Which DCC system is best? What is the best aisle width? What era should I model? What radius should I make my curves? Ultimately questions such as these end being no more than minutiae, generally irrelevant.
There are two primary reasons we engage in model railroading. First is the satisfaction of assembly and as a creative outlet. The second, and most important, is to re-create an emotional connection in miniature. To be transported in such a way that meaningful emotions are triggered. Without this self awareness we are just gluing pieces of plastic together and watching something move back and forth.
Having a creative outlet and experiencing the satisfaction of assembly goes far beyond the trivial. It goes beyond basic recreation. It reduces stress, increases our quality of life, and more and more studies show that if applied intensely delays the onset of dementia.
The emotional aspect is far more important and for most modelers exists only in the sub-conscious. Somewhere in our brain is a rail experience that unleashes a wave of pleasant thoughts or memories that washes over us. If we are effective in our modeling we can trigger those feelings every time we interact with our layout. In the end, this is why we do what we do.
How do we do it? In terms of the satisfaction of assembly it’s just a matter of keeping on, keeping on. Spend time modeling. The emotional trigger takes more work. The higher our modeling quality, the more realistic our layout appears and the more effective we will be in re-living our experience.
The pursuit of realism is grossly misunderstood and, as a consequence, modelers don’t proportion their efforts in relationship to the benefits they provide. In the chase for realism most modelers focus on two areas, prototypical accuracy and ‘details’. There is nothing wrong with either but those aren’t the primary contributing factors. If a window frame has six mullions instead of eight the brain won’t pick up on it. If a freight car has seven rivet panels instead of eight, the same thing.
The two primary drivers of realism are, in order of importance, scene composition and color treatment. They are the visual foundation. Composition and color are the sledge hammers that drive home the experience we crave.
Scene composition has to do with the elements we select, their proportions, and the space between them. If you miss the boat in this area (generally by spacing things two closely), it’s virtually impossible to recover no matter how skilled of a modeler you are. Unfortunately, as important as this subject is virtually nothing is written about it. The best you can do is to recognize when it’s done effectively and study the successful modelers work carefully. Mike Confalone, Jim Six, Tom Johnson, Paul Dolkos, and Steve Peck are several among many that jump to mind immediately.
Color has to do with far more than hue. It has to do with placement, patterns, the use of black, and understanding what color you are looking at. Effective color application takes practice but can be learned. In this area more help is available. One of the best resources are the primary contributors on the Rust Bucket forum. They are the masters of color and exceedingly generous with their time. Their advice is useless, however, if you don’t actually follow their suggestions. My experience has been that modelers are more than willing to go to clinics, ask for advice online, and read articles but rarely take the step of actually putting such knowledge into actual practice.
Once we can bring our desire for emotional connection into the conscious realm and understand what skills it takes to maximize the experience we are on our way to elevating what we get out of the hobby.