I’ve always wanted to paint backdrops or background images of fictional landscapes for my wargaming needs.
Even though there are some tutorials online, I wanted to approach the subject in my own fashion. I like landscape painting and photography in general. Since it has been a while since I last put paint on a canvas, I thought I’d give it a go. It feels especially refreshing in an age of AI generated “art”.
In this tutorial I show you how you can paint your own wargaming backdrops using cheap canvas. I painted some abstract landscapes, for which you need a basic understanding in painting landscapes of course. It isn’t that hard though. If you want to delve deeper into the subject, I highly recommend getting some literature on the subject. This helps you to grasp some basic concepts which go a long way to make your images more realistic: especially adding blue into the mix to convey a feeling of depth. Also don’t be afraid to use large brush strokes and blend your colors wet in wet directly on the canvas itself.
If you want to make it easier on your self, you might consider only painting a gradient to represent a sky texture.
Or you might even print a panorama photograph either on paper or directly on a rigid support. If you’re going this route, skip ahead to the lighting chapter in this post.
I want my backdrops to be as large as the width of my gaming table, which is against the wall. In my case that means 120cm or 4ft.
The backgrounds need to be generic and versatile. Since we’re playing mainly Fantasy, Science-Fiction and Historical games set either in the Dark Age or in Antiquity in Southern Europe, I decided to paint snow covered mountains (having Frostgrave in mind) and dry desert-like badlands (for Gaslands, Kings of War, Space Weirdos or Xenos Rampant). I might add green hills with forests and maybe a city-scape with dark and dramatic sky.
I chose canvas for ease of storage. You can put them behind or underneath your furniture or even hang them on the wall. After all it’s a landscape painting. Also for versatility, I might use the backside for another image one day. For this, you’ll need to glue some flat material (known as card board) to the back.
For sturdiness and weight, canvas is the right media. You can either mount it on the table, using sturdy brackets of some sort or simply hang or lean it against a wall which I’ll do. A plain poster would only work if one edge of your gaming table touches a wall.
Also I wanted to light the image from above. The challenge was to develop a lighting strip that could easily be attached and removed from the canvas. I didn’t want to create a lighting strip for each picture.
Materials used for my wargaming backdrops
List of materials used for the painting step:
- canvas (I used 120 cm by 40 cm)
- Large tubes/pots of (cheap) acrylic paints
- Large to medium flat brushes and optionally a small paint roller
Optional step: Lighting
- LED strip (I used a very cheap 1 m battery powered strip)
- 120 cm plastic corner piece
- construction glue
Painting a backdrop
After unwrapping the canvas, I sketched out rough lines with a pencil.
After that, I primed the whole thing with white gesso. This step is not strictly needed, since your white store bought canvas is already primed. But I find the next paint layers adhere better to the surface of the canvas.
Once the gesso has fully dried, I start painting the main colors with a large flat brush. Use quality brushes since, bad ones have bad tendency to loose bristles.
The Painting itself
I’ll try to describe my painting process as best as I can. The secret (I think) is to start with two basic colors, a large flat brush and erratic brush strokes. Also don’t bother about expensive paint. I used the cheapest acrylics I could find. Use large containers or tubes if you can. You’ll need way more paint than painting your miniatures or terrain pieces.
Once the first layers of paint are applied, you can start mixing other colors or rather tones into the initial ones and start applying these with a slightly smaller flat brush.
After a while of merrily painting, my backdrops look like this:
Keep in mind, that these images should convey an atmosphere and a depth of field to your battlefields. Thus worrying too much about details is a not a good idea. Use sketchy broad brush strokes until the end. But try to keep your palette consistent. Also mix white, light blue and light grey into your paints to simulate objects (in my case hills and mountains) further away. I also try to texture the sky by mixing in some white.
That’s my two first backdrops done!
Lighting your backdrop
Since I plan to put my backdrops at the far end of my gaming table and that happens to be the darkest area of it, I decided to add some light to it.
My initial thought was to to hard mount an LED light strip unto each image. Then, the clever part of me was like: “Whaaaat? why don’t you build a kind of clip-on light strip attached with magnets on top of each image?” And I thought to myself: “Why not?” Thus I went to the hardware store and bought a 2 m plastic corner piece (they didn’t sell 1,2 m ones), cut it to length, attached the LED strip and some strong magnets to this contraption using strong construction adhesive. Afterwards I glued two further magnets to the upper side of the canvas frames.
Thank you clever part of me.
After the glue around the magnets was fully cured, I attached my light strip unto the top edge of each backdrop. It looks really nice. Plus it’s pretty solid and doesn’t move around. Just make sure to use the right magnets and be careful of polarity when gluing them on.
As an optional step you can add some L-shaped wooden or metal bracing to prop up your images in case you don’t have a wall on one end of the table. Even though, I don’t really need this right now, I might still do that in the future. If, then I’ll post it here as an addendum.
Our backdrops are now essentially ready to be used for your wargaming purposes. But after putting that much effort into this build, I really wanted them to look the part. I thus decided to paint the edges black, using a small paint roller. I added my usual signature when painting or drawing stuff. Finally I gave my images a healthy amount of matte sealing from the spray can.
Backdrops for Wargaming done!
And with that my backdrops are finished and ready to enhance immersion of our wargaming sessions. I couldn’t resist to stage some scenes to present you the final glamour shots.
So, that concludes a tutorial long in the making, of a project I had in mind for quite a while now. I hope you liked it.
Let me know how you add more atmosphere and immersion to your games.
Great tutorial! I’ve been gathering up a bunch of reference images for just this purpose. Yours turned out really nice, these things really do make the difference for photographing miniatures. I’ll have to make some for the shop.
Hi Jim! Thanks for your kind feedback. I mainly built them for photography purposes 😉.