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Painting Backdrops with Ease 

 

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by David Barron

One of the easiest techniques to make your model railroad look larger than it really is would be to use forced perspective.  In order to do this, we must think of what and how we are actually viewing nature.  When we look out across any space, we see objects that seem to get smaller as the distance increases.  We also see sky, trees, and in some cases, hills or even mountains.  When we model nature, we must force these items to gain the perspective of those great distances.  This is done using forced perspective.

Let's first talk about the sky.  A sky during a clear day is many colors of blue, depending on the amount of moisture, dust, smog, and dirt in the air.  For simplicity sake, I have found that a color called Velvet Sky-Vinyl Acrylic flat house paint best matches the sky.  I first paint the entire backdrop with this color and let it dry (using a roller).  This provides a good base to start painting backdrops.

If you paint the entire wall up to the ceiling, you should add clouds to get the best overall effect.  There are three different types of cloud families -- cumulus, cirrus, and status.  We are most familiar with the low level cumulus or puffy clouds that give us the summertime showers.  Let's talk about the way we actually see these clouds.  As a child, we painted clouds by using white paint; remember how they looked a little strange?  That's because we painted them like they were receiving light equally from all sides.  The sun plays an important role in the way clouds look and act.  As the atmosphere heats up, it also rises and as it lifts, it carries moisture upward.  As this moisture cools, it condenses and forms clouds.  That's why you will see most clouds with a flat base -- that's the altitude where the moisture condenses, or becomes saturated.  The upward movement of the air is what makes the clouds keep growing up to altitudes that exceed 40,000 feet above sea level.  

Let's get back to our fair weather, puffy little clouds.  To paint these, you will need a minimum of three colors -- velvet sky blue, titanium white, and either neutral or Payne's Gray.  A good stiff fan type paintbrush that you can stipple (jab paint) with, not a soft brush, is best.  First, determine where the sun is supposed to be in your room, and paint the whitest portions of the clouds in that direction.  The darkest sections of the clouds will be on the opposite and bottom side of the cloud from your imaginary sun.  When painting the clouds, don't start making the same patterns, leave them irregular and different sizes.  Go outside and look at clouds.  See how they puff up at different points but tend to grow from the center?  If you are painting the wall, start at a position about 20 degrees above your normal eye level (as you look at the layout), and jab paint where you want a cloud.  Remember that the cloud will be irregular at the top, but mostly flat across the bottom.  Paint the top edges and about half way down into the cloud with the titanium white.  

Next, mix up some of the gray and white, about 50/50.  Jab paint this on the bottom and side away from the sun.  Again, keep it irregular.  Blend it into the white with light jabs at the meeting points.  This will make it look like puffs on your side of the cloud.  Now, mix up some of the straight gray and even up the bottom of the cloud and farthest section of the clouds (from the sun).  Walla, a cloud!  

Sometimes clouds have rain in them.  Before they rain, they get real dark nearest the bottom as the water vapor blocks out the sunlight.  The bottom also starts to become irregular as the vertical winds start to come down with the rain.  On my western layout, I have a single cloud with this rain depicted as virga, rain that evaporates back into the atmosphere before it hits the ground.  It is isolated, and I have a single environmental sound tape that has a thunderstorm in the distance to help create the illusion.  Someday, I plan to add a strobe light behind the wall, using an old throw away Kodak camera, and small holes in the wall, to simulate lighting in the clouds. 

The Paint 

Under the clouds, we have land, hills, and mountains.  Our farthest mountains should have a blue or gray tint that is caused by moisture and dust in the air.  Mountains are irregular and have no real pattern, they tend to overlap, as we see them, and with the sun in mind again we can put shadows on them.  Paint the vanishing point about eye level and position the mountains about 10 degrees above that.  As the mountains get closer, they start changing to a light green, and finally to the darkest colors into the foreground.  The closest greens behind our forests should be the darkest and almost a blackish green.  This would depict a dense forest and the associated shadows.  This gives us a good base to put our foreground forest up against (see Figure 1).

Painting mountains and trees.

Figure 1. Painting mountains and trees.

To paint foreground pine trees, I use a roofer or carpenters square and a couple of different styles of brushes.  I start out by determining what I want to depict.  Some of the trees on my layout are only an inch tall, while others are nearly 22 inches tall.  The shorter ones are in the distance and are of the regular Christmas tree style, and the taller ones are close up redwood trees.  I started out by painting the blackish green background trees as a form only, with everything the same color.  Only the tops of the trees are depicted.  Next, paint all the trunks in place with various shades of brown, raw sienna with various mixes of black added.  I use a square as a rule and guide to assure that the trees will be straight up and down.  All the trunks are started at the bottom and worked upward to a decreasing diameter point.  Remember that the bottoms of the trees just don't go straight into the ground; they tend to spread out, kind of like us humans!  Add bark and protrusions with lines of dry brushed black, gray, and white highlights.  Next, add branches like a ladder on both sides of the tree, evenly decreasing in length until within a few branches of the top.  Next, lightly highlight the sun lit side with dry brushed white and gray on both the trunk and the tops of some branches.  

Now comes the best part -- adding all the little pine needles to the branches (see Figure 2).  With a single hairbrush; no, not really!  With two colors, Hookers Green and Chromium Oxide, you can paint all the branches.  Lightly jab paint or fan brush trying to leave some of the branches that you previously painted still visible.  Lightly jab or fan brush the paint right over the brush.  I first paint the Hookers Green and then put the lighter Chromium Oxide over the tops of the Hookers Green branch paint like the sun is shining on it.  Next, you can highlight above the Chromium Oxide with white, mixed with the oxide, slowly building up the branches with the lightest shades on top of each brow.  Vary this treatment over all the trees, not on each and every tree.  I was able to paint three 20-foot walls with this technique in less than a week, start to finish.

Figure 2. Close-up trees.

There are many ways to force perspective.  Perhaps the easiest way is to start decreasing the size of man-made objects, so they appear to get further away from us.  Many model railroaders, in one scale, will use a smaller scale structures in the most distant sections of their railroad to force perspective.  This helps the illusion of greater distance by fooling the eye.  What do we do if we are limited in the distance we have to work with, say 24 to 36 inches?   Obviously, even a three-dimension structure is going to be difficult to force perspective.  We want to run our trains, so they have priority on the layout over structures.  Why not use flats of structures on the wall or back drop behind where the trains run?  I found color pictures in railroad magazines, took them down to a commercial color copier, and had reduced color copies made.  Then, I cut them out and glued them to the walls as part of my backdrops.  These copies were around three dollars a print, which is cheaper than building a structure.  Take a black pencil and darken the paper edges after cutting the copies, and the edges will not show.  After the basic backdrop is painted you can attach these cutouts in place with white glue.  You will have an instant town or structure on the wall in forced perspective.  Now, blend it into the foreground scenery by using a couple of trees painted on the cutout or add three dimensional trees and structures in front of it.  These background structures will look better than you ever imagined.

If you are not happy with your results, remember you can repaint the wall blue and start over.  I guarantee you will get better with each try.  Good luck and have fun painting!

Click ARTICLES to read other techniques for model railroading.

 Sierra Scale Models is owned and operated by Dave Barron, an NMRA Master Model Railroader. If you have questions about the products, send a message to David Barron or call 813-907-3343.