Thursday, December 8, 2016

A Lesson of Humility

Trevor Marshall recently commented on the impression of depth some pictures of Clermont have. I sure would like full credit for it, but a part of it is fortuitous. But what isn’t fortuitous is the fact I helped this to happen by carefully choosing and omitting things to model.

The station now blocks the view of the track leading to the bridge.

As much as I enjoy modelling structure – probably a professional deformation – I took a lot of care to only use what was required to convey the feeling of the place. There is a limit to what can sustain a scene and you can easily tip off the balance by adding only one element.

To prove that point, I decided to add a station building in Clermont. Most people would think it would make a lot of sense, set the era and be one of these key elements required to tell the railway’s story… and as the pictures show, it fails miserably to add anything significant to the scenario while ruining many elements that made the scene previously interesting.

The house on the hill is no longer visible; the road can't play its role binding the scene together.

The addition of this relatively small and handsome structure obstructs many realistic perspectives. What happens is simple. First, the building blocks the view of other elements in the background and second, the eye focus is now attracted to the station and no longer the distant elements. In our eyes (and pictures), this distant background blurs and become secondary. No longer can the scene be read as one large unit and it loses automatically the impression of depth so desperately needed to make this small area look somewhat realistic.

We end up with a collection of nice vignettes that no longer work together. As you can see, before adding the station, it was possible to see the railway track serpenting nicely along the scenery and leading the eyes to an implied scene over the bridge or mountain.  This is another lesson to learn that we should gave much more attention when laying track and surrounding it by scenery. Too often, we plan our work from top view while it is meant to be seen both from the side (which is generally well understood), but also from the track itself and looking away.

The station now competes with the feedmill making the scene less cohesive and more chaotic.

As a said, I was quite lucky, but keeping the track ratio low, making sure the railway realistically flowed into the scene following the topography like the real thing and carefully locating a handful of meaningful structures helped to see the scene. This is something I’ve learned when I reworked and scenicked Clermont a few months ago and I’m quite happy to see the theory also translate well into mountainous and inhabited scenes. When I’ll have to work on the transition between Charlevoix and Dominion Textile in Montmorency Falls, I’ll have to make sure such simple approach is taken.

Once again, the “less is more” principle proves to be right when used carefully… and it doesn’t mean the scenery and structures should be simplistic, but that sophistication can be achieve by caring when doing mundane and very railway-like things. Too often, I see skilled and talented people waste their efforts trying to over reach when they don’t need to… and get discouraged. A huge part of this hobby unsung truth is knowing when to stop.


  1. Replies
    1. I used to hate that simplistic saying when in Architecture School, but as I started to practice my profession and to implement my observations into the modelling realm, I found out it was true. I think too often we think less means "simplistic" or even "lacking", but it's more about using the right amount of effort to get the optimal result. I would seriously like to apply that to an urban setting like a diorama of Quebec City's CPR Prince Edward Street roundhouse which was located in an urban canyon.

  2. Fascinating.

    As wel compress prototypes to fit into our layout space (shorter sidings, tighter curves, etc) then the scene composition obviously changes, and your bravery in admitting you got it wrong by including the station/depot is a lesson to us all to not be afraid to omit something which gets in the way.

    1. Simon, many modellers and professional layout builders stressed that point that when compressing a scene, you also need to compress the number of elements. To some extend, compressing a siding length is less harmful than not doing so with structure. Our everyday interacton with the human world makes us very aware of what's wrong and what's right. In this case, the scene can't handle over 3 structures and it's a 9 feet long peninsula, which is small but not that cramped. Sure, if modelling an urban setting, we could densify the area much more, but that would have to be done respecting the real life spacing between elements.

      This is something that struck me a year ago when I installed power utility poles. I thought placing them closer would increase their number, thus fooling our eyes thinking the scene was longer. It didn't work at all because everything looked awkward.

      This brings us to another observation. The bigger a structure, an element, a track or a scene is, the easier it is to compress it because in the real world, they are too huge for us to be able to estimate their real size. However, the smaller something is, the less room there is playing with proportion. If it was a boxcar by exemple, getting the ladders too thick would be quickly evident while accessing the fact the boxcar is 50 ft long instead of 51 ft would required us to measure the model.

      Another interesting aspect of keeping the scenes relaxed is that you create more opportunities for photographic spots. The more it is crowded, the more you kind of reduce these opportunities into a very few staged scenes. Not that one is better than another, but the later one needs extremely careful planning.