Backdrop epiphany

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.



15 thoughts on “Backdrop epiphany

  1. I have seen excellent and not so good backdrops in all forms, sometimes on the same layout!

    Is it not simply the case that whatever the form of backdrop chosen, it needs to be executed well and in harmony with the rest of the layout, as with everything thing else?

  2. I agree, but I was being imprecise and using “execution” in the very broadest sense, encompassing the whole process, which was sloppy wordsmithery on my part.

    One other consideration is the layout viewing height relative to the observer. I have seen some lovely backdrops which work brilliantly when the eye is at track level, on layouts displayed at about 42” height: the flat countryside fading into the distance – as painted at eye level – suddenly becomes a very steep hillside. The impact is vertigo inducing. And that’s from someone who doesn’t suffer from it. It is important when composing the scene to get the skyline right, which applies to photography as much as to painting: a photo needs to be taken at the right height to get the right perspective.

    1. Excellent point, Simon, and one I am unlikely to think of because Pembroke is so high. In general, the ability to move around the layout makes this whole business incredibly difficult, and that goes for moving vertically as well as horizontally.

  3. Interesting to think about composition with a moving object at the centre of the scene. Perhaps it pushes the shadowbox idea to control viewing angles. All scenes viewed along the tracks anyone? Nah.

    I think the debate about the more impressionistic versus photo realistic backdrop is partly about skills/accessability. For some, a plain blue sky is what’s achievable; cloud stencils get them to another level. And otherwise its photos. An impressionistic backdrop takes more skill. I’ve seen paint applied over photos look very nice. I’d call the blobs of paint laid over the photos a kind of impressionism, but driven by technique, the need to modify photos for a scene, etc, more than sense of style.

    I wonder if photo realistic backdrops require more of something like accuracy in the modelled scene? Is it harder to create a fit between backdrop and modelled scene with such a backdrop because the photo has a lot of accuracy? There are certainly more potential problems to be navigated. Reflections, shadows, colours, not to mention better details than the models. Is a photo more realistic? I’d argue “not automatically”. I think it can make everything else look less realistic.

    The idea that the backdrop fade into the background and not dominate the scene makes a lot of sense to me, but subject to compositional rules. After all, artists think about backgrounds because of what they do to the depiction of the foreground. eg. a yellow sky creates a different foreground, with different coloured highlights and shadows than a pink or gray or blue sky will. Likewise, a low horizon creates a different feeling from a higher one. I think these are parts of creating mood/reaction.

    I write this as guy who’s a bit stumped and looking at all the options. Basically to me the issue is the juxtaposition of the scene and the backdrop. How to make that gentle . . . .

    1. HI Rob,

      Thanks for all your thoughts and ideas on this. There is a lot to digest!

      I would add to your skills/accessibility point that there is also the matter of time. Painting a tight, realistic depiction on the backscene will take more time per foot than a loose depiction. However, if it is one of these deficiencies, then the argument should not be that the backdrop would detract from the models, but rather that the modeller hasn’t the time or skills.

      Your point about realistic backdrops requiring more accuracy (I would inject realism) in the modelled scene is very interesting. Maybe that is an argument for painted backdrops. With paint, the backdrop will have a similar level of craft as the foreground.

      I don’t know that I agree that the backdrop needs to recede into the background, but I absolutely agree that it is a key compositional element, not only in establishing mood, but also rhythm and scene.

  4. Those grey skies and trees are effective – evocative even. An impressionistic approach that creates realism.

    I’m struck by Mike’s bringing background colours into the modelled scene. It’s something talked about on the Proto-layouts email list a few years ago, with the idea first mentioned there by Tom Johnson – then explaining how he transitions roads into the backdrop. The work he does is very satisfying. It draws scenery colours onto the backdrop and backdrop colours on to the road. Brings the thread back to Lance’s blog.

    Mike’s comments about colours and faded saturation with distance provide more food for thought. I have for a while felt some alarm at a bright spring green scene I’m modelling into which are nested vivid wine red railroad structures (with pale yellow-white windows to boot). Perhaps Mike’s saturation point captures some of what I’ve struggled with. Weathering helps, and moves those reds toward gray – but I feel it is tricky to work with.

    1. Mike’s modelling powerfully evokes a soggy, misty November morning. Everything is still, and even if traffic does appear, it whispers apologetically into the scene, goes about its business as quietly as possible and returns the scene to stasis. This is the feeling he’s trying to create, I believe, and I think he’s very successful.

      However, if he were trying to evoke the excitement, drive and optimism of, say, the Vancouver waterfront, I wonder if he would choose the same treatment?

  5. Your comment about it taking more time to get a realistic backdrop is interesting. If one is interested primarily in operation, and simply wants some kind of setting (maybe slightly more scenery than David Barrow would use!) then a quick and simple approach is all that is needed. But arguably, not taking the time to get things closer to to the prototype is what stops a scale model from becoming a finescale model (as opposed to an exact scale model, where everything just is).

    I think my point is, for anyone following a finescale approach, then taking the extra time to create a suitable backscene is simply part of the creative process, and an enjoyable learning process.

    Maybe “finescale” is nothing more than being prepared to take (more) time to make things closer to the prototype, and we don’t get to pick and choose?

    1. I have to admit I was thinking of the mammoth layouts of North America when I mentioned time. When the backdrop is 500 feet long, time per linear foot it a real consideration!

      However, your point about the finescale approach is well taken. The sensitive and accurate reproduction of the prototype will almost certainly take more time. Finescale modellers understand and embrace this fact.

      1. Unless they are the guest editor of the latest MRJ, it appears!

        Seriously, I have a few models (quite a few, truth be told) where I mistakenly took a short cut early on in construction, and later regretted it because it was too late to address such basic shortcomings. With a backdrop, as with benchwork, these foundational parts of a layout are more easily got right than put right.

        Talking of the latest MRJ, there is the first part of a very promising series on painting your own by Paul Birkett Smith, whose Totness and Ashburton layout’s I have long admired.

  6. Did some more reading on related topics and found some other thoughts that seem to be relevant to debate between accuracy and more impressionistic approaches to backdrops.

    Marion Boddy-Evans writes in a piece titled “How to create depth in a landscape” :
    “Don’t forget to decrease the level of detail towards the background. We may see every leaf on a tree in the foreground of a scene, but it doesn’t have to be very far away from us before we no longer see every leaf individually. So paint detail in the foreground and a sense of texture, tone, and color for the distant tree.”

    Taking that thought a little further, given a layout builds some of the depth in 3D, one might use more detailed models of trees at the foreground of the modelled scene, and less detailed toward the backdrop. I’ve seen this done – it works. Likewise, I’ve seen structures rendered more loosely toward the back of a scene. Makes sense.

    Supposing some of what is on the backdrop is near? The level of detail should be marginally less than the nearest modelled elements. etc. I think this may be a feature in the problem of extending modelled structures into the backdrop. The 3d portion fights perspective in the backdrop and vice versa.

    I guess this is basic to a lot of modellers, but all good info to me.

    1. I would add that the key is at the transition point. If the background model is much more detailed than the nearest elements of the backdrop, then the subterfuge is immediately exposed.

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