Tips for Stunning Backdrops for Your Model Railroad Layouts

One of the best ways to add authenticity to our model railroad layouts is by the use of a carefully crafted and painted backdrop. This makes your model railroad take on dimension it otherwise wouldn’t have had by the use of something called forced perspective.

This is where the objects in the foreground, (your layout) will gain size and stature by the addition of a creation of a space in the distance (or at least on your wall!) The trick this plays on your eyes is subtle but effective, making your layout appear even more lifelike because of the addition of this forced perspective.

As you naturally gaze into the distance in nature, even a barn a couple of hundred yards away will appear smaller than your pet Chihuahua sitting on the ground before it. Let’s dissect a natural landscape and see some of the methods use in creating a stunning backdrop for your model railway.

As always, planning is something that’s essential for a project like this, and ideally will have been part of your initial ideas. One of mistakes people sometimes make is to wait until they’ve totally finished their layouts before even thinking about the backdrop. If you do this you’ll be missing some good opportunities to fashion some creative setpieces into your layout.

Have a clear idea of at least what kind of day it is, what the season is, what kind of weather you’re experiencing, as well as the location you’re trying to depict. You’ll save yourself loads of time and heartache with a little careful planning!

Now let’s look up and see the sky! First of all, the sky is never just one color. Even on a clear day it’s several shades of blue, depending on things like time of day, relative distance to the horizon, dust or industrial activity and the like. A color like Velvet Sky Vinyl acrylic flat paint is a good choice to start with and you can weather from there.

Now for some words on clouds. First you know that there are many types and shapes of clouds up there, and that they are mostly found in three kinds of groups: Cumulus, Cirrus and Stratus. Mostly we’ll be dealing with cumulus clouds, as these are the most common, puffy clouds. (Though in reality most clouds will have something of a flat base.)

Remember that a clouds color is determined by things like the clouds relative position to the sun, and for that reason you’ll want to figure out where your ’sun’ is and paint the part of the clouds nearest the sun more white, and the part furthest away and on the bottom the darkest.

I’ve found the best color combinations for making clouds is Velvet Sky Blue, Titanium White, and either Neutral or Payne’s Gray with a rather stiff brush that you can use to stipple; not brush, the paint on gets the best results. Mix it up a little: don’t make ’seams’ in your clouds by abruptly changing color.

Always bear in mind the forced perspective here: as you get further away, they get smaller, and the whites get less bright. (All that dust in the atmosphere between you and that distant cloud!) Not a huge amount, but some.

When depicting clouds that have rain in them, realize that they darker near the bottom of the cloud as the water begins to collect and the water vapor blocks sunlight from entering the cloud. If you’d like to portray a thunderstorm, one idea I’ve heard of (though not yet seen!) is to use a flash concealed behind the backdrop, make some small holes in the backdrop itself, and then have an environmental audio tape  of a thunderstorm running. Gonna have to try that one! 

Depicting the land and mountains underneath this stunning skyscape you’ve created will share the same principles as the sky in terms of sun and distance. The mountains most distant will also have a duller appearance, often characterized by a blue or gray tint.

Again, this is a product of the moisture and dust in the air between you and the mountains. The shape of your mountains is up to you, as there is no ’standard’ shape. Be mindful of the shadows you’ll work into them, keeping in mind your light source.

As the mountains start to get closer to your layout, the colors become more vibrant, and obviously more detail becomes apparent. Trees that were barely discernible in the distance now have incredible detail. Keep in mind having consistent tree line in your mountains, as well as making sure to highlight the sun side of your trees with a little gray and white on both the branches along with the trunks, still keeping in  mind the direction of your light source.

Adding the close detail can be the most fun but is also the most time-consuming. Imagine: painting all of those pine needles one by one! Not me! I use a technique where you can lightly apply or dab the paint directly over a brush, creating the effect you want. Again keep your highlights in mind and the size you’ve showing at any given spot.

Another trick is to incorporate photos of structures on our backdrops. A good color copy reduced to the appropriate size and glued to the wall and blended in can add a stunning reality to your layout. If you think about it, it’s not really any different than buying a backdrop and applying it, except that you’ve created this, and ultimately you have more control. And while you’re probably more interested in creating your own backdrop than purchasing one, this little trick can add a dimension you might not have been able to create.

Planning and executing a stunning model train backdrop is an ambitious project, but one well worth the effort when you gaze upon that beautiful view of the Rocky Mountains (or whatever scene melts your butter!) that you’ve created!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Barry Duniec December 11, 2008 at 3:02 pm

Thanks for your great help. I love the idea’s. I’m working on my Attic RR backdrop rightnow and really needed this help.
Kind regards from the Netherlands, Barry

richard May 11, 2010 at 2:38 pm

It would be nice if there were more images within your articles. It’s all well and good descriing backdrops being used, but adding a simple picture would show the effect that can be achieved easily.

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