Farewell from Creative Dioramas

I started Creative Dioramas seven years ago to share my thoughts on the art of building dioramas.  My first post was Making the Transition from Models to Dioramas, published on October 16, 2015. It was an invitation to modellers to step into the world of dioramas, which for many years has been one of my favourite pastimes. 

Since that first post, this blog has covered quite a bit of ground. I’ve discussed my own projects, works by other artists, new products, a bit of how-to, and random musings about modelling and art in general. I’ve also discussed the cultural impact of dioramas, mainly through the Dioramas in Film series. It might come as a surprise to many that dioramas are an integral part of mainstream culture. They’re everywhere, yet most people don’t stop and take the time to notice them. 

Regular readers know that I promote dioramas as an art form. Many will disagree, but when thinking of traditional definitions of art, dioramas check all the boxes. They are in fact one of the few art forms that have maintained their integrity over time. Diorama artists continue to create works that require technical mastery and serve to celebrate and inspire. Other art forms have frequently suffered under the weight of postmodernist dogma, where truth and beauty are not celebrated, but reviled. 

The pieces that we encounter in modern art galleries today serve two main objectives: to promote specific sociopolitical agendas—which are usually anti-civilizational—and to launder money. If you’ve ever wondered how a canvas covered with random splatters can sell for millions, knowing this puts it all in perspective. 

Since dioramas don’t generally circulate in the international art world, they‘ve remained unscathed by postmodern buffoonery. Diorama artists are akin to the painters of yesteryear. We aspire to technical mastery and focus on creating works that celebrate what we love. 

To everyone who has followed this blog or bought my books, thank you for your support. I hope you found inspiration in the content that’s been posted here, and I wish you the best of luck with your artistic pursuits. My books Diorama Design and Forced Perspective Dioramas continue to be available on Amazon and Apple Books. Cheers!


Celebrating the joy of childhood memories

In 1951, Estonian artists Ants and Helve Viidalepp completed an oil painting entitled “Noored Mudellendurid” (“Young Aircraft Modellers”). The painting is currently on display at Kumu Art Museum in Tallinn, Estonia. 

The boy in the centre of the painting, wearing a white shirt with a red bandana, is telling a story (undoubtedly about an airplane) to his friends. They appear to be listening very closely to what must be quite an interesting tale. 

On the table in the foreground is a partially completed balsa aircraft kit. In the background, hanging from the ceiling, is a finished model. The painting thus captures the full life cycle of model aircraft building, showing us examples of a work in progress as well as a completed piece. 

The balsa kits shown in the painting predated plastic models by several decades, and were being produced well before WWII. They were originally offered as display models and later became flyable miniatures, powered by a wound-up rubber band attached to the propeller. You would wind up the rubber band by rotating the propeller backwards and then hand launch the plane. These models were called free flight because there was no way of controlling the plane. Larger and more sophisticated radio controlled aircraft models also use this type of construction, although foam has all but replaced balsa wood.

I’ve spent many hours exploring art galleries all over the world, yet this is the first painting I’ve seen that captures the joy of model aircraft building. It brings back memories of my father’s balsa wood Piper Cub, a radio controlled model that he built many years ago, as well as the weekly model builders’ club I attended in my younger days. 

Aviation buffs have been building model airplanes ever since man learned to fly (even before that, if you include Leonardo da Vinci’s miniature flying machine prototypes). Many of us had the good fortune to be introduced to these hobbies at a young age. This painting not only captures the joy of modelling, but celebrates the fleeting wonder of our childhood years. 


An outdoor diorama at Kuressaare Castle

It isn’t often that we see dioramas outdoors. The obvious incompatibility of fragile building materials and harsh weather usually makes the idea completely impractical. But when the correct materials are chosen, Mother Nature can unleash all her fury and the diorama will be no worse for wear. 

A case in point is the bronze diorama of Kuressaare Castle on the Estonian island of Saaremaa, which greets visitors just outside the main gate to the actual castle. This beautifully crafted sculpture stands unsheltered in the middle of the main courtyard, and weathers everything from the hot summer sun to frigid winter days when the north wind howls. 

Creating sculptures in bronze is a lengthy and painstaking process which involves molds and the pouring of liquid metal. Bronze is one of the most durable materials available to the artist—as hard as marble but less brittle. While a stone sculpture may chip or crack with time, this rarely happens with a piece cast in bronze. This robust metal is most typically used for sculptures of human figures; the French artist Rodin created some of the more well known examples. 

The Kuressaare Castle diorama recreates not only the castle itself but the surrounding moat and embankments as well. The miniature buildings feature intricate, razor sharp detail. The sculpture has taken on a greenish patina, as happens to bronze over time.

The diorama is a fitting tribute to Estonia’s most famous castle.


Dioramas in Film – The Dambusters

This 1955 film is regarded as one of the great military aviation movies of all time. The production values are excellent, aided by several airworthy RAF Avro Lancaster bombers that are prominently featured. 

The Dambusters follows the same basic story structure as 633 Squadron. It begins with the weeks of planning and preparation required to undertake a special mission that will involve bombing three dams in enemy territory. These dams are vital to the German war effort, and their destruction would be a significant win for the Allies. There are several setbacks along the way, as the mission depends on a new technology that must be perfected within a tight deadline. 

During the preparatory phase of the mission, tactics are discussed with the aid of three dioramas (one for each dam being targeted). The dioramas appear at two separate points in the film, and are on screen for a few minutes in total. 

The day of the mission arrives, and three groups of Lancasters head over the English Channel toward their targets. Their task will be to approach the dam at very low altitude and drop a cylindrical bomb designed to skip over the water until it reaches the dam and explodes. 

The Dambusters is highly recommended.


Lunar Crash Diorama – Part 4

The final step in the diorama is adding the main subject. The spaceship that will serve in this role is an original design that started out as a USB key.

The front part of the fuselage was reshaped with Tamiya epoxy putty and various parts were added from the spares box. The ship was spray painted gloss white. I decided to leave the back of the ship unpainted since I like the metal finish of the USB key. Modellers spend hours, days and even weeks approximating the look of bare metal, so this was a nice shortcut. The back of the key was filed down with a high speed motor tool to accommodate the engine bell. 

This is the smallest scratch-built miniature I’ve built. It measures just under 7cm (about 2.5”) in length.


Lunar Crash Diorama – Part 3

With the lunar base completed,  the next step is creating a backdrop for the diorama. The backdrop photo of the earth and stars is printed on translucent vinyl and is backlit by a string of LEDs arranged in a zig-zag pattern. The LED string is the high density type; the LEDs are tightly spaced to help even out the illumination. The photo is held in place by a non-glare acrylic plate placed in front of it. 

Separating the LED string from the photo are several layers of diffusing materials, including bubble wrap, translucent foam sheet, and paper. I spent a fair amount of time experimenting with these materials so the photo would be evenly illuminated. The LEDs get quite hot so ventilation holes were drilled in the back of the display case to help disperse the heat. 

When I tested the lighting, I noticed that the front of the diorama (where the spaceship will be placed) was too dark. To fix this, I drilled a hole in the top of the display case and added a chip LED with broad dispersion to light up the moonscape.


Lunar Crash Diorama – Part 2

Following on from the previous post, we now come to the surface texturing applied to the foam base to create a realistic looking lunar surface. I used various media, including Vallejo Desert Sand Earth Texture, AK Interactive Snow, and Tamiya Basic Type Putty. 

An important part of creating the illusion of perspective is mimicking the reduced detail of distant objects. This entails using a combination of coarse and smooth texture media. 

The front area of the base was done in Vallejo Desert Sand, which provides a suitably rough texture, while the back of the base was done in the more finely textured AK Interactive Snow. Some touch-ups with Tamiya putty were needed to smooth out the snow. Fine gravel was added to simulate large boulders. 

The next step was painting. I used Vallejo Model Color acrylic paints, which go on nicely with a brush and don’t leave brush marks. To further enhance the perspective of the scene, the more distant mountains were painted in lighter shades of grey, while the closer ones were rendered in slightly darker tones. The technique of using colour shading to enhance perspective is discussed in my book Forced Perspective Dioramas (in paperback on Amazon and in e-book format on Apple Books.)

The last step was painting in the crash trail left by the spacecraft to create the effect of blackened moondust. The trail starts out black and fades to a lighter charcoal colour in the distance. The unpainted section in the front corner is where the spacecraft will be situated. 


Lunar Crash Diorama – Part 1

The inspiration for this diorama came from films like 2001: A Space Odyssey that feature spacecraft set within vast planetary landscapes. The diorama will feature a crashed spacecraft shown in forced perspective with the Earth visible in the distance. 

The starting point for the diorama is the lunar landscape, which was sculpted out of AK Interactive carving foam. I glued three sheets of the 8mm foam together to achieve the required thickness, and then carved out the mountains and crash trail with knives, spatulas and a high speed motor tool. 

The mountains are arranged so they coalesce at the vanishing point in the distance, creating the illusion of perspective. For more on this technique, check out Forced Perspective Dioramas in paperback on Amazon and in e-book format on Apple Books.

Creating the basic topography for the lunar base was one of the most enjoyable aspects of this project. There’s something about free form sculpting that’s very satisfying.  

The next post will cover the application of various texture media to the foam base to create a realistic looking lunar surface. 


AK Interactive Carving Foam

Based in Spain, AK Interactive is known for its wide range of modelling tools and accessories, paints, and related products. I recently had an opportunity to try out their 8mm carving foam, which is going to form the base of a new diorama I’m working on.

The foam is an artificial product that is similar to balsa wood in terms of weight and softness (you can dent it with a fingernail), but more brittle. It can be cut, sawn, and shaped with a minimum of effort. For large cuts, I found that a fine tooth saw gives more predictable results than a knife. For sculpting, wooden or metal hand tools and high speed motor tools work equally well. The material is soft enough that you can sculpt it by dragging a wooden spoon across the surface. Sculpting with a high speed motor tool creates lots of fine dust, so a mask and goggles are recommended. 

AK recommends white glue and cyanoacrylate adhesive for gluing. I’ve found that white glue creates a sufficiently strong bond when gluing the foam to itself. I haven’t had to resort to cyanoacrylate so far. 

One drawback of the product is that it only comes in 8mm and 10mm thick sheets, so if you want to sculpt something thicker, you’ll need to glue several sheets together. This leaves visible strata that need to be covered with putty or some other coating before painting. 

Stay tuned for my next post, which will feature a look at the lunar landscape base that I’m sculpting out of AK carving foam.


Dioramas in Film – Iron Man 2

The 2010 sequel to Marvel action flick Iron Man sees billionaire inventor Tony Stark battling the U.S. government, rival technology mogul Justin Hammer, and Russian scientist Anton Vanko. 

A pivotal sequence in the film begins with Stark dusting off his father’s old diorama of the 1974 Stark Expo. This massive diorama is scanned and converted to a holographic version, which reveals something quite interesting: the buildings are arranged to represent a new element discovered by Stark senior. As it turns out, the new element is a suitable replacement for the rare palladium needed to power Stark’s failing heart implant.   

To say that this diorama has an essential role in the story is an understatement, because the secret contained within it saves Stark’s life. In terms of its importance to the plot, the Stark Expo diorama ranks among the top dioramas I’ve covered in the Dioramas in Film series.