A journal following the history, design, construction and operation of Bernard Kempinski's O Scale model railroad depicting the U. S. Military Railroad (USMRR) Aquia-Falmouth line in 1863, and other model railroad projects.
©Bernard Kempinski All text and images, except as noted, on this blog are copyrighted by the author and may not be used without permission.

January 26, 2016

Diorama Backdrop - Duke Street.

Photo panorama made by Wally Owen, former Asst Dir/Curator Ft Ward Museum.
The backdrop for the Alexandria Antebellum diorama presents several challenges. First is that there are only a couple of photos showing the area we are representing. The best image we have is a view to the northwest from the top of Pioneer Mills. It only shows about a third of the area we need to show in the backdrop. Also, there are no views closer to ground level. I want the backdrop to have a ground level versus aerial perspective as I find that works better in model scenes, especially when taking photos.

The last major challenge is that there are two streets that intersect at 90 degrees to the backdrop. These are some the most challenging backdrop-3D terrain interfaces to have to deal with.

The following are step-by-step photos showing the backdrop process.
The backdrop is 1/8th inch masonite.  Here it is
being measure against the diorama base

The backdrop received 3 coats f Gesso primer applied with a roller.
I sanded it smooth in-between coats.

The cut and primed backdrop screwed to the diorama.
 Although I primed the backdrop front and rear with three coats of gesso, it still warped when I added the blue color latex paint. So I had to add a support frame. I was hoping too avoid using a backdrop frame as it might make the diorama deeper.  But I had no choice. I don't think it will cause problems in the final installation (My fingers are crossed. Yes, I did measure alcove and test fit the diorama base in it, but Murphy has a way of showing up,)
Base coat of bright blue and ground cloud. I used my airbrush to
paint the clouds.

The blue latex paint caused the backdrop to warp slightly. So I added
a 1x2 frame to the rear. Since I didn't want to drive screws through the
front of the backdrop, I used glue and lots of clamps,

Duke Street flanked by the mill's  coopering House and sheds

I tried a couple different ideas to depict Duke Street and the buildings behind the mill. In the end, I decided to draw the scene in Adobe Illustrator. I use AI perspective grid feature to create the vanishing point and help draw the buildings receding into the distance. I spent more time than necessary detailing these distant buildings, when in the end they are very tiny on the backdrop.

The two main buildings in the front of the backdrop came out really nice.  The large brick building is the coopering house where they made the barrels to ship out the flour. The three sheds on the right are for an unknown purpose, but we had a decent view of them in prototype photo. So I was able to represent them pretty well.

Test photo looks good.
I used actual brick and siding textures to embellish them. That worked surprisingly well. One the backdrop was printed on 11x19 inch paper, I added two sided tape film to the rear. Then I trimmed the image using a X Acto knife. I touched up the edges with a dark green marker.
I used watercolor pencils to add some texture and shadows to the structures and street. Then I installed it on the back drop.
That is 19 of of 43 inches total need. Just a little less than half way.


  1. Excellent, I was hoping to see it colorized and you did an excellent job.

    Tom Osterdock

  2. Good work Bernie...HO or O?

  3. Did you cut bricks with your Laser on the main building? It's not components from a kit, or is it. Dormers: thru the roof or on top. Damn place looks good. Bernie

    1. Laser cut parts from wood and acrylic. The whole diorama is scratch built. No kit parts used at all.