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Every model railroad layout, from empires that fill an entire basement right down to tiny dioramas are greatly enhanced with the addition of a backdrop. These backdrops can range from simply painting the backdrop with sky blue, all the way to fully painted scenes with sky and clouds, mountains, rivers, and buildings. These can set the mood, location and era of your model railroad and really bring it to life. Do painted back scenes sound to difficult for you to achieve?  Well, their not! 

Even if you haven't held a paintbrush in your hand, you can achieve a good backdrop for your layout. Give these methods a try out on a small test board and see how easy they really are.


After you have painted your entire backdrop with SKY BLUE paint and allowed it to fully dry, using a soft pencil, mark a line where your background (mountains, trees, buildings etc.) meets the sky. This is called the HORIZON LINE. Now to give the sky some real depth. Making the SKY BLUE fade to almost white at the horizon line will give the sky great depth. We can do this by using a can of MATT WHITE spray paint, holding it about 12" (300mm) from the horizon line, pointing it toward the sky area at a angle of about 10 to 15 degrees and spray the entire way across the back drop. Repeat until you are happy with the transition from the hazy white to the sky blue at the top of your backdrop.

We could leave the sky at this stage represent a fine cloudless summers day, however by adding clouds to the sky, we can really enhance the feeling of depth in our back scene, and make our layout appear much bigger than it really is.

Now how to make clouds. Forget artist brushes and palette knives, these require to much skill and often don't achieve the desired random results anyway. What we need is a quick and foolproof method that anyone can use to produce clouds on a mass scale on our model backdrops. First, have a look at the sky on a semi cloudy day and you will notice that the close clouds are pure white while the closer they get to the horizon they are, the bluer they get. Also, the shadow under the cloud varies. The clouds in the distance have only a thin line of shadow on the bottom of them because we are seeing them side on. The closer the cloud is to us, the more we see under it, thus seeing a bigger area of grey shadow, until the cloud is directly over us and all we see is the gray shadow with maybe a white edge. We can use these simple facts to achieve very realistic yet easy clouds for our sky. We can also add a simple trick to enhance the look of depth. That is to make the clouds smaller as they recede into the distance. While this is  not the case in the real world, having large clouds nearest you and smaller as they recede does enhance the feeling of great depth.

What do we need to achieve these clouds. First - the whites in the clouds. You will need three jars, and into each pour enough WHITE paint to do all the required clouds. Leave the first jar pure white (to be used for the nearest clouds), into the second jar pour a small amount of the SKY BLUE - about 5% by volume (to be used for the mid distance clouds) and in the third jar pour twice the amount of SKY BLUE as you did into the second jar - about 10% by volume (this is for the most distant clouds). The only other colour you will need is a MID GREY to be used for the shadows under the clouds.

The best and quickest method to produce clouds is to use a foam stamp. To make one of these, cut a piece of soft foam to about 100mm by 75mm by about 50mm thick (4"x 3" x 2"). Hold the foam in one hand and with the other pick of bits of foam until you have a very irregular foam stamp. As well, pick the edge for thinner and smaller clouds. 

Now, with this foam stamp, using a 25mm (1") brush, paint some of the bluest white onto the face of the foam and stamp a few small thin clouds onto the area just above your horizon line. We always start at the horizon and work forward overlapping the clouds, which again helps add depth. Repeat with the mid blue white paint stamping mid sized clouds, and finally with the pure white for the closest and biggest clouds. Mix up a very soft light grey and with a very thin piece of foam add the under shadow to the clouds, remembering what was said above about the farther away a cloud, the thinner the under shadow.

Mountains can be added using a similar piece of soft sponge, and dipping into a mid blue or soft purple paint and dragging across the area below the line you marked earlier. When dry, add darker and lighter areas with the sponge or a brush to add form to the mountains. Hills are done using the same method, but with green colours. To add trees. Cut a piece of the sponge into a stamp with tree shapes as can seen at right. Now simply dab into light to dark green paint and stamp on trees.

These techniques can be seen in the sample back scene at left, and will achieve a good back scene in a short time, and with little experience.




How many layouts have you visited where the layout is beautifully finished, with all the track, buildings, trees, people etc. in place, but if there is a backdrop, its only a flat blue painted wall. The layout just doesn't look finished. Its hard to pick the location or era being modelled, and there just isn't the full atmosphere. This is where the backdrop is so critical in setting the location, the era and the atmosphere of our layout. And they are not as difficult to do as many modellers think. We have quite a few options to choose from, and there is sure to be one that will suit your layout and abilities.


Once the sky is completed, it is time to consider the background. The type and size of the background (hills, mountains, desert etc.) should be decided upon when you are planning your layout, so the sky, background and foreground (the layout itself) will all tie together with a smooth transition. However if you haven't done this, don't worry because you can still fit a back scene onto your layout.


There are numerous manufacturers of commercial back scenes, with most of them having the ability to butt one to the other to form a continuous scene. You can use them as they are, however sometimes the sky colour doesn't match at the join, and often there is not enough height to the sky for your situation. And seeing as we have just painted our own sky complete with clouds, we might as well us it.

Taking a sharp knife, cut the sky of the back scene, and lightly sand the backing paper off, so there will be no shadow or hard edge. Position the scene onto your painted sky and using masking tape, tape along the bottom edge of the back scene. Fold down, apply glue, and fold back up and smooth out any air bubbles. If you can see the join with the next scene, a well placed tree, telephone pole or building will help disguise this join. The major problem with commercial back scenes is that it is often impossible to get just the right scene, or to get a scene that will suit your prototype, location and era of your layout.


With the new generation of colour photocopiers, it is now possible to do a colour copy of one of your photographs or from a colour print from a book, and enlarge it up to four times the size of the original i.e. if the original is 12" (300mm) wide it can be photocopied up to 48" (1200mm) wide. The biggest paper these machines will take is `A3' size, so the machine will automatically divide the original up and print it onto individual sheets that join together with a small overlap. Once you have these photocopies, cut the sky of as in the section above and glue into position. If you live near the railroad you are modelling you can photograph the actual background of where you are modelling and really get the correct landscape behind your trains.


At a much cheaper cost than colour photocopies, it is possible to have colour or black and white photographs or prints from magazines enlarged by a normal photocopier to whatever size you require. This is done by photocopying the photocopy until you have the size required. Its best to do the final copy on the lightest setting as this will only be a guide. The sky can then be cut off and the photocopies glued into position onto our painted sky. Now using the original as a guide, the photocopies can be coloured in using artist water or oil paints. Itís as easy as painting by numbers like when we were kids.


Do you think hand painting your back scene is far beyond your artistic abilities? Well, itís not! With a few tricks it is really easy. As we did in section 3 above, enlarge photocopies to the desired size, cut of the sky, and then with a very soft lead pencil, rub lead over the entire back of the sheets to form a light carbon paper. Position the photocopies on your painted sky and tape with masking tape. Using a pen or sharp pencil draw as much detail onto the back scene as you will require. When this is done, remove the photocopies and put aside. Again, as we did in section 3, You can now fill in the back scene, using the original photo or print as a guide, using artist water paints, acrylics, pencils or pastels .

This option can be used in conjunction with any of the above methods to fill in between different commercial or photocopy back scenes or to do transitions between different back scenes.

Give any of the above options a try out on a small test back scene and you will be surprised just how easy it really is to achieve a good customized back scene for your particular railroad or diorama.