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.