Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Avoid getting caught in the detail trap

Recently I attended a corporate retreat day where one of presentations that stuck in my head was titled “How to Measure Progress: Moving Forward Toward the Big Picture vs. Getting Caught up in the Details.” Quite a mouthful, but I immediately thought of model railroading. The instructor opened with a quote – not from a business tycoon or marketing giant, but an artist:

 “Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.” ― Georgia O’Keeffe

This is often described as a golden age for model railroading. Never have we had it so good. We get detailed models, fresh out of the factory that reflect even the most minor differences between prototypes. 
I’ll never forget when I was at Intermountain and we released the D&RGW version of the N scale SD40T-2. (Yes, some N scalers will recall the first run of the model had some teething pains, but that’s not the point of the story). 
I’ll never forget the phone call I received a couple of weeks later from an irate (I mean really ticked off) modeler who sounded like he was about to have a coronary on the phone as he described the source of his angst: 
“The jacking pads are the wrong shape on the SP tunnel motors. I’ve bought six of them, now I have to return them. And you <expletive deleted> SOB… now that you’ve ruined them no one will ever make them.”
“Excuse me,” I said, “the jacking pads?” 
“Yes, the <f@#$ing> jacking pads. On the SP the tops are rounded – you <f@#%ers> did the Rio Grande ones and they’re squared off but you’re selling them as prototypical for the SP!!!”
This went on for what seemed like an eternity – I knew nothing was going to make this guy happy. At first I decided maybe he just needed to vent. After a while I almost started hoping for the aforementioned coronary to put him out of my, and what was clearly his, misery. For the record what he was referring to was the representation the metal stamping on the ends of the jacking pads located above the trucks of the sides of the jacking pads – the shape was less than 1/64” of inch. No one, and I mean not one person, ever commented on the shape of the jacking pads after that. But clearly it was important to him. 
If that guy – who never mentioned his name – is reading this I’m sorry I ruined your enjoyment of the hobby. (And I almost mean that seriously.)
I bring this up to illustrate how we need to pick and choose which details we emphasize.  
Models are, at their very essence, representations of a real object. Locomotives are big, heavy objects. Shape or form, color, and perhaps some use of light and shadow (“weathering”) to impact a sense of mass can be far more important to create the impression of a hard working piece of machinery than fretting over any individual minor detail.   
In the context of a model railroad layout that entire locomotive is just another element. Just as a painting is made up of numerous brush strokes, the layout is comprised of numerous "micro details." That locomotive, the track, and each car, structure and trees, are each “micro” details – that combine to create the “macro” item – a model railroad layout. 
True artists have the ability to capture the essence of a subject in their chosen medium. And in some cases, less is more. 


  1. Well said. I'm trying to cultivate the following philosophy to how I build models:
    "If it really bothers me, learn to fix it. If I'm not willing to learn to fix it or spend the time to fix it, be happy with it and move on."
    - Trevor (Port Rowan in 1:64)

    1. And I should've added that the guys I run into who are the most obsessed about this kind of minutia are the same guys who rarely have a layout, or a layout beyond the benchwork and track stage. They'll agonize over a jacking pad, then run their trains past structures represented by cereal boxes and "tree-shaped objects".
      Frankly, the time would be better spent learning to build realistic looking trees - by species. Few people know what an SP jacking pad looks like - even fewer if you include all the non-hobbyists (like other family members) who might see your layout. Almost everybody can identify an oak, an elm, or a maple.
      - Trevor (Port Rowan in 1:64)

    2. I typed a reply only to have it disappear into the ether... trying again...
      During my time in the manufacturing end of the hobby business I was shocked how little modeling "model railroaders" really wanted to do. And I blame the advancement in the details on manufactured models. Forty years ago we were thrilled to get an FM TrainMaster - in plastic - from Athearn. Of course it was a basic model with those formed wire handrails, and generic (at best) details. What people who weren't around at the time don't appreciate was the excitement and buzz that lasted for several (4 or 5) years prior to the models' release.
      Nowadays a new model is announced, picked apart on forums and chat lists (often sight unseen) and the buzz dies down - in about a week.
      At some point for many the hobby crossed the line from "model railroading" to "accumluating model railroading stuff and pontificating about minutia.
      There's a couple of forums where the participants thrive on such commentary - the one thing they all have in common is a complete lack of photos showing their completed projects!

  2. This is nicely put, Marty.

    The trick, then, is identifying the details that capture the “real meaning” of the subject.

    Interestingly, the subject in a model railway depends on distance. Unlike a painting, you often cannot stand in one spot and take it all in. Thus, the piece invites us to move around and consider different viewpoints - some where the locomotive is a detail, and others where the locomotive is the subject. This makes that question of essence difficult to answer (although, it seems unlikely to me that it is the jacking pad!).

    When modellers subscribe to the three-foot rule, they assert that the only views that matter are the ones where the locomotive is a detail.

  3. Ah yes, the three foot rule. I don't subscribe to it as I think it's something of a cop out - as is the "good enough" philosophy. These, and the concept of the lifetime layout (see yesterday's post!) originated with the evolution of the super large layout, itself something that developed with the increase in ever more detailed RTR products.

  4. Isn’t it ironic that the products that populate those mega-layouts can withstand ever-closer scrutiny, but often fail to convey the essence of the scene, having been given only a cursory blast with an airbrush?