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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains

More About "3-D" Painting Tricks

This is a followup to my blog-like article Click to go to article."Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain", in which I reflected on the pros and cons (but mostly pros) of sharing your creative "secrets." One of the topics touched on in that article was the way one creative endeavor (like set painting) can stimulate your creativity in another creative endeavor. Here are a couple more examples.

You may recall that I discussed the use of "Trompe d'Oeil" technique, a kind of optical illusion which uses exaggerated proportions, highlights, and shadows to "pop" out into the room. Since that article was posted, I've gotten a lot of interesting feedback, much of which is too confidential to share publicly.

Click for bigger photo.But I've also seen other examples, including a very nice set in the Springfield [Ohio] Civic Theatre's production of Music Man. The self-important turn-of-the-last-century city of River City, Iowa was represented by several tall, narrow "flats" inspired by "Queen Anne," "Second Empire," and "Gothic Revival" architecture of that period.

I was impressed interested enough by these pieces to ask around and learn that the set designer was Eric Moore, who is majoring in set design at Wright State University.

I behaved myself by not taking photos of the production, but I did get one photo of one of the pieces during setup. You'll see in the closeup how the set designer used exaggerated highlighs to make the sets look almost three-dimensional. He did use a limited range of colors to keep the set details from overwhelming the actors onstage, but you get the idea.

I also got a request from Howard Lamey, one of my frequent BigIndoorTrains contributors, to incorporate "Trompe d'Oeil" techniques into a building project he was working on for me. This was part of our "Tribute to Tinplate" series, in which we created building and accessory projects inspired by the tinplate trains and accessories of the early 20th century.

Click for bigger photo.The tinplate house we chose for inspiration for July's project provided a 3-D appearance to the windows by having big rectangles cut out of the walls, and a different color of window frames inserted from the back. I originally designed the project to work the same way, but Howard asked me if I could figure out how to make the windows look "cut out" and "3-D" just by "Trompe d'Oeil," a trick that some tinplate building manufacturers actually used later on to keep costs down. The following table is "borrowed" from the project article, just to show what we started with and what we came up with.

The original windows are stamped from separate pieces of sheet metal and inset slightly.For the most authentic appearance, I recommended cutting out the windowframes, then going over the cut card stock edges lightly with a fine black marker, and gluing separate inserts in from behind. After Howard's suggestion, though I redrew the windows with exaggerated highlights and shading to help provide a 3-D appearance. (Howard also requested blue windows to complement those on our "Lewis Park Station" project, and I complied.)

Click for bigger photo.Admittedly, publishing photos of flat optical illusions that are made to imitate 3-D can be misleading, since you don't really have a chance to evaluate the optical illusion within a true three-dimensional context. But as you can see by this photo of Howard's almost-completed project, the end result is compelling, if not entirely convincing. (Clicking on the house will show you a bigger photo.)

(If you want to see the whole project, complete with free, downloadable instructions, plans, and graphics, just click this link)

Try This at Home

The picture to the right below shows how I got the "gradual shading" effect on the windowframes proper, using only a Windows-based Paint program. If you don't like computers, you can use colored "paint pens" and a straight edge to do the same thing on paper. Of course I actually did this on one "window," then copied it umpteen times to make up the whole frame, but you get the idea. You can click for a bigger picture.

  1. Click for bigger illustration.I started with a black box on a green background.

  2. To represent lighting hitting the edge of the windowframe from about a 10:30 position, I drew a very light green line at the right and bottom edge of the box.

  3. To make it look as though the edge of the windowframe "tapered' in rather than being an abrupt cutoff, I added a slightly darker line around the green line.

  4. To make it look as though the other two sides were also "tapered in," I added dark green lines on the top and left side. I could have added two different colors of dark green, but one seemed to do the trick.

"Installing the Windows"

Click for bigger illustration.Because the windows were supposed to look like they were inset (like casement windows), I cropped the green "background" rectangle to the overall size of the final windowframe. Then I added black lines on the top and left edges of the frame to simulate shadow cast by the "wall," as well as white lines on the bottom and right edges to simulate the sun hitting those edges.

Clicking on the illustration to the right will give you a much larger example.

Adding the "Trim"

My windowframe bitmaps so far are all showing "insets," in which the upper corner is assumed to be in shadow and the lower corner is assumed to be in the light.

Click for bigger illustration.Of course, the reverse is true if you have something that sticks out, like wood trim around a a window. To show how that works, I've added trim around our example in the illustration to the right. You can see that the white line (representing sunlight) is now hitting the top and left corners, and the bottom and right corners are making "shadows" that make the "trim" seem to "pop out" from the walls. Again, if you click on this drawing, you'll see a much larger version that will be easier to evaluate.

Note: We didn't actually use "trim" like this on the cottage shown above, but we are using it on some other projects that we think you'll like very much.

As you examine the version with the trim, you may also notice two other phenomena:

  • The more highlighted and shaded areas you add, the more three-dimensional your graphic seems to be.
  • There is really very little art going on here - this is mostly geometry, if you think about it. In other words, once you ge the hang of these principles, you don't have to have an "artistic" bone in your body to do this. But people will think you do.


If you look at the "blowup" of the set piece I showed earlier, you'll see that Eric followed the same principles:
  • Outline the architectural features you want to show.
  • Decide where the light is coming from.
  • Determine where to add "sunlight" and "shadow."

Above all, you must stay as consistent as possible. Nothing ruins the illusion faster than something like one windowframe obviously "casting a deeper shadow" than another.

Where can you apply these principles? If you collect trains, you probably know that there is a long history of tinplate stations and accessories (especially Marx) using these principles to add the illusion of depth to what were otherwise fairly simple structures. If you build model railroads, you know that "store-bought" backdrops for your model railroad always incorporate them as well. So have many folks who have painted their own backdrops for model railroads, dioramas, or holiday villages. Even mural painters use them to make their paintings look a little "deeper" than the wall.

If nothing else, this article should give you another way of looking at other people's projects, another option to consider when you need to add a sense of depth to any two-dimensional surface, and another reason to pay attention to the way light falls on things - and light is always a good thing to notice.

Looking forward to your suggestions, additions, criticisms, and anything else to let me know you're paying attention, I remain,

Paul Race

Click to see some ways you can help us grow the hobby.P.S. Enjoy your trains. Especially enjoy any time you have with your family in the coming weeks.

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