How I Painted Backdrops for My Model Railroad – Part 2

I can’t stress enough that you can do this. Believe me, if I can paint backdrops and have them turn out half-way decent, you can do it too.

In Part 1, I included a list of the paint colors most often used for painting backdrops. All of the paint is acrylic, which cleans up easily with water. When you start painting your backdrops, you will start by using light colors on the highest parts of your canvas (whatever your canvas material may be. I chose to use foam board.)

Obviously, not being an artist, I’m not including mixtures that will give you exact shades of colors for your backdrops. With me, it was trial and error. If you are an artist I don’t think you’ll be spending time reading this anyway.

In the photos you can see the mountainous look beginning to take shape. I used a mixture of blue and grey to paint mountains furthest away, the lightest blue is sky. The light shade of green below the blue is the first layer indicating the next mountain range.

The beautiful thing about painting in layers is that you can really mess up the first layer, (like I did many times fighting with my shaking hands), and totally fix and change it with the next layer. You don’t want perfect tree tops anyway. To me, a great amount of variation is best, just like you would see in a real photo or in person. Let your brush go and find your way as you dab the paint on.

I allowed each layer to dry before starting the next layer. If you lay wet paint on wet paint, the colors will begin to mix on the canvas and on your brush. Maybe that will work for you, but I didn’t want to take the chance.

With each layer of tree-covered mountains, the colors get darker, indicating the mountains are closer. In the middle photo is the beginning of a river, indicated by the white curved triangle, giving the appearance of the river coming toward you.

I definitely made mistakes, but was able to manage them pretty well. In the photo on the left, there is a light area that doesn’t look great, but I can live with it. I also left some large grassy-appearing areas in the foreground that I will make smaller by placing 3D trees on the layout in front of them. Placing trees on the layout is my next big project.

The section of backdrop in the photo on the left is my first attempt. It’s not great, and I changed it a little by painting pine trees in that appear closer, and adding rocks at the bottom. This one will again be doctored by placing trees and foliage in front of it. This one is on the right end of the layout, so it isn’t in a prominent spot. I’m happy with the other backdrops, and to me, there is an illusion of distance to the horizon. Structures, trees, and ground cover will blend the contrast between the rocky areas and the green backdrops.

Shading is an important part of painting backdrops. In any scene, whether in a photograph or a painting of landscapes, there is a source of light so there are light and shaded areas. As you can see on the painted pines, the left side is lighter, indicating light coming from the left. It also appears to give the tree a rounded shape. I used a small paint brush to blot the pine trees into existence. The individual pine trees in the center photo were made with a fan brush. The important thing to remember about indicating a light source is that it must be consistent throughout your backdrop paintings. You don’t want some areas appearing as if the sun is on the left, and others on the right.

Including roads and rivers in a backdrop is another challenge because, somehow, you have to make them appear they are coming toward you. This is accomplished by the use of a magical vanishing point. Perspective in drawing or painting is how objects are made to appear closer or more distant and still remain in proper size relation with each other. A road, for example, seems to disappear at the vanishing point, (which is why it’s called a vanishing point!), and comes toward you where it is widest, closest to you. You are looking at a flat painting, yet you see a road or river coming toward you. Magic!

I used perspective to paint a small cabin and a shed on the backdrop section in the left and center photos. The shed is smaller than the cabin. Vanishing points and shades of color were used on both structures, so instead of looking like flat squares, they appear to be 3D structures. Painting a curved road is a little tricky. You’re still moving it toward the vanishing point but adding a curve while still creating the illusion of distance away from you.

I didn’t want the Maple Valley river to end at the backdrop, so I had to paint the river, allowing it to vanish somewhere in the distance. For a rank amateur, I think it turned out pretty well! The wooden bridge nearest the backdrop will be a road connecting industries on either side of the river.

When all the painting was finished, the foam boards curved as a result of the paint drying and constricting. Ughhh! I didn’t want to just glue them on the wall because I was afraid they would come loose. So, lacking any other solution, I held each foam board, painted/curved toward me, put pressure on the back side and pushed until the foam board buckled. I did that about every two inches the entire length of the board. Result? The foam board was straight and the paint did not crack, miraculously. I was at the point of either total disaster, or breakthrough results. Luckily, the end result was great. I used hot glue to fasten the foam boards to the cinder block wall, and they are secured tightly.

Finally, as I mentioned in Part 1, there are several YouTube videos demonstrating backdrop painting that were very helpful. I am including a list, and I encourage you to watch them if you are considering painting your own backdrops.

How To Paint Model Railroad Backdrops with Rob Spangler – YouTube

Model Railroad Adventures with Bill E103 – The Joys of Painting (A Backdrop 😄) by Request – YouTube

Painting a Model Railroad Backdrop – YouTube

Learn How to Paint Mountains – Acrylic Painting Lesson by JM Lisondra – YouTube

Paint Basic Rocks by Stream – YouTube (I watched this one over and over again!)

If you search “Painting Model Railroad Backdrops” you will find dozens of examples.

I wish you luck in your efforts to paint your own model railroad backdrops!

Progress on the Maple Valley Short Line

My last model railroading post was in September. I was elbows-deep in plaster powder and working hard to move my layout project toward some kind of coherency. Now, after almost 80 pounds of plaster, trials and failures with various mixtures of acrylic paint, I am really pleased with the Maple Valley Short Line. It’s almost time to begin laying track.

Placing and painting the plaster rocks I made using Woodland Scenics molds was a challenge. I watched several videos for inspiration but it finally came down to just doing it. I immediately discovered how quickly liquid plaster hardens when it contacts the plaster rocks. I took a few missteps before getting it right.

I decided exactly where the rocks, large and small, were going to go before I mixed plaster. I had all my tools close by, paper towels handy, then prepared the plaster. After attaching the rocks to the plaster surface I let them dry completely before starting the process of filling the spaces behind the rocks and blending with the surrounding area.

I was again faced with preparing exactly the right consistency of plaster to allow for working with it before it solidified. The best option for me was to mix only enough plaster to work on a couple of rocks then starting over again. Using painting tools I worked the plaster into the background until I was pleased with the appearance.

Some modelers paint rocks before placing them into the layout. I decided to fasten the rocks and then paint. It was much easier to blend the rocks into the surrounding area by painting last. If I made a mistake, it was easy to mix up a little more plaster and do a repair. My paper-towel-plaster-saturated-squares worked nicely for creating a realistic-looking rocky background.

Applying plaster to the insides of my short tunnels, three of them, was another learning experience. I scooped up some plaster in my hand and reached into the tunnel, smearing the mix on the walls and roof. After each application I waited a few minutes before inspecting to see whether I needed more. When the inside was finished, I applied the plaster portals to the tunnel face then painted the inside with a gray wash.

I was faced with the task of painting the pink extruded foam base of the layout, which meant deciding on the perfect color. I chose a sandy-dirt color which I bought at Home Depot. Just a quart was plenty for covering the entire exposed pink foam. The flat paint mixture resulted in a pleasing base color for applying ground cover during the scenery process. I used some grass-dirt-foliage remains from a previous layout to begin spreading over the wet paint.

When the plastering was finished, it was time to begin painting. I started with a yellow wash using a quart-size dollop of acrylic mixed with water. I sloppily covered the rocks and surroundings. I then applied light tan, using the same mixture ratio. I splashed the paint on, not trying to completely cover the yellow but just enough to let some show through. I allowed the yellow and tan to try.

I then applied a mixture of grey, blue, a drop of black, brown, and green, diluted well, to the area. I allowed the paint to flow down the rock face, again without trying to cover it. I dabbed the paint mixture here and there until I was satisfied with the result.

I spent a couple months trying to decide how to seat my scratch-built trestle on the river bed. I considered several possibilities and decided none would work well. I finally realized the best option was to do as real bridge builders do, go down to bedrock. I positioned the trestle, marked the river bed, then cut out the plaster and foam all the way to the plywood base. I then replaced the trestle and used basswood pieces to build up the foundation to the bottom of the bridge pilings.

Obviously, the most important point about placing a trestle is that the bridge deck is perfectly level with the approaching cork roadbed. To accomplish it, I used two small modeling clamps to attach a twenty-four inch piece of yardstick to the bridge deck and laid it on the roadbed approaches to the river.

My bridge near the town of Maple Valley wasn’t as difficult to deal with. It’s a deck supported by three wood structures so leveling everything was much easier. Preparing the area under the bridge with some ground cover and weeds before gluing it in place makes the scenery task a snap.

It’s time now to begin placing turnouts and thinking about wiring. I use DC cabs and have depended on common-rail for past layouts. For the Maple Valley Short Line I’m going to run buss feeds for the entire layout. I have scratch-built signals for blocks I will wire with Atlas Relays. I’m going to use a separate power source for all accessories. I am also going to use a separate cab to operate trains on the various spurs including the line running to Maple Valley.

I have been working on my layout over two years but recently I’ve been making exciting progress. I like to have several projects going at the same time and this year has been no exception. When I work on my layout, I have quiet jazz playing on my phone, a hot cup of coffee within reach, and try not to get distracted.

Believe it or not, laying flex-track is easy compared to everything I’ve already done. This is the most detailed layout I have ever built. The biggest challenge remaining is painting the backdrop. The paper visible in some of the photos is just to protect the white walls from plaster and paint splash. I was going to use a paintable material on the wall as a canvass but my daughter, who is an art teacher and accomplished artist, recommends painting directly on the wall. She has even volunteered to paint the backdrop for me. I might want to do it myself. We’ll see.