When it comes to backdrops, it seems that there are three primary viewpoints. They are:
The minimalist backdrop
The representational backdrop
The photo real backdrop
The minimalist backdrop is very basic. It might be nothing more than a blue sky with clouds. It might even have the hint of a distant mountain. Those that prefer the minimalist approach tend to do it for two reasons. One, they do not believe that they have the talent to paint anything more than that or they believe that a more elaborate backdrop takes away from the primary intended focal point of the layout, the scenery and trains.
There are those of us that choose to paint, or have painted by someone else, a more representational backdrop. Because my benchwork is so narrow and is not conducive to constructing expansive scenery with mountains, I used the backdrops to give apparent depth to my railroad. I, like other modelers, use backdrops to represent a particular region being modeled. For me, it is easier and more practical to paint the southern Rocky Mountains than to build them.
Not sure what to say about backdrops that are photographs. I’ve seen some that work well with the scenery and structures and I’ve seen others that overwhelm the rest of the railroad.
Cast Shadows!! By my way of thinking, one of the things that can ruin even a well painted backdrop is cast shadows. Shadows of buildings, trees, rolling stock, etc. on the backdrop can significantly detract from the illusion that the modeler is trying to achieve. Overhead lighting must be strategically placed to prevent, or at least minimize, cast shadows.
In any event, I believe that backdrops should work in equilibrium with the rest of the layout. Backdrops should not overpower the layout nor should they detract from the layout because they are not of equal quality.
Looking at my backdrops; the backdrop in the top photo took me about three months to paint. The backdrop on the opposite wall, as shown in the photo on the right took only two weeks. It has far less detail. Most people don’t realize that. The one that took about two weeks is less representational and more abstract. At least by my way of thinking. At the bottom of this page there are a few photographs showing how I painted the original backdrop.
In the photo above there is about a 3 foot aisle between the benchwork and the backdrop. The backdrop extends about two feet below the top of the layout. That prevents the viewer from seeing a blank wall when looking down from a 6' 6" vantage point. The photo below shows the same wall as the above photo. It's on the far end of the building where the painted backdrop transitions into a tree dimensional backdrop. The side wall and back wall is coved and has rock castings that transition into the backdrop. The photo below does not show the cove.
The photo above shows the corner of the room with cove and tunnel portal that leads to the outside portion of the layout. This photo shows the completed backdrop/cove. The photo below, without clouds, shows the corner wall from a different angle.
The image on the right, viewed from the aisle, shows the nearly finished coved wall with rock castings. The rock castings transition into the painted backdrop. The area within the gray box is rock castings that are thin on the edges and up to 5" thick at the center. Between the end of the layout and the back wall is a swing gate that leads to the outside. Note the ugly cove extending below the lower set of castings. Yup, it's still that ugly. Oh darn.
Before I painted the backdrop on the left wall I painted an eight foot long three feet tall moveable backdrop. I decided to paint an early evening typical New Mexico sunset. Frankly it doesn't work all that well having a sunset backdrop on a well lit railroad. Still, the backdrop kinda looks cool.
In January of 2020 I decided that I should cove the corner on the side where the right rear tunnel portal was. Also referred to as railyard south. For months I postponed any significant effort on the project. The backdrop painting on the wall was the first project started and completed on the Chile Verde Line. Back then I gave no consideration to coving the corners. As time went on and after seeing numerous photos of my layout that were taken by others I realized that unfinished corners seriously detracted from the realism that I was trying to achieve.
Coving that corner meant that I had to cover up about four feet of my backdrop painting. That was only part of the reason that I was so reluctant to proceed. I could not develop a mental image of how I would transition the existing backdrop to the existing tunnel portal and then to the painting on the back wall that was already coved. See photos above.
I decided to proceed even though I had no idea how I was going to pull it off. I’ve always been a rather snobbish model railroader when it came to scenery. I have a better than average understanding of geology and I’ve always tried to apply that knowledge to the scenery that I’ve worked on. Being in this hobby for over 50 years I’ve seen lots of layouts. I’m guessing but I bet that I’ve seen a few hundred layouts. Many of which have been covered in the more popular model railroad publications. Of all the layouts I have seen in person there is only one, regarding the rendering of scenery, that I would give a score as high as a nine on a one to ten scale. I won’t mention Sniffing Wolf’s name because I get a lot of pleasure out of giving him a hard time over the “shortcomings” of his layout. Believe me, there are few. As is my nature, I diverged.
I will use this page on my website to chronicle my process on coving the corner and painting the new backdrop.
Yeah, I know, I coulda shoulda used a bigger piece of bendable plywood. But, as my backdrop painting did not go all the way up to the ceiling on that wall anyway I figured why bother.
I plastered over the plywood and filled in the lip between the plywood and the walls.What a mess. Frankly I did not do a good job making the transition seamless. Nor did I do a good job of sanding out the rough application of wall plaster.
The black case to the right of layout has all of the electronics for operating the railroad. It is my intent to add a 4' by 6' extension on the layout against that wall. No track, just structures.
I use a combination of latex and acrylic paint for the backdrops. I start with the sky. I first paint the wall a dark blue. It usually takes a couple of coats. As I transition down the wall I add a lighter blue paint. Towards the bottom I add white paint. I brush the paint on using X strokes. Using a spray bottle I mist the wall to help blend the lighter to darker paint. I do not do a good job of keeping track of the actual shades of blue that I use so transitioning from a painted backdrop to a backdrop being painted can be a bit of a challenge. Because I can never perfectly match the paint I use hazy clouds to transition between the different shades of blue. It seems to work okay.
As I am very familial with New Mexico skies I do not need to refer to photographs when painting. In general, I do not consult photographs when painting backdrops. If I use a photograph I fall into the trap of painting exactly what I see. Some people claim that my landscape paintings are "photo real". They are not but they are far too detailed for a backdrop.
Because of the tunnel portal I had to build and paint rock cliffs. At this point in the process I decided not to use rock-castings. Instead I decided to use patching plaster, concrete adhesive and very fine sand mixed together to form a medium thick paste. As I am modeling the Abiquiu formation of sandstone cliffs I figured I give it a try. I've used a version of this technique in the past but not to this extent. One reason that I decided not to use rock mold castings is because the castings would have been thicker than the face of the tunnel portal. Removing the tunnel portal was not going to be worth the effort. To get some relief I screwed pieces of wood and particle board to the wall and cove. I applied the plaster sand mixture over the wood and board. I applied several layers to achieve the texture that I wanted. Using a Dremel tool with several different bits I carved cracks into the plaster mix.
As you can see from the photos below I had to transition from the somewhat three dimensional rock wall to a two dimensional backdrop painting. I did that by applying the plaster/sand mixture to the wall in such a way that I achieved the desired shape and relief to the transition mountains. I painted the transition mountains to match the color and relief of the existing rock mountain.
Looks like I will need to shorten one yard track before I add ground cover and redo existing ground cover. After I finish the backdrop painting on the back wall (above photo) I will construct the 4' by 6' bench. If all goes as currently planned I will install the CONOCO gas station, the Chamita Gazette newspaper office and a dilapidated adobe building on the 4' by 6' bench addition.
In the photos below you will see that I shortened one of the yard tracks, added soil/rock berms at the end of the three yard tracks, added rock and soil debris at the base of the large rock formations and added a few trees. Additional ground cover will be added at some point. I also finished the bottom half of the backdrop painting on the back wall.
As you can see from these two photos I have yet to add the benchwork exteinsion below the painted backdrop. Click on this button and scroll down to bottom of page to see bench extension with CONOCO gas station.
As you can see from the photo above it looks kinda crappy that the sky on the right of the cove does not go all the way up to the top of the ceiling. I didn't consider it to be a problem until I coved the corner. It even looks worse because the cove does not go all the way up to the top. My wife Wendy (my biggest critic) never understood why I didn't "finish" the backdrop in the first place. Truth be told, painting the backdrop while standing on a ladder was a drag. I pained the original backdrop before installing the benchwork. After the benchwork on that wall was completed I should have finished the backdrop painting. It would have been easy to finish it while standing on the benchwork.
I had to accept the fact that I needed to finish painting the sky on the existing backdrop. That was going to be a challenge as it meant that I had to stand on the already sceaniced railyard. It also meant that much of the sky, including the clounds, would have to be repainted. What a drag. Well, I did it. It took three weeks. Can't say that I'm totally pleased with the results. It will just have to do. Now that that is done, the short cove in the corner looks unfinished. Oh well, too bad, gonna have to do. At least for now.
The photo below shows the new sky with cloods over an Abiquiu sandstone formation. As I said, I'm not all that pleased with the results. In the second photo below you will note that most of the freight and passenger cars all cramed into a relatively small space. I had to remove most of the cars from the yard tracks when I was finishing the sky. The third photo down shows about 2/3rds of the backdrop.