Lose yourself in your art

Many artists relish the experience of losing themselves in their art. Think of the guitarist who closes his eyes during a solo, immersed in his music, or the painter who talks to his painting (yes, I’ve met painters who do this). In the act of creating art, the artist temporarily enters another world. In this world, the four walls of the studio disappear, and reality fades away.

The connection the artist establishes with his work is vital. The stronger this connection, the more successfully the artist’s talent and energy can be transferred to his work. So losing yourself in your work is a good thing. It means you’ve optimized the connection.

The success with which the artist can immerse himself in this other world varies from artist to artist. Experience is a big part of it. A novice musician at his first piano recital will be more conscious of his teacher’s presence in the front row than the nuances of the piece he is performing. At the other extreme, a master performer like Keith Jarrett will lose himself completely in his performance, to the point that he’s unaware of his humming and squealing as he plays. (This has been an endless source of consternation to the recording engineers at Jarrett’s studio sessions, but most of his fans don’t seem to mind.)

The diorama artist has it even better than the musician or painter, because he not only loses himself in another world temporarily as he creates his art, but actually creates a permanent fictional world as the end result. Novelists and filmmakers (documentary filmmakers excepted) also create permanent fictional worlds. We can add poets to this small and exclusive club if we include epic poems like Beowulf.

For those of us who enjoy a respite from modern day civilization (which is frequently less than civil), there’s something intensely satisfying about the ability to create a fictional world of your own design. Even one that fits on a bookshelf.

-Ivar

Is a diorama ever completely finished (and should it be)?

If you ever went to Boy Scouts as a kid, you may have heard the maxim that a Boy Scout always finishes what he starts. This seems like sound advice for young minds. It encourages the development of persistence, focus, and personal discipline. But like most well intentioned advice, it shouldn’t always be taken too literally.

Take dioramas for instance. Unlike other works of art which are formally completed at a point in time, dioramas invite constant tinkering. As your skills develop, you’ll be tempted to make improvements to dioramas you finished long ago (or thought you did). This is appealing for a couple of reasons, one being that reworking an existing diorama is a more manageable project than starting a new one, and the other being that it doesn’t require you to free up more shelf space.

Dioramas also require occasional repairs. If you move frequently, you may find that your diorama doesn’t travel well. It may not get along well with pets either (don’t let your cat see that realistic field grass you just bought for your latest tank battle diorama—he’s likely to tear it up as soon as you’ve glued it down, adding a new slant to the term “battle damage”). Repairs may not disqualify a diorama from being “finished,” but they can subtly alter it. This is something other visual artists don’t have to worry about too much. Photographers, for example, don’t generally bother trying to fix a print which has become dog eared or has had coffee spilled on it. They just run off another print.

Dioramas can also be altered by adding new content. Some of my earlier dioramas were visually quite sparse, featuring one or two vehicles surrounded by lots of unused real estate. A few of those dioramas have since benefitted from the addition of an additional vehicle or figure.

Artists often struggle with how much content to put into their diorama. In the world of design, unused space around the main subject is called negative space. Although negative space is not intrinsically undesirable, it has to be carefully balanced with—you guessed it—positive space. This principle holds true in most forms of visual art. There has to be balance.

Dioramas tend to look empty if they have too much negative space. Of course, going to the other extreme and cramming in too much content is no better. I’ve noticed at model shows that “cramming” is quite prevalent among novice diorama artists. They seem to be nervous about having any empty space in their diorama, so they fill it up with something, like a baker spreading chocolate chips over cookie dough. One drawback of cramming is that your main subject tends to be drowned out by everything else. It also leads to weak composition. And finally, if there is too much going on, no-one will be able to discern the story you’re trying to tell.

So back to the original question. Is a diorama ever finished? I would answer this with a resounding “sometimes.” About half of my dioramas remain as they were the day I finished them. But others have been modified in some way over the years, some more than once. My earlier dioramas are the ones I’ve modified the most. They weren’t as carefully planned, since I used to go from one sketch straight to the construction phase.

My more recent dioramas have benefitted from better pre-planning. I sketch, assess, tweak, and sketch some more, until I’m convinced I’ve arrived at the best possible composition. Only after several sketches do I begin construction. This approach means that fewer design changes are needed after construction has started. And I prefer it because it’s a lot cheaper and easier to make changes in two dimensions than three.

So although it’s great advice to finish what you start, it also makes a lot of sense to treat your dioramas as perpetual works in progress. The occasional tweak or embellishment keeps them current, reflecting your evolution as an artist, and ensures that you’ll continue to consider them as valuable pieces in your collection.

-Ivar