The space between

I’m catching up on other people’s blogs and while working my way through recent entries by Lance Mindheim, I found myself nodding in agreement with his thoughts about scene composition. Lance’s blog doesn’t index by post, so you’ll have to follow the link and scroll to the following post:

October 26, 2013 – What we want / How to get it

Lance notes that scene composition is the primary driver of realism. And he notes the biggest mistake modellers make is that they put elements too close together. They don’t leave enough space between features.

For those trying to model a real place, as I do, a lot of the hard work has already been done for us. Most features in real life have plenty of space around them so if we’re modelling a real place, all we have to do is copy what we see.

My terminal in Port Rowan is a good example:
Garage-Overview photo PtR-Garage-Construction-04_zpse6dfab7f.jpg

I resisted the temptation – it’s always a temptation – to pack more stuff into my layout space. I devoted almost 1200 scale feet to the yard – from the first switch to end of track. This compares favourably to the prototype yard, which measured roughly 1700 feet from first switch to end of track. And as a result of not compressing things too much, I think I’ve captured a realistic representation of the space between things. There’s space in the above scene between the four structural elements you see – the garage, the section house and turntable (barely visible over the far peak of the garage) and the small barn next to the team track.

How much space? Good question – and a quick trip to the layout room with tape measure in hand provides some answers. The following distances were measured between closest points – not from the centre of each element:

Garage to Turntable: 35 inches
Garage to Barn: 51 inches
Turntable to Section House: 17 inches
Section house to Barn: 15 inches

And while it can’t be seen in the photo, the coal dump is behind the last passenger car in the train, which places it at similar distances from other elements. It should also be noted that each of these elements is quite small, averaging 4 by 6 inches (the turntable is longer, but narrower, so it occupies roughly the same amount of visual space).

Now, don’t obsess about the measurements. There isn’t a magic formula that says, for example, “the space between two elements should equal the sum of the square footage of each element”. I provided the measurements because it’s sometimes hard to appreciate the space between when looking along a scene like this. It’s obvious the barn is some distance away – but how far? Is it 35 inches? 42 inches? 68 inches? I think that knowing it’s 51 inches from garage to barn helps one put other aspects of the image into perspective.

The structures draw the eye – so in between each, I try to keep the scene composition relatively neutral. That’s not to say that it’s dull: I’ve used big expanses of meadow, and the meadow is filled with wild flowers, shrubs and other natural features. But the eye tends to gather all of this visual data together into one concept – “meadow” – so it’s easy for one’s perception so slide across this space from one signature element to the next.

I think this scene is effective for two reasons. First, I based it on a prototype. Second, instead of asking, “How much can I fit into this space?”, I asked, “What do I really need, and how great a space can I devote to it?”

Obviously, there are times when cramming elements together actually enhances a scene’s composition. For example, running tracks between retaining walls and in the shadow of skyscrapers conveys the sense of a big-city union station – while having the track hug a narrow ledge between canyon wall and rushing river helps tell the story of narrow gauge railroading in the mountains of Colorado. But most railroad environments are not that extreme and a layout too tightly packed may do many things well but will also come off as train-setty.

Something to keep in mind if you’re at the design stage. But even if you’re already well underway, remember that course corrections can always be made…

6 thoughts on “The space between

  1. Interesting thoughts.

    I recommend anyone with access to a set of Model Railway Journals to look out the articles on Ruyton Road and Lydham Heath. They have the same trackplan but are very different layouts – even allowing for the slight difference between 00 and S, Lydham Heath is over twice as long. Other than the trees along the bank, Lydham is noticeable for the absence of what some modellers tellingly call “clutter”. It has pretty much the same number of buildings, but with more space between them. Visually the difference is remarkable, but it also made for a big difference operationally: even the simplest operation of running the engine fom one end to the other took time, and forced an unhurried approach to running the layout, and the layout didn’t get boring. The builder of Ruyton Road told me that he got bored very quickly, and we pondered this, with the conclusion being that it was possible to compress things too much.

    Food for thought…


    • Hi Simon:
      Excellent-sounding example. I’ll have to look them up.
      And you’re absolutely right about how adequate space affects operations, for the better. Back when Pierre Oliver and I built The Peterboro Project, I was really surprised to discover how different operations were on this layout compared to a typical switching layout. Hauling a car or two from the New Yard to the adjacent Peterboro Industrial Park was a significant undertaking. It really felt like we were “going somewhere”.
      On my home layout, I get the same sense of great distance when switching Port Rowan. The team track is quite long and at realistic switching speeds it takes a fair bit of time to work a car down to the stop blocks.
      Thanks for the additional thoughts.

      • Thanks for the post: it has resolved a question I had, which was why do I dislike “micro-layouts” so much? Now I know: apart from the inevitable stretching of credulity that usually goes with them, there is no leisurely and stately progress at notch-one (for diesels) or a short burst of power and then coasting (for steam).

        For me, if you only wish to have 8 freight cars and want to really enjoy the switching, then Mike Cougill has the solution – 24′ of layout, and what, 5 turnouts?


  2. I also have problems with “micro-layouts” particularly at UK exhibitions, where often there is a rail transfer from a mine to a wharf, all on an ironing board or similar. It begs the question why not use a rubber belt conveyor instead of a railway?

    Keep on with the realistic slow operation theme Trevor!


  3. Hi Terry, Simon:

    Good points. I have to admit that while micro-layouts are not my cuppa tea, I’m pleased to see them at exhibitions if it means a person has gotten out of the armchair and built something. It can be daunting to build 20, 30 or more linear feet of layout, especially if it has to get packed into a vehicle, vibrated at highway speeds for a couple of hours, then hauled across a wet/snowy parking lot to the exhibition hall.

    That said, I’m also much more engaged by larger efforts – providing they don’t try to ram 10 pounds of sugar into a five-pound sack.

    One of my favourites from MRJ was a layout set on the Moors. The builder(s) had created a massive hillside to go behind this remote station. It was built in several sections, using dry stone walls to disguise the joins between each section. I’m glad I didn’t have to transport or store this – but I’m also glad somebody did.

    Peterboro taught me a lot about exhibitions – about preparing for them, designing a layout for them, and about how the general (not hobbyist) public reacts to a layout built 50″ high, with no continuous loop. It was very well received – people loved the fact it was based on a real place, that it was such an unusual shape, and that the trains did real work spotting and lifting cars. And those with younger (shorter) children perched them on step stools so they could see what was going on.

    If I were ever to do another exhibition layout, the Peterboro experience would definitely inform my choices. And if I needed to do a smaller layout, I would simply pick a smaller prototype. Perhaps a peat railway?


  4. Apologies (if required) for continuing, but a senior moment (or perhaps longer) meant that I missed out something.

    One of the most memorable layouts (for me) on the UK Exhibition circuit/circus in the last ten years was Holiday Haunts, which I remember as a very large double tracked oval (50 to 60 feet long by 20 feet wide?) in British O scale with the sceniced portion depicting the line along the South Devon coast around the Teignmouth area. There was very little conventional railway infra-structure modelled, but they ran a fairly intensive schedule keeping trains moving as the prototype would have done on Saturdays of the summer holidays and included the excursion trains from other UK rail regions. The setting (time and place) followed prototype operations fairly closely, without obvious compression.

    It must have been a nightmare to transport.

    And for reference the other memorable layout that comes to mind as I write this is Gordon and Maggie Gravett’s, but that’s another story.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please prove you're not a nasty spamming robot thingy * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.