Friday, May 4, 2018

About skylines on backdrops

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 recognize. 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 gray, and painted all the rails a rusty color. 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 gray paint with a little purple in it, to suggest a line of distant hills. Here is how it looked:

The three black posts supported the layout area above this staging. Although the train on the rear track obscures part of it, you can see the line of “hill profiles” I just mentioned.
     [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. (The post is at this link: .) 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 at this link: ]
     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 gray 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:

In the right edge is part of the marine cloud layer over the ocean.
     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. (For an illustration of his modeling at an earlier period, you might enjoy watching this YouTube video: ). His layout view is inland, toward hills and mountains of the Coast Range. He chose to make a very simple grayish skyline, as you see here.

Note that he added abut a four-inch strip of green to suggest the fields in fact located east of Guadalupe, and a few trees. Brian says he used ordinary poster paint for this, and the trees are just blobs, but here again, our brain “knows” that these green blobs are distant trees.
     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 modeling, not a beautiful scene in itself that distracts attention from the foreground. That’s why simple versions like these work so well.
Tony Thompson


  1. I agree, Tony, that you certainly don’t need a detailed backdrop to convey a sense of the world through the wall. It’s amazing what this does for the layout, in fact. One of my favourite effects is to turn a line of trees into a forest simply by painting the wall behind them dark green.
    However, I’ve always had difficulties reconciling this notion that detailed backdrops detract from the models with the effectiveness of photo backdrops. Naturally, poorly executed backdrops, both painted and photo, will detract from the scene, but I don’t think it’s a matter of detail.

  2. You make a good point, Rene, one I decided to omit for brevity. But notice that most of the best (by which I mean most effective) photo backdrops are pretty simple, such as distant farmhouses or lines of trees. If such a backdrop works for a particular layout, by all means use it. But if it isn't so clear what would work, a simple skyline is one solution.
    Tony Thompson

  3. Tony and Rene, an additional point in favor of the simple painting, or at most a simple photo scene, is that of era. Most of us model a time in the past. Without a time machine (other than our scale versions)it is difficult to get the photos needed. Indeed, even a simple forest experiences growth. I currently am working my Salt Creek Trestle area (SP Cascade Line) and am relying upon photos I shot there in 1972 to set the scene. Today, the area is overgrown with trees making it almost difficult to see that large (500 feet long) trestle. Paint with a simple three color technique (outgrowth of what Brian Moore and you did in near-monotone). Will suffice and bring the focus back to the 3-D modeling. --Bill Decker