Coming Up With a Paint Scheme for Your Model Railroad

If you’re the creative type who just has to model a railroad that never existed, rather than adopt a specific prototype, then sooner or later you’re going to need to invent a color scheme for your fictional pike. How do you come up with something that looks plausible yet unique?

While it may seem that you have a blank slate to work with, and can do anything at all, you would do well to restrain yourself based on some research and understanding. Otherwise, you can end up with a fairly outlandish scheme that doesn’t feel right, as much as you might like the colors. As an example, consider metallic copper – sure you can buy a rattle can of spray paint and come up with a striking engine, but where in the real world has such ever been seen?

First off, let us define some terms. The Field Color is the main body color, which comprises at least 50% of the composition. The Accent Color is the secondary color which is applied to less than half. If there is a third color, call that the Trim Color, which would be used in very minor amounts, and usually for things like pinstripes or lettering. Of course, on a locomotive there might be a lot of features painted black, such as the trucks or fuel tank. You might thus have a black accent color that exceeds the raw surface area of field color, breaking the percentage rule, but one would not consider black to be the field color.

Using these terms, let’s look at some famous schemes and dissect them. The Southern Pacific Daylight passenger train is known for its red and orange. Taking the train as a whole, the red is the field color, the orange is the accent, and silver is the trim. In this case, the black portions of the engine and cars are not really considered part of the color scheme, though it is a good idea to pay attention to which parts of the rolling stock are painted black. The Chessie System is a harder case, since it is comprised of relatively equal parts blue, orange, and yellow. Based on color theory, I would rate yellow as the field color, blue as the accent, and orange as the trim. This is because the human eye is more responsive to yellow then the other two colors. One way to test these classifications is to try to imagine the scheme without each color, one at a time. Without the field color, the scheme should be unrecognizable. However, one could easily change or remove a trim color and still recognize the scheme.

This leads to the first proven method to derive a paint scheme – just evolve an existing scheme by replacing one or more of the colors! Since the field color is the strongest component of identity, replacing it should yield instant uniqueness. To use the SP example above, imagine that instead of red, you had yellow as the field color, perhaps for a line that runs in Florida (the Sunshine State). Or, for the Chessie example, trade the yellow for grey and see what happens. This method becomes less effective when you replace only accents, and even less so when swapping only trim colors, since these are progressively less critical to identity. Of course, one can replace more than one color; take the UP’s yellow field, grey accent, and red trim, and swap them all for a maroon field, black accent, and Dulux gold trim, for instance.

As for the color palette that you can choose from, there’s obviously an entire rainbow available, but it is best to stick with certain colors that real lines used. More exotic colors were avoided primarily because they were more expensive, and darker tones were preferred since they didn’t show road grime (weathering) as much. There are always exceptions (Soo Line’s white or Conrail’s bright blue come to mind) but it makes sense to stick with good railroad colors. These include Tuscan Red (more brown than red), Brunswick Green (or other similar dark greens), Royal Blue, true Red, Dulux Gold/Yellow, Grey, and of course Black. Certain colors, like Pink or Taupe, have no real part in railroad history, so if you feel compelled to use them you better have a good reason.

As mentioned before, it was common to paint some portions of an engine or car black, usually because that location was expected to get much dirtier than the rest. Look at real-world examples and learn which parts make sense to be “black-trimmed”, and don’t worry about black being a fourth color to your tripartite scheme. On my own Winchester Paston & Portsmouth, the top third of the engine body is black (using black as my accent), with the field color red below. This was done because the red paint is more expensive than basic black, so it only was applied where it would be visible to the public, plus the top portion is where all the louvers and exhaust vents are located, where the engine will get dirtiest. It is similar to the Milwaukee Road’s orange and black scheme, which was developed for similar reasons.

Pick your field, accent, and trim colors based on some understanding of color theory. If you are unfamiliar with the Color Wheel, there are a number of ways you can learn about it on the internet. The Color Wheel positions opposite (complimentary) colors on opposite sides of the wheel, and similar (analogous) colors adjacent. One side of the wheel has yellows, oranges, and reds, and these are called warm tones (they are the colors of fire). The other side has purples, blues, and greens, which are the cool tones. In the center of the wheel is neutral grey, or white or black (one might think of it as a color sphere really, with white at the north pole and black at the south pole, and rainbow hues around the equator). The more saturated a color is, the closer it is to the rim of the wheel, and unsaturated colors are located more near the center. Notice that the common railroad colors tend to be unsaturated, so stay away from the rim. You can pick colors that balance across the wheel for a complimentary scheme, such as Chessie’s: the yellow and orange are balanced by their mutual opposite, the blue. Or you can pick an analogous color scheme such as SP’s orange and red; in this case the strong warm tones are meant ton convey the sun’s warmth. If one were to add a complimentary blue-green to this analogous scheme, it would undermine the intention. Similarly, the Northern Pacific’s light and dark green combo is meant to evoke the evergreen forests of the northwest, and the complimentary red trim color is used only sparingly so as not to compromise this intention.

One way to situate your fictional railroad into a certain region is to adopt the colors of a similar real railroad, perhaps even one that yours does interchange with. For instance, my WP&P makes use of a dark blue (on passenger equipment) that relates to both the B&O and C&O, nearby neighbors. The real N&W adopted its dark red for passenger trains based on its relationship to the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Give some thought, too, to creating a scheme that can be adapted to all kinds of engines and cars. Don’t design around one specific type of engine, or you may get stuck with something that doesn’t adapt well. For instance, if you base your scheme on a BL-2 with its uniquely bulging physique, your scheme might not look so great on a trim Geep-9. Of course, your scheme can evolve, too, so you might have variations that apply in different eras. A lot of the “bow wave” styles that emerged when F-units were the prominent diesel did not translate well to hood units, and those schemes had to be adapted. Plus, you might want to tell a bit of a story with your schemes. For instance, the N&W adopted blue instead of black when it was considering a merger with C&O, then went back to black after that effort failed. Similarly, my WP&P went from red and black with white lettering to maroon and gold with blue lettering, as N&W ramped up its ownership in the years just prior to merger – the maroon signifying N&W blood. In truth, this has more to do with me playing around with schemes and generating more options. Don’t think that once you’ve come up with one viable scheme, that it is the only option from here on out! Use what you know to come up with another version, then see if you can invent a history to justify it.

Finally, it is a good idea to solicit critical feedback from the modeling community. If you belong to a club, do a mock up and ask for comments. Ask where they might guess this railroad operates, whether it is a Class 1 or short line, or what real line it resembles; you might be surprised at what associations your scheme calls to mind. If you feel handy on the computer, use an image editor to do a mock up and then post images on a forum or two. If you don’t know your way around an image editor, then you can do a mock up in some other way and just use a digital camera to photograph it. Be open to all comments, and recognize that we all have our favorite colors and schemes, and some comments may owe a lot to such bias. In the end, though, you are the ultimate judge! I wish you success in establishing your railroad empire’s corporate identity.

Michael Rountree is an N-scale model railroader who works for one of the best residential architects Cincinnati has to offer, helping to guide client’s dreams through both design and construction phases to be realized on budget.

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