Painting a backdrop for a model train layout



My first oil painting was an attempt at painting a backdrop for a very short section of rail that our model trains run on while they are being built and tested. The track sits on a desk about 1.5 metres wide and 1 metre deep.

I was quite pleased with the painting but when we put the train in front of it, I realised I'd got the scale completely wrong! The trees were monstrously large.

So, we bought another piece of MDF and cut it to size.

This time I decided to use acrylics as I had watched a video by Tom Lund about how to paint backdrops for model railways and it seemed like an excellent technique. Unfortunately I doubt if you can still get this DVD.

Of course, Tom makes it look easy... it wasn't so easy in practice.

I started with a large tin of the cheapest white tradie's undercoate paint I could buy - $18 for 5 litres. Then another tin of the same cheap brand, tinted to a sky blue - a shade darker than sky colour. Note that Australian skies have a lot of purple in them if you look at the sky above you - take the paint chip outside and check it against the real sky. Then choose a shade darker, because you'll be adding white into it. At the horizon, the sky is more greenish, but you don't need to worry too much about that, just make it lighter. There will be trees in front of that part!

Once the white undercoat had dried, I applied the blue all over with a roller. The roller needs to be one that will make a nice flat, even surface (it needs to be low pile, e.g. 5mm, or a sponge roller).

While the blue was still wet, I took a brush (quite a big one) with more of the white paint, and painted white at the bottom of the panel, gradually blending into the blue about one third of the way up.

Next I started on the clouds, using a stippling technique rather than brushing. The clouds have the whitest, brightest part on the top left (where the sun is shining on them). I used the brush to soften the right side and the bottom of the clouds, blending them into the sky. Tom uses the brush quite softly. His clouds looked much better than mine, I'm sure they improve with practice.

Perspective is very important in a backdrop, and the clouds need to be larger at the top of the panel (these are the ones that are 'closest' to the viewer, overhead) and smaller at the horizon, as those are furthest away.

For the rest of the scene I used regular tube acrylics, with some clear gel medium and water when needed to thin them out.

Next I painted hills at the horizon, to add to the sense of depth. I mixed some green, added some red to dull it down and a bit of blue. This was the furthest hills (look up aerial perspective if you're not familiar with this concept). The closer hills were painted with the same green with no blue added, and with some red and yellow partially mixed in to liven it up. The right side of the hills is darker to give an impression of shadow. I added a few trees (bigger as they come closer). Trees at the very top of hills help to give a sense of distance.

I painted the river using a thin mixture of the colour I used for the closer hills, leaving streaks and areas of blue and white from the underpainting.

Lastly I painted the foreground, with some grass and a few trees, being careful to keep them in scale with the train which would be placed in front of the scene.

The backdrop is not finished - for example, the trees don't have any shading - but for now we will put it up behind the track for a week or so. After observing it for a while we will be able to see where it can be improved.