Monday, March 23, 2009

Painting Backdrops

One of the tricks to a great model scene is having a decent backdrop so the model world doesn't end just behind the model. I've tried two approaches for backdrops - painting them by hand and using photographs, and I've been happy with both approaches.

My backdrops are 1/8" styrene from a local plastics supplier (Tap Plastics). I get the sheet cut into 1 foot by eight foot strips, then glue it onto supports at the back of each scene. After priming and some sky blue paint (fading as it drops to the horizon), I've got an acceptable scene.

Here's a photo from behind an orchard near Campbell. In this case, I only used a dark blue-grey paint to look like the silhouette of the hills we'll often see in the Santa Clara Valley on summer afternoons. Checking the color wasn't hard; I just went outside and squinted at the far hills. Painting this just requires some quick brushwork to make a mountainous shape on the backdrop.

In the Santa Cruz Mountains, I needed more realistic scenery for the nearby mountains. These pictures from Glenwood and Wrights show a couple other attempts (in some cases not covered enough by trees at the back of the scene.) I learned these techniques from an old Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazette article from the 1980's, though the techniques are similar to other model railroad articles. I painted the furthest hills in a dark bluish, then painted each nearer line of hills in a brighter and greener set of colors. As I got closer, I detailed in trees with a flat brush held vertically and touching only on the tips. It's not the greatest landscape painting, but it'll do for me.
The big message here, of course, is that the backdrop doesn't have to be very good. These photos are close-ups and aren't great when examined in detail, but when the whole scene's looked at, they're not the center of attention. They just register as sky colors and hill colors, and that's enough to convince the viewer that the scene is real. Backdrops are also really forgiving; if the painting doesn't work out (as the Glenwood scene didn't at first), just paint a new set of hills on top of your not-quite-good version.

These final two photos show the scene near Wrights in Los Gatos Canyon. I'd tried painting California dry hills, but hadn't been happy with the results. I finally gave up and decided to try some photo images. Rather than go out to the hills and photograph decent scenes, I turned to Google Earth.

Google Earth's normally viewed top-down, but it also has contour maps so it knows the height of features. If you tilt a Google Earth scene (check the on-line Help to see how) , you can look at an edge-on view of nearby hills. In my case, I found spots along the west side of Los Gatos Canyon, and looked towards the east side of the canyon with the view tilted almost horizontally. I then did screen captures of the scenes, printed them on photographic paper in my cheap ink-jet printer. I then sprayed the images with Testor's Dullcoat to cut glare on the image, cut out the sky portion of each image, and glued them to the backdrop. The first picture shows one of the more realistic parts of the backdrop. The second (over the water tank) worked less well, but is still quite presentable. The only problem with the images is that they're captured from aerial photos, so trees and hills often look a bit stretched and flattened when I tilted the image to look at it sideways.

That last picture also gives away the source of the photo. If you look at the larger version of the image, you'll see a small, bright green line at the top of the ridge. That's Google Earth's way of displaying roads, and I'd forgotten to turn off road displays when capturing the image.

I Survived BayRails!

Last weekend, I opened my layout for BayRails, a model railroad operating session gathering in the Bay Area. BayRails happens every two years. Eighty to a hundred people from around the country come to San Francisco and spend three days running trains on model railroads in the area. Some are quite famous layouts published in the model railroad press, some are huge and run prototypically long trains. Others (like my layout) are much more modest, but hopefully still fun for operations. I hosted two days of operations, and had folks from Arizona and St. Louis switching boxcars for half a day. The photos give a glimpse of what an operating session is like.

Getting the layout ready for operations is usually tiring, but prepping for two back-to-back sessions (on Thursday and Saturday) turned out to be quite a challenge. Model railroad operations is a bit of a game, with rules, pieces, and other players, but most games don't require the host to clean and repair pieces in between sessions. I spent most of Friday night cleaning the track, repairing balky locomotives, fixing minor electrical problems, and resetting all the boxcars to their correct locations.
One of my surprises at operating sessions is that no one plays the game the same way. I'm familiar with my layout, so when I do switch boxcars, I've got my habits. I've got favorite ways of getting the job done, I know how many cars can fit on a specific siding, and I know what order to do the work to make my life as easy as possible.

When I have others over, that all goes out the window. They're new to the layout, and are having to pick it all up as they go along. Each set of visitors is different. One crew early in the layout took what I thought to be a complex switching problem and finished it off in moments. Another crew noticed a useless bit of track in the Del Monte Cannery trackage that I'd copied straight from an old Sanborn fire insurance map, and realized it was a great place to hide the caboose when switching so they didn't block the main line. I suspect their use of the track might have actually been a use for the track on the prototype!
This weekend was no different; I saw crews switching nearby industries "backwards" from my usual way but with fine results, using hand signs to communicate when switching, and thinking hard about the difference between how they'd switched on other layouts and how they thought the real railroads would have worked.
Overall, it was a great weekend for me; it was great to get feedback (both good and bad on the layout), and I enjoyed seeing the visiting crews behaving like the real crews and getting real work done. I've got work to do before the next operating session. A couple of my locomotives could use some maintenance work after several hours of constant work. Several minor track problems became much more obvious when visitors are watching, and one switch got spiked shut on Saturday morning when I realized it was misbehaving enough to frustrate operations. But I'll be looking forward to operating again soon!
Thanks to all my visiting operators, and I hope you had a great time!