A model railroad never seems big enough, but a good backdrop can at least make it appear to go on forever. Whether you're modeling rolling hills, rugged mountains, open plains or an urban jungle, a backdrop extends the modeled scene out to the horizon. There are many approaches to modeling backdrops. Some prefer very detailed scenes, some just a plain blue sky. Some paint, some use photographs. If you're just getting started, here are some things to consider before you grab those paints.
Like any part of building a layout, a little pre-planning can go a long way. From a construction perspective, it helps to consider how you will support and hang your backdrop while you build the platform or benchwork itself. It is often easier to install the backdrop before other major construction takes place. There is nothing wrong with installing a backdrop and leaving the canvas blank until inspiration strikes.
Planning applies to the backdrop design as well. We think we know how the world looks, but it is amazing how much we forget or overlook. Take a field trip to the area you're modeling armed with a notebook and camera. Even if you're modeling a by-gone era, the natural environment and even many structures and other details, change little overtime and you'll be amazed how much you can learn through observation.
Take lots of photographs. If possible, time your visit with the season you plan to model and visit on multiple days. Changing weather patterns, even the time of day can greatly alter the appearance, colors and shadows of background scenes. These photos may just be the inspiration for your painting, or they may become the backdrop itself.
If you're feeling a little nervous about painting even the most basic of backdrops, there's no shame in painting a test panel or two first. It's best to use a scrap of the same material you've chosen for the actual backdrop. Work from your photographs and create an image. If it's not want you want, no problem. You can paint a second or third, fourth or even fifteenth attempt right over top of the last. With each attempt, not only will your artistic skills improve, you'll develop a better idea of the image you're trying to create.
No need to reinvent the painter's wheel here. For all the information you need on how to paint, see About.com's Guide to Painting, Marion Boddy-Evans' site. In general however, there are a few tips that work for most model railroad backdrops:
- Low Horizon. A low horizon line appears more distant and natural on most layouts. As an added advantage, the sky is usually the easiest thing to paint!
- Paint Back to Front. Painting in layers to create a 3-D effect, its easiest to start at the back of a scene and work forward. Start with the sky and clouds. Add the horizon, then mid-ground and lastly foreground details.
- Forced Perspective. You remember this from art class, objects appear larger as they get closer. Roads, waterways should taper as they disappear. This effect is usually easier to accomplish if the modeled secenery and backdrop don't intersect at a right angle.
- Follow the Light. Light angles and intensity have a huge impact on how we see the world. For day-time scenes, this means the sun. Try to imagine a sun angle as you paint and remain consistent. If you are using photographs, try to maintain common sun angles to avoid conflicting shadows. Since most of us prefer not to have our trains backlit, there's no need to paint a sun on the backdrop.
- Keep It Simple. Your backdrop is just that, a backdrop. The viewer's focus should be on the trains and 3-D scenery that surrounds them. If the trains are only a few inches away from the backdrop, then a detailed foreground can be very effective. If the goal is to portray a more distant view however, keep details and colors more muted and subdued.
- Perfect Isn't Perfect. Nature's beauty comes in its variety and imperfections. The sky isn't always blue. Clouds aren't always fluffy and white. Trees don't all look like green puff-balls. Don't be afraid to break from the norm or make things a little irregular. You'll probably be surprised how much better it looks!