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February 6th- On the Shoulder of Giants- Part 18

posted Feb 6, 2018, 8:58 AM by Sue Line RailRoad

Make no mistake about it.  The Sue Line is about operations.  It is the glue that helps bring together a disparate group of people together each Thursday night.  Over the past several months, I’ve had the honor and pleasure of bringing to your attention a group of people who have influenced me and my enjoyment of the hobby especially in regards to operations.  I’m now going to switch tracks (pun intended) and share some thoughts on the evolution of different aspects of the layout.

When I first started, like many modelers, I had no backdrop

(Malcolm Vordenbaum's layout in Wichita Falls, Texas).  

It was just whatever was on the wall of the room I had my layout in.  The basic white wall was the usual result. However, after reading the writings of Frank Ellison, Bill McClanahan, John Armstrong, John Allen, and others I discovered that there are many types of effective backgrounds.  If your layout is to be the stage on which your trains are the actors, then I felt I must begin at the back of the scene and work forward. Just as in at the theater there is a backdrop to “set the place”. I felt a backdrop was necessary.

For my first backdrop, I just painted the wall a pleasing shade of blue. Later, with the help of my mother, an artist, I started to use three shades of blue, the lightest shade at the horizon, the middle shade in the middle and the darkest shade at the top. This was done to reflect the natural gradations of light we have here in Louisiana.  Later, I discovered coving.  This was using rounded luan plywood or Masonite at the top of my wall to gently bring the wall and ceiling together. I constructed a special box for the corners. It was at this point that I began to appreciate the depth a backdrop added to a scene.

My first hand-painted backdrop 

(By my wife)
(By a friend, Daggi Wallace) 

began to add more detail to the horizon. If you want hand-painted there are numerous well-done videos available on how to paint backdrops from simple clouds to complex industrial locations.  Some have turned to hiring someone to paint what you want.

As the years went by, I began to use commercial lithographs 

(From Walther’s).

 The effect was impressive and added a great deal to the backdrop. However, they were still less than what I wanted. Next, I found and used commercial photographs 

(Photo murals) 

which added even more detail to the backdrop. I then noticed the field of vision that the backdrop added to the scene. My eye did not just stop at the back edge of the layout. I became aware that I could now focus on a part of the scene and not try to see everything at once.  This effect became most noticeable when photographs were taken of the layout. There are numerous sources for commercial photographic backdrops.

Backdrops are not the solution for every situation. Sometimes, I let the rest of the railroad be the backdrop, especially when I have a center island or peninsula. There are areas when they add immensely to the effect of distance in the overall effect. Other areas are best suited for letting the railroad extend onto itself 

(View from Leming with Sue City in background).

While not an absolute necessity for operations, backdrops do help to “set the scene”, they do help to reinforce where the railroad is located. They give an atmosphere to the railroad.  Mountains, plains, swamps, or cities- they all help give the railroad a stage to operate on. I model in Louisiana and our highest “mountain” is just over 500 feet above sea level, so no Rocky Mountains for me. Flat is the rule of the day!  Naturally, you should choose the backdrop that best suits the story that you are trying to tell with your railroad.  Time to bring the backdrop to the forefront of your planning and efforts.

Addendum: Commercial sources Backdrop Warehouse (Backdropwarehouse.com), Trackside scenery (tracksidescenery.com), Backdrop Junction (backdropjunction.com), and Railroad Backdrops (Railroadbackdrops.com).