Planning the background

This article first appeared in the March/April 1990 issue of AMRA's 'Journal'.
By Steve J Chapman.

A model railway is a three dimensional picture and like any picture it looks better in a frame. The background of a model railway forms the top half of the "frame" and the effectiveness of the background can enhance or destroy the whole effect of the model.

Many modellers use one of the commercially available backscenes and simply cut a board to the appropriate height glue the backscene to the board and fix the board to the rear of the layout. This gives a quick and easy background which 1) may not blend into the rest of the layout and 2) is exactly the same as a lot of other layouts.

People run from even considering other alternatives by telling themselves that they are no artist and couldn't paint a backscene to save their life. There are in fact a number of alternatives to the commercial backscene that don't involve anything more than basic modelling techniques and some light blue paint.


The appearance of commercial backscenes can be easily improved by cutting off the sky. Backscenes from different manufacturers can then be used together without having a rather obvious join where they meet. It is a simple matter to get out your light blue paint and a reasonable sized paintbrush and paint the backboard before gluing the backscenes onto it. This simple change has a rather dramatic effect on the overall appearance of the backscenes although they still probably don't blend properly with the rest of your layout.


The next step is to discard the printed backscene completely. Much can be done in developing a suitable background for a model railway provided that you are prepared to consider what sort of effect that you are trying to achieve and to perhaps allocate an extra inch or two to the background. By using low relief modelling (which need take up no more room than is available at the back of the layout) a background which looks like part of the layout and not just something tacked to the back to finish off can be quickly developed and give an illusion of greater depth.

In order to properly blend the background into the rest of the layout you must plan the background along with the rest of your scenery. Consider what is to go in the foreground and choose an appropriate background to match. The layout will look much more effective when this is done.

The viewing height of the layout is also important when planning the background. What will 1ook right as a background to a layout that is at or near eye level can look totally ridiculous if the layout is positioned lower (and perhaps vice versa). For an exhibition layout consider the audience at which the layout is primarily directed to determine what is eye level (surveys have shown that for children old enough to appreciate the details on a model railway average eye level is something over four feet). Normally) the lower that a layout is the more detail that you will need to put into the background because with an arial view you can see further than you can from the ground and the details in the background should reflect this.


Nothing looks worse than rolling green hills with a river flowing through that suddenly stops at the edge of an industrial area which is black with smoke and grime. A much more appropriate background to an industrial area would be a dirty retaining wall. The retaining wall can be modelled right up against the backboard or perhaps half an inch forward to enhance the illusion that there is something beyond (figure one). The retaining wall would help to frame in the layout and a plain blue sky above would finish the background off quite effectively.

retaining wall

A road running along the back of the layout could perhaps have a line of houses or shops behind. You don't have four to six inches to spare to fit them in ? If you are really tight for space the fronts of buildings can be built up in low relief with little more depth than three or four sheets of thin card. A little more room and some variation in the line of the fronts of the buildings becomes possible by building some of the buildings with the first fraction of the side walls as well (figure two). Low relief modelling of buildings is easier than modelling them fully since only one side of the building needs to be built and can make a good introduction for beginners into making their own models. Points to note with low relief buildings are 1) keep the sides of the building (if any) fairly plain as any details here will only highlight that the whole building isn't here 2) when modelling buildings with sloped roofs in low relief don't model them with the slope showing unless you can model enough depth to include the ridge (the slope of a roof can be increased by quite a lot so as to fit the ridge in if there is not quite enough room). Again a plain blue sky can be quite effective to finish off behind.


A platform right against the back edge of the board can be finished off in a number of ways. The type of finish to use depends on the sort of location that the station is supposed to be in. A railway line and platform on a raised embankment across the back of the layout could look quite effective with a simple fence along the back of the platform with a plain blue sky behind. A platform in a cutting or in a town could have a retaining wall directly behind the platform. Just a small amount of space behind the platform could permit the station buildings to be modelled behind in low relief. A low brick wall with a line of low relief buildings behind could conceal the absence of a road which supposedly runs between the two.

Rolling hills which appear to have more depth than they would have with a printed backscene can also be easily obtained. Instead of one piece of board for the background use three or four. Cut the extras to the shapes of the hills low hills for the front and higher hills for in behind. Get some green paint and paint the hill boards a shade of green to match the foreground would be best. Once the paint is dry the hills can be glued together under weight. Leave the backboard that will have the sky on it separate for now as you may decide that it looks better separated slightly from the hills using small spacer blocks. If the scenic materials that you are using are not too coarse then you might also consider experimenting with using them on the low relief hills that you have just built. A fence or low wall along the front of the hills can help to conceal where the full relief scenery meets the background (figure three).

rolling hills and fence


Things like roads and rivers can cause problems when they cross into the background. Roads are relatively easy to paint onto the background while rivers are a little harder. The problem however is more to do with perspective and the appearance of the join where the full relief meets the background. There are a number of things that can be done to tackle this.

If the road or river crosses straight from foreground to background then the road or river will appear straight when viewed from directly in front but when viewed at an angle will appear to have a bend right at the join. The best solution to this is to put a bend in the road or river where it crosses the join. Now there is a bend at the join no matter what angle it is viewed from. The angle at which it appears to bend through will still be different depending on where it is viewed from but a slight change from one angle to another is not too obvious unless the change is from dead straight to not quite dead straight.

Another thing that can be done to improve the appearance of roads and rivers crossing into the background is to put in a vertical curve where it meets the background. This means that instead of the road or river being flat on the baseboard (or nearly so) up to the join and then suddenly being at ninety degrees to it that over the last inch or two before the backscene is reached that the road or river slowly curves through this angle so that there is no longer a sharp change when the join is reached (figure four). Of course the surrounding scenery will also need to turn through a similar curve in order to properly conceal the join and this could be done along the whole back: edge as a slightly more involved alternative to the fence or low wall that I mentioned earlier (figure five).

road or river
road or river with rolling hills and fence


Those with greater artistic skills (and you don't know until you try it) can consider painting other details onto their background. Trees and bushes can be painted in where appropriate and those nearer the front can have their leaves given a thin layer or some green (or whatever other colour is appropriate) scenic material to add some low relief.

As experience grows various detail can be painted into the background. There are however a number of things to be careful of. As pointed out earlier things in the background appear at different angles depending on where it is being viewed from. Items which depend on being viewed from a particular perspective should not therefore be painted into the background unless they are supposed to be quite a way back into the background. You don't expect the perspective of distant objects to change much when you change your position slightly. This means that buildings and other items of a similar nature should only be painted into the distant background if they are to be painted into the background at all.


Overall a much more satisfactory effect can be achieved for your layout if a little effort is put into properly planning the background. With a little more time and effort and the use of modelling skills that are no different from those that you need to do the foreground scenery a background that appears to be part of the layout and not just an added afterthought can be achieved. There will be no harsh line where your scenery joins that of the printed backscene and you will have the satisfaction of knowing that the background looks the way that you want it to look-and is also all your own work.

Finally if your layout still hasn't progressed beyond the planning stage then consider the background now. If you can give yourself a couple more inches at the back you make it easier to blend the background into the foreground. Considering where and how roads and rivers are to cross into the background can mean changing their placement slightly to allow a smoother transition to be made.

The background is an important part of the layout which must appear to belong. The right background will form an integral part of the final picture and frame it in around one two or even three sides. The proper finish along the front edge (eg painting the edge black) will complete the frame and enhance the overall effect.

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Copyright Stephen Chapman