Marrying the Two-dimensional Backdrop to the Three-dimensional Layout Scenery.

For me, convincingly marrying the backdrop to the layout is one of the fundamental keys to successful model railroad scenery. One can create spectacular backdrops and highly realistic structures and scenery, but if there is not a seamless transition from layout to backdrop, then the whole thing somehow fails. This is to say that in order to achieve the desired sense of realism, it is necessary to make it very difficult to discern where the scenery ends and where the back drop begins. The two must be appear to be one. The secrets to success in creating this grand illusion lie in many elements: in the planning, the creation of the backdrop itself, the far mountains, the near mountains, mountains or hills that begin on the backdrop and project into the three dimensional space, the coloring, the texturing, the shading, the use of forced perspective techniques, and so on.

Certainly a great deal of  how seamless the transition from any 3D landscape to flat backdrop depends on the viewing angle imposed by the layout bench height and, of course, by the height and proximity of the viewer. For best results the bench should be high enough to force the viewer to look at a low angle across the scenery rather than looking down on it. This is tricky, because if you get the bench too high, then children will not be able to see over the edge. On the A&BR, I have the bench at 42.5 inches, with the tallest mountains rising a foot or so above this. With this height, an average height viewer who is standing back a little form the bench will look both down and across the layout at a good viewing angle. With this set up, I find that the back side of mountains rising up near the backdrop are not visible to most viewers. This is a good thing, for it creates a dramatic sense of depth. For even if the top of the mountain is only a few inches from the back drop, the viewer's eye tends to interpret this "dead" space as much larger. With this kind of forced perspective in play, the scene takes on much more realism than if the mountain top were flush against the back drop. In general, when the scenery rises away from the viewer, the viewer is forced to look more up, or at least across, at the scene, and in this situation, it is easier for the modeler to blur the line when the layout and backdrop meet.

First, let’s consider the backdrop. Unless you are a world class mural painter or have thousands of dollars to spend hiring one, you are unlikely to
be able to paint an elaborate backdrop that conveys a convincingly realistic sense of distance and depth. Of course, you could use a photo mural, but these lack flexibility, often fail to convey a believable sense of distance, appear somewhat stylized, and rarely match the scenery on the layout.

My method is straightforward, flexible, highly realistic, and anyone with a minimal amount of artistic skill can get good results. The trick is this: let the back drop be nothing but sky, with perhaps a few dry-brushed clouds and the low shadowy silhouettes of just a few distant mountains - all painted directly on a well-prepared and primed sheetrock wall. Nearer mountains and other features can be attached to this later using textured relief mountain cutouts or even computer sized and edited photo printouts. With a little care to achieve the right textures and shades, the results can be stunning and highly realistic. What is more, with this method, the mountain cutouts and photos can be removed, altered, adjusted, or redone at will without having to repaint any of the backdrop itself.

On a new layout, after the bench work is in and the roadbed complete, this sky-only back drop should be the next order of business. After completely covering all track, if any has been laid, begin by preparing the surface. Using sheetrock mud, patch any irregularities in the sheetrock and sand it all out carefully to achieve a perfectly smooth regular surface. Then prime and seal the entire wall with a good white primer, and let it dry thoroughly. It is also a good idea to prime a couple of large pieces of sheet rock to practice on.


You are now ready to paint the sky. Remember the sky is darkest at the top of the mural and lightest at the bottom near the horizon. This is a very subtle shift, but it is worth the effort to use at least three slightly different shades of blue to achieve depth and realism. Don’t worry, the blending of these three colors from dark to light as you work down the backdrop is easy using the methods I will describe.

Begin by selecting a basic sky blue color of regular flat latex wall paint. This sky blue color should be just slightly darker than the darkest sky color you plan to use. It is best to err on the light side. Real sky-blue is lighter than you think. Also, your distant mountain silhouettes will look better if they appear hazy and light, so make the sky hazy and light - as on a normal summer day, not on a bright, crisp, crystal-clear, fall day. Adding white latex wall paint to the blue, mix the three sky colors in separate re-sealable containers. Measure carefully and note the proportions of each in case you have to mix more. Accurately matching these colors in a second mixing is very difficult to do, so mix up plenty so you will have plenty left over for touching up, painting over mistakes, and other later adjustments. Mark each container with the exact proportions of blue and white. Use a little white for the highest sky, a little more for the medium level, and even more for the sky near the horizon. Remember, the color shift is subtle, so the lowest color should only be a shade or two lighter than the highest color. Depending on the shade of blue you chose and the lighting in your train room, you will probably need to add more white than you might think. Remember, the real sky is lighter than you think and it is best to err on the light side.

You will need four roller pans and four rollers, one for each shade of blue and one clean roller and water bath to blend with. Begin with a test patch on one of the large pieces of primed sheetrock you prepared. Working quickly, paint the upper, middle, and lower sections using three of the rollers. While the paint is still wet, take the fouth roller, lightly coat it with the middle color, dry it out a bit by rolling off the excess paint on some clean newspaper, and then dip it lightly in the water and roll it dry again on the newspaper. You should have a nice blend of water and the medium color paint on a pretty dry roller. Now, beginning in the upper area of the medium colored paint work this roller back and forth and up along the wet paint of the line between the high dark color and the slightly lighter middle color. With a little practice, you should be able to seamlessly blend this color transition. Starting in the lower portion of the medium color paint, do the same working down into the still-wet line between the middle and the lower, lighter sky. If you are having difficulty making the transition from color to color, it is possible that the shading difference between the three colors is too extreme and they need to be closer to the same color. When you are happy with the blending, let it all dry, and re-assess the colors you have mixed and the blending effect you have achieved. Adjust the colors as needed. When you are satisfied with the result, paint the backdrop wall, working around the room from top to bottom in small sections so the paint will not dry before you have a chance to blend the colors with the dry roller. Let it all dry for a day or two before painting the clouds.

Creating realistic clouds using a dry-brush technique is really pretty easy, but it will take a little practice. Dip a good wide (say 2 inch) bristle brush (preferably an old one because you are about to trash it) in thick flat white latex wall paint, rub the excess off the bristles on the lip of the paint can, and then work out almost all of the paint by rigorously and forcefully painting swirls on clean dry newspaper. Use several sheets and work it until it is pretty dry and almost no paint is left in the bristles. Now use swirling motions on the blue practice sheetrock -light at first and harder as the brush becomes dryer and dryer. You should be able to create soft areas of smooth white, softer areas of a darker white where the blue wall shows through, and very feathery white areas where the white paint coverage is smeared but only partial and translucent. Practice a little and you will get the hang of it. It might be useful to have some color photos of clouds to use as guides. Some people like to drybrush the undersides of their clouds a light gray, but I like the all-white effect best. It is simpler, and the idea here is to avoid getting too fancy.


Once the clouds are complete, it is time to do a little planning. Keep in mind that you will be creating at least seven different types of mountains where the backdrop meets the layout: 1) very distant mountains and 2) distant mountains will be solid hazy colored silhouettes painted on the backdrop, 3-5) three additional textures and shades of mountain cutouts will be created by gluing various grinds of powder or fine clump foliage onto .040 styrene plastic cutout shapes, 6) near mountain cutout silhouettes will be ½ inch deep using coarser clump foliage glued to ½ inch homasote cutout shapes, and lastly, 7) you can outline the cross-section of mountains that will extend out into three dimensional space. 


Using a pencil you might want to very lightly draw in the outlines of the various mountains to be placed on or against the backdrop to form the line of the horizon. Identify each mountains with a penciled in numer 1-7. Your choices here are part of the secret to success in marrying the backdrop to the layout, so think this through thoroughly, but don’t worry, since you are going to use cutout mountain shapes and photos, you can change things around all your want later on. The pencil lines are only a guide, and if there are areas of the layout where you don’t know what you are going to do, then you can leave them out at this point. Still, it is nice at this early stage to visualize things in overview, get a general idea of where your three dimensional mountains will meet the backdrop, and establish a uniform horizon all the way around the layout. All of this notwithstanding, you will not want to fill in these penciled-in outlines until you begin to create the scenery in front of them and you know exactly what you want to do. This is another part of the secret: create detail on or against the back drop at the same time you create the scenery in the three dimensional space in front of it. This way you can achieve a continuity of look and color while keeping a constant eye on making a convincingly seamless transition.

So let’s do a small section of scenery and marry it to the back drop. I have selected a spot on the far left in the above photograph, which shows the hidden yard beneath what will become the city of Altamont. The photos below show the same area after the construction of the over-bench and the hinged top which allows access to the hidden yard below.


The flat area in the center of the above photo will be the location of Atlamont Cathedral and the circled area to the left is the area where we will be working for the purposes of this tutorial. More of the city will occupy the bare wood area in front of our working area. The unadorned gray rock formation and the white patch to the far left were created in a previous session, and we will be marrying our work to this as well as to the back drop. We will be forcing the perspective here, and the plan is to create a spot for a Z scale house and an even  smaller house on the teraces of the stepped mountain rock-face that recedes into the distance. The roadway that you can see beginning in the lower left of the photo below and the large lower rock cliff will be full N scale, everything from there back to the backdrop will get smaller as it goes back. Notice I have already roughed in the terrain and a receding mountain road. If you have not already read it, you might want to stop here and read my tutorial entitled “Shaping the Terrain” to see details of how this sturdy roughed-in terrain base was created.


Begin by painting the distant mountains 1) and 2) onto the backdrop. They should be very light and misty looking – flat silhouettes with no detail at all. For the most distant range (1), mix a color just a wee bit darker (grayer) then the sky and a color that is just bit darker than that for the next closer range (2). Mix plenty of each color (at least the better part of a pint of each) so you won’t have to match this color later. It is very hard to do. Now cut the shapes for 4) and 5) from .040 white styrene and temporarily affix them to the backdrop using doubled over duct tape. You can use several pieces of styrene sheet to make the larger of these cutouts. Just but them up as close as you can and secure together using duct tape on the backside. Any joint line will be lost when you apply the texture material.

Once you are happy with the look of things, mark the front side of the cutouts with a pencil and number the back side. Then take them to your spray painting area away for the rain room. (I never spray paint in the train room. A very fine mist can get in the air and settle on everything.)


Spray the front side of the cutouts a very dark green or black and let them dry thoroughly. Painting them a dark color allows any tiny areas of plastic that might be visible after you glue on the clump folidge to a appear to be dark forrest shadow. 


Now spray the front of the larger number 4 cutout with a good spray adhesive and dust it well with a fine dark green foam ground cover material .


Next use flat spray paints to mist on a light, hazy color over the texturing – a little light green, followed by a little light grey and lastly just a touch of light blue, purple or white. Sometimes just the light grey works best – experiment, but remember don’t over do it – it’s just a haze – just enough to separate this range from the one in front and the one behind. Spray in fast smooth strokes. Don't ever stop the motion while spraying. Some times you can get a good effect, especially on closer mountains, by spraying down at an angle on the textured cutout so the top side of the foliage is lightly colored and bottom side is left dark. This can be very realistic. Again you have to experiment. Do the same with the closer number 5 cutout using a coarse grind of clump foliage and a slightly darker spray coloring treatment. (I like to put some Woodland Scenics dark green clump foliage in the blender and grind it to the desired texture. 


When you get the effect you want, re-attach these cutouts to the wall, temporarily again using doubled over duct tape, as you will probably want to adjust the color or touch up later as you progress with the foreground. Notice that while all of this was drying, I worked with Sculptamold to fashion the terrain and to marry the rock elements together. These techniques are described in my tutorial entitled “Shaping the Terrain” which can be found elsewhere on this website. 


Now, also following the instructions in “Shaping the Terrain,” you can paint, texture, and shade the rocks and terrain, rough in some greenery among the rocks, and create the near tree line at the far edge of the 3 dimensional space.


Now, looking at the result above, I see I have lost the next to farthest mountain range line behind cutout and the tree line, so I paint a higher ridge line in front of the distant maintains on the backdrop wall (see below).


We are now ready to add a little ground cover. Again consult my other tutorial "Shaping the Terrain.


Finally let’s put the on finishing touches to further force the so-called “false perspective:” the Z-scale structure on the right and a smaller house (a flat cutout from a photo I shrunk and dulled-down on the computer and pasted onto and piece of .040 styrene), some vines and moss and some color on the rocks, and of course, trees decreasing in size and fading in color as you go back toward the backdrop.


 Not too bad, but I think I'll add another #4) lightly tectured mountain cutout just above the tree line in front very distant mountain. 


There. Finished. This should give you a good idea of just how flexible these techniques are. They involve an interesting combination of strict  planning and a kind of  loose design-as-you-go experimentation. Below, you can see the finished scene in the context of an overview of the finished portion of the layout. Using these foliage-textured mountain forms goes a long way toward hiding that critical transition-point from 3 dimensional space to flat backdrop wall. Indeed, when you use this technique, the transition is very gradual and it does not really fully take place until you reach the painted distant mounts on the backdrop. 


One more word about forced perspective. In the above example I have used about the last 15 inches of the layout next to the backdrop to accomplish the illusion of receeding distance. That is to say, things start to gradually get smaller and smaller about 15 inch out form the backdrop. You don't always need this much space to create this illusion. Sometimes you can do very convincing things in just the last 2 or 3 inches. The photos below will give you idea of what is possible. The first photo is taken from above so you can see  just how narrow the little pasture nect to the wall is (only about two inches). 


The second photo is taken at viewing level. Notice I have managed to create this illusion of  distance across the narrow meadow simply by adding some smaller (z scale ) cows and making the trees and the fence in front of the near mountain dramatically smaller. 


Finally I want to discuss using computer generated paper cutouts to convey depth. Carefully selected photos (many downloaded from the internet) are sized and manipulated in a photo editing program like Photoshop and then cut out and pasted onto .040 styrene sheets and then married into the scenery where the layout meets the backdrop. This technique is perfect for creating a road that disappears into the distance or for creating more distant features. Here are several examples.

In this first example, the continuation of the river and the triangle shaped rock wall behind are on a flat photo pasted to the backdrop. I glued a little clump foliage around the edges to soften the transition. Looking at this photo now, I can see that I can improve the illusion by adding a little light tan coloring to the three-dimensional gray rock under the far bridge just to the right of the photo cutout. I little more white dry-brushing and a little tan pastel smeared around on it sould help to match colors of the rocks in the photo. 


Below, the the street receding into the distance is a flat cut out adorned with clump foliage. The two buildings that flank this cutout are less than 1 inch deep. 


Below the far right-hand triangular section of the rock face  that forms the left bank of the revine (slightly above and to the left of the letter "N" on the lower bridge) is a flat picture cutout. In all of these scenes, I have used a photo editing program to match the shade and color of my photos to to layout scenery.


One last technique before I conclude. In all of the preceeding examples the tree line has been place directly against the backdrop, and then layers of mountains have been created behind it. You can do a lot more, if you cut a low  section of 1/2 homasote, and glue your clump foliage to it to crate the treeline, and then mount it about an inch or so out from the backdrop wall. In the narrow space between this new treeline and the wall, you can create several layers of distant structures or features from photos pasted onto styrene sheet cutouts. Then you can add a second tree line against the backdrop wall. This is very effective especially for cityscapes. See the sketch below and the following photograph.



The example above depicts the unfinished city of Altamont. You can see this technique used with the first tree line behind the last row of buildings. The three steeples and two distant gray buildings are photo cutouts glued .040 styrene sheet and attached to the back of homosote base of the first treeline. 

That concludes my tutorial. Let me know what you think, You can email me using the link on the home page of this site. Check out my other tutorial by hitting the back button below.