Category Archives: Observation


In a round-robin Email between a small group of friends (whom I like to think of as “The Unusual Suspects”) Matt LaChance, not even speaking in his mother tongue, came out with several superb insights, not least of which was this:

I’m still looking for my personal approach to this [for the] Temiscouata project even though I know deep inside all the key ingredients are there. Making a good layout right now would be easy, but making it a special layout with personality, that is something else. I have a blurry vision in my mind, I can almost feel on my neck the slightly chilly wind that sweep the St. John’s River valley, but have yet to translate it on the canvas.

Now, isn’t that a grand, poetic way to view the creation of a Model Railway?

That’s my emphasis, but what a great phrase, “a special layout with personality”.

When you think about it, isn’t that what precisely (and yet indefinably) defines a great layout?

Why raise an issue that isn’t there?

Over on his blog, Mike Cougill has been raising some interesting points about the diverse range of activities available to those who are interested in our hobby, and the similarly diverse level of involvement that enthusiasts can enjoy. Indeed, I would go so far as to include those with a “passive” level of engagement – you know, the so-called “armchair modellers” and indeed armchair critics.
So what, then, am I to make about the latest issue of the Model Railway Journal? I picked this up and saw that the “lead”/layout article was about Tony Wright’s “Little Bytham” (which is not far from where I live). Tony is an excellent modeller who knows what he wants from his hobby, and unlike all too many of us has set about arranging his life to achieve it. The results are impressive. I say that as someone who has no desire to in anyway approach what he has done (it simply doesn’t float my boat) and who looks at the photos and can see that the track is 00 and not EM or P4. Not a choice I would have made, personally, but Tony has built up a large collection of engines and rolling stock over the years, and as he was happy with 00 to begin with, and remains happy with it, he hasn’t changed. His train set, his choices, and he is happy to live with the compromises he has made in order to achieve his objectives. The track is well laid, and to reasonably fine standards in terms of clearances, and looks good, and by his own account it runs well. An LNER P2 (passenger train Mikado) with 13 coaches on can replicate the prototype’s performance by running through at a scale 90 miles per hour. Good. That means he has achieved his objective.
So why the cheap jibe that he hasn’t seen a P4 (4mm scale, 18.83mm track gauge) model do the same? Maybe such a layout doesn’t exist, but as long-standing readers of MRJ will know, Chris Pendlenton’s LNER A1 “heavy” pacific can reverse a rake of coaches through a crossover at speed, and with the elegance and grace only possible with fine track and wheel standards combined with sophisticated springing. Surely that’s a bigger test, but more importantly, doesn’t it just reflect the different choices made by another excellent modeller?

OCE – Three Steps Closer to Perfection

Have a look at this simple, beautiful picture:

Picture reproduced by kind permission of Trevor Marshall
Just a train running through some woodland, next to a river, right? Yes. And also, no.

Yes: it is a train; there is woodland; and there is a river.

No: it is not just that; it is not even a simple case of the whole being more than the sum of the parts. There is more to it than that. But not too much more, and best of all, these are basic principles, attitudes and activities which can be applied to any creative activity, but which lie at the core of “finescale with feeling”.

  1. Observation – This could also be called “attention to detail”, in that it is about identifying the detail points in the prototype: the slope of the embankment (“fill”, if you are North American); the texture of the grass and leaves; the size and shape of the trees; the correct details on the train. If you get this stage wrong, then the result cannot be “closer to the prototype” and I would argue that it is not finescale. To get this right, spend time observing.
  2. Composition – How best to arrange things. Not as simple as it might seem. The prototype often disappoints in this respect: notable painter Constable altered the arrangement of the real world to improve his famous picture, “The Haywain”. Trevor has written some interesting musings on his composition of the Lynn Valley, and of course has put them into practice, too. There is a large element of “love of subject” here, as the aim is to make subtle adjustments to the real scene so that the model displays it all in the best light. This is feeling. To get this right, spend time immersed in information: books, photos, videos, site visits, and then play around with plans, card mock-ups, etc.
  3. Execution – The quality of workmanship. A high degree of skill is required (the hallmark of finescale) but also the care of that workmanship – back to feeling – makes this a believable representation of the real world, even if it isn’t an exact copy of a real place. This is true finescale with feeling. To develop and hone a skill, spend time getting a feel for tools and materials.

None of this comes automatically, except maybe to the very gifted few. Not all of us can reach the high standards displayed by Trevor, but as the major requirement for each of Observation, Composition and Execution is simply time, we can all try at our own pace, and each of these can be practised whenever and wherever desire and opportunity coincide.

At the end of the process, what do we see? Just a train running through some woodland, next to a river...

Can’t see the trees for the wood…

Sometimes, not often, I get a privileged advantage. Nothing major, you understand, just something simple within the hobby. This post is an example of one of these rare and cherished events.

If you read this blog, then the chances are that you also read Mike Cougill’s blog, and may have followed the recent discussion on trees – and seen mention that publication of issue 9 of The Missing Conversation is nigh. As you will be aware from at least one of my previous posts, I hold this publisher’s oeuvre in high regard and indeed purchased the complete works! I regularly go back to them, as they provide insight and don’t just provoke thought, but provide training in how to see as an artist would see. A while back, sometime after I reviewed TMC on this blog, Mike asked if I would be prepared to help out by proof reading, and of course I bit his hand off over such an opportunity. This is not, however, the rare and cherished event because it happens at regular intervals: it is a privileged advantage.


Photo © Trevor Marshall. Published ℗ with permission of OST Publications Inc.

Photo © Trevor Marshall. Published ℗ with permission of OST Publications Inc.

No, the rare and cherished event is proof-reading TMC 09, which is about trees. It contains the following pieces:

Learning to See – Lose your preconceptions

The Forest and The Trees – How does a real forest grow

A Walk in The Woods by Trevor Marshall – How to use exemplary tree models effectively*

Prototype Studies – Four common tree types up close and personal as a masterclass in how to appreciate a tree

*This is not material taken from Trevor’s blog. It is a new and exclusive piece for TMC, and worth the cover price alone for the insight into his thinking.

TMC 09 is not about making model trees: as Mike and Trevor both point out, Gordon Gravett has recently written the definitive series on this. It is about what a tree looks like, and how to use them as a composition tool on a layout. As a guide on how to begin looking at trees, it is an essential precursor and primer to Gordon’s books for the dedicated finescale modeller.

I cannot add a disclaimer to this post: I am involved, and I get “paid” with a free copy (that is just a bonus as far as I am concerned). I am involved because I am helping a friend, and because I believe in what he is doing: making us think about why we model, and what we are trying to achieve, so that we get it right. Right to prototype. Right to scale. Right for our own personal needs.