The Big Picture

Model Railway Track PaintingEvery so often it pays to take a step back, review the big picture as your layout progresses and check it’s coming together as a whole. It was on one such recent review that I came to an unfortunate conclusion.

The landscape on my layout looked okay, the buildings are getting there and the trains run smoothly but the railway track — the very element that pulls the story of my layout together — that looked wrong.

As a result instead of a layout where all the parts come together in a cohesive whole to tell a single story, my Landreath looked disjointed. A collection of models and a railway.

The source of my dissatisfaction became apparent when I reviewed the prototype pictures.

For a lot of railways, the ballast and track is consistent in its colouring and fits the landscape and models around it, as in the picture below of the wonderful Didcot Railway Centre. The rails, sleepers and ballast are all the same colours and fit the surroundings. While there are subtle variations in shade, by and large, all the ballast is the same colour, as are the rails and sleepers.

Didcot Railway Centre

And, this is how my model railway looked. Well close, I’m allowed to exaggerate a bit 🙂


When I reexamined the photographs from around Par in Cornwall (as below), where my layout is set, the landscape colours tend to change between areas (it goes from Grey in Granite rich areas to Red and Browns elsewhere) and the colour of ballast and rails varies considerably reflecting this.

Ballast goes from Grey to dark Reds to almost Black in places. Rail colours too fluctuate, from normal rail colour to mud and rust colouring mirroring the immediate environment.

Par track colouring
I hadn’t mirrored this variation on my layout and it looked wrong — the track work didn’t fit with its surroundings and didn’t hold the layout together. It looked okay but didn’t have that lived-in look I wanted or reflect the different landscape covers it passed through.

If I’d thought about this previously, I’d have mixed up different colours of ballast for different regions of track around the layout prior to laying it using my usual ballast laying techniques or the new super-quick method I’ve recently discovered from Ben Alder, Unfortunately, I didn’t do spot this. Stupid!

Rather than pull up the track, remove the ballast and redo it all again, I set about correcting it in situ.

This wasn’t easy or quick but I was convinced that the only way to get the track work correctly looking how I wanted it — fitting the surroundings and its usage — I needed to paint it where it was. Equally, not doing it would leave Landreath looking like a disconnected collection of models and railway rather than a believable single big picture.

Painting Ballast and Sleepers

For sleepers, I made up different acrylic paint mixtures of the various colours required (Revell Aqua Earth Brown 36187 and Ochre Brown 36188) and mixed in finely ground Brown pastels and some Mig pigments — where I didn’t have the appropriate colour pastel. These was painted on with the colours reflecting the variations in colour of the exposed soil and rock I’d placed nearby.

Around the engine shed, coal, soot and ash will result in dark blackish deposits so a smokey black composition was made up and applied by dry brushing the centre of the track and near the rails on the outer edges. Indian ink was also dripped on between sleepers to exaggerate the impression of oil and ash.

Around the loading area, ore spillage from the wagons required a muddy Brown and here I used a dark Brown enamel (AK Interactive Earth Effects 107) mixed with varying amounts of  black pastel powders.

Finally, a pastel dust mix was dry brushed to the topmost visible surface of the ballast, leaving the sides and deeper layer ballast chips in their original Grey colouring to create an effect of dirt and soot laying where it fell.

In places, small piles of ballast topped with a very gentle layer of fine white pastel dust were also placed to create ash and clinker piles where the ash pans were emptied at the end of the journey, as seen below.

Rail Rust & Weeds

Where the track is occasionally used and trains operate at slow speeds, in the sidings, the rails will rust and vegetation grows.

For the rust, I used Revel Aqua 36183 rust rail colour. This is painted on using a very fine brush, carefully pulled along the rails. (I have tried rail weather pens but didn’t like the colour it left, it was too Orange for my liking).

For vegetation, dark Green shades of scatter and differing lengths of static grass (2mm and 4mm lengths, a mix for 4 to 1) were carefully positioned and damp cotton bud was used to clear this from the sleepers before being sealed in place with hair spray. An additional static charge was then applied to get the static grass to stand up.

(Apply the scatter and static grass after the ballast and rail paint has dried, or the paint will hold the static grass flat and make it difficult to wipe off the sleeper).

This gave me the results, seen in the picture at the top of this post, below which I’m happy enough with, for now. It took some time to do this but the track work now fits for the surrounding environment and so the big picture of the layout holds together more pleasingly.

> 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.

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