Lessons from art school

Earlier this week, Dave Eggleston posted some of his notes from his classes with Charles Emerson.  It’s a super list of attributes that make a painting good, and I wondered if we can apply any of these same lessons to elevate our model railways and railway models.

A good painting is logical and consistent across canvas and convincing (statisfying/moving).

Model railways certainly benefit from consistency in treatment.  Perhaps most important, the colours and textures need to work together harmoniously.  One of the critical places for this consistency is the boundary between backdrop and model; a sudden change of colour temperature or detail can turn this boundary into an unwanted feature.

The piece should bring questions, not answers.

This is a tough one to apply to most model railways.  I think if a model railway brings questions, it is typically the ones we’d rather not hear, like “how do I drive the turntable?” or “why did my train derail?”  If not, then they would be prosaic, “how did he make that?”

I’m being too literal, I know.  I would be surprised if anyone has ever contemplated a railway model long enough to ask deeper questions such as might be raised by a good piece of art. 

Thinking of Monet‘s The Train in Snow that I wrote about a year or so ago, it raises questions such as where are all these people going?  Why is the train stopped here?  What is on the other side of that fence?  These are exactly the sort of questions that most railway modellers answer explicitly through their operating scenarios. 

The painting also goes on to challenge me to think about the act of stopping itself, especially when you compare it with Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed (31 years earlier, so not sure if the context matters).  The two paintings have a lot in common – the muted palette and the strong perspective.  However, in Monet’s painting, the train is clearly stopped, and there are questions about the act of stopping: why do we stop?  Why do we not stop?   Should we stop more?  Okay, now I’m projecting, but you get the idea.  Could you imagine a railway model that makes us reflect this way?  Today, I can’t.

It must be interesting.

How one pulls that off, I don’t know!  Surely interest, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

We railway modellers seem to be an unimaginative bunch when it comes to being interested.  Most of the hobby seems to be disinterested in models that are of the wrong prototype, or in the wrong scale.  To reach outside a narrow band of the hobby for inspiration is rare.

Aesthetic is more important than subject.

I would submit that most railway modellers reverse this.  That the models of the trains are accurate seems to be the most important thing. However, this statement is similar to my own assertion that realism lies in the textures and colours in the spaces between details.

Having said that, there is a school among railway modellers that argues that is better to omit a detail than to represent it clumsily.

Idea, motif, reason: must exist or it is just wall paper.

This is what I was getting at in my earlier post.  I think this notion can and perhaps should be applied to model railways and some railway models.

The painting is approached as the solution to a problem.

That is an interesting one for model railways.  If, instead of just putting together a model scene, we used the scene to explore a question or big idea, is that what is meant here?

Entirety of space is taken care of, including negative space; nothing is neglected.
Color is not noise, it is not random, it is part of structure.
Brush marks describe, make sense, are not random.
Edges of objects are played with.
Objects and shadows are used to full potential to create rhythm.
All of these items are properly considered for the image: scale, composition, paint density, color, brush marks, edges, contrast, perspective, zones, washes, layering, outlining, direction, rhythm, articulation, brush size.

These are directly applicable, although it is rare for railway modellers to deliberately consider composition.

You’re pulled into the space.

Here we have an advantage as a model railway can literally be built so that it surrounds the viewer.

The total relationship in the piece has been considered and held. A painting must be a whole, a complete statement. Everything fits together, adds up.

This is directly applicable to model railways.  However, a prototype model could need editing to avoid loose ends.

Elevate beyond a picture to a painting, to a visual game.
Ambiguity is key element, more than one way to read the painting is inherent.

Here again, I think most railway models seek to clarify and reduce ambiguity, rather than to make it a key element.  Is this a necessary feature?

Good painting requires completion by the viewer. They should not be overwhelmed, confused, bored. Why does the painting exist? They need to be engaged, be able to do something, have an interaction with the artist. Sometimes this means presenting paintings in not finished state, to let viewer compete them.

If we consider an operating session as that interaction with the artist, then model railways can definitely fulfill this requirement.  I recall Brian Pate’s happiness at seeing his creation “brought to life” during an operating session; so in a  way, he saw the interaction with the viewer as the completion of the work.

Affectations are omitted.

I admit I had to look up the word “affectation” to be sure I understood this: “an effort to appear to have a quality not really or fully possessed.”  I’m no wiser after having done so, or at least I’m having difficulty applying it to railway modelling.

The hobby is full of cliches – the mill with a fully detailed interior, the open window onto a sketchy artist’s studio, the circus, the fire complete with emergency vehicles, the bridge being painted.  These are surely affectations, a pretense of detail.  

Gordon and Maggie Gravatt’s Arun Quay.   Image pilfered from rail.nl via Google.

There is a growing awareness that the most satisfying model railway is a model of the ordinary.  Our trains have become dominated by brown box cars, where twenty years ago, we searched out the special cars.  

Great painting turns ordinary into the sublime.

I think this is at the heart of finescale model railways.  Finescale for me is the sensitive observation and modelling of our subjects, regardless of whether they are locomotives, flat cars or line fences.  

Overall, I think there is much we can take from Dave’s notes and lessons from Charles Emerson.  Applying them all to a model railway would be very difficult, and dare I say pretentious.

Thank-you Dave for sharing them.

Title image: Shards of Light Dissolve at Daybreak, thanks to Charles Emerson

6 thoughts on “Lessons from art school

    1. Hi Ken, So sorry about that. I was trying to find a way to share the post only with Dave. Didn’t realize it was going to go up password-protected for everyone. It’s open to all now.

  1. Rene, I agree they are difficult to apply because they relate primarily to transforming a 2D surface into a painting. Yet, even then, there is much that can be taken away from them to lift a layout into something greater.

    Gordon’s layout, Arun Quay, which you’ve added a picture of, shows many things that I think raise this very small effort (2’x8′) into something much bigger than its physical dimensions. The big things that stand out: it is logical, consistent and plausible. The execution is excellent. The ambiguity exists, both in paths he’s blocked, scenes he’s implied, and his masterful use of a fuzzed-out backdrop. Color, composition, texture, lighting are all focused, intentional. He has forced the visual paths through view blocks, items of interest, lack of detail. The overall effort is a solution to the problem of O scale plausibly becoming visually consuming and interesting in almost no space. And functional as such in an exhibition hall.

    And there are things left out. It is not over-detailed. Strong color, harsh shadow are avoided. It has few people and they tend to ignore us. There is little cliché. There is a story of an aging quay that still has some purpose, but there are many questions also about what exactly is this space?

    It is understated, complete, mysterious. He is manipulating us as much as providing a realistic model that operates with some interest. It is detailed and impression. Is it art? That is subjective. But it certainly is moving in that direction to my way of thinking.

    1. Thanks for the detailed analysis of Arun Quay, Dave. I hadn’t noticed that the figures are all ignoring us, but you are right, and every time I see that poor shunter, I think how horribly miserable he looks.

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