The best fisherman and the best diorama artist

There’s a great observation by John Gray in his award-winning book Straw Dogs which reminds us why we have hobbies: “the best fisherman is not the one who catches the most fish but the one who enjoys fishing the most.” Although it seems obvious, it’s easy to lose sight of this simple truth.

If we transpose the fishing example to the world of dioramas, some interesting questions come up. Such as, what is it about building dioramas that you enjoy the most? And which parts could you do without? By answering these questions, you can maximize your “success” as a diorama artist.

For myself, I especially enjoy the concept phase, in which I decide on the story I’ll be telling, and how to most effectively portray the story within the diorama framework. Once construction gets underway, I enjoy scratchbuilding and freehand work like carving a cliff face by hand or pouring resin to simulate water.

The one item I’d classify as a negative is airbrushing. Many years ago, I decided to pick up a cheap airbrush and see if it would improve the quality of paint finishes on my models. It didn’t. I attended an airbrushing workshop to make sure I was doing everything right and tried a more expensive airbrush. I found it astonishingly finicky. If I didn’t mix exactly the right proportions of paint and thinner and dial the compressor to exactly the right pressure, it would either not spray evenly or not spray at all. Although I would eventually get it to spray properly after many attempts, I realized that it was detracting from my enjoyment of modelling.

The benefit I got from airbrushing was the ability to paint large surfaces with custom shades of paint. After doing some research, I found a paint store stocking hundreds of shades of Montana brand spray paint in canisters with high quality interchangeable nozzles. So I could get pretty much any shade I wanted without an airbrush. I now use Montana spray paints almost exclusively to finish large surfaces, and the results are consistently excellent. I’ve probably saved myself dozens of hours of airbrush-related hassles by changing my approach. I’d compare it to that feeling of liberation you get after dumping a high maintenance girlfriend!

Hobby store owners will swear up and down that you need an airbrush. If you want to make them happy, buy one. If you want to make yourself happy, don’t.

When it comes to itemizing the most enjoyable and least enjoyable things about diorama building, every diorama artist will come up with a different list. Think about what you’d put in the plus column and the minus column. Then see if you can find a way to maximize the pluses and minimize the minuses. By doing this simple exercise, you’ll be able to increase your “success” as a diorama artist.



Building dioramas can make you smarter

Several scientific studies have explored the relationship between motor coordination skills and intelligence. Neuroscientists are still in the process of unravelling the workings of the human brain, and our understanding of this organ—the most complex in the human body—is far from complete.

It never occurred to me that developing hand-eye coordination could have a positive effect on intelligence. If this were the case, we’d expect to see great athletes and musicians turning into brilliant scientists and philosophers. Clearly it’s not a simple case of cause and effect.

What the studies are showing instead is a spill-over effect in neural development. In other words, developing one part of the brain results in positive effects in other parts of the brain. This article from Psychology Today describes how neural activity in the hand-eye coordination centre of the brain stimulates neural growth elsewhere.

So it could be that all those plastic model airplanes we put together as kids, with misaligned wings, fogged canopies and broken landing gear, actually left us with a positive legacy we didn’t realize: more neurons. The same effect would hold true for taking piano lessons at an early age, or any other activities requiring hand-eye coordination. All these activities stimulate neuron production.

Quantifying the spill-over effect is notoriously difficult. Setting up a test subject and a control subject is never an easy thing when the experiment involves human beings. Even if you started with genetically identical twins at an early age and had one building dioramas and playing the violin while the other watched TV all day, and then compared their IQs many years later, you couldn’t be sure if any observed difference in IQ was due to their different activity rosters (assuming that intelligence is trainable in the first place). Many other factors, not all identifiable, could have contributed to the difference.

But in the end, if the brain is indeed the interconnected maze of neural pathways that scientists think it is, the spill-over effect makes sense whether it can be measured or not. Wouldn’t it be something if the person you met at your next Mensa meeting turned out to be a diorama artist!