Backdrop Painting
Tips And Techniques

Wall needing a backdrop
backdrop painting

I'm no artist, but every once in awhile a little talent leaks out.  Many of us hesitate to try our hand at backdrop painting for fear of failure or, at least, less than successful results.

It is a daunting task! Well, on my last version of my Utopia Northern railway I had a corner area of a couple of square feet that was destined to be a logging camp. During operations trains picked up logs on an unscenicked length of dual scale track.

The area was listed as "Payne in the Aspens" after fellow NMRC club member, Bill Payne, who works on the electronics with me. There are no aspens there. I do have some Campbell Scale Models kits of pine trees that have been waiting for me to get around to for about 20 years. I also had a couple of pine tree kits by Color-Rite Scenery Products. They use air ferns for branches and make up very good-looking pine trees. After I started making and planting some of the pine trees I realized I had to do something about a backdrop.

The photo above shows the awkward space. A sample of the pine trees is visible on the left. The width of the area for the backdrop painting is about 21 inches. I had a piece of masonite installed there on a wooden frame. It was a leftover piece of backdrop from a previous layout and had a paper city scene on it.

The first step was to scrape off the paper as best as I could. There were a few stubborn pieces that wouldn't come off so I left them there. The overall piece of backdrop was small enough to be painted at my workbench. I won't bore you with a blow-by-blow on backdrop painting. There are lots of excellent resources in the model magazines and on the Internet. 

The first thing I did was to review what others have done and suggested. Here's a brief recap of the points that I found most helpful.

  • Colours and details are fainter and bluer the further away they are.
  • Make colours stronger in successive stages from back to foreground.
  • Maintain sun direction (mine was shining from the left).
  • Mother Nature abhors solid colours and straight lines. Bend and blend.
  • Increase the amount of detail in the nearer foreground layers.
  • Try to be subtle. Backdrops should enhance a scene, not overwhelm the trains.
  • Don't be afraid to experiment, You can always paint over it.
  • Anything you try will be better than nothing at all.


Backdrop mountain ranges
backdrop mountains

I used inexpensive acrylic paints for backdrop painting. For the sky and distant hills I used paint samples by Debbie Travis.  Colours were Cupid Blue and Eggshell. The trick is to blend the blues and greys. The higher the sky, the bluer it is. I didn't add any clouds this time. I tried to keep the tone light. These paint samples come with a sponge for application which makes it easier to blend the colours. Any brand will do. The ones I used for the hills and trees in the foreground were by DecorArt and FolkArt. Colours included Burnt Umber and Burnt Sienna and a range of greens from FolkArt's Grass Green (#2400) to darker greens such as Hunter Green and Painter's Palette Grass Green (#21929). I picked up the latter at WalMart. Use whatever looks good to you.

I used a stipple effect on the the closer hills by dabbing on the paint with a bristle-type brush. This accentuates the ridge line and suggest foliage. One of the sites I reviewed suggested using a sponge. I couldn't find a natural sponge so I tried a cellulose cleaning sponge with mixed results. I liked the possibilities of the sponge application so I'll keep looking for a better sponge.

Overlay experiment to test foreground detail
backdrop overlay test

I stippled green paint over the bottom third of the masonite for the backdrop painting and let the base colour brown of the masonite show through. It sort of looks like ground cover. Then it was time to experiment. I wasn't sure how much detail to add in the bottom foreground. I remembered that tourist picture books about archeological sites like the ruins at Pompeii used overlays to fill in the blanks.  I took a square of acetate left over from building a kit and painted on some representative free-form pine trees. Then I used Walthers Goo to attach some ground foam along the bottom.  

This gave me an opportunity to see what the effect might be without taking a chance directly on the backdrop. Once I was satisfied that it might work I applied paint to the backdrop.

For the backdrop painting I used burnt umber to suggest the tree trunks and hunter green for the overlapping branches. I followed this by highlighting the sunnier side (left) of the trees with a lighter green using a dry-brushing technique. 

 After dipping the brush in the paint I wipe it on a Kleenex of paper towel to remove most of the paint. This method controls the amount of paint. It's easier to add than take away!

 Finally, I dry brushed on some DecorArt licorice (black) to highlight the tree trunks.

Temporary placement of backdrop
temporary backdrop

In order to help disguise the bottom of the backdrop I glued on clump foliage with Goo. I also tried gluing a few branch sticks directly to the backdrop to give a 3-dimensional effect.

And remember those bumps from the leftover paper I couldn't remove easily? I turned them into rocks using shades of burnt sienna, tan, gray and licorice. If you need to tone back the overall effect you can overspray with a light misting of gray to add a haze effect. This is more common for scenes in Eastern North America where there is often a hazy sky. This can also work should you want to add some fog in the valleys. A template to control the spraying area would be helpful. I didn't go this far. Now that I've bolstered by courage to do backdrop painting I might try some new things.

I have an entire wall that hasn't been touched yet. Here's the final result of this experiment in backdrop painting.

Final backdrop painting scene
mountain backdrop painting

Now I had no excuse not to build the logging camp and ballast the track. I needed a building of some kind at the end of the track where it meets the wall. I'd thought of a tunnel portal but that didn't make sense in this instance. I also had to learn how to make some aspens or I'll had to change the name to Logging Camp #1. Meanwhile I had a bunch of pine trees to finish. Those are other stories pn other pages on my website. 

I finally did it!. Go to HO logging camp construction.

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