In response to my hack-job about composition, Neil Erickson sent over an in-progress photo of his layout that he likes. It is a simple, entirely railroady scene, quite similar to the painting of a train I showed in that post. I quite like the oil painting varnish on the photo; I’m not sure if that’s a filter or real.
As I was trying to understand this composition, I was struck by how the background contains some strong green shapes that draw you to what I believe is the secondary focus – the locomotive. Suddenly I was hit by an epiphany.
There is a raging debate in the model railroad community about realistic backdrops. Even here in Canada, I’ve seen it come near to fisticuffs. The argument for realistic backdrops is something like, “Well of course you need to make everything as real as you can; use a photograph if you have one!” The impressionists, however, argue “Too much realism in backdrops distracts from the models themselves.”
You may guess that I come down on the realistic backdrop side, though I’m not partial to the photographic backdrops because they often have wildly different colour values than the foreground. I really like Bernie Kempinski’s notion that the backdrop shouldn’t be a painting of reality, but rather a painting of your layout.
But what about those raging impressionists, convinced that we’ll all be damned to model railroad perdition for even attempting to make a realistic backdrop? I think they may have a legitimate fear that a backdrop could detract from the models, but not because it is realistic.
A realistic backdrop is more likely to admit strong lines and forms, which may clash with whatever composition is happening in the foreground. The danger is not that the backdrop could out-compete the models, but that it might draw your eye away from the elements you wish to emphasize toward those you don’t.
So, if we are going to get serious about composition for model railways, we need to consider the backdrop as part of that composition. Whether it is painted with bright clouds like Pembroke’s, or a clear sky like many others, whether the horizon is painted or assumed, the backdrop is contributing, forms, shapes and negative space. We need to make sure it is contributing positively.