Challenging composition

Some of the comments in Friday’s post lead the way to thinking about model railways as art, and it’s worth getting a book out of the library to refresh ourselves on the elements of composition. My favourite art book is Jeanne Dobie’s Making Color Sing. It changed my dabbling with watercolour dramatically.

One of the things I’ve learned is if you want to make a relaxing composition, then make it horizontal with lots of parallel lines and a harmonized palette.


If you want an exciting view, then go vertical with lots of angles and strong contrasts.


I have no idea why this colour-filled vertical-format painting is so restful.  Maybe it is because you know the lines are really parallel. I’ve always liked it, though, and so I’m sharing it here.


The challenge with model railways is that they are naturally horizontal and dominated by parallel lines.  So if the goal is to capture a sleepy branchline terminus, maybe you’re halfway there. If, on the other hand, you are seeking to evoke an exciting, busy railway, you have your work cut out for you.

The second challenge with composition and model railways is that it is not a painting, but a piece of sculpture. You can observe the railway from many angles, and this makes composition – already challenging and complex – that much more challenging and complex.

Finally, there is the fact that parts of the scene move! Not only do they move, but unlike choreographed dancers, they move in seemingly random ways. Unless they are automated, you can’t count on two trains to come together and pass at the right spot to create a sense of dynamism.

I wish I could say that I have given a moment’s thought to composition for Pembroke, but I haven’t. I happily accepted Lance’s prototype shackles as I drafted the plan. It’s still early days, though, and maybe it’s not beyond salvation.

3 thoughts on “Challenging composition

  1. Rene;

    Lance’s thoughts on handcuffs, followed by your extreme example of a model railway as art, strifes a note with me as the artistic side of the hobby is what has always drawn me in. Frank Ellison made parallels with the stage and railway modeling (not “models” but the system) as each train plays actors on a stage of scenery. The plot is the timetable. A hurried and busy “plot” was to make for an exciting show. In contrast, a lazy prairie branch line may be more artistic and akin to a good novel that you can pick up and read anytime.

    I have a favorite shot from my layout that I’ll send you separately.


    1. Indeed, thinking about the stage metaphor, I was on my way to the library this weekend to get a book on stage design. But The Girl didn’t want to wait outside with the dog, so I didn’t get there.

      I’m not sure stage design is all that helpful anyway. In theatre, you can control the viewing angles, and things are more likely to go according to plot than they are in model railroading (which is more like an improv show). Perhaps it is still somewhat relevant, but model railroad design is harder!

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