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Negative Space

What do you notice in the photo above? Hopefully you answered the locomotive and not the background. While the background trees and scenery are important they are not the “stars of the show”, the trains are. When I designed my layout I planned for scenic areas to divide the major scenes and allow a visual break for viewers as the train travels from one area to another. Non-descript scenic areas are very common on the prototype so including them on my layout were as important as including the rail served industries and structures.

There is always the temptation when designing a layout to squeeze in one more structure or to try to cram too much track onto them. We want to have it all, and it is hard to give something up, even if it doesn’t fit. Layouts look more realistic if there are empty spaces around structures and things don’t look overcrowded. Model railroaders must learn to plan for negative space when designing their layouts.

What is the definition of negative space? Lance Mindheim in his new book, Model Railroading as Art, states, “Examples of negative space include any open area devoid of structures or three-dimensional man-made elements. Examples include: fields, parking lots, vacant lots, non-descript “scenery only” zones, and forested areas.” Lance employs this negative space on all of his layouts and that is one reason why they are so realistic looking. Lance also states, “Empty space is every bit as much a scenic feature as a structure, and in many cases is more important”.

Imagine going to a museum and the curator had filled the gallery wall with numerous paintings from floor to ceiling leaving no space in between them. Your eye would not know where to look and you would not be able to enjoy the artwork. That is why in art museums there is space between the works of art and the negative space allows you to focus on the art. We must apply the same concept to our layouts if we want to enjoy viewing them.

As I was developing my track plan I made a conscious effort to keep things simple and not crowd the structures too close together. I included parking lots, roads, gravel lots, and small groupings of trees to separate the structures. When viewing the layout your eye has a chance to focus on the key elements of the scene and the negative space helps define them. Even in highly industrial areas on the prototype there are empty spaces that are overlooked by the casual viewer. By including negative elements on our layouts we can improve the visual appeal and realism.

I highly recommend purchasing Lance Mindheim’s new book, Model Railroading as Art, if you are designing a new layout.

You can find a link to his website book store here;

Lance covers the concept of negative space along with many others that can help take our layouts to the next level in realism. Many don’t think of our layouts as works of art, but they are. By applying concepts from Lance’s book we can enjoy our layouts more and be transported to that place we have recreated in our minds.

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