Eschewing realism for artistic impact

There’s an unwritten rule among modellers that dioramas must appear realistic. It’s so entrenched in the community that abandoning realism is never even discussed. Every modelling magazine features realistic builds of miniatures, and every contest includes realism as an evaluation criterion. Let’s examine dioramas within a broader context to see if this fixation on realism is warranted. 

Dioramas are a visual art form, like painting, sculpture, and photography. And most visual art forms have gone through various periods, each with different aesthetic standards. The great Renaissance painters, for example, were known for perfecting a technically brilliant style which stressed naturalism, down to precisely calculated vanishing points to create perspective, and atmospheric effects to mimic haze.

Next came the Baroque period, which was also realistic, but with a greater emphasis on dramatic lighting to accentuate the subject. Baroque artists often chose to depict action scenes and capitalize on the drama of famous historical events. 

Everything changed in the 19th Century when a group of French painters decided that they wanted to interpret what they saw a different way. They were more interested in capturing the essence of a scene, and felt that the standard naturalistic approach to painting actually detracted from achieving this goal. These painters came to be known as the Impressionists—an accurate description considering what they wanted to achieve. Compared to Renaissance and Baroque paintings, Impressionist works appeared distinctly unrealistic, because they didn’t attempt to duplicate what the eye sees. 

Later developments in the world of painting broke away even more completely from the classic Renaissance and Baroque styles. Cubism, as exemplified by Picasso, was still somewhat representational but portrayed its subject from multiple angles simultaneously. Picasso wasn’t interested in what the eye sees, but rather chose to portray a subject by taking it apart and putting it back together (figuratively speaking), with astonishing results.  

Many of us are familar with the works of great painters from these artistic epochs, and can appreciate how these artists encourage us to see things in different ways. But we rarely apply any of the various visual styles from the world of painting to our dioramas. 

Part of the reason for defaulting to realism is that the elements we use in our dioramas are accurate scale miniatures of cars, planes and ships. The vast majority of commercially available plastic model kits are designed to reflect the shape, proportions and details of their full size counterparts. So by starting with realistic elements in a scene, the rest of the diorama tends to follow suit.

Now there’s nothing wrong with realism, but it’s not the only approach. Not all paintings are cubist, so why should all dioramas be realistic?  

In order to break out of this paradigm, we’d need to select elements for a diorama which aren’t intended to be realistic. The chrome plated aircraft in the above photo is one example. These types of objets d’art were popular in the Art Deco era of the early 1900s. If you started with this plane as the focal point of your diorama, it would probably inspire you to create a very different kind of diorama. 

Making an artistic leap of this magnitude might be a bit much to do all at once, but you could start by taking baby steps. Rather than making an entire diorama in a different visual style, focus on changing one or two elements. Let’s take vapor trails as an example. I’m currently working on an aerial scene which includes a B-29 Superfortress. Although this is a prop plane, at high altitude, historical photographs frequently show vapor trails behind the aircraft. The standard way to model these is with cotton batten. It’s the only material that comes close to capturing the fluffy, translucent quality of atmospheric condensation. But it’s also a cliché. So I decided to use a combination of solid materials, sculpted by hand, instead. The result is less realistic than cotton batten, but it has more visual impact due to being unexpected and unique. 

Picking the right genre can also help. Science fiction is a good choice for stepping beyond the bounds of realism, since the vehicles are fictional. No-one knows really what the ‘real thing’ looks like. And when your scene is set on a different planet, the trees and bushes can be purple and pink. You’re able to break free of the constraints of realism. When I built Eagle Crash, I used aquarium plants for the vegetation and added a scratch-built tree that doesn’t look like anything you’d see walking through the park. It was refreshing to be able to let my imagination take over and not worry that something might look ‘unrealistic.’ 

So don’t feel constrained by the bounds of what looks realistic. Think instead about how to maximize the visual impact of your diorama. You might be pleasantly surprised with the results. 

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar


Arctic Rescue finds new home at Greenwood Museum

Greenwood Military Aviation Museum (GMAM) in Nova Scotia, Canada, has curated my diorama Arctic Rescue for its Search and Rescue themed display area. GMAM is celebrating its 25th anniversary and features an air park of finely restored aircraft dating back to WWII, as well as numerous interior displays and artifacts. 

GMAM is a stone’s throw from Canadian Forces Base Greenwood which began as an RAF station in 1942 and was home to iconic warbirds like the Lancaster and Mosquito. CFB Greenwood has grown to become the largest operational airbase in Atlantic Canada. 

Art is meant to be shared. The satisfaction of completing a creative project is certainly a reward in itself, but most artists appreciate the opportunity to be able to display their work publicly. I’m delighted that the CH-149 Cormorant miniature in Arctic Rescue can now be seen in the company of its full-size rotary-wing cousins like the museum’s Labrador and H44. And if you visit, you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the full-size Cormorant at nearby CFB Greenwood, where it’s currently operational. 

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar


Diorama Design at RPM East 2019

Veteran model railroader Nicholas Kalis just delivered a presentation entitled Enhance Your Layout’s Story Telling – Practical Steps at RPM East 2019 in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, USA. A good part of the presentation was based on my book, Diorama Design

RPM stands for Railroad Prototype Modelers and is a major NMRA model railroading seminar. It includes presentations, operating sessions, open layouts, and a large model display room. The event took place on March 22nd and 23rd. 

Mr. Kalis spoke to a large room of model railroad aficionados about the visual elements of train layouts. For his presentation, he used many of the principles covered in Diorama Design, including:

  • Four Steps in Design
  • Design Basics – i.e. Geometry, Topography, Space and Color
  • Illustrated successful applications in model railroads of the Seven Principles of Design (Balance, Unity, Contrast, Emphasis, Movement, Repetition, and Rhythm)

He recollects the event as follows:

I drove through mostly virgin forests  – with my wife keeping me company – 3.5 hours each way to reach Greensburg, Pennsylvania to deliver my clinic. The audio-visual set-up was superb. The RPM folks even had one person assigned to introduce me. A second volunteer was on hand in each clinic room to insure that the audio-visual equipment worked properly. I found a friendly crowd of some 40 attendees seated to hear my presentation. During my presentation I found a receptive audience. Some even stood up to take photos of the slides projected on the screen. At the end of my presentation, four individuals approached me, in turn, to request a copy of my PowerPoint slides. One of the gentlemen handed me his business card which showed he had travelled all the way from Minnesota – quite a trip. He was a professional model railroad builder. One fellow was glad to finally meet me as many years ago Railroad Model Craftsman published my email in which I had defended this author (RMC had published an article he penned that described how to build accurate urban buildings – someone had written RMC to complain that such an article did not belong in a model railroad magazine.).

I’m delighted that Mr. Kalis was able to use the concepts in Diorama Design for his presentation, and that it went so well. Model railroads and dioramas are close cousins, and when thinking about the energy and creativity that goes into each of them, that well-known phrase ‘transferable skill set’ comes to mind. 

If you like to build dioramas or model railroads and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, check out Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

Photography as a building aid

It’s natural to wait until your diorama is completed before taking pictures of it. After all, the finished product is what people want to see. But there’s a case to be made for getting out your camera before everything is finished. 

I’m in the final stages of completing Mirage, a diorama featuring WWII Germany’s versatile Junkers JU-88 medium bomber. I decided to take some photos before mounting the acrylic window which will cover the front of the diorama. Without a polarizing filter, reflections from acrylic and glass can be an issue when photographing your work. 

When I reviewed the photos I’d taken, a number of flaws came to light which I hadn’t noticed before. I wondered how I could have missed them. 

The camera, I realized, was like a second set of eyes. It enabled me to see the diorama differently, revealing imperfections which went unnoticed before. I can think of two reasons for the camera’s unique ability to do this. 

The first reason is that our eyes are permanently set in wide angle mode. We can’t ‘zoom in’ on subjects. A camera’s field of vision, on the other hand, can be varied. Close-up photographs allow us to more easily study separate sections of a diorama, one at a time. When all our attention is focused on a very small part of the diorama, it’s harder for flaws to escape scrutiny. 

The second reason is that looking at something in three dimensions presents the eye with more information than when looking at the same subject in two dimensions. When looking for flaws, this can be a liability, because some of the information is superfluous. The photograph distills what you see into a simplified two-dimensional form. This makes it easier to pick up mistakes in your work. In other words, flaws which were ‘buried’ in a three-dimensional view are laid bare in two dimensions. 

Before the days of digital photography, taking pictures was a much longer process. You had to buy a roll of film, take your pictures, and get everything developed and printed at the photo shop. The whole process could take several days, with the result that photography tended to be reserved for special occasions. But with the instant turnaround conferred by digital cameras, the bounds of conservativism in picture taking have been forever broken. I’d venture that photography has actually become too accessible, as evidenced by that modern day cultural aberration known as the selfie. 

To paraphrase Blade Runner’s Rick Deckard, technology can be a benefit or a hazard. That goes for cameras as well as replicants. So put your camera to good use, and when you’re nearing the end of your project, take pictures of your work in progress. Don’t skimp on coverage. Get several angles and plenty of close-ups. You may be surprised at what you discover, and once you fix the things you missed, you’ll have a better diorama. 

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

Sea Water from Tomytec

Diorama modellers who like to build scenes featuring ships and boats know how important realistic looking water is to the overall effect. Depending on the location being portrayed, water  can look transparent, translucent, or opaque, and can take on a wide variety of colours, including blue, green, grey, teal and turquoise, to name a few. Its surface can range anywhere from glassy smooth to wave tossed. 

If you’re working in larger scales like 1:35, water is much more visually appealing if it’s translucent rather than opaque. Even a muddy river has a top layer which is translucent. Getting this effect is usually very labour intensive. My Drug Runners diorama required five layers of two-part resin infused with blue paint to get the effect I was after. Ripples were added to the top layer with a spatula, before the resin had completely set. Creating the wake for the speedboat also took some experimentation before I was satisfied with the results. 

Generally speaking, smaller scales will have more opaque looking water. If your taste runs to naval vessels in scales such as 1:144 or 1:200, you’re in luck, because Tomytec has a solution. Simply referred to as Sea Water, Tomytech is offering a set of two A4 size sheets of PET depicting an ocean surface in 1:150 scale. The sheets are thin enough to be cut with scissors, so you can easily customize them to fit a base of any shape. 

Tomytec doesn’t specify if the sheets are translucent or opaque. Translucency would provide more control over the final appearance of the ocean surface you’re modelling. You can always make a translucent surface more opaque, but not the reverse. 

With these sheets, all you have to do is affix your waterline hull model to the sheet, add some wake, and you’re all set. Infinitely easier than creating your own water using resin mixes. 

Tomytec’s Sea Water sheets will be available in June. You can pre-order them at www.1999.co.jp

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

T2 Judgement Day diorama

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) was one of those rare sequels that outdid its predecessor both critically and commercially. Featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger at the top of his game, director James Cameron’s second time travel flick has stood the test of time. T2 is still the defining installment of the Terminator franchise nearly three decades after its release. None of the subsequent Terminator films have come close to capturing the frothy mix of inventive plotting and brilliant chase sequences that made T2 so successful. 

Pegasus Hobbies offers a number of kits based on the Terminator franchise. One is a diorama featuring T-800 Endoskeletons patrolling a post-apocalyptic battlefield, recalling the opening scene in T2. Although the kit has been out for some time, there’s now a special edition featuring chrome plated figures. Pegasus doesn’t specify a scale, but resellers put it at 1:32. 

Kits with chrome plated parts are a rarity. Few manufacturers go to the trouble of adding this process to their production lines, perhaps because so few subjects require it. Unless you build kits of 1950s and 1960s cars, you may have never been faced with the task of creating a chrome finish. 

If you’ve attempted to duplicate the look of chrome, you probably found out that even the most sophisticated multi-layer airbrush techniques won’t give you a realistic looking chrome finish. No matter how much you layer it and polish it, at the end of the day, silver paint will just look like silver paint. This is where chrome plated parts come in. 

One of the earliest kits I remember building was a beautiful chrome plated CF-104 Starfighter, and the factory chroming process was exceptionally good. Assuming the process being used by Pegasus is similar, the results should be impressive. Just remember to scrape the chrome off the areas that will receive glue (otherwise the parts won’t stick together). 

The T2 diorama is a tad sparse. It consists of five figures, a relatively flat circular base, and a ruin of a stone gate. A standard out-of-the-box build isn’t going to give you anything that looks like what you saw in the film. Adding some additional elements, like a rusted out truck or Hunter Killer (which Pegasus also makes), would liven things up. Even a few rocks and pieces of scrap metal would help. Since the battlefield in T2 was shown at night, some lighting would go a long way to recreating the ambience of the scene. To quote John Connor, ‘there is no fate but what we make for ourselves.’ The same is true for your diorama.  

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

Order of Operations

Back in grade school we learned about something called order of operations in math class. When solving an equation, we were told the correct sequence was brackets, multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction. There’s also an order of operations when creating a diorama, but the sequence isn’t constant. It depends on the project. 

The more complex your diorama, the more time it’ll take you to figure out the order of operations. Here’s a case study to illustrate: I’m currently working on a diorama depicting a scene from Star Wars: A New Hope, which shows a group of rebel fighters flying past Yavin on their way to intercept the approaching Death Star. This is a box diorama, so it’s going to be fully enclosed. 

Here’s a list of tasks which need to be completed:

  • build X-Wings and Y-Wings
  • install LED stars
  • fabricate and install EL panel depicting Yavin
  • line interior with black velvet
  • install X-Wings and Y-Wings
  • drill holes in back panel for wiring
  • punch holes in black velvet for lighting
  • fabricate and assemble top, back and bottom panels
  • install front window
  • stain cabinet exterior

These ten tasks can be arranged in many different sequences. In fact, using permutation theory, we can determine exactly how many possible sequences there are. The formula is 10! which equals 3,628,800. Hard to believe there are that many possible ways to build a diorama, but there you have it. 

Since we’re dealing with art rather than science here, there’s rarely a perfect sequence. Each will have its pros and cons. The important thing is to avoid a sequence which unnecessarily increases your workload or makes it difficult for you to complete your project the way you envisioned it (without undoing a large part of your work and starting over). 

A common pitfall is forgetting to include all the tasks on your list. Just as many chefs prepare recipes by heart (and then forget to add the salt), most diorama artists probably don’t make written task lists. But it’s not a bad idea. When you’re going by memory, it’s easy to leave a step out and not realize it until it’s too late. Forgetting just one task in our example means that all 362,880 ways of completing the nine tasks you wrote down would lead to problems! 

Assuming you carefully wrote down all the required tasks and checked to make sure no steps were missing, the other error you can make is of course completing a task out of sequence, making it difficult or impossible to complete subsequent tasks. For example, you might decide the two last steps will be installing the X-Wings and Y-Wings and then installing the front window. But if you forgot to measure your models and realize too late that they’re too big to fit through the opening for the front window, you’d have a problem. 

Rather than trying to juggle over three million sequences in your head, it’s much easier to write down three or four which seem to make sense. Then study each option you’ve written down, verifying that none of the earlier steps will create problems in completing any of the subsequent steps. You may realize at this point that one or two of your sequences won’t work very well. By process of elimination, you can pick a sequence which will allow you to successfully complete your project the way you envisioned it, without complications.

And you thought math couldn’t be fun! 

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

Review of Diorama Design

My book, Diorama Design, has just been reviewed in the Winter 2019 edition of The Potomac Flyer. This is a quarterly publication of the Potomac Division, NMRA (National Model Railroad Association). The review is by Nicholas Kalis, a veteran NMRA model railroader and author who has written many articles devoted to the hobby. 

Mr. Kalis does a great job in his review of discussing how the principles in Diorama Design apply not only to dioramas, but to model railroads as well. After all, a scenic model railroad can be thought of as a diorama enlivened by the motion of miniature trains. I wrote about this in a previous post.  

Unlike two-dimensional art forms like painting and photography, dioramas and model railroads share a sculptural aspect and a reach-out-and-touch-it physical presence. They also utilize similar construction techniques and materials. Above all, modelers in both camps share a common interest in creating visually compelling miniature environments.

Based on these similarities, Mr. Kalis makes a strong case that model railroad aficionados can benefit from the concepts outlined in Diorama Design. So if you’re a model railroader looking to add some visual punch to your layout, you may want to check out the book. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon. 

Thanks to Mr. Kalis for sharing his insights from the world of model railroads, and for taking the initiative to write the review. You can read it here

-Ivar

The RBG Escarpment Train

The Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) is a major tourist attraction in Burlington, Canada. As the name implies, the focus of RBG is horticulture. However, the site also features a G gauge (1:29 scale) model railroad layout, which was donated to RBG by Norman and Jackie Wells of Burlington in 2017. 

Known as the RBG Escarpment Train, the specs are impressive: nine diesel and two steam locomotives, 122 metres of track, and 476 figures on a 37 square metre layout. Although the sheer size of the layout commands attention, what really makes it memorable is the varied topography. There’s an intriguing mix of hills, valleys, tunnels and bridges, with lots of variation in height. Creating a continuous run track plan with this much of a vertical span is quite challenging, and the RBG Escarpment Train succeeds beautifully. 

Varying the topography accomplishes the same goal in both railroad layouts and dioramas. It creates visual interest. Multiple levels are always more interesting than one level. Unless you’re in the desert or in the middle of a lake, you generally see topography all around you. It’s part of nature, so employing it in a layout or diorama will also contribute to the realism of the scene you’re creating.   

The layout incorporates full lighting, allowing visitors to enjoy nighttime as well as daytime views of the exhibit. The nighttime version is especially striking.

The RBG Escarpment Train lives up to its name and is definitely worth a visit (more info at www.rbg.ca) next time you’re in Southern Ontario. Even if you’re not a gardener!

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

Dioramas in Film – Quo Vadis

Quo Vadis (1951) is a biblical epic about a Roman army commander who falls in love with a beautiful Christian hostage and begins questioning the despotic rule of Emperor Nero. Like all epics of its time, the film features many magnificent sets, some of immense proportions. 

Of considerably smaller proportions is a diorama which appears about an hour and a half into the movie. Nero is conversing with his architect, Phaon, and we are introduced to an elaborate miniature of a new Rome envisioned by Nero. Filled with classical architecture, the diorama is made all the more elegant by virtue of being rendered entirely in whites and light pastels. The level of detail is impressive. 

From a storytelling perspective, the diorama is central to the film. It symbolizes the egomaniacal fervor of Nero, who sees this new Rome as a tribute to his glory as Emperor. Nero has no interest in what benefits a new city could potentially offer its citizens. Rather, he speaks haughtily of the foul smells which will disappear when the city is built, and he even has a new name for it: Neropolis. The city is an expression of his megalomania.

Rather than remaining an elaborate sketch of a distant dream, this diorama portends ominous events which soon come to fruition. In order to build his new city, Nero must first destroy the old one. So he gives the order to burn Rome to the ground. From the safety of his palace, he plays the lyre as the flames rise. Nero’s final touch is to blame the Christians for starting the fire, giving him the excuse he needs to hunt them down.

These events propel the film to its climax, which is grandly staged in the tradition of historical films of the period.  Although Quo Vadis never achieved the critical acclaim of Ben-Hur or Spartacus, it’s a fine work with a well deserved place in the pantheon of biblical epics.   

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar