Diana Sutherland coined the name “The Wargames Widow” several years ago when she discovered she had a desire and skill for creating model terrain and buildings to populate her husband’s wargames tables (Note: Hubby Jon is affectionately referred to as “the Wargamer” in her articles). Since then she has gone on to author several books on the subject and has been featured in various wargames magazines. Following a successful stint in Wi Bite-size she now brings her talents to Primetime, where she will be contributing exclusive model making articles on a regular basis.
This week The Wargames Widow backs away from the tabletop and tells us how to create a backdrop – a very useful piece of kit when taking photos, displaying at conventions or simply adding extra punch to your tabletop.
“Very nice picture of your new soldiers, dear, but I don’t really think your coffee mug and scruffy old jumper need to be in shot,” I said for the umpteenth time, little realising the enormous bear trap the wargamer had set and both of my feet were in it.
“You’re good at trompe-l’œil aren’t you?” He replied, not immediately revealing that I had no idea what he was talking about, but I had painted some very passable bunches of fruit on a cupboard door in the past and I was beginning to realise what was in store.
“I beg your pardon,” I continued with the charade.
“A back drop would be nice, just enough to block out the background. I’d only need about eight foot.” He gave me the usual hang-dog look and I fell for it once again. It did sound like a job to rival the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Painting all those clouds, hills and trees was not going to be easy, so there had to be an alternative.
Some of the best pictures I’ve ever taken using long exposure to get depth of field have been ruined by a wargamer walking past in the background – a blur of movement that has to be cropped out. Worse still is getting the exact camera angle you want to frame the ideal shot only to find that an untidy mountain of books or boxes of terrain are visible.
The term trompe-l’œil is an arty way of describing a background to stick behind your soldiers and terrain to give the optical illusion that the landscape continues into the distance. In architecture it is called the forced perspective. What you are creating on the backdrop might look 3D, but in face it is a fairly flat background (although my version is a hybrid with some genuinely 3D elements). If you are arty then you might consider painting the whole thing from scratch.
I was “fortunate” enough to have to tackle this task soon after the wargamer had bought several sheets of 3mm MDF. So I had the ideal backing board to work with, but you could easily use hardboard or even mounting board, but you do risk some warping on larger sheets. My sheets were conveniently cut as 4 x 2’ pieces with the idea that they would cover most of one side of his wargame table (10’) or could be placed at right angles against one corner. You might not need 2’ high backdrops, but this kind of height really does block out the background. What you will need for this project is:
- Suitable backing board (MDF/Hardboard/Foam–core board etc.)
- Cloud wallpaper
- Mounting board for hills
- Polystyrene sheet for hills
- Small trees or lichen
In addition to this very short list, you will also need green and brown paint as well as PVA and hot glue.
You could, of course, by-pass any sort of grief and buy everything off the shelf. You can buy a backdrop stand via an EBay seller (1smart_trend) for £20-£45 dependent on the size you require. You can then fix the backdrop of your choice (usually vinyl sheets) which are available in multiple colours and designs from around £10-£30. There is a huge selection of suitable designs, but finding the right kind of thing might be tricky. My problem with the sky blue or cloudy backdrops is that there was no mid-ground. You would have soldiers, terrain and buildings in the foreground and suddenly jump to cloudy skies with nothing in between. I guess it might be like that in Oklahoma or the Russian Steppes, but not anywhere else!
I knew I’d have to go down the make-it-yourself route in the end. So, rather than paint the sky and clouds, the sensible option was to look for a sky/cloud image that didn’t look too fake. My late father taught me everything I know about wallpaper and it seemed natural to begin my hunt for a design that looked right. It was easier to find than you might think, but most of the designs looked as if they were inspired by a children’s TV show shot in a studio (definitely shades of Magic Roundabout and Teletubbies). If you absolutely cannot find anything you like, then you could go down the route of using sky blue wallpaper and fixing cotton wool onto the surface for the clouds. The main purpose of the backdrop is not to create an illusion, but to block out unwanted objects and individuals. Most of the pictures you take will only feature a tiny glimpse of your backdrop.
Using wallpaper is dead easy whether you want to fix it to your backing board with traditional wallpaper paste (unnecessary unless you have half a bucket to use up after a decorating project) or PVA. I was lucky that my backdrop papering day was hot and sunny, reducing drying times, but making it important that I get the glue on quickly and the paper on straightaway. The more complicated and fussy your wallpaper is the more paper you will waste matching the design. The normal width of wallpaper is about 20.5” inches (52cm), so for my 4’ lengths of MDF I needed to match twice. If you are intending to have two backdrops for extended lengths or corners, make sure you match the end of the first board with the start of the second one. Be generous with the glue, the MDF wasn’t very absorbent (it is coated with something), so you are relying on the glue to sink into the paper to get a good fix. I had intended to wrap the wallpaper around the back of the board, so I used clips to hold it in place. In retrospect this was unnecessary – so later I cut the wallpaper just to fit the front of the board. I should also say that the ideal working surface for this project is a wallpapering table, these are big pieces of board and no one will thank you for getting wallpaper paste all over the dining room table or the carpet.
You can get on with the rest of the project whilst the boards are drying. I began by focusing on the hills that would make up the foreground. These were constructed using 50mm sheets of polystyrene, although once again foam core or thick card would do the same job. My hills were no taller than 3”; vary the length of the hills – about four or five across a 4’ length looked about right. I drew out the stylised design on the sheet and cut them out with a polystyrene cutting wand (well worth the £10 the wargamer had paid).
Lay out the hills on your backdrop to get an initial impression. I actually numbered each of mine on the back so once I was happy with their position I knew I could replicate it after painting. Your hills will undulate across the length of the backdrop with gaps between the hills, or at least lower parts of the slopes of the hills. In these “valleys” we are going to add other hills, this time on a thinner material. So if you have used polystyrene or foam core, use mounting board or stiff card for the second set. If your foreground hills are thinner than this then you need to use thinner card (cereal packets are great). The difference in thickness will add to the optical illusion we are creating. These background hills are going to be a different colour than the ones in the foreground and their slopes can either mimic the foreground ones or fill in the gaps between the foreground ones. You’ll get a better idea of this from the pictures. Once you have worked across the length of your backdrop position the pieces and make any adjustments needed.
Now it’s time to break open the paint pots. One of the things that the wargamer hoards is genuinely useful for this kind of project. Essentially he has pots of paint mixed about 50/50 with fine sand. They are great for fast basing and texturing and I found that he had the two ideal colours ready and mixed. The foreground hills, after a base coat of green, got a generous coat of the green sand mix. It textured the polystyrene well and hid any indication that it is polystyrene and not one of the Mendips. The background hills, already in a very convenient dark brown (why buy white mounting board when the brown one is the same price?!) got a coat of chocolate brown sand mix. Don’t be concerned about the rough surface you are creating, as a hot glue gun will handle any lumps or bumps later when we begin the construction part of the project. When the green hills were dry I gave them a very light dry brush of yellow just for a little highlighting. I thought the dark brown hills didn’t need a highlight, as I wanted to look as if they were in shadow in the distance.
Give everything a chance to dry off (particularly the wallpaper) and then fire up the hot glue gun. Begin by carefully placing the brown hills along the length of the backdrop and one by one fix them in place with the hot glue gun. Remember you have ten seconds or so before the glue starts to protest if you attempt to try and shift the object to another position. Drying time is zero seconds! Straight after that you can start to place the green hills on top of the undulating brown ones. You won’t need to apply too much glue; polystyrene doesn’t need a lot of persuasion to stay where it’s told. Again work your way across the length, fixing one hill in place at a time. This stage of the project took me less than ten minutes, but it is the most important part of the operation. If you step back, you should already be able to see the optical illusion you have created. However, there is one more thing to do, isn’t there always?
I found some scrubby little wire trees (actually Hornby Skale (sic) Scenics, or so I’ve since been told) and a box of green lichen (a little Old School I admit). I decided to sparingly add these to the “skyline” by gluing them to the green hills in the foreground. You don’t need very many, just one or two here and there to add a little contrast and colour.
That’s it, the only thing I would say is that the boards do need to the propped up, a crate or – as my wargamer prefers – four volumes of Battles and Leaders is ideal. If you want to take the illusion a stage further then you can try to trick the eye with trees and buildings in the background. Many moons ago I did see a picture where this was taken a stage too far. In the foreground there were 28mm figures, a foot behind were 20mm ones, then 15mm and finally 6mm. The intention was a good one, but the reality was really very silly. It can work, however, if you restrict yourself to a handful of trees or a couple of buildings in different scales. You don’t need to space them apart too much either, as the eye is fooled without you trying to force the issue. Place bigger trees in the foreground just behind your soldiers and then place some smaller trees further back. My wargamer has large normal trees and some olive trees and these worked really well in combination.
If the muse takes you, why not do double-sided backdrops with different types of scenery. For example, a forest might look good or perhaps a city in the distance. I’d rather you didn’t mention these ideas to the wargamer, I know he’ll want the Red Fort at Delhi and the mountains of the Peloponnese and I don’t think anyone makes wallpaper with these designs.