Tag Archives: Mike Cougill

For looking and displaying, not operating…

My very good friend Mike Cougill is currently musing on how little “layout” one needs over on his blog.

Another very good friend, Chris Mears, has commented:
“Reading this and thinking about staging and backdrops made me think about a social construct the hobby perpetuates: that of inadequacy. We never have enough space in length of run for our trains, depth to model the whole scene, so sometimes these aids aren’t as much theatrical but concessions making up for what we want but can’t have.”

This reminded me of something I threw together more years ago than I care to remember in 1:32 scale. One of the magazines had a “100 square inches” competition. I didn’t enter, but a piece of particle board 12” long and 8½” wide was sorted out from the pile of bits of wood, and another piece screwed to the back of it. To this latter piece was affixed some vacuum-formed brick sheet (SEFinecast) with capping bricks from styrene strip. Painting was a base coat of a brick-like reddish colour with ultramarine blue for the capping, some additional dry brushing and once it had dried, thinned-down off-white applied wet at an angle (see Martyn Welch’s book on weathering) created the mortar lines. A bit of home-built track – lime wood sleepers, plastic chairs and rail, the latter two components from Cliff Barker’s range of code 180 rail, rounded off with some Woodland’s Scenics fine cinders ballast as ground cover. I spent longer waiting for glue and paint to dry than I did making it.

It served as a display track for a mineral wagon I had upgraded from an RTR model. I still have it somewhere…

Adult Conversation

I have mentioned before my sincere admiration for Mike Cougill’s noble attempt to stimulate grown up thinking and talking about the hobby, so much so that I help out as and where I can because ideas and words are important: they frame our viewpoints; they shape out thoughts; and they change the way we interpret the world. As well as reading his blog, you can now get a free sampler from the early editions of “The Missing Conversation”.

It’s free. It requires nothing more of you than some gentle reading (rushing this kind of material is not the best way to appreciate it). At worst you will have had an enjoyable read, and decided that this kind of thing is not for you. At best, you will re-evaluate your approach to the hobby, and may even change it.

And if you like it, why not join in the conversation?

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.