Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Backdrop Artistry of Steve Flanigan

It's hard to tell where the layout ends and the
backdrop begins on Steve Flanigan's layout.

I don’t keep many copies of old magazines. But one I kept was the April, 2001, Model Railroader—the one that featured Steve Flanigan’s Georgia Southern.

The Georgia Southern, which represented a transition-era piney-woods shortline in the southern U.S., was about as far as you can get from modern mainline railroading on the Canadian prairies.

But that’s not why I kept it. I kept that issue because I couldn’t believe Steve’s amazing work with background trees.

As it turned out, I was using the very same method as Steve—taking photos of trees, enlarging them on a colour photocopier, trimming them along the tree line and putting them on the wall. But his effects were so much better than what I was able to do.

Unfortunately, the article didn’t say much about how he made the backdrops. So a little while ago I decided to try to contact Steve to learn more about his technique. He sent me the following tutorial and photos.

(Note: The Georgia Southern is gone, but he used the same technique on his new layout, the Louisville & Wadley Southern.)

Here’s what Steve sent to me.

“While I’ve used framed and painted backdrops on previous layouts, I’ve always encountered two challenges.

First, the scenery around Louisville and Wadley, Georgia is almost dead flat and not overly interesting. Second, I’ve never been able to effectively model or paint those distinctive Georgia pines.

“On a 1998 trip to Georgia, I took a photo of a stand of pines that I later felt would be perfect for a backdrop. I enlarged the photo on a photocopier to 8.5 x 11, and trimmed the trees on the photocopy as close as possible to the foliage line.

I make both original and mirror image copies to allow for a ‘continuous’ tree line. The photos above show the process from photo to photocopy to trimmed and ready for applying.

Above find a photo of the backdrop in process, showing the two stacks of original and mirror images of the trees. I used 3M® “Super 77®” brand spray adhesive to spray the back of the photo on a piece of scrap styrofoam, as well as a very light spray on the wall.

Starting in the corner, I aligned the original or mirror image of each piece against the previously glued piece and pressed it into place.

“It’s important to get the seams aligned as closely as possible or even with a bit of overlap to prevent the white wall from showing. Being paper, however, there is always a little bit of white visible, so I used a deep green marking pen to hide the lines.

To increase the illusion of distance while working out from the corner, I increased the height of each photo just a smidge, creating a forced perspective effect.

“Above find a photo of the finished backdrop. Notice how on the left side the trees extend some 3” beyond the end of the layout to the corner. This makes the transition from layout to bare walls not quite so abrupt.

Notice also that the amount of white at the bottom of the photos increases moving from the corner outward. This is the perspective effect noted above. The white will later be hidden using fences, foliage and structures.

“The limitation of the 'photo-on-wall' technique is that, while a great space saver, it does not create a vast scenic panorama. However, when combined with the white ‘atmospheric haze’ painted on the walls, it does successfully suggest the world beyond the layout.”

One thing that Steve doesn’t really well is mask the transition from the trees to the wall. I asked him: How did he do that?

Says Steve: “The key to achieving that feathered look at the top of the trees is to blend the painted sky from blue down to white at the horizon. When the photos are glued to the wall/backdrop, what little bit of white left on the photos blends into the white on the backdrop.”

Below find more photos of Steve’s backdrop artistry, including on a view block on the layout. For more information about his layout, Steve has posted an excellent step-by-step tutorial of how he built the Louisville & Wadley Southern on Railroad Line Forums.

Overivew of the Louisville and Wadley Southern.

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