Saturday, January 24, 2015

Lone Rock: A Canyon Country Diorama

The Lone Rock diorama was built to demonstrate rock carving and coloring techniques, and also to serve as a model stand for outdoor photography.

The Lone Rock diorama began with an email from Joey Ricard over at Trackside Scenery. When Joey's not working on his fantastic On30 Spruce Coal & Timber Co. layout, he's producing an awesome series of how-to modeling videos that you can watch over on YouTube. So when Joey asked if I might be interested in contributing to an upcoming video about modeling rocks, I was more than happy to agree. Joey's videos are always fun and informative, focusing on both tried-and-true and new-and-innovative techniques. Just my kind of project.

The idea for a stand-alone diorama that could be taken outdoors for photographing models had been percolating in the back of my mind for some time. Joey's video suggestion was just the push I needed to dust off the idea and get to building. I could document the build with video and photos as I went along, and wind up at the end with the photo-diorama I'd been daydreaming about. I wanted something simple and scenic, with a short length of track and one distinctive rock formation as center of interest. Most of the build is covered in the resulting video (below), so today's post will focus mostly on additional details. Here's how it all went together.

The 12" x 24" diorama started with a simple frame of 1" x 2" MDF and three layers of 1.5" white polystyrene bead-board. Some 1" thick gold polyurethane foam (Balsa Foam) was roughly shaped to form a single, towering butte. 1/2" plywood was cut to shape for track sub-roadbed and glued in place atop the foam. The white foam was shaped with a hot-wire cutter, and a small stone culvert made from Balsa Foam was created to bridge the gully. I used Loctite Power Grab construction adhesive to glue everything together.

The butte was carved from hard density Balsa Foam. This is a commercial version of the same gold urethane carving foam used by Walt Disney Imagineering and Hollywood special effects model builders. It's available through better stocked art and craft dealers.

A short section of the 1/2" plywood sub-roadbed was cut away and a chunk of 1" thick Balsa Foam was used to form a small stone culvert. The arch was created with sandpaper wrapped around a small bottle, and the stones were carved with a hard 5H pencil.

Using photos of rocks from Monument Valley, Moab and Sedona, Lone Rock Butte was carved from Balsa Foam using mostly a #2 hobby knife. The butte was then glued to the base with Loctite Powergrab adhesive. Four bamboo skewers between the butte and the base add additional strength. See the video for more details on the carving process. My part starts at about the 8:40 mark.

Sculptamold was used to blend the butte into the base and to form an embankment along the sub-roadbed right of way. A soft, wet brush is handy for smoothing things out.

Since there would be scenery below it, the stone culvert was finished early and installed flush with the sub-roadbed. It was painted with acrylics and the mortar lines were filled with spackling paste.

Midwest HO scale cork roadbed was glued down with yellow carpenter's glue before just about everything on the diorama was given a base coat of golden-tan flat latex house paint. Then a length of Peco On30 flextrack was cemented in place with Powergrab adhesive.

A wash of diluted India ink was sprayed onto the butte to darken cracks and crevices before final painting was done. Inexpensive craft acrylics were used to complete the paint job. Colors like raw sienna, red oxide, burnt umber and unbleached titanium were applied wet into wet, working from darker to lighter tones. See the video for a more complete rundown on the painting process. Painting and finishing starts at about 12:45 on the video.

The track was painted and weathered using Joey Ricard's easy techniques featured in this video from First the track is painted flat black. I masked off the diorama for this and did the painting outside with some Krylon spray paint. Next the ties are painted with a light tan acrylic. I used Apple Barrel "Khaki." Then the rails are painted with rust colored chalks suspended in 70% isopropyl alcohol. The final step is to give everything a good dusting with black and dark brown chalks. There's no power going to this track so I didn't bother to clean the paint off of the railhead. On powered track I'd use a Bright Boy or paint thinner to clean the railhead after painting.

The basic ground cover is Polyblend Sanded Grout. I mixed it up with a little water to form a thick paste and then just stippled it on with a cheep paintbrush (don't use a good brush for this! You'll never use it again). The erosion lines were pressed in with a pencil. The grout does a good job of representing soil while also filling and smoothing any remaining gaps in the foam base. This color is called "Sandstone," appropriately enough, and it dries a couple of shades lighter than it goes on. The wet grout generally stays where you put it but I also wet it down with a misting of diluted matte medium to lock it in place.

Once the grout had set overnight, the final coloring was done with light washes of acrylics to blend and unify the grout layer with the rock carving.

Real dirt and rocks were sprinkled on and then glued in place with white glue and diluted matte medium.

The track was ballasted with local sandstone, held in place with diluted matte medium.

Woodland Scenics "Field Grass" was used to make clumps of desert grasses and weeds, held in place with dabs of Aleene's Tacky Glue. Any loose fibers were later cleaned up with a shop vac.

A few more bushes and desert plants finish the diorama. The juniper bushes are Super Trees from Scenic Express covered in Noch dark green foliage. Clumps of gray sage were made with Woodland Scenics medium green bushes, lightly sprayed with gray primer. The prickly-pear cacti are castings from Pegasus Models. Lastly, the 1" x 2" frame was painted flat black to match the fascia on the Thunder Mesa layout.

Building the Lone Rock diorama was a quick, fun and rewarding project. Even if you don't have room for a full layout, I encourage anyone to try their hand at a small diorama like this. It can be finished in a week or so, and it's a great way to learn new techniques or to experiment with scenery ideas. I'll close out today's post with the finished video that Joey and I put together, and with a few photos taken outdoors in beautiful Sedona, AZ.

Set-up for photos in Sedona, AZ.

A small diorama like this is great for photographing models outside in natural light.

That's it for this project. Questions and comments are welcome below. Adios for now, amigos!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Rainbow Desert

Headed back to the mines, a load of empty ore cars passes below McKennon Arch as twilight comes to the desert.  A raven croaks atop his favorite saguaro while a sleepy diamondback rattlesnake soaks up the last of the day's warmth held in the rocks. Though intent on his business, the gruff old engineer steals a moment to take in the view from the open cab of engine #6. With a contented sigh, he understands why some folks call this piece of country the Rainbow Desert.

Backdrop and atmospheric effects added in Adobe Photoshop. All else as modeled.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Scenes and Transitions

McKennon Arch serves as both set-piece and scenic transition, creating a visual terminus for the scenes on either side of it while providing a smooth transition between the two. Memorable scenes do more than just add visual interest, they contribute to story while making a small layout seem larger as trains pass and transition through vignettes in the modeled environment.

A model railroad can be many things. It can be a relaxing pastime and an artful hobby that teaches new skills. It can offer a lesson in history or flights of fancy. It can recreate a transportation system in miniature down to the last rivet or it can invent imaginary railways built upon what-ifs and might-have-beens. If planned well and built with care, a model railroad can entertain, transporting the viewer to another time and place, inviting them into the story just as a good book or movie would. To that end, a model railroad is a show. A magic show of smoke, mirrors and wondrous illusions. A show needs a theme or a story; it needs performers, props and set pieces. It needs scenes and transitions.

I have sometimes been asked why I draw such elaborate track plans with the details of so many scenic elements sketched in along with the right-of-way. Wouldn't a more simple plan showing only the track, wiring and other engineering needs suffice just as well? I draw them that way because I'm thinking in terms of both engineering needs and the needs of the show. Grades, clearances and wiring are important, yes, but of equal importance to me are the scenes and transitions.

In a built environment, be it a model or a theme park, a scene is an area of visual interest that helps to establish theme or to move the story along. A transition is a bridge between scenes; a place for the eye to rest that then leads naturally into the next scene. Classic examples of this can be found at any Disney park. The scene of Main Street USA ends at the visual terminus of the castle. The castle then draws the viewer onward and transitions to the land of fantasy beyond.

Scenes and transitions at Walt Disney World. Walt called big set pieces like the castle a "weenie," something to draw the eye and compel the viewer forward into the next scene. Weenies are used everywhere in Disney parks and besides being iconic, they often act as transitions between larger show scenes. Other times transitions are more subtle, using a blend of architectural details, landscaping and color to ease from one scene to the next.

Planning Scenes

When working out scenes for the Thunder Mesa layout I often think in cinematic terms of establishing shots, medium shots and close-ups. I find this to be a handy way to break things down and it is more useful and story specific than just talking about scenery, structures and details.

Establishing Shots

An establishing shot is the big picture, usually everything that can be seen in a single view when standing a typical distance from the layout. Generally for me that works out to be about 2 - 3 square feet of scenery. The establishing shot is an introduction, it sets up the story with visual cues as to theme, era, mood and locale. Here we have an establishing shot of the desert scene between McKennon Arch and Big Thunder Creek. The rock formations tell us we're in the desert southwest while the structures indicate mining activity. The color palette, scenic exaggeration and whimsical mood help set the tone.

Medium Shots

Moving in closer we come to the medium shots, scenes within the scene that are really the heart of the layout and what most people think of when they think of model railroad scenery. The medium shots are where we focus attention on structures and other scenic elements to reinforce and build upon themes presented in the establishing shot. Within the establishing desert scene shown above we have Saguaro Siding, the Never Mine, the Cactus Forest and Baxter's Butte, all contributing to the overarching story of a southwestern desert mining district and the wild country it inhabits.


All the way down at the detail threshold we have the close-ups. This where all of those tiny detail parts end up, hopefully doing even more to sell the story. Most of the detail in close-ups can't even be seen in the establishing or medium shots but a model railroad is not a movie. In a 3-D environment the close-ups need to be built in to every scene or the model loses integrity when people interact with it. Plus, all of those tiny details in the close-ups add up to more character, texture and depth to the overall scene.

Planning scenes means understanding what you want to say and knowing how to say it. This requires research, an eye for detail and the ability to spot and eliminate visual contradictions. Everything in a scene should support and enhance the story you want to tell, from the big picture down to the closest view. Detail for detail sake is merely visual clutter. Detail that supports the story sells the illusion of a miniature world. There is an important difference between realism and believability. A series of well planned and executed scenes can make even the most outlandish concept into a believable and entertaining show. We pick and choose only the bits of reality needed to sell the illusion.

Making Transitions

Moving from one scene to the next can be tricky, especially if there is a change in tone or locale. Transitions should be invisible; they should seem merely to be another part of the scenes on either sides of them. It should be difficult to put one's finger on precisely where the transition occurs and it should only be evident when one is then immersed in the next scene. There are some tried and true ways to accomplish this. Some use a form of misdirection by leading the eye to a scenic feature that draws attention to itself and away from the transition, while others employ a mini-scene that overlaps and blurs the lines between larger scenes while complementing both. Regardless of method, the goal is a 3-D version of the cinematic cross dissolve. In film parlance, a cross dissolve is where ones scene fades out as another scene fades in. On a model train layout or other built environment this needs to be done by carefully blending one scene into the next.

The Cross Dissolve

Water features are an excellent way to smooth transitions since they naturally divide areas of the layout while making interesting scenes in themselves. On Thunder Mesa, Big Thunder Creek works as a cross dissolve between the desert mining scene discussed above and the mill and town scenes being built to the right. The railroad bridges connect the two scenes both literally and visually and help to ease the transition. The creek also uses a bit of distraction since it draws attention to itself and away from the fact that we are moving between scenes.

Tunnels also make for excellent cross dissolve transitions but they should be used sparingly. Deep cuts, bridges and even dense trees can also be effective,

Here, Ambush Rock divides the Geyser Gulch scene from Dinosaur Gap beyond. This is a subtle transition since the formation can only be seen distinctly from certain viewpoints and fades into the background from others.

The arch is a classic "weenie" in the Disney sense. It distracts from the transition by drawing attention to itself while blending well with the scenes on either side. It draws the eye forward into the next scene while providing a visual terminus for the present one. Plus, there's just something really cool about seeing a train pass through a natural arch.

A View from Above

As an example, the Thunder Mesa section of the layout has several major scenes, establishing shots, which are broken up into smaller scenes or medium shots. Then there are the close-ups or mini-scenes that fill in all of the details. The rules of scenes and transitions apply to all of them.

In this overview plan, only the major scenes are called out. The scenes themselves are in color while the transitional areas are black and white. Keep in mind that the transitions are really scenes too, but their main role is to blend the areas where major scenes come together.

Wrapping Up

Hopefully, thinking in terms of scenes and transitions rather than just structures and scenery will help some modelers give their layouts more visual punch. Focusing on establishing shots, medium shots and close ups, certainly helps me to keep my overall goal of telling stories with trains and modeling firmly in mind.

As always, questions and comments are welcome below. Thanks for following along. Adios for now, amigos!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Down by the Station

It's just past noon down at Thunder Mesa Depot on a hot, dry summer's day. Once the engineer of #6 finishes swapping boxcars at the SFD&C interchange track, the crew can break for lunch over at Cordelia's Cafe. Problem is, things are running a tad behind schedule so Cordelia's famous fried chicken and berry pies will just have to wait. 

Backdrop and smoke effects added in Adobe Photoshop, all else as modeled.

It's a little cold here today for Arizona so guess I'm daydreaming about summer!
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