How to Paint a Night Backdrop for Model Trains

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    The full moon and the distant lights of Harrisburg provide ample illumination for a night photograph. The exposure time for this image is less than 1/2 a second. There is far more color and detail in this scene than you might expect. by Ryan C Kunkle

    There's more to a night scene than just black paint. While colors may be greatly muted after dark, natural and man-made light sources can create amazing pools of light and detail, shadows, silhouettes and more.

    Research and Inspiration

    As with daytime scenes, it's a good idea to head out and take some pictures and notes before you start painting your backdrop. Nighttime photography can be more challenging, but today's digital cameras make it much easier. You may find you have to underexpose your photos to prevent them from being too light. A tripod is definitely a must if you want to capture details or try a longer timed exposure.

    In urban and industrial areas where life goes on around the clock, you may find an abundance of light. This can be recreated on a backdrop with paint, photomurals, ​miniature bulbs or LEDs or a combination of all three.

    In more rural areas, the moon may be the only major source of light available. On a clear night with a full moon, that can be more than enough to reveal many details about the terrain around you. Of course, cloudy or new-moon nights offer a completely different view.

    Now that your eyes have adjusted, night offers a whole new world of modeling possibilities and charm. When it comes to building the canvas for your backdrop and painting basics, you can refer to the general tips provided for daylight scenes.

    Materials and Tools

    Select your paints and colors and have everything ready to go before you start. You can use acrylic or oil based paints, but for best results be consistent. Oils have a reputation for being easier to blend and have a much longer drying time. Artists Acrylics are actually quite easy to work with and the shorter drying time allows you to move on to the next steps quickly. These paints thin and clean up with water.

    The color is a matter of choice. The night backdrops you see here were painted with navy blue, black, and gray acrylics. A small amount of white and yellow were used in some of the details. All paints were flat.

    You can apply the sky painted with a brush or roller. Small 2 inch rollers can be found at hardware and craft stores and work well for applying and blending the sky colors. Have an assortment of brushes on hand for the project. Use larger brushes to blend colors in broad strokes while painting the sky.

    You'll also want a cup of clean water or thinner on hand, paper towels and a palette for mixing paints. Tape off or cover any parts of the layout or room that require protection from accidental paint splatters.

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  • 02 of 03

    Painting the Night Sky

    Various hues of blue make up this night sky. Light from distant factories creates a brighter sky near a backlit horizon. by Ryan C Kunkle

    What color is the night sky? It's not that simple a question. The night sky is no more black than the day is blue. Clouds, the moon, and man-made light all have an impact on the color of the night sky. While black will certainly be part of the mix, for best results, you'll want to add some blues and/or grays.

    Painting the Sky

    Like a daytime sky, there are variations in color and hue from one part to another.

    The easiest way to accomplish this color gradient is to mix the paints directly on the backdrop. Start with your darker color (a navy blue, dark gray or even black) at the top and a lighter version of that color on the horizon. You can darken any color by adding a little black. It is easier to add black to a color to darken it than adding hues to black.

    Next, pull the light color up from the horizon and pull the darker color down, blending the two as you go. Work quickly while both colors are still wet and you'll get a nice natural transition. Oil paints will give you a longer drying time, but if you work quickly you can get the job done with acrylics too. Acrylics will dry completely much faster allowing you to judge your work and move on to the next step.

    Adding Clouds

    You can add clouds after the sky colors have dried or while the paint is still wet. For more defined clouds, allow the sky to dry. For a more moody, softer look, apply the cloud color while the paint is still wet, blending it into the sky colors along the edges. Clouds can also be easily created with an airbrush.


    There are two ways to add stars. Using white paint, you can apply stars individually using a very small brush or a pin. For mass production, load up a larger brush and flick the paint onto the backdrop. Practice this technique on another surface first until you are comfortable with the amount of paint, force, and distance needed.

    You'll need to stand a good distance from the backdrop to prevent large splatters. Protect the layout and room with plastic sheets. Depending on a number of stars desired, you may find faster to add them individually when considering prep and cleanup time.

    If you've used acrylics, your sky will be dry to the touch within an hour of painting and completely dry within about 24 hours. Oil paints may take as long as three or four days to dry completely. Once the paint is dry, if you are not happy with the results, you can paint another coat on top. If you are satisfied, it's time to add some details to the horizon.

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  • 03 of 03

    The Night Horizon

    Simple shapes with some shadows and highlights in black and gray make effective backdrop scenery. It doesn't take much imagination for these lines and dots to become distant mountains and communities. by Ryan C Kunkle

    Here's one area where a night scene has advantages for novice painters. The horizon on a night backdrop can be as simple as a black line. Painting silhouetted forms in black give the illusion of a horizon backlit by moonlight. A strong black form will stand out in stark contrast to a dark blue or gray sky.

    For more distant scenes, or to add more detail, gray highlights can be added. Since these highlights represent light, keep a common light source in mind and make sure all of your highlights "reflect" that source.

    Use a small brush/brushes. Use the same type of paints, acrylic or oil, used on the sky. Flat paints usually yield the best results. Start with the most distant elements of the scene and work your way to the foreground.

    You can add as much color and detail as you like. Keep in mind that you want your backdrop to represent distant horizons, not become the center of the scene. Often, especially in a night scene like this, simply is better.

    Continue adding structures, trees, and other scenery and remember to tie all of the colors together to make the backdrop part of, not just the back of the scene. Spraying a few of your trees or other scenic elements with a dusting of flat black is one way to make the transition. Once completed, you'll be amazed how quickly just this backdrop has transformed your layout.