I’ve taken my sweet time to update my work on Donnacona. With an increase workload but also due to a lot of online conversations with other modellers, mainly about his project, it kind of killed my inspiration to write. It seems there is a limit to the number of channels on which you can share your ideas before they start to distort themselves and falters! With that said, let’s move on!
We have all – at least most of us – witnessed real operation at a plant. While we can understand what is happening, a big deal of the action is often out of our sight and only the sound of a roaring engine let us know something is happening. Walking down a road, we try to track familiar noises to locate our target. Then, it makes its entrance…
|A 0-4-0 switcher at St. Anne Paper Co. (credit: Bill Grandin Collection)|
To achieve this goal, two big challenges must be addressed: 1) the subject must be framed, 2) the scene composition must guide our sight. These two key elements must then blend together into a coherent picture, just like a neat painting.
For years, I have admired Chris Nevard’s work on small British layouts. Chris isn’t a prototype modeller in the sense he doesn’t replicate real locations and most of his diorama are quite compressed. However, he informs his work on reality, working with shapes, colors and textures to create a realistic and compelling world. For this reason, he is able to create organic compositions that work flawlessly.
|Railway bridge in Stanwardine in the Fields, UK (credit: WikiCommons)|
As mentioned, the main trick with small European layouts is to hide the layout ends. With its overbuilt environment and impressive railway infrastructure, this is easily achievable with such prototypes. The same could be said of many Asian railways too. In these countries, bridges, overpasses, ditches and tunnels are a common occurrence and you can see many of them crammed along a single mile of track. In North America, except in a few very select places, such infrastructures are qui rare. Most railway lines don’t have tunnels. Farms have plain gravel grade crossings and not fancy brick or stone overpasses (and if it is the case, they are underpasses). It’s at this moment that Donnacona starts to shine.
Indeed, the industrial canyon created by the mill and its boiler house is perfect to hide the right side of the layout if you are looking south. The boiler house height creates a natural transition with the front and end of the layout which frame perfectly that part of the scene.
On the right side, the tracks on the prototype were running parallel to a small cliff. By having the cliff in the foreground, similar to what Mike Cawdrey did with his Calais, ME layout, it helps to make the sidings disappear into staging gradually. This is a useful visual trick because it provides a place to hide and park the locomotive. When the layout power is turn on, you can hear the locomotive, but barely see its chimney or domes above the grassy hill. More on that later. Then, what to use to frame the exit to staging? A bridge won’t do and tunnel neither. However, Donnacona used to have a series of pulpwood conveyors moving logs from the St. Lawrence shore to their piles behind the mill. These conveyors can then be used to cleverly hide the staging and frame the right end of the layout. A small reservoir or some other structure or object is used to hide the spot were the conveyor hits the backdrop.
The next element is scene composition. This layout, like a written sentence, is read from left to right. From a virtually unbuilt environment toward a highly industrialized site. This gradient creates a vertical diagonal that draws our attention toward the mill.
To this is superposed another narrative drawing inspiration from the railfanning perspective. In Donnacona, the office building was located right next to the warehouse, by the sidings. Small and quaint, this ivy-covered brick structure had all the hallmark of a house; a place where humans live. In this industrial mess, this is probably the closest place to our daily experience, making it the perfect point of entrance. The boiler house on one side and the grassy hill on the other one both frame our view toward that office which is even more emphasized by the presence of an access road. In some sense, you could say the layout is composed of three separate parts. From left to right, the grassy hill (nature), the office building/access road (humans) and the boiler house (industry). This is an interesting progression from nature to industry, following a common tripartite trick used by photographs and illustrators since eons ago.
As a railfan, after walking the access road nearby the office, you try to hear some locomotive noises… You can’t see it, but behind the grassy hill, you can unmistakably hear the sounds of an idle engine ready to work. Your keen eyes can see the chimney puffing smoke and the top of a dome or tow. Slowly, you climb the hill, walking on top of its crest until you can see the locomotive in all its glory. After waiting a while, it starts moving on the steel rail and disappear beyond the conveyor… you can no longer see what’s happening, but it can only mean they went to the nearby yard to pick up some cars.
After emerging again under the conveyor, a fresh cut of cars is ready to be switched at the plant. The crew runaround its train, disappearing again far beyond the grassy hill. Then, they start their job. Switching the boxcars at the warehouse is quite straight forward and the access road provides a great viewpoint on the action… However, when the start to shunt the boiler house, almost everything become invisible behind the large brick structure.
|The boiler house is another way to frame trains.|
Knowing cleverly that boiler houses are real life infernos, you venture in the gravel lot and try to spot moving cars through open doors and windows. Certainly, the place is filled with boilers and pipes, but it’s still possible to get a good idea of what’s happening. The acid building platform is wide opened, offering a rare glimpse on a tank car spotted at the unloading dock.
Then, the locomotive and its crew run back to the yard with loaded boxcars and empty coal hoppers. They parade in front of you, whistling at the grade crossing and probably annoying a few office workers nearby! It then proceeds to disappear for a while… Maybe 20 minutes later, the locomotive emerges from beyond the conveyor and stops by the grassy hill as always. A crew member then jumps off the tender platform and take a large hose to fill up the tender again until the next work shift. It’s time to go back home… They won’t move until much later this afternoon when the monstruous mill will have consumed a few tons of coal and churned out tons of newsprint bound to New York City.