Thanks to my friend, Mark Dance, we remembered to drag the kids to the Monet exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery this weekend. I hold Monet in the same regard as Mozart: he made some good stuff, but it gets repetitive after a while. Having said that, I’ve always liked his paintings of trains. After pushing our way to the front of the crowd in the gallery – a novel and bracing experience here in Vancouver – I was transfixed by this portrait of a train stopped at a suburban station in the snow.
It’s a simple, spacious composition, with the trees, fence and train disappearing into clichéd perspective. Yet it powerfully portrays a winter afternoon; the red on the pilot and the cheery yellow headlights bring me to Christmas without a single Rudolph or Harking Angel. You know it’s cooling down fast now that the sun has gone, the platform will soon be icy despite the dirt shaken from boots, and that path beside the fence is a slushy mess that is sure to freeze tonight. All is conveyed with a bold economy of brush strokes and detail that is of course the hallmark of the impressionists.
Occasionally railway modelling is this evocative. Mike Confalone’s Maine evokes the last days of winter so effectively, I want to draw up my collar. Lance Mindheim’s work summons me to a heat-shimmering LA and a Miami I’ve never even seen. Oly Turner and Chris Matthews’s tiny Six Quarters rouses despair for the livelihoods of those coal miners. These layouts feel real.
Here’s the thing: as railway modellers, and as modellers in general, we’ve come to believe that realism lies in ever-more exacting replication of detail. But what if it’s the opposite? What if realism lies in the colours and textures of the spaces between details, as in Monet’s painting?
There is a growing realization that models need space to breathe. Cramming ever more track, buildings, vignettes and clutter into a scene does not make the scene more believable. But if the mood set in the spaces is critical to capturing the feeling of the place, then realism lies in those spaces, and they may be even more important than the models themselves!
This is not something that can be pulled off without thought. If our layouts are to summon a feeling of familiarity and reality, then we must pay attention to the spaces between. We must fill them with subtle texture and light that evokes the subject, and resist the temptation to add one more detail.