Sunday, 23 November 2014

Why Things Are Seen

This post was started a few months ago after a discussion at the Modelling the Railways of NSW Convention last June but for one reason or another has remained in a half finished state for several months, kind of like a few models I could mention! One of the Sydney Model Railway Society team operating the Society's Mungo Scotts layout bought a 48 class locomotive that he had purchased second hand to the weathering display at the same time that I happened along. The locomotive has some basic weathering but for some reason, a small section had flaked off leaving a triangular shape of the original unweathered surface. Although only small, it was glaringly obvious and he was seeking suggestions of how to repair this.

I had to attend another presentation and I trust he was able to find a solution. However, as we were discussing possible rectification options with the person manning the display, it occurred to me that the issues that we were addressing were the same as those I recall from my early days in the army when one of the first lessons we received was entitled ‘Why Things are Seen’. Back then, the intent was to ensure that our camouflage and concealment practices addressed a number of factors and hence our bodies and equipment were not visible to an enemy. If I recall those factors correctly, they were:
  • shape,
  • colour,
  • silhouette,
  • movement,
  • spacing,
  • shadow,
  • texture, and
  • shine or lustre.
For modellers, the situation is somewhat different. Some things we want to be seen and we usually use one or more of these characteristics to ensure that, but others we wish to remain hidden or at least be less obvious than other elements. 

For many readers of this post, such things are self evident, so why waste time restating the obvious? A few reasons come to mind. Firstly, sometimes it helps to review the concepts that underpin the visual aspects of the hobby. Secondly, it may give some readers a different perspective when it comes to weathering and scenery. Finally, in the perennial question concerning how much detail is appropriate for HO scale, I tend to look at the issue in the context of these factors because my belief is that if you can’t see the detail readily, then perhaps it is not necessary.

In the modelling context, a number of the factors are readily apparent. We spend a lot of time and effort to ensure that the shape and colour are right. Silhouette could be considered as a sub element of shape. In the military context, the silhouette against the skyline is something to be avoided. In the modelling context, it may work to enhance a realistic scene.

In the same way, movement and spacing are also easily appreciated but again, context is important.

However, it is perhaps the last three that present me with the greatest challenges. 

A misplaced shadow can easily compromise a scene and is something that I must address in several parts of Philip’s Creek but more of that in a moment.

We seem to have a sensitivity to texture and I confess that more than once, I have been tempted to reach out and touch a corrugated iron roof on an exhibition layout to see if it feels right. Recent blog posts by others dealing with topics such as brick or block work, or the depth of timber grain on cattle or sheep wagons are, in part, about getting the texture right.

I think the incorrect lustre of a model is one of those things that can really detracts. It was the juxta-positioning of the two lustres, the shiny ‘as purchased’ finish and the dull weathered surface, on the 48 class in the opening vignette that made the problem very obvious. By way of further example, the photo opposite shows a situation where the incorrect lustre makes something look out of place. We expect the top of the tracks to reflect some light but the new, and as yet unweathered, flat wagon tends to catch the eye and possibly distract the viewer. Not all gloss or shine is a problem, but if we get wrong, either way, it stands out. 

The second photo attempts to highlight a few examples of these factors at work. The effect of shape, colour and shadow is fairly obvious in defining the scene, but the shape of the masking tape on the track certainly ensures that it is visible even though the colour is not terribly out of place. Perhaps less obvious in the photo, but apparent when viewed in person, is the impact of texture and shine. The pond in the foreground was created using several coats of clear gloss vanish over a darkened ground. The colour and lustre is about right but the roughened texture of the ground gives the  appearance of running water rather than a still stagnant pond that was intended - a bit more work to do there.

The shadow of the culvert entrance is expected but the astute observer will also note the small unwanted shadow at the top left of the headwall. This void is where the terrain and the headwall do not quite match. This an example of something that we don't want seen and normally theses are covered by vegetation, but clearly I missed one. Sometimes the camera sees better than the eyeball.

Finally, to return the shadow. Ron Cunningham in his Branchline Ramblings segment in AMRM (October 2014) wrote about a trend in model railway design towards the use of narrow shelves as a part of the layout. The photo opposite shows a  potential consequence of that trend as the shadow of a passing train may fall on the backdrop betraying the proximity of the backdrop which otherwise would visually appear to be more distant. I need to investigate this further as it's an issue I have in several locations. I suspect that some form of lighting immediately above the backdrop may be the best solution for this.
As I said at the start, most modellers understand these factors implicitly and use them successfully. However, for me and perhaps others, occasionally, something slips through the cracks and it helps to recap the basics.


  1. Phil

    An excellent post indeed & worth a degree of thought for us all.

    Dare I suggest though that sometimes we as modellers can try to be too far into the perfectionist mode though in some areas. I say this owing to not just our own individual assesments of what we have done as I found regarding the all but useen creek at Coxes that I ended up ripping out along with a fair degree of extra work around the creek approach area. Interestingly no one else who visited had commented in the negative of how it was before, in fact all of them seemed to like the affect I had created, hope its still the same.

    Looking at the 3 photo's. First off, I see the lustre problem on the flat wagon being very much enhanced by reflection from a light source as the photo looked to be taken with the light in front of the models, can be also seen with the shine of the tracks. I do agree though that there is a need to try to take a degree of lustre off the fresh build models.

    Having said that, sometimes we also forget that when trying to capture a degree of correctness in weathering, that on the 1:1 layout, there was always either brand new items of R/S. Loco's etc, also on the NSWGR, when any item was taken in for repairs especially major ones in the R/S area they were also repainted, so no unusual to see lustred items on overall dirty trains.

    Steam loco's when overhauled were fully repainted. At tone up repairs, they would (depending on location) would either get just a smoke box funnel repaint or at Enfield they received that along with new red buffer beams engine & tender, & new painted numbers on the same.

    #2. You have an eagle eye, but is the problem more the aspect that the clear gloss has not really covered the pond properly & really does not show up in the photo? Also the culvert colouring I think is not the best & perhaps the problem is again enhanced by the photo, certainly there is a shadow affect but, can you really illiminate it though?

    #3 Narrow certainly something that is found in many layouts, & the result is shadows.

    However, I would think that having any form of hobbies that involves models or a miniturisation of reality also has to have the same aspects found in reality, & that includes shadows. The only time we have no shadows are in the dark or in dark cloudy type days. On bright, & sometimes even hazy days nothing that is seen does not have a shadow, even if we stand perfectly in position with the sun directly overhead we still cast a shadow.

    The idea, at least to me to try & avoid any shadows on a layout is really trying to create something that not real. Take the culvet as example one. the black paint tends to drag the area down, same as the black rock to the front & left of the stream bed, the culvet would look better in an overall dark concrete colour, or grey, likewise the rock would look better more natural looking rather than it being covered in mold.

    The narrow shelf with the Jumbo, is unavoidable, but I would say that once the wall is either painted or covered with a backdrop, will it be that noticeable. The other aspect is that the photo is taken from head on to highlight the shadow, which really is not that bad anyway, if the photo or one was viewing it from the side, would you see the shadow anyway?

    On that score, the question comes is that front on shot, a normal viewable angle, therefore will it really be seen normally? The old adage can be well looked at in certain areas & that is the one that talks about
    Fighting with Shadows.



  2. Col,

    Many thanks for your comprehensive comments. I will respond in more detail shortly but a few other things seem to be grabbing my time. I thought I had retired from the workforce!

    cheers Phil

  3. Col,

    Your detailed comments are really appreciated.

    You are right about the variability of shine or lustre depending on where the particular item of rolling stock was within its maintenance cycle. I suppose I have tended to err on the side on dull/grime because things don't seem to stay clean and fresh for very long. That said, some grime is shiny, an oil stain for example.

    The colour in photo 2 is a bit darker than it appears in reality but again you are correct to suggest that the pond needs more liquid to create the desired result. My intent was to demonstrate a point about texture conveying the wrong message.

    Photo 3 was also taken to highlight a point and it is not the normal viewing angle. However, there are locations on the layout where it will be an issue. As you say shadows do fall in real life, but the challenge that I anticipate is managing those shadows falling on a vertical backdrop that is simulating a horizontal surface disappearing into the distance.

    cheers Phil