pictures already so the lines on the page really just act like paddles in a pinball machine guiding the slippery path of my imagination through play. If starting from a known volume of space my prioritization for the sketch is to first divide it into scenes then divide the scenes between what needs to be in here and what just would be nice if it fit too. There’s always this feeling of how things fit on paper but not as well in real life so by working in real time with real dimensions helps guide the plan toward what might actually work or at least help define why something doesn’t work the way I first hoped it would. Design is a conversation so the dialogue between me, my paper, and my pencil continues like old friends settling into another unfinished opinion.

Not everything I draw needs to become a layout. Often I find there’s a form or shape that I find so pleasing that I repeat it almost more to calm my imagination that to test the theory of a design. The repetitive practice of familiar lines feels like practicing the phrasing of a dance or a song’s notes. Each time informed by the last time and as preparation for the next time; maybe better, certainly more experienced.

On Friday it wasn’t just that I couldn’t sleep but the way my tired body fought sleep it felt almost defiant. Realising that the layout I was drawing wasn’t really that large I thought: why not draw it out full size? It’s almost four in the morning and everything is asleep so quietly I drew a few discarded sheets of paper from the scrap pile and tore them into the approximate dimensions of the layout’s size and shape.

Since this is all happening in full scale it’s easy to place a few real models in the scene and even move them around to evaluate sight lines, operating patterns, and part dream-part pretend how neat it would feel to really build this. It’s already real in my mind and couldn’t be made better with any additional work. We spend too much time talking about design using the vocabulary of model railroads built and not enough time about the process or craft skills of design. It was those that made me want to share these images. Rough torn edges and graphite smudged by erasers and rapid movements on a heavy night feel like a living record of life itself–design created by a human for their observation.

I make statements like “I was a model railroader first”. Sometimes in this hobby as if the models we make serve a purpose of being a substitute for an experience we can’t otherwise explore. I also talk about the sanctuary this hobby has provided as shelter in times when I needed it most. There’s just something about these models that just feels so right. Perhaps it’s the way they exist outside the boundaries of the “real” counterparts and in this imaginary world our work, in design, is to map a place for them to explore. Inside the boundaries of the model railway is a place of imagination and curiousity, a place of deep emotional connection. I’m as deeply proud of my work as a draftsman but still find that, at times, this hobby demands a process that is less alive and more rigid. While I loved every second of developing the plans above as full scale drawings it was the very natural, organic, almost sculptural way they evolved and unfolded like a beautiful blossom that turned me on so much. Where my traditional design starts from the hard edges of rulers and turnout geometry this design process was guided by feel. Torn paper, smudged graphite, feeling like the wet on our skin as we swim in the lake after dark and know where we are and what we’re doing not by what we see but because how it feels, feels so right. In finding my hobby these movements felt closer to the path.

Making these my most beautiful work in recent time and my challenge, to myself, to be as beautiful in the work I do next.

Categories: model railway design

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2 replies

  1. I find your comments relating to your sketch approach fascinating. That deliberate splitting a space into scenes before composing elements, is something I do more subconsciously in a way, or come to later… the idea of starting with a deliberate approach is appealing and one I will try for the experiment and learning.

    The latest paper layout feels, as we’ve said previously too I think, very much of an episode of Paddington. I wonder if any minute the small bear will appear in a Simplex to collect the wagons of marmalade ore for further refining… it feels a very neat way to evolve a scheme, and free of edges and constraints, an approach that would appeal to many.

    As you’ve often said to me, and indeed repeat in the books preface, design is a skill to both practice and enjoy. Design can be for the sake of design, for the enjoyment in its creation and even its physical repetition of shapes by your hand.

    Great stuff, all of this!

    • Good afternoon James, wonderful to hear from you!

      That approach, to start blocking out the space based on known elements, is probably something we all do. For me, if a dimension of the space is a known I do this to remove space I know is already committed so I can focus design on what space remains and how it interacts with that reserved space. For example: if I know I want at least one turnout on the layout, at least one engine to play with, on a shelf four feet long, and modelled in HO scale, than I would remove from the overall length of 48” the length of the turnout (9”) and the length of a HO scale engine (6-12”); so 48-9-6=33” or 48-9-12=27”; where that 33” or 27” is the actual space within that envelope where I can make changes and design options for the layout.

      I didn’t start out intending this to have that Paddington Bear feel though I completely adore that program and am such a strong fan of the mixed media style of presentation and even form to tell those stories so I was really delighted to see how what I had made felt like something I cared for so much. In some ways, it made me question if I could just keep going? I already know I could easily build the track directly over these drawings (those rails are close enough to be in the right place) so some scenery would cover some parts of this sketch but other pieces of paper would remain raw like this and act as a transition between the scene and real life.

      On design: instead of just as fuel consumed by construction I find layouts like these two sketches and previous things I’ve done like this they are enough when combined with my imagination that I “see” them as fully complete. In some ways that’s the test ask which ones need to be converted or revisited in traditional model railway media and if that connection would be as strong in static grass as in pencil and eraser shavings?

      It’s all the work of love


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