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The Human Form - a personal view

Page history last edited by Ian Stock 13 years, 4 months ago

Ian Stock

Less is more – Mies van der Rohe.


Now, this is a vexed subject if ever there was one, and I am no doubt going to get some stick from various quarters for banging on about it yet again! So I apologise in advance for what is a purely personal train of thought about the issue. However, what to do about the Human Form is an unavoidable dilemma for all modellers, both indoor and out.  In my days of indoor modelling, I used to take completely the opposite view to that which I now hold: adding a scattering of judiciously-painted figures was one of the surest ways of bringing a model to life, as well as denoting the period modelled – but when one goes up in scale and outdoors in location, it just does not seem to work any more.


Perhaps one of the reasons for this is simply down to scale. In 4mm scale, for example, individual characters are so small that the lack of refinement in their finish can barely be discerned – one ends up with something that looks like a three-dimensional Lowry painting with just semi-silhouette characters. Equally, the bodily movements of such tiny figures would be so small as to be largely indiscernible to the viewer, several hundred scale feet away, so their absence is less obvious. When one goes up to 7mm scale, much more care is already needed, though it is perhaps still just possible to carry it off.


In the garden scales, however, figures scale out at several inches high, and it is possible to see every detail of their form, and this is where the shortcomings become much more visible - from the lack of texture of the clothing, to the crudeness with which facial features are often modelled or painted, to the lack of subtlety of the colourings used for flesh and so on.


It also becomes much clearer that the character is frozen, and this difficulty is multiplied many times over when it is placed in a garden setting. While it is possible to use figures in resting poses (which minimises the loss of movement), their stasis in a surrounding which is otherwise fully animated and living still only serves to exaggerate their artificiality and by extension that, I would contend, of the entire railway.


Theoretically, some of these objections can be overcome – resin figures in particular can reproduce sharp edges and fine detail such that the creases in clothing and skin can be replicated, though how one then achieves a convincing fabric texture is unresolved:  paint does not really do the job, and pattern is out of the question; real fabric is too coarse and will not survive out of doors. Flesh tones can be carefully interpreted – almost always far paler and more varied than so-called flesh-coloured paint, while eyes are incredibly difficult – perhaps best represented by shadow, and definitely NOT by dots of blue or black paint. You simply will never get the dot small and discrete enough, and you will end up with a railway populated by staring zombies!


There are several useful sites to assist with figure painting (see links here) and with skill, some stunning results can be obtained with individual figurines. But what you will still never see is movement! There has been some superb work done in the field of kinetic models, but they are still a long way from the naturalism that we require. And even if you could make figures move, what would they do? A simple repeated task would look no better than the animated figures one sees in department stores at Christmas – the cycle time and complexity needed for them not to look mechanical is too long to be viable with current technology – and free movement implies decision-making abilities that are so far off the radar as to be fantasy. Besides, if we were able to develop fully functioning model figures, what would be left for us to do?


And that, in my opinion, is the rub: model figures actually come between us and our models. By adding model humanoids, one places another level of (non?) reality between us and our railways: if the miniature characters on the platforms are who the railway ‘belongs’ to, then what is our role? God? We remove ourselves from the reality of what we have so carefully created by redefining the scale of the humanity that accompanies the railway – effectively putting a barrier between ourselves and our trains. To put it another way, adding unreal representations of life transforms our our 'real' railways into three-dimensional paintings, with ourselves on the outside, looking in.


So we come to asking “What is the point of model figures?”  The normal answer is presumably, “To add realism” – but do figures actually do that? Given the above comments, it could be argued that they have precisely the opposite effect. I got as far as adding one sleeping cat to a station before realising that even that one figure brought about such a fundamental change to the entire model that it was soon removed. It took no more, and it felt that the addition of that simple lump of white metal was a deliberate, counter-productive act of realism-reduction, a dilution of the very vitality and animation of the outdoors that is its strongest suit for modellers.


Another argument used is that garden railways look desolate without human life – well perhaps so, but a quick scan of a few books in my library has revealed that in only a handful of pictures of rural railways do more than one or two figures appear – and those are normally in views of either locomotive sheds or where people are actually entraining at stations, and the latter is not something that even resting figures can reproduce. For much of their time, not much happens in the countryside, on the average railway line, or even station – unless you are modelling Crewe or Waterloo; the occasional burst of activity when a train arrives is all that raises the dust – so it is surely better to represent that quietness and imagine the (out of sight) activity than have platforms full of characters at all times of day and night?


This is not to say that figures have no use: a number of people have achieved excellent photographic results with restrained use of carefully posed figures – but the photographs, like the equivalent of the real thing – are just pictures - inherently static and so do not jar. From my own experiments on this front, the ‘in-the-flesh’ scene is nothing like as convincing as the photo.


So if we must have figures at all, perhaps we should reserve them for photographic work, when they can be given maximum chance to do their job properly, and omit them the rest of the time. It is accepted wisdom that figures in frozen action-poses are best avoided at all costs – and to this I would add leaving them outdoors permanently. The weather will have an effect on them that is about as far from realism as it is possible to be – unless you know real people who have moss growing on them, that is! Likewise, the effect of figures leaning at drunken angles following assault by thirty-foot high felines, or head-deep in snow drifts is guaranteed to destroy one’s ongoing illusion (delusion?) of one’s line. So perhaps figures are the one item other than the trains themselves that really do need to be kept indoors.


But in which case, how to bring a model to life? Well, it is hardly original to ‘suggest’ signs of life without actually featuring the people themselves. Inanimate objects can be made to imply life better than humans themselves – not least because they are more likely to be permanent or semi-permanent, and we are not looking for platform trolleys, milk churns or notice boards to get up and walk.  Even so, this needs to be done with restraint – again it is necessary to avoid over-crowding, or the impulse to have ‘features’ in every scene; observation of real paraphernalia is needed to prevent the result looking contrived. One tip I learned from my local florist is that things look better grouped in odd numbers – not sure why, but it seems to work. I also move my accessories around from time to time, which keeps them 'fresh' and only a small proportion of them features at any one point.


Another aspect that can add life is light – buildings and signals that gently glow at night can be wonderful if not overdone – but in order to make your railway ‘live’, sometimes the diurnal cycle, the passages of the weather, and the gentle movement of plants in the wind may be all you really need...


The picture below was not set up - in fact it was literally a point-and-snap afterthought, which just 'saw' what happened to be on the platform at the time. In many ways it's a poor photo, but but it struck me that (floating post-leg apart) there is a good suggestion of life without any people themselves being visible.





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