Category Archives: Observation

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.




Like me, the chances are you will have to look that up, but it is a geographical term relating to the effects of thawing and freezing of, for example, soil above permafrost. Each year, the thaw on the surface leads to over saturated soil above the permafrost, and it slips. Then it freezes again, and the cycle repeats. The consequence of all this is to create small steps in hillsides, etc, as show in the (linked) photo below from this very helpful page.

Solifluction in the Cairgorms

What has this to do with model railways? Well, recently there has been some discussion in various places, but particularly on Mike Cougill’s blog, about how great our hobby is from the perspective of personal satisfaction. We don’t just model a locomotive, as would someone building a radio-controlled vehicle, aircraft or boat. We model the whole scene, and also add movement and logical operation. (Nothing moves on a real railway without there being a purpose. This is also true of some layouts, where the builder has taken the trouble to find out about the real railway.) What the hobby teaches us, more than anything else – more than joinery, basic electrics and often some electronics, sculpting (of landforms), architecture, geography, history, economics, civil engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, metal working, use of tools,  and so on – is observation.

Observation of the real thing.

All good models start with an observation of the real thing. Generally speaking, unless you are building a model of something akin to the creations of Roland Emmet, railway modelling is not an abstract art – it is nowhere as difficult as that. As an art, it starts with observation. I learned about bonds used in brickwork from Iain Robinson (who has today introduced me to the word solifluction!), via the Railway Modeller, I have learned a lot about texture and colour from Barry Norman and Gordon Gravett. I have developed a love of history beyond railways thanks to the hobby – school put me off that! I could go on. (I often do, according to some many…)

Sometimes it works the other way round, too. I was motivated to learn about shading and perspective at school in art lessons by being allowed to do a perspective drawing of a railway station, with shading to show the direction of the sun. I also learned about observation from my 5th form (year 11, eleventh grade) art teacher, when trying to paint a tree and failing because I had used brown and not a few shades of grey (fewer than 50, I hasten to add!) In fact, I put my astounding performance* in my art exams at the age of 16 down to the drive to observe, rather than anything else, and that came from the hobby.

So, solifluction is another thing I have learned from the hobby, and I shall keep an eye out for it in future!

If you weren’t, you will now…


*In case anyone is wondering, the words “astounding performance” were used by my art teacher (not sarcastically), who had “inherited” our class from someone who had left part-way through the year, to describe my achievement against my natural ability. I failed.