Designing the Landscape

This article first appeared in the March/April 1992 issue of AMRA's 'Journal'.
By Steve J Chapman.

How many times have you looked at a layout and felt that there was something missing? It just doesn't look right. Perhaps it looks like the scenery has just been tacked on as some sort of afterthought.

Each model railway is the creation of the person(s) who built it and in some cases the intention is to build a dead flat board, fill most of it with track, and stick in the odd building or tree to complete the scene. If that's what you want from a model railway, fine. What about when you want something more than that. How do you go about capturing the realism of a railway scene in miniature?

There are two approaches to scenically realistic layouts. The first is to build a model of a real place. In this case the solution to obtaining a realistic scene is relatively simple provided that you have the necessary modelling experience to know what you are trying to achieve. The answer is selective compression. You get a scaled down plan of the place that you are attempting to model and selectively compress out enough of the non-essentials until the model will fit into the space available. The results of doing this can be very realistic provided that you have allowed sufficient space to start with and don't try to compress things too far.

This approach is very much for the experienced modeller but how can the modeller pick out a suitable section of line to model and know what should and shouldn't be included unless he has already gained experience from building realistic scenes of imaginary places and has found out what does and doesn't work in the attempt to create that elusive quality called atmosphere.

Which brings us to the second approach to scenically realistic layouts. The one used by those of us not wanting to build a model of a real place because we either lack the modelling experience to do a proper job of it or just plain simply don't want to (probably most of us).

For us the first step in creating the realism and atmosphere of the real thing in the imaginary location of our model railway is to design the landscape. Not build the scenery or even lay the track, but to stop after we have come up with our track plan and to design the landscape that fits in with the track plan and the scenic effect that we are trying to achieve.

Remember that with the real railways that the landscape was there first and the railway line was built afterwards. This is the impression that we need to try to achieve if we are to create a realistic scene. When we look at our landscape design it may be necessary to alter the track plan slightly to fit in with the landscape that we have decided belongs to the scene we want to achieve. It is much easier to make this change on paper than to lift and relay track on the board. Alternatively the landscape may have been altered by the railway company when the line was put in giving you the excuse to model retaining walls, viaducts, cuttings, tunnels, etc. All of this needs to be considered before you start tracklaying if the best effects are to be achieved. The more planning goes into a model railway at the start, the closer that the finished model railway will be to what is wanted.

Of course not everyone is at the planning stage so we also need to consider what can be done with layouts that are already under construction.


So what things do we need to consider when designing the landscape for our model railway.

The first thing is to leave space for the scenery. To create the atmosphere for most railway scenes it is necessary to include quite a bit of the surrounding countryside. Sometimes with a busy locomotive depot or railway yard in or on the edge of a town or city the railway can take up most of the space with the town being represented by a retaining wall along the length of the back of the layout, but for most model railways a fair amount of non-railway scenery is required to get the right atmosphere. You don't get the image of a country terminus or through station by cramming the board full of track. Here the smaller scales have the advantage because on a reasonable width of board you can fit in quite a bit of railway and still have plenty of width for the rest of the scenery. Its not quite so easy in the larger scales but you can think about scenic sections which are removable to allow access to rear tracks and to allow the details to be added to the rear section of the scenery.

For those of you who have already filled all of your available baseboard with track consider the possibility of removable scenic sections which can be attached to the front and back of your layout. If your layout is portable and you don't have enough room at home to add scenic boards they may still be useful for exhibition use. If space is really tight then you will have to add all of your scenic effects to the backscene which in any case needs to be properly considered as part of your landscape design.


Next thing to consider is the height of the landscape at various points on the layout. The flat scene has its place on train set type layouts and layouts where a railway scene dominates the layout (like the loco depot mentioned above). However even these scenes can be improved by adding some variation to the height of the scenery so that it is not completely flat.

The better solution in most cases is to design landscape with variations in height. This also allows for scenic effects like cuttings and bridges which have a purpose when you look at the landscape through which the railway line runs. To be effective the landscape should include sections which are both higher and lower than the level of the track. A railway line is rarely built at a lower level than all of the countryside through which it passes. Lower areas can be achieved either through use of an open top baseboard, or more simply by cutting away the section of board where you want lower scenery.

Even once all of the track is laid it is still possible to change the height of the surrounding landscape. Don't forget that even if you have already built the landscape for a particular part of your layout and you're not happy with it that removing it and replacing it with a new piece of landscape having a different form will not affect model railway operation in any way but may make all the difference in the overall appearance of the layout.


The result of this design process is that we now have a model railway where the landscape flows up and down with the railway line running through it over bridges and through cuttings and tunnels. Retaining walls serve a useful purpose and it is now starting to look like the railway was built through the landscape and not the landscape around the railway.

Similar modifications should be made to the landscape for roads and other manmade structures. The location of these should be based on how they fit best into the already existing landscape. Buildings and other features can be properly set into the landscape. How many houses do you know of that don't have foundations and other structural items below ground level. Once the landscape details are added these structures will start to look like they belong there instead of just being placed temporarily in position.

If you've already reached this stage in constructing your layout then you can still improve its appearance by repositioning any structures which don't look right.


We now have a lot of the basic scenery for the layout starting to take shape. We can now move on to the next level of detail in our landscape design. What colours should the landscape be? Not all grass is the same colour. Some areas have bare patches where the dirt shows through the grass. Perhaps there are plants other than grass growing in the area resulting in a splash of a different colour here and there or perhaps in a flower bed or two. What colour is the dirt in the general area in which your railway in supposed to exist? What colour should the ballast on the track be? The answers to these questions will result in a mix of colours across the various parts of the landscape. These basic colours should be blended into one another removing all of the sharp edges except for those places like lawns and flower beds where a manmade boundary exists. This gives us the basic colour of the overall layout onto which the various levels of details can be built.

If you've already added the base colours and your layout doesn't look right then reconsider what shades you are using. It is a simple matter to change the existing colours by adding other colours to what is already there until the right appearance is achieved.

Onto this base colour the landscape details can then be added. These details include such things as long grass, shrubs, and trees.

Weeds can be added to the ballast in sidings using assorted green scatter materials. A lesser quantity can add the occasional weeds into the main-line ballast. Consider the track usage in determining quantities. Long grass in overgrown fields or gardens waiting to be mown can be added the same way. Greens slightly darker than the base colour should be used for this purpose.

Shrubs, either planted in gardens or growing wild, can be added using lichen. Depending on the type of bush being portrayed the lichen can either be used as is or dipped in fine or coarse scatter material of appropriate colours.

Trees should be added in appropriate places. Don't forget to consider the types of trees appropriate to the area in which the model is supposed to be. Consider trees with leaves and without leaves. Also consider the use of dead tree stumps where appropriate. Each of these needs to have the appropriate brown or grey for the trunk and branches. Leaves, where present, should not all be the same green and for autumn scenes a variety of reds, oranges, and browns should be used where appropriate.

Other types of undergrowth can be added using whatever you decide is appropriate to get the effect.

If the final effect doesn't look right remove the larger details, scrape back and reapply the base colours, and try again.


The most important part of all this is the initial planning. All of these aspects should be considered when you first design the landscape. This doesn't mean that there is no room for alterations to the landscape details after construction has started. What it does mean is that the initial planning stage should at least consider such things as tree placement and shrub colours.

By planning all of the landscape details in advance of laying the track, the basic realism will be there when you actually get to the construction stage. When you actually commence construction of your landscape you will be able to start considering that elusive quality known as atmosphere. You will be close enough with your initial plan that it will only require small changes when you actually build the landscape for you to achieve the desired results.

Just how the landscape on your layout should go is up to you. It doesn't really matter what shape it takes or what colours you decide to use. The realism of the scene will depend entirely on how close to the real thing that you plan your landscape. You can plan to have all flat scenery with bright unrealistic grass colours and have a train set-like appearance which is produced quickly with little effort on your part or you can study the landscape in the area corresponding to your favourite prototype (whatever it may be) so as to see the type of contours and colours which occur in your chosen area. If you copy these, not necessarily exactly but in a general way, and if you make appropriate use of building trees, shrubs, fences, etc of the correct types to suit the area, then your layout will appear much more realistic. In some cases the landscape in an area is so unique to the area that it will be possible for a knowledgeable person to pick the area upon which the layout is based without a train or other railway item in sight.

As with so many aspects of model railways the careful planning of how your landscape should look can make all the difference.

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Copyright Stephen Chapman