Luke Towan
September 29, 2014
10 min read

Choosing the Right Color

A lot of model diorama photos and model railroad photos you see online look great but often there is something you can’t put your finger on as to why it “looks like a model”, there are usually a number of reasons behind this and they are all quite easy to distinguish and correct for your next model.

​Color to me is the most defining aspect of creating a realistic model, whether it’s being made for photography or for viewing in person, if you can get the color right the rest is easy!

​Most of the colors available are much too vivid and this is usually to compensate for poor indoor lighting. Depending on where your layout or model will be spending most of its life bright high contrast colors may be necessary to compensate for poor lighting however if you plan to do photography, your camera will most likely make adjustments for the poor lighting and white balance thus making the color too bright. To counter this you’ll have to go into your cameras setting and make adjustments, additionally camera flash will need to be turned off.

Good (no flash)


The photo above was photographed using manual settings with the flash off and the lighting conditions were deliberately made to be very poor.

Not so good...(flash)


With the same lighting conditions as the previous photo and same camera settings set in manual mode, the only difference was the camera flash was on.

How to check if the colors you have chosen are suitable:

This requires quite a bit of trial and error. It's often a good idea to try out different scenery techniques and methods on a small diorama or test piece before committing to a large project.

Step 1:

  • Use your current method to build a diorama or build some scenery on your layout.

There's no need to change your techniques for modelling just yet, try use the same methods and colors you would typically use. This technique to check whether your color selection is good may only serve to confirm you have the right set of colors for your scenery.

Step 2:

  • Once complete take some photos either under the layout lighting or if it’s a diorama take it outdoors and photograph it in natural sunlight. Make sure to turn the flash off on your camera.​

It's not all that important on the type of camera you use, a phone camera will often do the job quite well and with the technology going into the quality of phone cameras these days some are better than dedicated digital cameras.

Step 3:

  • Upload your photos to your computer, select the best one and open it into an editing program like Photoshop or if you have Windows 10 the photo viewer has an edit function where you can adjust contrast.
  • Using the editing program, play with the settings and gradually remove the color until it’s black and white, you will find there is a sweet spot somewhere between complete black and white and the original photo color where the photo suddenly looks much more realistic.

The example showing the corrugated shed shows a color pallet that is quite realistic, both photos look quite good whether there is full color or black and white. I'll show you an example below where the color choice is not so ideal and you should see a happy medium between full color and black and white where the photo takes on a more realistic color.


Using the same method in photoshop I gradually remove saturation from the original photo until the image is black and white, I then slowly add saturation until I find a middle ground where the photo takes on a more realistic color grade.
When this happens it's a pretty good indication that the colors you have chosen to model with are too saturated and vivid.


Here is a photo of an N scale layout, you can see the rocks and puffball trees beside the tracks. The Greens used here are medium green and light green course turf for the trees from Woodland Scenics and the grass area beside the tracks is light green colored saw dust from Javis Scenics.
This is an unedited photo taken from a cell phone.


After taking the photo and removing all the color, you can see it now takes on a much more realistic feel even though there is no color.
This is a sign that the original colors chosen to model with may be over saturated and too vibrant.


And finally I gradually added the color back to the image until I found a spot that was de-saturated just enough to remove some of the vibrancy but not so much that the color was totally washed out.
The image here is about 35% de-saturated.

So whats the solution?

Once you have decided you need to adjust your color pallet the solution is easy.
Most of the time it's a matter of selecting colors that are dull and less saturated to begin with, this can often be quite difficult when standing in front of a big wall stacked with all different kinds of scenic material at the hobby shop! And the colors that stand out are usually the brighter more vibrant colors.

One way of selecting more appropriate colors for you scenery is to print the picture that you corrected in photoshop for color saturation and then use that to compare colors at the hobby shop. Or if you are familiar with your current set of colors, next visit to the hobby shop make sure to look at those colors in the display and then try chose the ones that have slightly less saturation than you current colors.
It's all about trial and error, some colors will work better than others depending on what you're trying to model. This should at least get you walking down the right path.


What does my color pallet look like?

I'm sure a lot of you are probably wondering what my list of materials looks like? I'll show you in the next few paragraphs however I will say, my choice of color is specifically chosen to model the area around me.

I'm modelling the southern part of Australia, most of the colors are universal but if for example you're modelling somewhere in the northern parts of America you may want to slightly shift the colors towards a darker green or in the UK a lighter green... It all depends on the area you're modelling and the best advice would be to get out there and view it with your own eyes. Or at least look at photo's online of the area you intend to model.


Woodland Scenics Fine Turf "Burnt Grass"

This would have to be my most used material, it gets used on my scenery base to help blend grass and other material into the scene as a whole. I also use it on the tops of trees to simulate light areas where sun would reflect of the tree tops.


Woodland Scenics Fine Turf "Earth Blend"

​This contains a blend of beige/yellow and brown, I use it in a similar fashion to the burnt grass however it’s spread in a more confined manner, it simulates very small low lying weeds and plants. Burnt grass will usually go over the top of this layer.


Woodland Scenics Fine Turf "Weeds"

​This is quite a strong color and gets used sparingly to shade and slightly increase contrast where required. Only gets applied to very small areas and only a very light coating.


Woodland Scenics Course Turf "Medium Green"

​Another color that gets used sparingly, I use this to add low lying weeds and small bushes. This will also get blended by lightly sprinkling the Burnt Grass over the top. I also use this color for my home made trees using natural plant material.


Woodland Scenics Fine Leaf Foliage "Olive Green"

​This is a great product and needs very little work, I can basically punch a small hole into the scenery base then brake of a small piece of fine leaf foliage and glue it in place. Olive green is a nice dull green and it does a great job of simulating very small trees and sapling trees.

​Fine leaf foliage also get used to make great looking commercial trees, although time consuming the results are fantastic. To watch a video on the use and demonstration of making one of these trees click here and watch the video.



MiniNatur Static Grass "Late Autumn" 6mm

​The 6mm grass in mostly used to make static grass tufts of different sizes and shapes, once glued into position on the layout or diorama I further blend that into the base by applying shorter 2mm static grass around it.


MiniNatur Static Grass "Beige" 6mm

​Not used so much on its own however I often add small amounts to the Late Autumn static grass to give a subtle color shift towards a more dry summer color.


MiniNatur Static Grass "Late Autumn" 2mm

​Used to blend the larger 6mm static grass into the scenery and used to cover large grassed areas.

​Buying static grass tuft already made can be expensive and buying a static grass applicator to make your own static grass tufts can also break the bank.
I have a solution, check out this video where I step you through the process of making your very own and highly effective static grass applicator and once you’ve finished making it you can have a look at this video as well where I show you the method I use to make my own static grass tufts.




Natural Dirt

​Dirt plays a major role in my scenery, most dirt collected from the great outdoors is full of color and doesn’t scale down very well. To help you can try to collect dirt that is lighter for example grey and light brown because once you apply glue it will dry a much darker color. I add Sandalwood Grout 50/50 to the dirt I collected to help lighten it without adding contrast, this is very much trial and error and I suggest experimenting on small areas before committing to a large scenery project.


Natural Leaves

​Again this is a material I collected from the backyard, in a similar fashion to dirt you’ll want to try and collect leaves that are completely dead and dry and also try to select dull colored leaves. Medium browns seem to work quite well, I’ve found light grey leaves to be too bright and dark brown although better can often be too dark. Again a bit of experimentation is needed here.


Pastels - Raw Sienna

This is a dull yellow shade that gets used to highlight dirt roads and dirt areas that I want to look dusty and well used. Other earth tone colors sometimes get used to add highlights and color variation.

Above you have my main set of materials I use to build my realistic looking dioramas. Once you have a core set of colors and mediums like the dirt and natural leaf materials it becomes much easier to make slight adjustments to achieve the results your after whether its summer, winter autumn or spring scenes.

Don't forget also that the same ideas for choices in color holds true for structures and vehicles as well, less intense color will more often than not result in a more realistic building or vehicle.


So for your next scenery project, give this a try and see what results you come up with.
You Won't be disappointed and you'll be a better modeler in the end... It's all about experience and learning and I hope I have been able to give you a little bit of insight to help you improve on your already fantastic scenery skills.


Download the files associated with the project. All files are included in a zip for convenience.


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