Do Glossy Surfaces “Scale Down”?

The chlorine tank on the right has a fairly glossy surface. Our natural tendency would be to replicate that sheen on a model of it. Is that the best approach?

As modelers we have a natural tendency to examine the prototype and copy it as closely as possible.  Our thinking being that the better job we do at “copying” the better the model will look.

We have to ask ourselves, is this always the best approach?  I don’t think so because it doesn’t take everything into account. Specifically, it doesn’t take into account the differences between the real world, which includes long distances and atmosphere, and our model world which involves very short distances and no atmosphere.

A fairly noticeable issue we face is one of gloss vs. flat surfaces  It would seem simple, if railroad X keeps their motive power in pristine condition, as is fairly common, we should follow suit and apply the same sheen to our models. 

It seems so simple but to my eye this approach just doesn’t work. Glossy rolling stock, no matter how accurate that sheen is, looks toy like to me.  For some time I couldn’t figure out why.  I’m beginning to think it has to do with viewing distance.  No matter how shiny the prototype is, we generally view it from a bit of a distance.  With that distance, and looking through atmosphere, there is the illusion of gloss surfaces looking dull.

It’s a matter of taste but personally, I think most model subjects look far better if we dull the surface, even if the prototype is glossy.  The same applies to structures and signage.  I just can’t get over the nagging feeling that glossy surfaces don’t work when scaled down.  To me, dull surfaces look more realistic and, in the case of rolling stock, “heavier”.  That opinion and a few bucks will buy your next cup of coffee.