What makes a layout "realistic"?

Discussion in 'HO Scale Model Trains' started by Gary S., Sep 7, 2007.

  1. Gary S.

    Gary S. Senior Member

    Well, I haven't been on The Gauge much lately, but I sure have been spending alot of time working on the layout! I'm starting on the scenery now, and have been giving some thought to what exactly it is that makes some layouts look so realistic while others don't look quite so good. Some look like actual miniature landscapes with trains, others look like toys.

    What would you say is the most important thing that makes the difference?

    Is it the overall colors and how they blend together?

    Is it the details of the buildings?

    Is it the plausibility of each "scene"?

    Is it the trains themselves?

    Any other suggestions?
  2. viperman

    viperman Active Member

    The details in the scenery and on buildings, the way scenes are blended together, has to have SOME plausibility to the scenes, maybe a nice little story behind the layout (not how/why its built, but a ficitonal story about the railroad, the towns, etc). Stuff along those lines
  3. UP SD40-2

    UP SD40-2 Senior Member

    Gary:wav: , the answer to your question is: ALL THE ABOVE:eeki::winki: .
    each one of the things you have mentioned plays an equally important role in making a "believable" layout.:winki::smilie:
    :deano: -Deano
  4. MilesWestern

    MilesWestern Active Member

    I wold heartily agree, also, if you're modeling a prototype railroad, even if it's a freelance layout make sure to:


    Now, what might that mean, per se?

    =Looking up specific motive power and rolling stock to fit your locale, era, and insdusries served, and specific weathering of both to set an era.

    =Here's an important one:

    =Look up the "common standards" of your particular railroad. These may include:
    -Standard bridge designs
    -Trackside structures
    -Mileposts, Whistle posts, lineside town signs
    -Crossing apparatuses
    -distance between mainlines, sidings, and what "code" of rail for each. (They use pound (lbs) in the protoype to describe rail)

    =Operation procedures such as:
    The Santa fe used "CLIC" (Car Location Ident. Cards) books to describe the legnth of each siding and industrial spur, trackside industries, and what each industry needed and where to spot specific cars. I suggest you see if you can obtain info on them.

    -Rule books for your railroad are helpful
    -Realistic speed limits
    -Car cards, and Waybills ease and enchance operations
    -operation schedules and specific "Jobs" for each crew to perform.

    -Researching period Vechicles, Advertisements, Industries, Businesses, and forms of art, cultural trends, clothing on your figures, and small details that help set the scene
    -What kind of weathering period railroad equipment can be a HUGE indicator of you era. Don't think so? It would seem odd for a pair of SD40's pulling immaculate single-sheathed boxcars and gondola from the 1920's...wouldn't it? What single sheathed cars were left in the early 1970's when the SD40's were built would be old, decrepit, and heavily weathered, if any were even left in somethin other than captive (MOW) service.
    Also in the 1970's you had very weathered cars from the 1950's and 1960's, most, if not all had roofwalk, while the modern railboxes are brand-new and without roofwalks.

    -Graffitti (or lack thereof) can be a HUGE indicator Graffitti really didn't show up on freight trains until 1993. Before that (pre-1980) railroaders left chalkmarks on the side of cars to mark their destonation.

    -Also think that in the 1970's VERY FEW turn-of-the-century buildings were left in their original condition (Think all of DPM's commercial buildings) Industry in america was looking pretty decrepit in 1970, but still soldiering on, albeit with acoat of soot and spots of rust.



    The farther back in time, the less safety and enviromental concerns showed up trackside. More pollution, grime, gunk and dirt. No safety cages on ladders, not much safe handrailing on structures. Think about all that too.

    -Finally thinkof the changing face of America in the 1970's...the world of post world war two has vanished into a uncertian, modern future. Think of the new industries out there...electronics firms, pre-fab buildings and pre-cast concrete, and electric furnace steel mills, more sophisticated chemical plants, and shiny new (but really ugly) 1970's office buildings.

    Hope this helps..you are modeling the 1970's...right?!? :D
  5. Gary S.

    Gary S. Senior Member

    I appreciate the input!

    Miles, thanks for all the good info and yes, I am doing the 70's.

    As I thought about it more, each aspect mentioned certainly plays a role in the realism of the layout.

    But let's say we have a visitor to the layout who isn't that informed about trains, era, etc. Which aspect would be most important to make the layout believable to the uninformed eye?

    I'm thinking that color plays a huge role in making the miniature world look like the real world. I think that layouts with rather bright colors, pure whites, deep blacks, and stark contrasts seem toylike. Layouts that have a more blended color scheme, with less contrast, seem the most real. Even if all the trains and structures don't match a specific period (but are at least in the ballpark).
  6. Gary S.

    Gary S. Senior Member

    Oh... I need to take some photos to show what I have been up to. Nothing spectacular, but definitely making progess.

    Miles, thanks again for the wealth of info you gave, I will keep those things in mind as I continue on.

    This scenery stuff is kind of scary and stressful. Not sure how it is going to turn out. But, I am forcing myself to dive right in with the understanding that whatever goes wrong can be ripped out, plastered over, and redone.
  7. CNWman

    CNWman CNW Fan

    I think it's all of them, especialy the one about trains since they are usualy the only things in motion. I once visited a fellow modler's layout privately (he'd had an open house while I was on vacation). He modled the 1900's and had posibly one of the coolest camelbacks/mother hubbards I'd ever seen, and he said it had begun life a a tyco! He'd modified it by replacing alot of details (it had one of the biggets headlamps I've seen) and he replaced the crappy motor with a new can motor so it could actualy run. The thing was so lifelike I could have sworn that had it been able to puff steam, it would have been as if it was an actual steam engine. Then I noticed the dinasour in engineer's clothes on the back wall...:D
  8. nkp174

    nkp174 Active Member

    I think the most important thing is that no gloss paint is visible and that dirt is both on the ground and on the cars.
  9. Triplex

    Triplex Active Member

    For me, a few things that often jump out in photos that prove a layout's a model:

    -Trip pins on couplers.
    -Missing telephone/power lines.

    And one so obvious I usually forget to mention it:

    -Surface switch machines.

    Apart from these obvious errors.... I usually find buildings look pretty good. I tend to look at foliage and especially rockwork to judge the quality of the layout. I rarely see the sort of bad rockwork Linn Westcott once described - "a series of parallel scratches in a rather smooth surface". I guess scenery techniques have changed a lot in the intervening years. I have seen rocks that are too smooth or an unusual color. I also look at ballast. Model ballast is far too often spread very wide but irregular, and is sometimes unlikely colors.

    I often notice railroad equipment mismatched in era or locale. I'm not good at identifying errors in era for other things.
  10. Santa Fe Jack

    Santa Fe Jack Member

    Ya know... there are so many subtle things that make something look realistic. Stuff you don't even notice, really. The eye (and brain) is very good at picking up on these clues.

    For example: If the grass or pavement is too clean, it's a dead giveaway. You need weeds in the ditches and around the edges of buildings and sidewalks. Plants grow thicker at roadsides, where the runoff is enhanced. Pay attention to the hydrology: if you were to rain on your layout, where would the water go? Do you have drainage ditches that actually would drain? The eye sees such things subconsciously. Where there is a rock fall, the newly exposed rock should be cleaner. Parking lots, stop sign locations, and dips in the road will have more oil drips on them. Places where locos pause will also have more gunk. Is there a place where Buddy used to dump oil out back of the shed?

    Anyway... you get the idea.
  11. sumpter250

    sumpter250 multiscale modelbuilder

    A friend of mine used to model a specific prototype, and he would take color slides of each scene as he completed it, then project the slides up on a large screen, pick out the things which looked "wrong", and list them. He would then "correct all those "mistakes", and shoot again. This process lasted four, or five times, until all the correctable (materials sometimes limit the ability to model "exact" scale) mistakes were fixed, and the projected image looked like the real thing.

    My answer to this thread, then? Pick out all the things that make this scene unrealistic. If it doesn't "look" right to you, list the thing/s that caught your eye. The insight here is that some of the details may look perfectly natural to you, but not to another. The end result will be "what makes a layout "look" realistic. Please, don't shy away from expressing exactly what you see as "wrong", the object is to identify the little things that detract, so that you can model a scene, and leave the distractions out. I do request that you keep the comments factual, and the language "proper". Here is the scene:
  12. MilesWestern

    MilesWestern Active Member

    You're Welcome Gary! Always willing to help. The further comments above re-inforce all the points I made, and Santa Fe Jack has some excellent points as well. I really like the drainage ditch Idea. The Oil spots are necessary as well.

    Triplex also makes points that are dead giveaways as well. However, I believe you invested alot of time into making electro-magnetic uncouplers..so trippins will have to stay.

    Scale switchstands are a MUST.

    I look forward to photos!
  13. There are lots of detailing issues that blend together to form a realistic scene, but I think there are a few overidding principals that have a lot of impact and should be kept in mind.

    One of these, and it has been mentioned, is overall blending of the elements. This really helps make a collection of individual models become one scene - pay attention to the colors used to paint everything, including the trains. Colors can all be slightly faded and grayed for 'scale perspective' and to suggest the effects of sun, as well as to help compensate for lighting at a significantly lower level than that provided by the sun.
    Also, especially with scenery (and to a lesser extent, structures), the color palette should not be too disparate - this blending will tie everything together. Even lightly overspraying everything with a light dust color ties it together. Dave Barrow wrote in an article in Model Railroader that he mixes the same blue paint used in his backdrops into the tan paint he uses to adhere his sand, to help simulate the color temperature of sunlight and blend the foreground and background elements.
    Within this overall blending, there should still be things that stand out on closer inspection. Look at a typical model RR tree or weed patch, they're usually one color of foilage, or at best, an even blend. Now look at real trees or weed patches - not only is there blended color variety, but there is strategic variation telling the story of what the plant material is doing. The new growth on the tips of tree branches is usually much brighter than the established foilage, and this often lasts long into the summer. Green strips of weeds in an otherwise dead field indicate the presence of water, or a low spot that retains just a little more moisture than the surroundings. Both of these effects can be achieved with simple drybrushing after the scenery is in place.
    nkp174 mentioned that it's important no gloss paint is visible, but I would debate this point. It's true that nothing should look like glossy plastic, and that gloss scales down, so HO scale cars don't look right with a 1:1 Ferrari-quality paint finish, but I think that texture and gloss variation are important. Just look around on a bright day at how many things have a reflective surface - lots of new building materials (metal ductwork, painted metal roofs, glazed tile, windows, painted metalwork...), autos, new freight rolling stock (which have a shine very different from new plastic models), Bot's dots, signs (new acrylic store signs, as well as Scotchlite street signs (again, a very different reflectivity than shiny plastic)), reflectors on trains, broken glass. The latter is all over in the sand at the sides of many roads, and easy to model; moisten the area with dilute matte medium or white glue, and sprinkle on some fine clear iridescent glitter, then vacuum the excess when the glue's dry.
    The next thing I think contributes to overall realism is lightness of materials, and by this I mean the importance of scale thickness. Fine, delicate details go a long way, and the play of shadow and light is very important. Wherever possible, details like etched gratings and walkways, where appropriate) go a long way. Being able to see through things makes a big impression - on of the really nice things about Central Valley tie strips is the way the web is molded, so you can ballast track to a level below the tops of the ties, and see under the rail. Also, and this has been mentioned, stringing powerlines across all those empty poles goes along way. Especially if you use multiple line thicnkess and replicate phone lines, cable lines, junctions, catenary for long spans, etc.
    The final area I point out for now is that too much compression, and cramming too much track and trains in to a given space, spoil the realism very quickly. For some, the additional switching and spotting is more important than realism, and that's fine. But the most realistic layouts generally seem to minimize the trackwork and have lots of open space. Take a look at how realistic Gregg Fuhriman's Glen Frazer Freemo module is, with its looong, smooth, sweeping trackwork and landscape, here: NorCalF Module Information
    Large buildings and roads add to realism, too - think about how wide a typical city or suburban street with parking on both sides and a turn lane actually is, and also how long elements are; one of the most unrealistic things I often see on model RR intersections are very short approaches for turn lanes - the curve in the double lines should flow, just like smooth trackwork.

    Well, that's my rant for now - I hope there's some useful info there.

  14. Gary S.

    Gary S. Senior Member

    Wow, thanks for the great comments guys! I wasn't expecting this much commentary, but it is certainly welcome! Everyone is making excellent points and giving me food for thought.

    Sumpter, as for your photograph, I can't hardly find any fault with it. If my layout turns out with scenes like that, I would be extremely pleased. If I was pressed to say something, I would mention the dark green tree in the lower left corner looks a bit unreal, but just barely. although, to me it is still acceptable and if it was mine, I wouldn't change a thing.

    One of the things that scares me about scenery is seeing some of the great work you guys do and it makes me wonder if I will be able to meet the standard.
  15. Santa Fe Jack

    Santa Fe Jack Member

    I agree, Gary. Some of the work I see is downright intimidating. Sumpter's photo is a good example. It's lovely. So are the photos in the Walthers' catalog. Awesome stuff.
  16. MilesWestern

    MilesWestern Active Member

    Sumpter- I see numerous things that stand out like sore thumbs, but are REALLy easy to fix there:
    -No part of the trestle is bolted together like the protoype...oops! :D
    -No Engineer in the cab, no window glazing in the cab window
    -I have to agree that the WS "clumpy trees" look bad compared to your excellent "whispy Trees"
    -This is a matter of preference, but I think the model would benefit fro polished brass cydliner heads, boiler straps, and a strip along the side of the running board, as I know that the locomotive was probably built with those sort of victorian-era embelishments.
    -Some steam escaping from the popvalve would be a good additon too! (JK) :)

    Back to Gary's Idea, and addressing Colton Modeler, I really have to re-inforce his points as EXCELLENT. Color is definitely THE MOST IMPORTANT THING, hands down. All of my protoype info and era-research that I mentioned would be worthless if everything were painted day-glo colors, or even gaudy glossy colors. (That's a bit overemphasizing his point, but you get the point) Like a painting color play the starring role along with good content.

    Three principals of ART

    Modelrailroading is an ART as much as painting, it could be called a "Kenetic Sculpture." ;)
  17. Gary S.

    Gary S. Senior Member

    Miles, I agree that color is the one most important thing (and I am looking from a "newbie not-all-that-knowledgable-about-trains perspective). For example, when I was new here and first started seeing DocWayne's layout, I was just amazed at how great it looked. And I started asking myself why it looks so good. I compared it to other layouts I had seen on the net. And what I realized was that color is what sets a great layout above just a good one. There are no stark contrasts, there are no overly bright whites or brilliant colors, there are no jet blacks, and the colors all seem to blend in, from foreground to backdrop. The colors just seem to fit and look "real."

    And, overall I think the use of lighter tones and colors is better than too much dark color.

    Now, I'm not taking anything away from DocWayne's detailed weathered trains and structures, because those are fantastic also. And with his use of colors the whole thing is just WOW!

    But as Miles said, you could have the most detailed of structures and trains, but if the colors are wrong and don't give the illusion of "scale" then it just isn't going to look good.

    Now all I have to do is figure out what DocWayne knows about color. And I need to figure it out fast too!
  18. nachoman

    nachoman Guest

    My quick answer without having the time to read all the responses first:

    PROPER LIGHTING. If the shadows or colors don't look like natural sunlight, everything seems wrong.

  19. Gary S.

    Gary S. Senior Member

    I definitely believe that lighting is important, especially after looking at the photos of the scratchbuilt structure that CNJ999 posted in another thread. He took the photos outside in the sun with a natural backdrop and lighting and shadows, and the building looks totally believable.

    But, what do you do with a big ol' around the room shelf layout to get proper lighting and shadows, especially considering the 8 florescent fixtures already in place? Instead of Cool White lamps, go to Daylight lamps would be the first step?
  20. doctorwayne

    doctorwayne Active Member

    Gary, my first room-size layout was illuminated with colour-corrected fluorescents, but at that time, this type of tube was hard to start. The overriding problem with fluorescents other than Cool White is that the light output (lumens) is reduced, and even CWs rated at a full 40 watts (for 4-footers) are becoming hard to find. Most digital cameras can be set to compensate for the green cast caused by most fluorescents, and if you want shadows, a hand-held trouble light can do an adequate job. A better solution would be a photoflood mounted on a stand, but to be quite honest, I seldom bother with either, as I don't think anyone is going to be fooled into thinking that a photo of a model is the real thing.
    Don't let scenery making scare you: some people develop real skills in this area, while the rest of us just give it a try and hope for the best. Lets face it: you can look at any photo posted here and find something to fault if you wish. I prefer to look at the things that I enjoy, and let the rest slide. That goes for my own photos, too. Even if you get the trees and vegetation right, the colours spot-on, wires on the utility poles, everything weathered just-so, somebody will see something. :rolleyes:
    And don't forget, if your layout is room-size, good luck on getting everything "detailed" - I haven't even got my benchwork finished, and I doubt that I'll ever get around to adding the details that I originally envisioned to any of my layout. Scenery is one of those "just do it" things. And make sure to have fun while you're doing it.


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