In the distant past, railway modellers would paint their backdrops and it’s something I’ve tried once or twice but with great dissatisfaction resulting from my woeful ability to paint.
With the advent of digital printing, however, I was saved.
I could simply find a landscape that matched my layout, tinker with it for a while in Photoshop or another software image editing application, and print it out. This and more are explained in more detail in this article on backscenes.
Glorious, high resolution, detailed backgrounds, were mine.
This did, however, leave with me feeling a bit disgruntled. While the results were great I couldn’t help feeling like I was cheating.
I enjoy the creative aspect of modelling and creating my layouts from scratch is something I enjoy. To know that the most visible aspect of my layouts was just photographed and printed felt wrong.
There’s also the cost angle. While I have access to a good colour printer now this might not always be the case and at which point getting the prints could become expensive.
The problem — as mentioned above — is that my landscape paint skills aren’t good enough to create a back scene with the detail I felt necessary.
While surfing the web over the weekend, however, came across this post by longtime American modeller Tony Thompson. In the post, he points out that backdrops don’t need to be detailed.
In fact, often it’s desirable just to keep it simple and skip the details.
This was an eye-opener and something I’m itching to explore further.
He kindly gave me permission to repost his article below.
“Recently I happen to have had conversations with several people about simple backdrop techniques, especially the use of highly simplified skylines. I think this is something important to recognise. Let me show a couple of illustrations of what I mean.
First, a thoroughly historical example.
I had an under-layout staging area on my layout in Pittsburgh, PA, and to make it look a little nicer, I painted the track baseboards a kind of ballast grey and painted all the rails a rusty colour. That made the working area look good. The wall behind it seemed awfully plain, so I painted it sky blue. That was better but still seemed to be missing something. I decided to make a gently undulating sort of skyline, using medium grey paint with a little purple in it, to suggest a line of distant hills. Here is how it looked:
[A few years ago, I wrote a blog post briefly describing the tiered staging arrangement that you see above, though that post is not about the background hill line, but is about the tiers of track in the staging. At the request of then-editor of Model Railroad Planning (or MRP) Tony Koester, I had written a one-page article for the MRP issue of 1999 about this idea, and that article is available on Google Drive.]
What struck me so forcefully at the time was how effective this “hill profile” was. Obviously no actual landscape painting has been achieved here, and certainly, no detail can be discerned, because there isn’t any. My guess was that our brains are accustomed to “reading” this kind of dim profile as meaning something far away. Thus we immediately “know” that this simple, undulating grey stripe represents hills or mountains in the distance.
That was the idea when I needed to paint a skyline on my current layout, depicting the view southward along the Pacific coast at my mythical town of Santa Rosalia (located near the mouth of the Santa Maria River). That skyline is essentially the Casmalia Hills, leading to Point Sal, and having photographed that exact view on a visit (I have blogged about the value of visiting the locale you model, even if your railroad is a non-existent one). I knew my cannery would cover part of it, so didn’t have to complete the painting, but just sketched in the main features I wanted. Without the cannery in place, it looks like this:
But as mentioned, the cannery covers a lot of this skyline, and when it’s in place, the unpainted parts are hidden. But the distant hill line still works in the background.
Another person needing a simple skyline was Brian Moore in Plymouth, England. Brian models Guadalupe, actually quite close to the location of my Santa Rosalia.
His layout view is inland, toward hills and mountains of the Coast Range. He chose to make a very simple greyish skyline, as you see here.
The point I want to make here is that for many backdrops, you don’t need to be an artist to paint it yourself. In fact, an artist’s lovely painting might be a mistake. Remember, it’s a backdrop, meant to support the foreground modelling, not a beautiful scene in itself that distracts attention from the foreground.
That’s why simple versions like these work so well.”
So what do you think? By using glorious photo realistic high resolution backscenes are we distracting attention from our model railways themselves? Does a simple painted job actually look better? I’d love to know your thoughts?
Words and pictures kindly reproduced here by permission. (c) Tony Thompson.
A final, personal, note: I spend a huge amount of time testing, photographing, writing and researching techniques for these articles and pay for all the running costs of MRE out of my own pocket. If you found this article useful you can support me by making a donation on my fund-raising page. Thanks and happy modelling, Andy.