Choose the right figures
Paul Marshall-potter explains his methods for choosing, posing and grouping figures.
Composition can be described as the way in which a single thing or a mixture of things is made up. So how does that work with model railways?
An easy subject to use to illustrate this is the use of figures and how they either add to or detract from the overall scene. Military modellers are used to working with quite small spaces when building display dioramas, and I tend to use a similar approach.
It’s key for me to have an early appreciation of where figures will be used on my layouts and I often think of layouts as a group of dioramas and cameos. Once I have an idea of what figures I want, I’ll buy them from a few preferred manufacturers. The reason I have those preferences is the appearance of the figures.
Military modellers who make small dioramas are almost making a three-dimensional image of a moment frozen in time.
A layout is different. You may get a 360º view, but generally the viewing points are more constrained. The other obvious difference is that a model railway is animated; the trains move, some have moving road vehicles and you can even buy moving cyclists. This is why the choice is critical when it comes to selecting and posing the figures on your layout.
There are many miniature figures available in different scales and from a variety of suppliers. Sadly, some of them are quite old pieces of tooling and their age is beginning to show. Ignore those older figures with the wrong proportions. Always check that a figure has the right proportions, that the head is not too large and that the torso not flat in profile.
Is the stance natural? I’ve seen some figures with very unnatural-looking poses. Take a critical look at the figure and ask ‘does anyone actually stand like that?’ If it’s a ‘no’, avoid it.
Think about the material they’re made from. A heavy and crude whitemetal casting, for example, may require a lot of filing and tidying before you even get to the painting stage. But a well-made figure will look very realistic with a coat of paint.
The key to successful cameo composition is always to observe the real world. People will clump together naturally. For example, most passengers will stand closer to the entrance, rather than walk to the extremities of
This group of workmen is posed on my new layout ‘Shelfie2’. It depicts a rural Northumbrian coal disposal point, set sometime in the 1960s/1970s. It’s not a major industrial site; a train arrives, the wagons get filled by a JCB and the train departs. It’s hardly labour-intensive but, naturally, it has to have a few people around.
I’d been reading Visions of Steam by Peter Cavalier and Geoff Silcock. It’s a highly evocative book, crammed with atmospheric images of the final years of industrial steam in the South Wales coalfield.
The thing I noted was the lack of people visible in the photographs. Yet these are busier locations than the one my model represents. I wanted ‘Shelfie2’ to have some life but in a realistic way so it couldn’t look contrived and the figures would need to have a reason to be there.
One of the images in Visions of Steam shows a group of men collecting their last ever pay packets. Quite by chance, they’re all standing and sitting on a vehicle weighbridge.
It made sense to choose the weighbridge hut as the focal point for my cameo. Wagons would need weighing and there would be men about to take care of those duties. And, while they were there, they’d take a breather to discuss work, politics or, perhaps, the meaning of life.
I carefully chose figures from the Modelu range. They’re 3D-printed from scans of real people and hence highly realistic. Crucially, of course, the poses are very natural. This was important as they are at the very front of the layout and, as my layouts are designed to be viewed at eye level, would be very prominent.
There’s a rough footpath leading to the hut from ‘off stage’ and I grouped the four figures where this path meets the weighbridge. Two figures are leaning against the wall. The slouch they have is captured in the scan, so they rest naturally against the vertical surface. The shunter, wearing a hard hat, stands with his shunting pole next to a colleague with his hands driven deep into his pockets.
The reason why this group just works is that they are all looking down the path towards the viewer. Their body language is impassive, as though you’re the boss walking up the path with work for them to do, or simply a mate who’s late and they’ve all started without you. It’s that ‘oh, here he comes’ sort of look, and that’s what makes it gel.
a platform. If you can, people watch on your commute for inspiration. If you’re modelling an industry, see what images are available to capture the numbers and groupings that might assemble.
Here’s a conundrum. Let’s say you have a depot layout. Should every locomotive have a crew? Does it actually need a driver and fireman? Should it just have a fireman and a cleaner?
It’s unlikely for every locomotive to have a crew, especially if the shed is full. And it’s equally unlikely that there would be no people at all. And what if a locomotive moves with no one on the footplate? There is, of course, no right answer.
For any location or era, work on what feels natural. If you start asking questions such as ‘is this looking right?’, ‘are there too many people?’ or ‘are there not enough people?’, then you’re definitely on the right track to achieving a natural-looking composition.
“Come on, hurry up.” The driver waits for the tanks to be replenished on his Andrew Barclay 0-6-0T at Denbeath Washery, Methil, in August 1968.
Lunchtime at the Esholt Sewage Works Railway.