The arrival of Lance Mindheim’s book on my doorstep this week almost makes me want to stop talking about applying lessons from art to railway modelling. But, well, it’s kind of fun, and Dave Eggleston reminded me that we were going to look at a couple of Ted Rose’s wonderful watercolours to see what we could apply to our modelling.
Dave kindly provided a couple of his favourite paintings to start the conversation, and when I first saw them, I confess I was a little overwhelmed by the task of commenting on them. But I’m game if you are. So here goes:
The first painting is called My Indiana, and depicts two men in the truck entrance to what looks like the scales of a feed mill. It’s a great choice for layout inspiration because it is so detailed and cluttered, like most model railways. The image is a riot of lines and edges.
Yet, there is no question that it is a painting of the two workmen, even though they are dominated by the structure. You can hardly keep your eyes anywhere else in the painting as so many lines converge on the sharp edge of the white T-shirt against the black obscurity of the scales. If you do manage to tear your eyes away from the figures, the strong frame provided by the electrical pole on the right and the bin leg on the left bring your eyes back in line. There is no escape.
The painting evokes to me a sense camaraderie born of honest hard work. These guys are clearly taking a well-earned break, and enjoying a moment with each other while they await the next truck. What are they talking about? At the same time, the work-worn surroundings make me despair for their futures: how long will their way of life, represented by the human-scale clapboard buildings, remain before it is crushed by the mechanization of the huge steel bins and elevator legs above?
But what can we take from this image to inform railway modelling? From the standpoint of composition, it is all about leading lines, the scene broken roughly into thirds, and the chiaroscuro treatment of the figures themselves. There is a great use of negative space throughout the painting, but the most important is that which envelopes the figures.
Perhaps the key lesson from this painting is how to take a complex object and make all those edges and leading lines work together to pull our eye to a focus point. Most railway modellers simply keep adding detail, and the scene is finished when it looks as if it has thrown up on itself. The detail in this painting is emphasized for a reason – not simply because it was there on the original.
Dave’s second choice is entitled Shop Pit, and depicts a steam locomotive outside a roundhouse beneath a bridge. There are a number of figures in the painting, but the one that serves as a second focus for me is the engineman walking away from the buildings. Has he just parked this locomotive on an inspection pit and handed it over to the shop crew before booking off?
The long shadows speak of late afternoon, reinforcing the notion that the end of the day has come. Again, I feel there is an air of industry and honest toil, and again, the march of progress denoted by the road bridge makes the whole affair nostalgic. Indeed, the road bridge is so superior, it sprouts from the roof of one of the shop buildings.
Again, from a composition standpoint, the artist is not fooling around. The highest contrast is presented by the steam against the shadow of the bridge, and many leading lines take us there. The engineman is at a break in one such line. The spur on the right, interrupting a large expanse of negative space, leads us to a second plume of smoke or steam, but being beneath the bridge, it is in dark shadow. Like My Indiana, Shop Pit provides lessons in the use of busy detail in the background, and the use of strong horizontal shapes to keep us out of that background – to keep us coming back to the subject.
The more important lesson illuminated by Shop Pit, however, is about the judicious use of figures. There are four in this painting, but they are clustered around the focus point, and there they tell a story of arrival and work. Despite their diminutive size and loose rendering, it’s difficult to look elsewhere once you’ve spotted them. Too often we Bruegel vignettes throughout the scene, unaware of the cacophony of attention they demand.
So yes, Dave is right: there is much that Ted Rose can teach us about railway modelling.