Does your backscene distract from your layout?

Are beautiful photo-realistic back scenes too good and distracting from our models?

In the distant past, railway modellers would paint their backdrops and it’s something I’ve tried once or twice but with great dissatisfaction resulting from my woeful ability to paint.

With the advent of digital printing, however, I was saved.

I could simply find a landscape that matched my layout, tinker with it for a while in Photoshop or another software image editing application, and print it out. This and more are explained in more detail in this article on backscenes.

Glorious, high-resolution, detailed backgrounds, were mine.

This did, however, leave me feeling a bit disgruntled. While the results were great I couldn’t help feeling like I was cheating.

I enjoy the creative aspect of modelling and creating my layouts from scratch is something I enjoy. To know that the most visible aspect of my layouts was just photographed and printed felt wrong.

There’s also the cost angle. While I have access to a good colour printer now this might not always be the case and at which point getting the prints could become expensive.

The problem — as mentioned above — is that my landscape paint skills aren’t good enough to create a back scene with the detail I felt necessary.

While surfing the web over the weekend, however, came across this post by longtime American modeller Tony Thompson. In the post, he points out that backdrops don’t need to be detailed.

In fact, often it’s desirable just to keep it simple and skip the details.

This was an eye-opener and something I’m itching to explore further.

He kindly gave me permission to repost his article below.


“Recently I happen to have had conversations with several people about simple backdrop techniques, especially the use of highly simplified skylines. I think this is something important to recognise. Let me show a couple of illustrations of what I mean.

First, a thoroughly historical example.

I had an under-layout staging area on my layout in Pittsburgh, PA, and to make it look a little nicer, I painted the track baseboards a kind of ballast grey and painted all the rails a rusty colour. That made the working area look good. The wall behind it seemed awfully plain, so I painted it sky blue. That was better but still seemed to be missing something. I decided to make a gently undulating sort of skyline, using medium grey paint with a little purple in it, to suggest a line of distant hills. Here is how it looked:

The three black posts supported the layout area above this staging. Although the train on the rear track obscures part of it, you can see the line of “hill profiles” I just mentioned.    

[A few years ago, I wrote a blog post briefly describing the tiered staging arrangement that you see above, though that post is not about the background hill line but is about the tiers of track in the staging. At the request of the then-editor of Model Railroad Planning (or MRP) Tony Koester, I had written a one-page article for the MRP issue of 1999 about this idea, and that article is available on Google Drive.]

What struck me so forcefully at the time was how effective this “hill profile” was. Obviously, no actual landscape painting has been achieved here, and certainly, no detail can be discerned, because there isn’t any. My guess was that our brains are accustomed to “reading” this kind of dim profile as meaning something far away. Thus we immediately “know” that this simple, undulating grey stripe represents hills or mountains in the distance.

     That was the idea when I needed to paint a skyline on my current layout, depicting the view southward along the Pacific coast at my mythical town of Santa Rosalia (located near the mouth of the Santa Maria River). That skyline is essentially the Casmalia Hills, leading to Point Sal, and having photographed that exact view on a visit (I have blogged about the value of visiting the locale you model, even if your railroad is a non-existent one).  I knew my cannery would cover part of it, so didn’t have to complete the painting, but just sketched in the main features I wanted. Without the cannery in place, it looks like this:

In the right edge is part of the marine cloud layer over the ocean.

     But as mentioned, the cannery covers a lot of this skyline, and when it’s in place, the unpainted parts are hidden. But the distant hill line still works in the background.

     Another person needing a simple skyline was Brian Moore in Plymouth, England. Brian models Guadalupe, actually quite close to the location of my Santa Rosalia.

His layout view is inland, toward the hills and mountains of the Coast Range. He chose to make a very simple greyish skyline, as you see here.

Note that he added about a four-inch strip of green to suggest the fields in fact located east of Guadalupe, and a few trees. Brian says he used ordinary poster paint for this, and the trees are just blobs, but here again, our brain “knows” that these green blobs are distant trees.

The point I want to make here is that for many backdrops, you don’t need to be an artist to paint it yourself. In fact, an artist’s lovely painting might be a mistake. Remember, it’s a backdrop, meant to support the foreground modelling, not a beautiful scene in itself that distracts attention from the foreground.

That’s why simple versions like these work so well.”

So what do you think? By using glorious photo-realistic high-resolution backscenes are we distracting attention from our model railways themselves? Does a simple painted job actually look better? I’d love to know your thoughts.

Words and pictures are kindly reproduced here by permission. (c) Tony Thompson.


> A final, personal, note: I spend a huge amount of time testing, photographing, writing and researching techniques for these articles and pay for all the running costs of MRE out of my own pocket. If you found this article useful you can support me by making a donation on my fund-raising page. Thanks and happy modelling, Andy.
Founder of ModelRailwayEngineer, Andy Leaning

Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of He has been building model railways, dioramas, and miniatures for over 20 years. His passion for model making and railways began when he was a child, building his first layout at the age of seven.
Andy’s particular passion is making scenery and structures in 4mm scale, which he sells commercially. He is particularly interested in modelling the railways of South West England during the late Victorian/early Edwardian era, although he also enjoys making sci-fi and fantasy figures and dioramas. His website has won several awards, and he is a member of MERG (Model Railway Electronics Group) and the 009 Society.
When not making models, Andy lives in Surrey with his wife and teenage son. Other interests include history, science fiction, photography, and programming. Read more about Andy.

Afflliate disclosure:The links on this page may take you to carefully selected businesses, such as Hornby, Amazon, eBay and Scale Model Scenery, where you can purchase the product under affiliate programmes. This means I receive a small commission on any orders placed although the price you pay does not change. You can read my full affiliate policy here. I also sell my my own ready to use, pre-made and painted buildings and terrain features. browse the range.
One comment
  1. Really an inspiration – thank you!
    I picked up this article from a link in … my own setting is in Westmoreland – a now-defunct county in the Lake District, UK – and “distant hills” are exactly what I need. It’s also a truism that vivid and distinct colouration doesn’t work – in the real world colours are far more muted than photographs might suggest …

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