Sunday, March 13, 2016

Things You Can't (and Can) See in N Scale

Steering clear of the trains: fenceless cattle avoiding the
Santa Fe main line on  Jim Kelly's N scale Tehachapi Layout
Photo: Jim Kelly | Model Railroader | http://mrr.trains.com/
The March issue of Model Railroader magazine had a commentary about how certain details just don't show up or matter in N scale. (Here's a link to the beginning of the piece; the full article is apparently paywalled, or find an actual copy of the magazine). The author, Jim Kelly, is an MR 'old hand' who was bravely modeling in N back in the 70s and 80s; now he has a more-or-less regular column thinkin' and musin' on N scale.

Jim started off discussing how fences and the like aren't visible from a distance, so he doesn't model fences. Later, he went off on a bit of a tangent regarding not modeling things he doesn't like, like rutty temporary access roads. 

Re-reading this article and looking at the accompanying picture from Jim's inspirational Tehachapi layout, I realize that I agree with Dr. Jim's diagnosis but not his treatment. Regarding fences in specific, I don't think omitting them completely is as effective as modeling the parts of the fence you actually can see from a distance--such as the fence posts. 

How to meet the challenge of interpreting and representing small or gossamer details is one of the differentiating features of excellent N scale and indeed all small scale modeling. Closely related to the artistry of fine detail in small scale is the artistry of color in small scale-- gloss and highlights, and colors generally, should be muted on smaller models. In short, N scalers can't just reproduce detail rivet for rivet or match a color chip--they have to get good at suggesting detail, and portraying color as if from a distance. 

To really see the mastery of such tiny detail and subtle coloration, just Google 'best 1/700 naval models'. Here are models some four or more times smaller in scale than N scale trains. The really outstanding 1/700 ship models are masterfully painted and weathered, and have just enough detail added to make the viewer fill in the blanks of what is actually invisible from thousands of feet or even miles away. 

As I plan my Old Line Corridor N scale layout, I have given thought to a particularly gossamer but pervasive detail around the Northeast Corridor and electrified Pennsy lines: catenary. Lately I've been looking at every electrified railroad picture that comes my way and asking, 'Can I see the wire?' And the answer is, 'it depends'. Depends on the angle, distance, lighting. Sometimes in close-ups it's there as if scrawled onto the photo with a Sharpie, but a lot of time the wire is wisps or traces. Other times, it's a crazy miasma of lines, arcs, and planes (the geometric kind) over the tracks.

The better question is, 'What do I see that makes this an electric railroad?' Poles and cross bridges are the obvious answer, but one detail that's sticks out is insulators, which often are the visual queue or hint that there's a wire running this way or that. And when wire is visible from a distance, it's not a lone wire, but a tangle, or it's not the contact wire but some other kind of transmission or guy wire. 

I've noted previously that 'fake' catenary is a thing worthy of consideration, particularly in smaller scales or for photography. My next step is to experiment with the accoutrements of fake catenary--I'm accumulating a small collection of poles, bridges, string, wire for a fake catenary experiment. Check back in a few weeks to see the results.