The Foundations of Realism

Frisco, Ft. Worth Sub-division modeling by Curt Baker. Photo - Dave Reed

Scene Composition, Color Material

When building a model railroad we can approach it in one of two ways depending on what we want to accomplish.  One option is to create a model as we ‘wished’ the world was, a fantasy world if you will.  I would say the majority of the hobby falls in this category and for them, realism isn’t a critical goal and doesn't need to be.

The other approach is for those folks entranced by the way railroading  actually is.  They want a miniature version of a working railroad.  They want to be transported.  For this  group realism IS critical.  The more realistic their efforts, the more powerful the experience, and the more satisfied they are with their efforts.

If realism is the goal, the first step is to identify the critical elements that contribute to realism and their relative importance.  This is where things get tricky and many modelers get off track.  They  put their efforts into areas that aren’t major contributors, neglect those that are, and insert items that destroy an otherwise well done scene.

The four key elements contributing to realism in order of importance are: scene composition, plausibility, color treatment, and material selection.  Detail and fine craftsmanship are important, and do contribute, but not as much as the big four.  If you want to improve the realism of your layout, you need to train yourself so that when you look at a very well done, realistic model you understand why it succeeds.  Several days ago modeler Curt Baker sent me this photo Dave Reed had taken of his Frisco layout.  (It's always dangerous to send me stuff by the way).   I was impressed by Curt's scene for several reasons.  First, it's the perfect example of using the 'Big Four' to create excellent results.  Also, there isn't anything Curt did that couldn't be copied by anybody.  He just knew where to focus his efforts.  The end result is what I call a "model of a railroad".

Let's break down why Curt's scene works:



  1. Scene composition: Placing a tall structure in the foreground adds visual interest and adds diversity to the placement of structure footprints.  Most of us have a tendency to put all structures in the background. Placing the elevator in the front breaks things up.

  2. Color and Plausibility:  Curt didn't cherry pick when it came to the hoppers.  He didn't look for 'cool' models that stood out individually.  He modeled the norm, a cluster of plain Jane hoppers, all gray, and all the same road name.  He also knocked the new car shine off with Dullcote which is critical.  Weathering is subdued, not over the top.  Self restraint with weathering is a skill that comes with time.

  3. Material and color selection:  As narrow as the grass strip is, the amount of attention it was given makes a major contribution to the quality of the scene.  Fiber was used primarily in lieu of foam and subtle color variations and textures were mixed in.

  4. Material selection and basic neatness: Gravel drives are challenging.  First Curt used a fine aggregate and got it to lay down smoothly.  Second he added subtle color variations so it doesn't appear as a uniform stark white.

  5. Color:  The rule of color is to use darks to hide or play down elements and lights to highlight.  Curt  used a dark color to downplay the oversize spikes on his generic track.  Had he used a rusty orange or light tan it would have created major problems visually.

  6. Scene composition: Expert handling of the layout to backdrop transition.  He kept the tree line low and simple with subtle color variations.  The trees and shrub are realistically formed with no odd patterns or strands sticking out.

  7. Scene composition:  Here's a tricky problem.  Tall building flats tight against a backdrop are a major 'scene buster'  and can really do a lot of damage visually.  It's not the face of the structure but the line created where the tall edge of the structure meets the backdrop (7a).  But....there's a way to get around this that Curt pulled out of his bag of tricks.  The longer the flat is, the more an optical illusions comes into play, minimizing the problem at the edge of the flat.  By using a very long flat (7b) he made it work and escaped a common pitfall.

  8. Color:  Plausible, subdued colors with expertly applied thin grimy wash.  The whites are dirty white not electric white.  The gray base coat is covered with a barely perceptible dark haze.  Again, this is tricky in that many modelers tend to overdo the weathering.  Keep the washes very thin, very dilute.  Work in light layers.  You can always add more if it's too thin but you can't reverse the process if it's too thick.

  9. Color:  The checkerboard could have been tricky but creates contrast without appearing out of place.

Just as important is what Curt did not do.  He didn't shoot himself in the foot by inserting what I call scene busters.  No glossy figures in odd poses.  No cheap vehicles.  No overly thick, kinked attempts at power lines.  No poorly modeled trees with lollipop armatures.  No over the top backdrop.  No overly thick mesh, crude chain link fencing.

By not having any one element being over the top, the scene as a whole is in fact extraordinary. 

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