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How to Model a River

January 17, 2009

Rivers are perhaps the most often modeled item on a railroad next to Depots and Trackside industries. Unfortunately, very few people actually model a river realistically enough to really convince your eye that it actually looks like water. Sure, the glossy surface helps, but it’s also what’s below the waterline that counts most.

Joe Fugate has certianly captured the look of a seasonal creek, with great success. You can follow his progress in his 5 DVD set about his Southern Pacific Siskiyou Lines. I would highly reccomend these sets of DVD’s for anyone wanting to make realistic scenery. (Volumes 4+5 deal with scenery)

For this article, I’ve modified Joe’s methods to produce a wide, shallow river. This type of river can be found anywhere. It typically doesn’t get more than 15 feet deep and has lots of sandbars and silt.

If one looks at the wide variety of rivers across the country, they all have on thing in common: a dominant riverbed color. This varies wildly from the rich oxide reds of Upper Michigan to the Green Swampy mess of the South, from the Clear mountain streams in the mountains to my river, slow, shallow and containing decomposed granite and a bit of clay.

Color Theory.

Color is a make-or-break thing about painting a river. Model railroader has pushed black and sand as the dominant colors for riverbeds, and I disagree with their color assesment for ALL rivers, although the Milwaukee river does in fact have that color grouping.

Milwaukee River

The Mississippi is predictibly silty with a sandy brown being the dominant color.

Mississippi River

The mighty Missouri River is raging in the winter, you can see the difference between the fast-moving winter Mo’ and the levied puddle that once was part of the river.

Missouri River

The somewhat fast moving Susquehana meets up with what seems to be the Juanita creek/river, just north of Harrisburg, PA in a hamlet called Benvenue (no “i” ?)

Susquehana River

The Kankakee River is green..
Kankakee River

The American River is deeper and faster…
American River

My favorite as far as color is concerned is this one outside Edisto Island in South Carolina.
Edisto Island River

…Finally we have the River I intend to model mine after, the Salinas River, located in California.

Salinas River

This really gives the modeler ideas to branch out beyond the ultramarine blues and blacks and see what a REAL river looks like.

Next, we’ll discuss how to build a leak-proof riverbed for our water product and discuss how to correctly blend colors together to create the riverbed, then finally, We’ll pour the river and add the bankside vegetation.

I used Windows Live Local’s “Bird’s Eye View” to capture all of those Aerial shots.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 1, 2009 3:48 pm

    Maybe Model Railroader which is located in Milwaukee is just pushing their local prototype with out thinking about it much because that is what they see and working from prototype photos is currently being advocated more than it used to be. People get used to the way things look where they live and tend to not consider that things look differently elsewhere. Sort of like ok we need a river on this model railroad so insert Milwaukee river here. Possibly it happens without anybody noticing much.
    L&N nut

  2. February 1, 2009 6:01 pm

    Your’e absolutely correct. I often feel something is “off” when I look at a few well-known model railroads, and it’s so subtle you just can’t put your finger on it until you go out for a drive near where the modeler lives and this unlocks the mystery that he was incorporating, say scenes from rural new hampshire into his layout set in the Pacific Northwest.

  3. jeff Kuebler permalink
    December 8, 2010 2:54 am

    While both of the comments above are true, the element that is most often forgotten is this: perspective. The photos above are looking straight down with little or no sky color reflection seen in the water itself, the turbidity of the water or the bottom colors are seen. If you are looking at your layout in this same perspective, then by all means model it that way. But if you are modeling at closer to your eye level and have a sky backdrop that makes up a large portion of your scene, then there is a far better chance the water should have a darker color of the sky(backdrop) reflected in it. When something about a layout looks “wrong” it is usually a matter of matching the wrong perspective or even conditions to the right location.
    JK

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