Choose the right fig­ures

Paul Mar­shall-pot­ter ex­plains his meth­ods for choos­ing, pos­ing and group­ing fig­ures.

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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.

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