Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Purple Mountain Majesties

When poet Katharine Lee Bates penned these descriptive words after a rugged trip to the summit of Pikes Peak in 1893*, I'm pretty sure that she was not thinking about model railroading. But this phrase from the anthem America the Beautiful came to my mind recently while reading Bruce Petty's interesting article about backdrop painting in the January '08 issue of Model Railroader.

Bruce was inspired by the idealized illustrative style of fruit crate label art. Bruce (and the crate label artists) noticed that distant hills take on a blue or purple tinge (which happens due to the differential scattering of light through the atmosphere). I've always enjoyed fruit crate art and have a number of examples hanging in my home. The art is highly stylized and very effective in evoking a mood of a time and place for me.

Bruce's backdrops work especially well for me, then, at least partly because they tap in to my own feelings and visualizations of southern California. It helps that he has a talent for rendering these backgrounds with "just enough" detail and takes the additional step of blending the shelf scenery colors with the lowest edge of the backdrop. But fundamentally, one of the reasons I respond so positively to these scenes is my own experience from living in the area and the memories and feelings inspired by the fruit label art.

Bruce also shows how a minimal palette can be shaded and mixed to create very effective distant mountains and valleys. The interplay of light and shadow give a real feeling of depth, but without overpowering the relatively simple modeling in the foreground. Bruce's narrow shelf layout is greatly expanded through his very fitting backdrop painting.

The article has me wondering if other shared memories and experiences might be the basis for experiments in backdrop art. For World War II era layouts, would backdrop painting techniques that subtly echo those used in WWII home front posters help to set the mood? For pre-war years, would Edward Hopper's impressionistic style help create a feeling of time and place?

[John Armstrong's Canandaigua Southern layout included a model scene that replicated the moody impressionistic café in Edward Hopper's Nighthawks (c. 1942). In turn, the Layout Design SIG and others in 1995 commissioned railroad artist Ted Rose to create a painting commemorating John that included the scene (MR, August 1996). Art imitating modeling imitating art imitating life?]

Obviously, it would be easy to go too far and create a backdrop that is too detailed (or too poorly-rendered) so that it becomes a distraction to the modeled scene. But Bruce's article shows us that backdrops can be more than attempts at pure realism -- they can help create an atmosphere that enhances the modeled layout.

* Some sources indicate that Ms. Bates was in fact inspired by her railroad trip from the east coast to Colorado Springs to accept a teaching position (e.g., the "Alabaster City" of Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, the wheat fields of Kansas, etc.). And although she had to travel in horse-drawn wagon and atop a mule to get to the top of Pikes Peak for her view of the "fruited plain", today a cog wheel railway climbs to the top. Even America the Beautiful is train-related if you look hard enough!

Although it sounds at first like mixing oil and water, Raising Sand by Robert Plant (yeah, the Zep' dude) and Alison Krauss is in fact a great listen. Producer/guitarist T Bone Burnett (of Brother, Where art Thou, among many others) creates an eclectic mix that sounds at various times like a 1920s speakeasy, a 1950s sock hop, and a soundscape from a troubled dream. Plant's celebrated vocal quirks rarely go over-the-top and Krauss provides a steadying melodic foundation with both her voice and fiddle playing. This release doesn't fit in any genre pigeonholes, but I think a wide variety of listeners would enjoy it.