How to paint a backscene

12 September 2021
Howard Smith shares how basic techniques benefit the most reticent of artists, to transform their model railways into a more immersive experience.

Railways belong in a landscape. For a more convincing appearance, the same is true of their model counterparts, that’s why I feel all layouts should have a backdrop. It doesn’t matter what form this takes, from a plain stretched sky-blue canvas, to a painted picture, printed landscape, or even a photo-realistic custom effort, so long as it helps limit what the viewer sees. Even basic backscenes will create a visual block between the model and everything that surrounds it, from clutter to brick walls.

My preference is for a photo-realistic backscene, but let’s face it, unless you’ve access to a large-scale high-quality printer and you’re a dab hand at using image manipulation software, expect to have to pay someone a fair sum to complete the work for you, or accept mediocre results on a small home printer.

In such cases, painting your own backscene is a better option – fear not though, you needn’t be a maestro of brush techniques to obtain acceptable results. The key is to create something that will enhance your layout, not detract from the modelling. It should be complementary, not overpowering – there, but not noticeably visible. 

Let's get started.

Shopping list

  • 1in and 3in decorator’s brush
  • Crown White Undercoat
  • White Rose fibreboard
  • Homebase Tester Pots: Dolphin Blue, Turtle Dove, Night Time Blue, Mossy Green, Parched Earth, Pale Olive, Zebra Black, Fresh Herb, Earthy Clay and Angel Pink


Choose your backscene material wisely. I’ve opted for that provided by White Rose Modelworks – a stable and dense fibreboard. Consider the environment in which your material will stand. Humidity, and excess heat can lead to deformations or mould growth.


Sealing the material is a wise move, though not obligatory. Taking a ‘belt and braces’ approach, I paint a white undercoat from Crown, suitable for interior or exterior use, with a 3in brush onto the backscene. Work quickly as this solvent-based paint dries quickly.


Eliminating brush marks from a hand-painted backscene is difficult, so rather than attempt to hide them, simply embrace their hand-crafted look. Keep brush strokes in one direction, working horizontally to prevent swirls in the paint that can be harder to disguise. Set aside and leave for 16 hours to dry.


Dividing the board into three sections with masking tape provides three separate areas onto which I can practise techniques and different skies. The last time I carried out any painting that wasn’t home decorating was more than 12 years ago. A little experimenting is required – wish me luck!


Using a 1in decorator’s brush, to the left panel I apply a coat of Blue Dolphin, working from the top, downwards. All 90ml colour tester paints for this project came from a D.I.Y store, costing a pound each. Their contents are enough for a small layout backscene.


The smallest drop of Night Time Blue is added to Blue Dolphin on a palette and worked across the top of the sky. Look at most skies under normal viewing conditions and the hue of the colour intensifies the closer it is to the viewer. On a layout, this translates to darker tones of blue or off-blue, to the top of the backscene. Blend colours together before they dry for best results.


To the right-hand panel, I’m hoping to achieve a sky with a little more drama, but not one that is overpowering and detracts attention from the layout. Turtle Dove is a suitably grey sky colour, though use sparingly. Don’t worry if some areas are a little darker than others and keep brush strokes horizontally in the same direction, for now.


A side-by-side comparison revealed that the Turtle Dove to the right panel was a little too dark, so its effect was subdued by applying a mixture of Blue Dolphin and the smallest amount of Night Time Blue, working the brush in a circular swirling motion across the board. Blend the colours together at the bottom, working the brush horizontally as though dry brushing.


Returning to the Turtle Dove, an old washing-up sponge is dabbed – sponge, not scourer side – into the paint, before dabbing the majority off on a piece of paper towel. What remains on the sponge is dabbed on the backscene to create cloud shapes. Find a technique that works for you, remembering that clouds catch the sunlight to their tops or have a ‘silver lining’, and have shadows underneath.


I’m keeping the landscape free of detail. I find that painted trees look like just that. If you really must have trees, try forced perspective before you reach your backdrop, placing these on the layout instead. For trees on a backdrop, use flock and clump foliage to make a 3D effect. Fresh Herb is painted, using the edge of the brush to cut a neat horizon line on the hill. Keep hills free-flowing and avoid ‘Teletubby’ mounds.


Feather out the paint toward the bottom of the backscene. Most of what has been painted here won’t be seen under normal viewing conditions, the visible part of the horizon line being just a few centimetres beneath the summit of the hill.


The colour of the landscape should reflect that of the sky for best results. An overcast and dull day is unlikely to yield vistas of a well-lit landscape. Even on a well-lit day, distant hills are a muted colour, hence use muted colours. Pale Olive is used on the right-hand panel.


The Pale Olive is applied to the foreground of the landscape to the left panel, while the right-hand panel foreground is treated to Mossy Green – ideal for representing a moorland. The white horizontal line represents baseboard level, everything beneath which would be hidden from view. Painting these simplistic landscapes brings back the old Bob Ross adage of Have Some More Fun – Horizon, Sky, Middle and Foreground – the preferential order in which to paint. Comparing the two backscenes, the one to the left is more muted with a rationalised sky, making it easier to paint for the less confident, though hopefully, even the one to the right with more cloud coverage will be found not to clash with layout scenery.
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Adding buildings


Earthy Clay and Parched Earth are used to create outline shapes of a church, barn and shed in the distance. I painted these free-hand with a flat brush to create sharper edges, but remember to create an impression of something in the distance. Ultimate accuracy isn’t essential here. Remember to use muted colours.


Roofs are painted a slate colour, though on reflection, perhaps this colour is a little dark for buildings so far away. Hindsight is wonderful!


Distant hedges can be created by stippling green to create rounded shapes. Wipe most of the paint from the brush on your palette or some paper towel before doing this, to prevent splodges of colour.


Distant hedgerows or trees can hide a multitude of sins, though use them carefully. Although very basic and painted in just a few minutes with little to no artistic skill, when viewed from a distance, they appear acceptable. When blended into the layout with scatter and flock material to the foreground, and with the addition of a sky, I’m sure many modellers will be pleased with their results. With more practice before commencing on a larger project, satisfying results can be achieved. I'd encourage you to try painting your own, regardless of your agility with paint brushes.

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