Why so few have the patience to build dioramas

If you were to ask someone to list the essential qualities of a good diorama artist, you might get things like “talent,” “creativity,” and “an eye for detail.” But someone can have all these things and never complete a single diorama, unless they have patience.

At a recent art show, I asked a painter how long it usually takes him to finish a painting. His answer was “about a week.” Contrast this with a diorama artist, who can spend months, or even years, on a project. (Whether or not a diorama is ever finished is something I discussed here.)

When you consider the number of steps involved in creating a diorama, it’s easy to see why it could take longer than the average painting. At a minimum, the diorama artist must do the following:

  • Decide on a subject
  • Design a layout
  • Select a scale
  • Construct the base which will support the diorama
  • Construct, paint and weather the elements (including scale   vehicles, buildings, figures, etc.)
  • Create the terrain for the base
  • Position the finished elements on the terrain
  • Make final adjustments

Additional steps are needed if the diorama is to have lighting or motion. The installation of electrical components must be carefully planned and implemented in the right sequence. It can substantially increase the time investment in completing a diorama.

Not all diorama projects have to span multiple birthdays, but as with most things, the more time you devote to your diorama, the better the result will be. As Greek philosopher Epictetus famously noted, “No great thing is suddenly created.”

So why are there so many “weekend artists” who prefer to complete their projects in the space of a few days, and so few diorama artists who are willing to devote months or years to a project? Part of the reason is that we all like a quick win, but there’s much more to it.

We’ve become increasingly conditioned to expect instant gratification. Over just a few decades, many routine activities have gotten a lot shorter. Hour-long conversations with friends have been reduced to text message exchanges of a few words at a time. What used to be a long, relaxing soak in the tub is now a five-minute shower. And there’s no need to spend an afternoon preparing a meal when you can pop a frozen entrée into the microwave and have it ready in less time than it takes to set the table. (Speaking of microwaves, there’s even a “quick minute” button, because manufacturers know that pressing “six” and “zero” separately takes far too long!)

These technological conveniences should have increased the amount of time at our disposal that we could devote to meaningful activities. But contrary to plan, we didn’t fill this newfound spare time with anything meaningful, because the same technologies that gave us more time exacted a terrible price. They conditioned us to expect instant gratification. As a result, we have shortened attention spans, less ability to persevere, and little patience. So we squander our newfound spare time on low-investment distractions like Facebook and Twitter.

Much has been written about the simple pleasures which we lost in our blind pursuit of technological conveniences. But we also lost something else: the patience to create art which requires a time commitment of more than a weekend.

-Ivar

The beauty of model kit box art

From my earliest model building days, I’ve always been drawn to the beautiful box art on model kits. A quick search turned up the above photo of the box art from a kit I built as a kid. This illustration captures all the excitement of modern naval technology. The Enterprise is a commanding presence, carving a frothy white wake in an ocean of gorgeous blue. An A4 Skyhawk streaks overhead, reminding us that this is no ordinary ship, but a mobile airfield. So powerful is the illustration, I instantly recognized it out of hundreds of photos in the search results, even though the model is long gone.

Not all box art is created equal, and there’s obviously no relationship between the quality of the illustration and the quality of the kit itself. Some excellent kits come in poorly illustrated boxes, and vice-versa. Japanese kit manufacturers usually get it right on both counts, with well engineered kits in finely illustrated boxes. I find Tamiya’s box art to be exceptionally good.

Not all types of kits get the same artistic treatment. For a long time, science fiction kits were the poor cousins of the box art world. AMT and MPC, which brought us subjects from Star Trek, Star Wars, Space: 1999 and other iconic sci-fi shows and films, always had cheap looking box art. MPC’s Eagle was a mess on all counts: one of the most inaccurately mastered kits ever produced, in a really ugly box!

Things have improved for sci-fi modelers, now that we have premium science fiction kits from companies like Fine Molds and Fujimi. The Star Wars line from Fine Molds features top notch box art. I especially like the box art on the Y-Wing kit. And Fujimi’s Spinner from Blade Runner also comes in a nicely illustrated box.

Some box art is so good, you could cut it out and frame it if not for the type that covers the illustration. And some of the top artists in the field, like Roy Cross, Jack Leynnwood, Kihachiro Ueda and Shigeo Koike, have had their box art republished in prints and books. Koike’s website at http://shigeokoike.com/en features some of the masterful work he’s done for Hasegawa and Fuji Heavy Industries. If you’ve never heard of any of these artists, it’s because they generally aren’t permitted to sign their names to their box art illustrations. The kit producer will argue that they want to promote the kit, not the artist, although I see no reason why they couldn’t do both.

If we think of the model building experience as a journey, then the journey begins when walking into a hobby store and seeing a new kit, or spotting it online. An attractive package will naturally generate more sales, and marketing departments know full well the importance of capturing the prospective buyer’s imagination the first time he sets eyes on a new kit. It can make the difference between winning and losing the sale.

The worst thing a kit manufacturer can do is have no box art at all. Anyone who’s ever bought a resin garage kit is familiar with the curiously anticlimactic experience of receiving their kit in the mail, unwrapping it, and being confronted with a plain cardboard box devoid of any graphics at all. Or a splotchy black and white photocopy stapled to the box, which is worse.

Of course it would be asking a lot to expect a garage kit producer to be a gifted professional artist as well as a good mold maker. Garage outfits are usually one man operations, and few people are that multi-talented.

What’s harder to excuse is mass producers of kits who make bad decisions when it comes to box art. Remember when Airfix offered kits in plastic bags? The only visible artwork was a tiny piece of folded cardboard stapled to the top of the bag! You had to really want the kit badly to stomach such cheap packaging. Even worse, you’d be left wondering if the unprotected parts would still fit together when you got the kit home. Without the protection of a cardboard box, parts could come off sprues and get damaged or lost. But then quality has never been a priority for Airfix.

In the age of online shopping, one reason people still enjoy walking into a hobby store is because it’s like entering an art gallery full of illustrations of your favourite planes/cars/boats/spaceships. The poster-size box art on large kits beats squinting at tiny website photos hands down. Shrink-wrapped kits are even better, adding a glossy coating which makes colours pop (and reassures you that no pieces are missing).

With few exceptions, kit producers prefer to use paintings of the “real thing” rather than photographs of the completed model for their box art. Paintings are better at generating interest for a potential buyer because they exploit his interest in the actual subject, which is the reason he’s buying the kit. And a painter can place the subject in a dynamic scene, whereas a photo of the completed kit will always look static and dull in comparison.

Compare this photographic box art from Testors to the illustrated art from Revell:

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It’s the same subject in the same scale, but the illustrated package is far more appealing. And being human, we assume that what looks good on the outside will transfer to the inside. So most people will prefer the Revell kit, other things being equal.

If you have a closet full of old kit boxes and you’re about to move, you may be contemplating throwing them in the recycling. But instead, consider cutting out the front illustrations and keeping them. You can discard the rest of the box, and still have all that beautiful artwork when you arrive at your new place.

-Ivar

3D printing is going mainstream

The sign that convinced me that 3D printing has gone mainstream was a newly opened retail store which I spotted downtown the other day. This store is the first I’ve seen offering 3D prints of . . . people! So instead of going to a professional photographer to have your photo taken, you can now walk into this store and have a figurine created of yourself. It starts with a full body scan and ends with a 3D replica of you, in the scale of your choice.

When I saw a 3D printer being used to create a mask in a Mission: Impossible movie a few years ago, I assumed it was pure science fiction. But just as Star Trek’s communicators made the leap from science fiction to fact, so too have 3D printers.

My first question after walking into the store was what material they use to print the figurines. I was told that most of the figurines on display were made of gypsum powder, but plastic is also available. My second question was if they could print objects other than people. The answer was yes, but not at the store. For that, I’d have to contact head office.

Of course, there are already online 3D printing services like Shapeways which offer custom printing. But there are lots of esoteric services available online which cater to extremely small markets. The fact that a retail store now offers this service indicates that the market is big enough to justify a bricks and mortar presence. This means that demand is increasing.

You can also buy your own 3D printer. At this point in time they’re extremely expensive, and would only be justified for someone constantly making prints. Prices won’t come down that quickly because the market for these machines is limited. They’re specialty items, unlike LED TV sets or DVD players, which dropped dramatically in price because of high consumer demand.

The mainstreaming of 3D printing is a significant development for diorama artists. No longer are we faced with scratch building items which aren’t available in kit form, or overpaying for resin garage kits. More choice is always good, and diorama artists will benefit.

-Ivar

Keeping costs down when building your diorama

When e-commerce went mainstream and turned the world of retail and wholesale on its head, it was the consumer who emerged as the winner. Liberated from the monopoly which local bricks and mortar stores used to enjoy, the consumer can go online and hunt for the lowest prices from sellers around the world.

In a previous post, I talked about the decline of the bricks and mortar hobby shop in the online age. Although it would be easy to feel sorry for the hobby shop owner who has been turfed out by online competition, it’s important to realize that he may have just become greedy and priced himself out of business.

Hobby retailers (bricks and mortar as well as online) have a habit of overpricing products which are available elsewhere at far lower prices. They rely on their image as a specialist retailer to justify big margins.

A good example is miniature lighting. I frequently use LED lighting strips in my dioramas. They outlast bulbs by a wide margin, generate very little heat, and are easy to work with. LED strips are available via hobby retailers as well as eBay (mainly from sellers in China and Hong Kong). Guess which is cheaper? The price difference is so big that I wonder how hobby retailers are able to sell any LED strips at all.

Some hobbyists may not have the patience to comparison shop, but for those willing to spend a few minutes surfing the web, the return on your time investment can be considerable. And it can add up over time.

Here are some tips which can be useful in finding the lowest price for the product you’re looking for:

· See if you can determine where the product is manufactured
· Determine what types of retailers carry the product (for example, paints are carried by art stores, hobby stores, hardware stores, home improvement stores, and last but not least, paint stores); also check if the manufacturer sells direct
· Compare prices at each type of retailer in the country of manufacture with retailers in your country (remember to include shipping costs when comparing)
· Check prices at portals like eBay and Amazon

It helps to keep in mind also that the more middlemen you can cut out, the better your price will be. Some products are resold multiple times before reaching the consumer, and the price goes up every step of the way.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that if you don’t mind waiting a bit longer for your product to arrive, you can save a lot of money. Basic shipping rates from China to North America are astonishingly cheap if you don’t mind the four-week wait. I’ve also found shipping rates from Britain to be very reasonable. In contrast, buying from a U.S. source can entail horrendously high shipping charges, particularly on eBay and Amazon. And look out for eBay sellers who price a product at a discount and overcharge for shipping.

You would think that large online hobby retailers would have lower prices because they get quantity discounts when they purchase stock. However, I’ve found that this isn’t always the case. Remember that retailers are under no obligation to pass along savings to their customers. The only consistent advantage I’ve found to buying from a larger retailer is better product selection. If you’re buying several items at once and can bundle them into one delivery, you’ll usually pay less for shipping.

There isn’t one universal rule for getting the cheapest price. It depends on the product you’re buying. So do your research and happy shopping!

-Ivar

How many people build dioramas?

When assessing the popularity of an art form, we can consider the following:
· How many well-known artists are there
· How big a market is there for buyers and sellers
· How strong of an online presence is there (websites, discussion boards, etc.)
· How often is it in the news

It’s pretty obvious that based on these criteria, the popularity of dioramas is very limited. Most people who build dioramas usually start out as scale modellers, a niche group itself. This means that diorama artists are a niche of a niche!

If we look at a more commonly practised art form, like photography, most people with a passing interest in art would be able to name at least one famous photographer. Ditto for sculpture or painting. But what about dioramas? I’ve been building dioramas for many years, and the only diorama artist I can name off the bat is Sheperd Paine. And I know of him because of his book on dioramas, not his actual works.

But what about special effects technicians who work in film and television, you say? If you’re a science fiction aficionado, chances are you’ve heard of names like Douglas Trumbull, John Dykstra, Brian Johnson and Derek Meddings. Well, they’re all famous artists, but they create miniature sets, not dioramas. A miniature set is usually much larger than a diorama, because it’s optimized for filming. And because it’s specifically designed to be filmed, it only has to look good from the angle of the camera. A diorama, on the other hand, is open to scrutiny from many angles. Another differentiator is that miniature film sets can be digitally enhanced through computer generated effects in post-production, whereas dioramas don’t have this luxury.

Brian Johnson, who’s known for his superb work on Space: 1999, Alien, The Empire Strikes Back, and many other high profile projects, once remarked that he knew special effects supervisors who created works of art on their sets, but none of it showed up in the final shot. He added candidly, “with all that smoke swirling about the place, you can get away with murder!” His comment shows that unlike some other effects artists, he fully understood the difference between miniature sets and dioramas.

You might expect that artists who create dioramas for museums would be well known (and this would be a reasonable expectation). In a recent post, I discussed Museo de la Miniatura in Guayaquil, Ecuador. When I toured the museum, I asked several people for the name of the artist who created the dioramas. No-one was able to answer my question. Nor could I find the artist mentioned anywhere in the museum or on its website, despite the fact that every exhibit in the museum was created by this artist!

So it seems that museums don’t feel that the artists who created dioramas for them should receive credit or publicity for their work. And to make matters worse, diorama artists, unlike painters, don’t usually sign their name on their finished works. Diorama artists are the unsung (not to mention uncredited and unpublicized) artists of the art world.

The lack of well-known diorama artists is perhaps the greatest impediment to the popularity of the art, because artists benefit from other artists who inspire them. Photographers can aspire to the greatness achieved by Ansel Adams or Henri Cartier-Bresson. Painters, to Monet or Van Gogh. And sculptors, to Rodin or Michelangelo. But diorama artists have no such names to aspire to.

Perhaps because there are no well-known diorama artists, dioramas are rarely featured in art galleries. I’ve seen a few, but they tend to be few and far between.

Returning to the original question of how many people build dioramas, it’s clear that the numbers are extremely small. There are no famous diorama artists. Dioramas have a tiny web presence, are rarely bought, sold, or exhibited in galleries, and are hardly ever newsworthy.

Is this a problem? Not if you’re a sincere artist. By this I mean someone who does what they do because they love doing it, not because they want external validation. Popularity and recognition are nice, but they are chance by-products of the creative process and nothing more. The act of creating a work of art, with all its frustrations, joys, disappointments and successes, is what engages us first and foremost. We create art because we’re compelled to. So if you love building dioramas, that in itself is enough.

-Ivar