What makes a layout "realistic"?

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

  1. brakie

    brakie Active Member

    To my mind I fully believe believability in the scenery,industrial names and road name if freelance.
    Let me explain..If the road we model is set in the Appellations then our scenery should look like the Appellations and not the Rocky Mountains and visa versa.If we model say Southern Ohio or the Northern half of Kentucky we need to model the foot hills of the Appellations which is made of rolling hills.
    As far as choosing names for our industries they should reflect the area we model and not be related to each other.Why? It is my opinion our layouts are compress and therefore a lumber company will receive lumber from the North-West or the Canadian forest industry and not from a nearby saw mill.Think of this..A nearby saw mill would use trucks to ship lumber to a nearby industry or lumber company because trucks are faster on the short haul..Also a saw mill one one side of the layout and a lumber company on the other side looks like a short distance to the eye even if we use a view block.Back to choosing a name..Williams Manufacturing sound more realistic then Rusty Bolts Manufacturing..Cute name but,unrealistic to the mind because the mind conjures up a bucket of old rusty bolts.

    As far as a freelance road names we should use realistic sounding such as Red River Valley RR,Huron River,Detroit & Southern etc othen then say Broke & Still Running or the Nickel & Dime RR.Cute names but,IMHO means nothing as far as a believability.
    Again in IMHO believability can turn a unrealistic hodge podge layout into a great layout regardless of size.
  2. Gary S.

    Gary S. Senior Member

    I'm with Brakie on the names. When I see a nice looking layout with a "cutesie" railroad name and goofy names for the businesses, I kind of groan inside.
  3. sumpter250

    sumpter250 multiscale modelbuilder

    That is one very nice module! One of the things that helps "reality" is , not only modeling trees, but placement of the trees. An ugly looking tree, suddenly becomes very natural when placed in a scene that "forces the tree to grow that way". Gregg did a lot of very well done tree placement.

    Miles, There's a reason why the "clumpy trees are there", that ravine was once my daughter's "erosion project" for school. Instead of throwing it out, I used it in that module. :mrgreen:
    That one cought me by surprise. Acutally, the locomotive in the photo, "is the prototype", and is used by the fictional SHS&D, in this day and age. It is a "modern" locomotive.
    The rest of what you mentioned, is basicly what I mentally listed when I posted the pic. Smoke from the stack, and some other form of life (maybe a "critter, or two"), and rusted rails, are some of the other things that would help.
    Again, the exercise here, is to take the scene "out of context" make it a picture. Then, look at the picture, and try to identify what it is that makes the picture look like "a model". When those things are fixed, the scene will look "real". So far, lots of good ideas have been posted here. This would be a good thread to reference in the future. :thumb: to all who have posted.
  4. bigsteel

    bigsteel Call me Mr.Tinkertrain

    so far EVRYTHINg tht everyone has said helps make a layout realistic.form the amount of lighting to color to trees and foliage.ive bookmarked this page or future reference and will print it out if i ever need to see if i missed something :mrgreen: thanks guys.--josh
  5. Triplex

    Triplex Active Member

    I wouldn't expect that engine to have ever had such features. I don't really know earlier steam, but I'd guess it was built around 1910.
  6. MilesWestern

    MilesWestern Active Member

    Hmm, I would beg to differ, although not all steam engines had such embellishments, I would bet that with those types of cylinder heads, it would have at the very least been built of brass, painted or unpainted. As for the other brass bits I mentioned, they exist, not only for embellishment, but for functionality. The Brass along the runningboard's edge legnthened the life of the wood running board, and provided extra stregnth. THe brass boiler straps are also there as well, but in a "modern" locomotive, I suppose the bean counters would have painted over them by 1929 at the earliest. So, Therefore I believe that It would be accurate to have brass parts gleaming on the model as well.
  7. doctorwayne

    doctorwayne Active Member

    Gary, the only thing that I know about colour is that everybody sees it differently and that my American friends don't know how to spell it properly. ;)sign1 :-D:-D:-D

    I do agree, though, that it's best to go lighter rather than darker: the relatively low light levels over our layouts need all the help that we can offer. I think that subtle weathering can help to tie things together, too, and eventually I'll get around to weathering the tracks and structures on my own layout. :oops::oops:

  8. Mountain Man

    Mountain Man Active Member

    Add in perspective and realistic backgrounds that blend and enhance the foreground scenes.

    A N-scale structure gives depth and "reality" to a scene with HO scale structures in the close foreground by "forcing" perspective on the viewer. You see much more depth than is really there. If power lines or telegraph lines travel away from the viewer, gradually shorten the poles in the distance and narrow the line spacing. This gives an impression of distance to the eye that looks natural, but be careful that the forced perspective matches any other built-in perspective within the same area seen by the viewer!

    Colors tend to change as viewing depth increases as well, although this can be subtle. Look at how Mother Nature does it for true tips from the ultimate expert.

    Watch the lighting. The scene is supposed to show what real sunshine would show - a lot of conflicting shadows throws a viewer's mental picture out of kilter and registers as something wrong, even if the viewer cannot determine what it is.

    My last thought is junk, junk, junk...oh yeah...and weeds and stuff. People are inherently messy critters unless safety is involved, and especially in the early days of railroading, photographs show raw gashes in the landscape and discarded materials of all descriptions even years after the work of building the line was finished. No effort was made at all to landscape areas in the early days, and not much even later on, and stuff that broke or wore out was often just left because nothing justified the time and expense of removiong it unless parts could be salvaged in situ. Kind of like Jeff Foxworthy's front yard - mow the grass and find a car.

    Railroads are functional for speed and profit, period. So make it look like real people were around, doing what real people always do - leaving stuff behind everywhere they go. :cool:
  9. riverotter

    riverotter Midwest Alliance Rail Sys

    What a great question! For me, the "correct answer" is "it depends".

    Are you a prototype railroad modeler? If so, then replicating every little detail may be critically important to "realism".

    Are you a "dioramist"? By that I mean do you build scenes that just happen to have model trains in them? In that case, I would think you'd want to study reality very carefully, so you can create a convincing diorama that mimics the way things are in the real world, whether you follow a specific prototype or freelance.

    Are you an "operations" modeler? If so, then none of the above factors may be a consideration; instead, laying out your track like real railroads do so that your layout can be operated like a real railroad may be the most important factor. In some cases, like David Barrow & his adherents, "scenery" in the traditional model railroading sense may be superfluous and be dispensed with altogether.

    However you define "realistic" -- you're right! This is your hobby; ask for information and advice, then "have it your way!"

    Bottom like: if you're not having fun, it's not a hobby, it's just work.:thumb:
  10. Gary S.

    Gary S. Senior Member

    You're being much too modest about your knowledge of c o l o r. When I see photos of your layout, I am drawn in by the c o l o r s. The first impression I had of your layout is that it looks so real
    because of the c o l o r s. Are you telling me that you simply got lucky in your use of c o l o r?
  11. Gary S.

    Gary S. Senior Member

    I see your point and it is a good one. My focus is on operations. So on that note, scenery is not the most important thing to me. But my question is asked from the frame of mind that if an average person who knows little about trains were to view the layout, what aspects would make the person say "wow, it looks so real!"

    I'm thinking it is colour.
  12. rhtastro

    rhtastro Member

    Riverotter has defined this so well. I'd consider myself an "operations modeler" with some overtones of color. Please, not "colour", unless you happen to live on the middle border. Extreme realism is not for me. Heck, I'll even mix the periods together in a scene if I like the result. However, I do like a bit of landscaping and a good setting and background for the models. But it should be kept simple for my taste. As far as sifting dirt on the trains in order to make them look "real" or aging them in some way seems superfluous. For example, why would I take a beautiful example of a UP Big Boy model, a potential 5K collectors item, and destroy the finish just to make it look "real"? Not likely. Afterall, it's not a Hollywood movie set. Of course this is just my opinion and others have theirs. As they say that's why they make both chocolate and vanilla. Some like one and some like the other. And some like strawberry. Frankly, I would just rather run the trains. As has been said here many times by someone wiser than me, "remember, it's just for fun".
  13. Gary S.

    Gary S. Senior Member

    How about "colour" when you are having some fun with DoctorWayne?

    Extreme realism is not for me either. Like you, I do want a good setting and background for the trains to run through. And for me, that simply boils down to "does it look plausible" to the average person.

    Which brings up another question which I hope I can get some commentary on:

    To be considered realistic by the average person, should the layout be scenicked following what people perceive to be real or should it be scenicked following what is actually real?

    Let me give an example to clarify: I was driving on an old asphalt road yesterday. The road was not black or dark gray, it was actually a very bleached out tan color with light brown speckles of gravel in it. Now, if I was to model that color, most people would not be led to believe it was a very good example of an asphalt road. So as a modeler wanting a layout that is believable to the average visitor, one should model what is "expected" by the average person?

    I know that I can model whatever I want and to keep it fun, but one of my desires is to have a layout that, at first glance, looks plausibly realistic.
  14. CNJ999

    CNJ999 Member

    For either the hobbyist or a member of the general public to consider a layout scene to be preceived as real(istic), it should match reality. Anything less will make the scene appear oddly unfamiliar or unnatural, even if the offending feature can not immediately be pointed out by the viewer. This is exactly why over-weathered, "caricaturish" modelling, is immediately preceived by the average Joe as cute but rather toy-trainish, even though many of todays modelers think it's an expression of realism (in general, it aint). Less than believable attempts at replicating trees in their autumnal hues, also seen so often, is equally unbelievable and a bit cartoonish to most viewers.

    So...if you want believability, model from actual reality, not what you think others might believe to be realistic. Human preception is a lot more accute than most folks give credit to. It's also what sets the consummate modelers appart from those of more average ability.

    What one sees on inspection of many of the preceeding answers to the question is that there really are two distinct types of hobbyists. There are the true model railroaders, whose aim is replicating reality in its fullest and then there are the railroad modelers, with their main interests in operating their trains, often in less than perfectly scenicked surroundings. There really is a distinct difference, you know.

  15. riverotter

    riverotter Midwest Alliance Rail Sys

    Psychological research has shown that human perception is colored (or coloured, depending on which side of the pond you're on) by what the brain expects to see. Photographs of common scenes often surprise people who are familiar with those scenes. ("Does it really look like that?") This suggests that perhaps working from photographs rather than depending on human perception and memory alone might produce more "realistic" results.
  16. CNJ999

    CNJ999 Member

    I most definitely concur that working from photos is far and away the best approach (I do it in my own modeling). Nevertheless, I've found it very common for an outsider to view a less than accurately modeled scene and almost immediately comment, "I really can't put my finger on it but something's wrong there." What's wrong is that the colors are off or the structures are weathered too heavily, etc. This is also why, at least for most of us, even the best photos reporduced in the magazines are clearly seen to be models. You have to be really good to completely fool the old eye/brain combination when it comes to reality. Likewise, I think that the longer you've been around, the better one's preception gets at how things should look to be believable...sorta like in landscape painting.

  17. doctorwayne

    doctorwayne Active Member

    Thanks, Gary. You're right, though: I think that I did get lucky with my use of colour, and that may have been because of Woodland Scenics' limited range of colours offered. I had some older ground foam from an unknown company that had some colours that I found useful, but there wasn't enough of it to be of much actual use. Most of these were more muted than the WS products, and there were a couple that had a definite blue cast to them, very useful for simulating distant foliage. I was left with what was available, and tried to make the best of it. I think that it's important to remember that trees, grass, weeds, even fields of crops made up of all the same variety of plant, are all multi-coloured.

    Your question points out part of the problem in achieving realism: we all know that a tree is green, grass is green, those crops are green, etc. etc. However, because we know, we tend to not look, and therefore not see, that all of these greens (the parts that actually are green) may be different greens. We also don't see that there are actually other colours mixed in with the various "true greens", and that these colours contribute to our overall perception of the specific green that they're in. I didn't go outside to look at a field or at trees, (although I probably should have) because I "know" what they look like. However, everyone else also "knows" what they look like, although their perception could be radically different from mine. Any of us could be correct or incorrect, and I was just lucky to be able to reproduce my perception and also lucky that you found it realistic. I'm not sure that everyone else would, though. ;)

    You're correct in assuming that we expect certain things to be a certain colour, but we may or may not accept another individual's interpretation of that colour. I just got back from a trip "up North", and some of the highways there are a definite pink colour (this could be a real boon for those foam-based layouts);) due to the local granite used in the making of the asphalt. If you've seen this, and someone showed you a layout set in that area, you'd probably accept it as realistic. For everyone else, I doubt it, although maybe if the modelled road was passing through a rock cut, it might look "right". The roads on my layout are too dark, and they're also unweathered: I was trying to save up enough projects on the layout that require the use of an airbrush to make the task of setting up the compressor, etc. worthwhile, plus it would help if my wife would leave for a couple of days so I could get those jobs done without complaints about the noise, smell, dust, blah, blah, blah. :rolleyes:
    To get back to your question: if you model the road that you saw, as you saw it, then other elements should be there to contribute to the realism, such as the colour of the gravel along the shoulder, the dirt that's visible, or even the colours of the plants and trees nearby. Your mind accepted that tan-coloured road at least in part because of the other elements around it. Your observation that colours appear more realistic on a layout if there's none that are too much in contrast with others illustrates this thought.
    Another aspect of this discussion is tricking the eye into seeing what you want it to see. Any decent artist can fill his painting with sunlight so real that you can feel its warmth. We seem to be limited in this ability by the low light levels over our layouts, and how many of us would be willing to add bright white highlights to our trains or scenery, or have the shadowed sides of buildings painted dark blue or purple? I was surprised, though, at how much "light" can be added to a tree simply by dusting it with an unaturally light green or yellow foam as a final step.
    Another idea you could explore in the search for realism is placement of the scenic elements. I had most of the scenes on my layout pictured in my mind long before the benchwork was even built, although some had to be changed or discarded for practical considerations, and other new ones presented themselves as the layout developed. Try to lead the viewers eye to what you want them to see. Usually, in a model railroader's case, that's the trains. So the scene should offer a good place to just view the trains - nothing too "poke-you-in-the-eye-look-at-me" stuff, but a "setting". Bridges seem to be my favourites, although I also like urban and industrial backgrounds. For an "operator's" layout, the industries that are the reason for the "operation" can be a good setting for the trains. However, if you look at real-life settings, many don't offer an unobstructed view of the thing that catches your eye and makes you want to look. Don't be afraid to add a few of these "get-in-the-way" elements to your layout. I have lots of telegraph and power poles, lineside signs, trees, and buildings, etc., that help to put the trains in the midst of a scene. This has residual benefits besides the obvious ones, too. Often, you'll need to compose your photos more carefully: perhaps a pole hides an important element of the photo, like a loco number. Moving the loco just a bit can not only reveal the number, but also direct the viewer's eye to see what you want him to see. Another benefit of these elements is that they can be used to make the layout seem larger, and the trains longer than they really are. Things like mountains, forests, or buildings, with the trains running at least partially obscured behind them, helps to recreate the context of how we see real trains.
    Another aid to realism is to know when to ignore the details. I have a lot of trouble with this one. For things in the background, keep them simple. Because our actual distances from foreground to backdrop is so foreshortened, it's easy to over-detail stuff that's meant to be miles away. In the pictures below, the stuff along the horizon was my first attempt at modelling distant trees. It was very hard to resist making small (and smaller and smaller) trees to fill in this area, but it would've looked even less convincing than what you see here. What I did end up using was a strip of white cushion-type foam, painted (with a 2" brush) using the same dark grey-green latex house paint that I used for my "rivers", then loosely covered with polyfibre, and sprinkled with some ground foam. This would've been an area where that "bluish" foam that I spoke of earlier would have been especially useful. Because it's not detailed, it doesn't attract the eye too much, or at least I hope that it doesn't. Of course, I just spoiled that by mentioning it, I suppose! :eek: :rolleyes:


    This one is even simpler: a piece of 1/8" Masonite hardboard, rough side out, painted the same grey-green, and sprinkled with some ground foam, in this case, the bluish stuff. I added an overspray of grey primer from a can, which was easy to do as the Masonite lifts right out, held in place by the curved "sky" backdrop behind, and the plaster scenery in front.

    You're correct in that you can model whatever you want, and, I might add, do a good job of it, too, to which anyone looking at your photos can attest. Just remember, though, that this is a very self-indulgent hobby, and that you need to please yourself first. If you succeed, chances are others will also be pleased by what they see.
    I apologise for going on at such length, but your questions caused me to think about the situation, which was a good thing. ;) Thanks for bringing it up.

  18. Gary S.

    Gary S. Senior Member

    Wayne, thank you so much for the well-thought-out commentary. As we all think about these things and comment on them, and as I study the replies, I am growing more confident that I can pull this off on my layout. I'm going to be reading this thread numerous times over the next few months as my scenery progresses.

    On a side note, yesterday and today I spent $90 on "daylight" flourescent tubes and $200 on more light fixtures to go over the layout. Today I have been installing everything. In all, I will have 12 - 4 foot, 2 lamp fixtures over the shelves, plus three more in the center of the space.

    Again, thanks for all the insight!:thumb: (and I am fully expecting more from you!:wave:)

    As usual, I really enjoyed the three photos you included - especially the second one. Great depth, great colors, excellent detail, I am thinking that photo is now my favorite model railroad photo. It is perfectly believable.
  19. Santa Fe Jack

    Santa Fe Jack Member

    I've been thinking more about this realism quandry. I had mentioned before the modeling of hydrology (ditches, creeks, ravines and other water conveyances) and though of something more general: relief.

    That is, sculpting the landforms. Nothing kills realism for me more than seeing a flat surface. Flat surfaces are rare in nature (OK, salt flats, but who is modeling those?). Look at the terrain around you. Not flat.

    So, get up off that flat plywood board and add some interest! :)
  20. papasmurf37

    papasmurf37 Member

    Always visit largest Train Exhibition in NH every November[15th annual; upcoming in 4 weeks]. It's run by Bedford[NH]Boomers HO Modular Club. Modules are built by individual members and some are SUPER Craftsmen!
    Will always remember their trackside tenement scene module:
    Lady hanging clothes on backyard line[2 t-poles; 4 lines strung]. She's being watched by a dog/ it's windy; hung clothes 'in the wind'[cleverly done with aluminum foil cut in shape of various garments, cemented to lines, painted & bent to simulate strong breeze/clothesbasket located on ground by her/plenty of trash around/ picket fence between yard and tracks with lots of pickets missing or broken/ scrub foliage/ trackside litter/ tenement in shabby shape behind her/ old truck parked in alley between buildings.
    All in all: a VERY BELIEVABLE scene; well executed! Modules on either side paled in comparison and LOTS of folks stopped to admire it. This is what makes layouts realistic and HOPE I do as well when my a-t-r HO pike is soon started. My two cents.....:thumb:

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