How To Create A Backdrop 
On Your Model Railroad

Let's begin with a novel idea for a scenery backdrop I saw on <br>the CARM 2008  layout tour.

model railroad ceiling clouds backdropPainted clouds on ceiling

Why add a backdrop?

  • Frame the scene.
  • Hide distractions such as pipes, columns and benchwork.
  • Act as a divider to separate elements and layout sections.
  • Provide a background for photography.
  • Give depth perception from foreground to horizon.</li>


When to add a backdrop

Artists advise you to erect or paint the backdrop before building the benchwork and laying the track.  I'm not smart enough to do that. I can't visualize the scene well enough, so like most model railroaders the scenery backdrop comes afterwards.

The main problem in installing the backdrop first is not getting paint and glue all over the backdrop when you build the foreground scenery later. The problem with installing the scenery backdrop after scenery is in place is being able to reach the area without destroying work you've already done.

If your layout is freestanding or is a module, you can sometimes put it together at your workbench and then install it.

Whichever way you decide to do it, keep in mind these points:

  • Horizon:

You need to establish the point where the scenery meets the sky. This is your horizon and affects the vanishing point.  This is easier said than done in practice because we are all a different height and the benchwork height varies. For example, I am over 6 feet tall and my lower benchwork is at 38" and the upper is nominally at 48".  Therefore I am looking down at scenes on the lower level and upper scenes are more at eye level. 

My rule of thumb is do whatever looks and feels right for you. If you have others who come over to play with the trains they may or may not see the scene in the same way.

  • Shadows: 

Give consideration to the lighting you will use. Can you orient the lights to shine in the same direction? 

Which way should shadows fall in your backdrop? 

This is more important if you are using commercial background scenes like "Realistic Backgrounds" or if you are using cut-outs or photocopies from magazines. If you are painting your scenery backdrop you can plan ahead.

  • Perspective 

This is another form of "selective compression".  I have seen excellent results where a modeler has used an N scale or Z scale building or railroad car in the background of a scene. John Allen was one of the first to use this trick on his famous Gorre and Daphetid ("gory and defeated") model railway.  He used it for a town high up in the background. 

model railroad street receding backdropStreet receding into backdrop

You can also create the perspective effect directly on the painted backdrop as is evident in this picture from Richard Chrysler's HO scale layout. I photographed on the CARM 2008 layout tour. Note the way the road and telephone poles lead towards the horizon vanishing point. 

What to use for backdrops?

You can buy commercial backgrounds as I have often done on my Utopia Northern RR layouts over the years.

model railroad commercial backdropCommercial backdrop

A "Realistic Backgrounds" commercial background forms the basis for this backdrop. Photographing commercial backdrops can be tricky because the colors don't alway show well due to the dot pattern from the printing process. The backdrop looks far better up close. 

Note that I have cut out the sky that comes with the commercial background and mounted the industry scene on black foamboard. This gives it a 3D relief effect. The backdrop is affixed with 3M Spray Mount. You can affix it as permanent or moveable for repositioning. I prefer the second method.

  • You can build the backdrop with tempered masonite, styrene or paint and affix directly to the drywall or wall. 

I usually use masonite cut from 8-foot sheets. If you know someone in the billboard advertising business you can try the styrene panels that are used on buses or transit shelters. Often these are thrown away after the campaign is finished. You can also buy sheets from a plastics dealer but this can be expensive.

model railroad backdrop painted on wallBackdrop of trees painted directly on wall
model railroad backdrop on cinder block wallGord painted on the cinder block wall
model railroad backdrop photo and paintCut-out photo with painted backdrop
model railway backdrop photo on painted wallCement plant photo glued to wall

Or you can paint directly on the wall. I've seen a lot of this done lately. I guess people have decided they aren't moving anymore! Gord Baverstock of Owen Sound has painted his backgrounds directly on the basement's cement walls. Have a look at his HO scale layout. Gord also used cut-outs of pictures that he affixed directly to the painted background on the cinder blocks. The result is very effective from a few feet away in the aisle. It is also a clever way of avoiding trying to paint buildings or complicated scenes when you don't have the artistic talent (like me). You can see the buildings in the photo behind the freight cars in the yard. Gord combines colored photocopies and pictures cut from train magazines, the National Geographic, and any other magazines that have interesting photos and glues them to the wall and to each other. The effect is quite stunning.

Gord resizes pictures on a color photocopier to creative perspective making scenes appear much further away. Resize photos to get the effect you want. You can "force the perspective". This works in any scale. The farther away, the smaller the picture.

Thumb through old magazines. Keep the pictures that might work even if the size looks wrong at first. Keep an eye on the direction of the shadows. My camera didn't do justice to Gord's work due to the incandescent lighting.

I remember from school the poet Wordsworth's comment about "the willing suspension of disbelief." Another way of saying this is, "We see what we want to see." Our brains fill in the blanks. You don't have to create a perfect representation.

It is possible to make the familiar unfamiliar. Most of us have seen these commercially available city backdrops. Gord has built up layers by gluing them on top of each other. You can also create a 3D effect by mounting some of them on cardboard, foam core, or styrene.

Gord's city backdrop is made with overlapping commercially available backdrops. model railroad city backgrounds

You'll notice in these photos that Gord doesn't have a lot of headroom in some of these layout locations. Commercial backdrops can sometimes be used "as is" if the size is right for you. For example, the Realistic Backgrounds sheets are 13" X 38".

If you have room, or a greater separation between deck levels, it is often preferable to cut out the sky because the colors are difficult to match and you'll have a seam line to disguise. 

Vertical seams between panels can be covered by chimney stacks or buildings (unless you have filled them with drywall compound or putty and sanded them smooth), but a horizontal seam can be more troublesome. 

If you're lucky enough to have a bridge or track running at the seam line you can get away with it. Otherwise, paint your own sky.

Painting sky and clouds
for background scenery

There are a few basic techniques to do this. Go outside and look at a cloudy sky. The clouds are further apart directly overhead and get closer and closer as they approach the horizon. Their bottoms are in shadow. The sky is bluer overhead and gets progressively hazier and grayer as it gets to the horizon.

How do you duplicate this effect? I can tell you what I've tried with pretty satisfactory results. Find a light blue that looks right to you under the lighting you are using. Then find a lighter gray. Bring home some paint chips from a paint store.  Get your self a scrap of drywall or masonite.  

Use a 3" paint brush and apply the darker blue in horizontal strokes from the top to about halfway down the sheet. Then  while still wet apply the grayish white paint in horizontal strokes from the bottom up into the blue paint. You want to blend the two colors where they meet. It is best to work in approximately 3-foot sections so the paint doesn't dry on you.

Once dry, I used Mini Premier latex low lustre paint with built-in foam brush to create the clouds. These are small containers for testing paint color that decorators use. Other brands sell tubes or small cans of paint. Another brand I've used are labeled Debbie Travis from Trileaf Distribution in Toronto, Canada. I found mine at Canadian Tire and Home Depot.  Check the paint department where you shop. they'll have something similar.

model railroad cloud backdropMy clouds were done with sponges

Some people use jagged cutout cloud-shaped templates and spray paint the clouds while moving the template. This is an old photographic technique for dodging to avoid sharp edges. I prefer the foam brush technique for blending the colors. Don't forget to add a few birds flying with a little black paint.

The photo on the right is my cloud-painting result using foam brushes, sponges and test paint containers.

Update: March, 2017

coved backdropA coved metal corner on George's HO layout

Fellow club member, George Warren, is building an HO representation of the CNR line from Owen Sound to Palmerston, Ontario in 1958. He has used metal sheeting to do his backdrop so he could easily cove the corners. The sheeting is what eavestrough companies use. It comes in 50 foot rolls and I believe is 2 feet wide. The layout is a work-in-progress.

After installing the metal with double-sided tape he painted on the blue sky feathering from blue at the top to white at the bottom and then painted on clouds. He continued the blue above the backdrop to the ceiling. He intends to add details such as trees and buildings on the bottom of the sheets.

coved backdrop cornerThe coved metal sheets with the clouds and sky extended on the room's walls.
corner coving on a model train layoutOverall view of the coved metal and the backdrop blending in the train room.

George told me he discovered the technique in a back issue of Model Railroader magazine from a decade ago. Incidentally, George is hand laying all his track in Code 83 and 70 and using MicroEngineering and hand-laid Fast Track turnouts. It should be quite a layout when it's completed.

Painting trees for background scenery

model railroad backdrop of painted treesHand-painted pine trees on masonite backdrop

I have found in my travels on layout tours that often the best effect is created by restricting the detail in background painting. Unless you're a very good artist, it is safer to keep your backgrounds muted so they don't fight with the foreground models. 

As the scenes recede there is less and less detail and the air gets hazier and hazier. Some modelers overspray the backgrounds with a light gray wash of paint.

With this in mind, try painting some trees. If you don't like the effect, paint over everything with a light gray paint and start again. You can't hurt anything. Just keep the strokes light. Pine trees are easiest to simulate. Here is my first attempt at painting background trees.

Here is an excellent example of fall foliage painted on a background photographed on the CARM 2008 layout tour.

model railroad autumn foliage background scenery
Trees in autumn foliage painted on background.

Another very effective technique is to combine a painted background with low relief buildings. This works well on a narrow shelf where there isn't a lot of room.

model railroad 3D building background scenery

Side view of 3D background buildings on a narrow shelf from CARM 2008 layout tour.

model railroad narrow building foreground scenery

This layout also used narrow foreground buildings on the aisle side.

Here's a clever backdrop divider I photographed on Bill Scobie's layout during the Niagara Frontier Region (NFR) 2008 convention in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

painted backdrop divider

Painted backdrop divider

These two painted backdrops were on Dave Primeau's layout on that same layout tour.

model railroad painted autumn foliage backdrop

Painted autumn foliage backdrop

painted backdrop divider

Note the perspective here with the building on the hilltop in the distance.

Tom Hood's fantastic layout had some terrific painted backdrop scenes. Many of the ottawa modelers painted directly on the walls.

painted backdrop mountains

Painted mountains on backdrop

painted backdrop mountains

Other painted mountains on backdrop

painted backdrop mountains

Another painted mountain scene

For more ideas, browse other model pictures and scenery backdrop photos accessible from my  Train Photos Overview page.

There's an excellent reference "how to" guide available from Kalmbach Books that will answer just about any backdrop question you may have.

Or check out Lou Sassi's book.

 Check back from time to time as I will keep adding pictures. The pages will be listed on the overview page.

Learn about building terrain

Need to make some trees?

Methods for modeling roads and streets.

Catch attention with mini-scenes.

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