All posts by Ivar

Taking it to the next level: the diorama as an artistic progression from the model kit

In a previous post, I commented that most diorama artists start out as plastic model kit builders. Then at some point in their evolution as a modeler, they progress to dioramas. This is the typical path for most diorama artists, and for good reason.

Plastic models are the three-dimensional equivalent of paint by number kits in the world of painting. When you buy a paint by number kit from a craft store, you get a board or canvas with pre-marked outlines indicating areas to paint. Each area has a number corresponding to a paint colour to use. And all the required paints are included in the kit.

With a plastic model kit, much of the work is already done for you as well. All the pieces that go into the model are pre-formed; you simply snap or glue them together and then paint the model. Detailed instructions are given, with numbered steps guiding you through the assembly process. There is also a painting guide included with the instructions. Much like paint by number kits, plastic model kits are an easy way to get into the hobby for an aspiring artist.

More seasoned hobbyists will go a step beyond the basics. The experienced kit builder will not only paint the model, but will also weather it to enhance the realism of the finished product. The more advanced paint by number artist will mix colours and create skillful transitions from light to shadow, creating a much finer result.

After successfully completing several dozen plastic kits, the kit builder may wish to take on a new challenge. This could involve modifying a kit (for example, converting a Spitfire Mk1 to a Mk2), or adding something to it (for example, scratch building a landing chute for a Vulcan bomber, as shown in the photo at the top of this page). Kitbashing, in which parts from several models are combined to create an original result, is another option for the experienced builder. Other modelers will want to go a step further, creating an entire scene which incorporates one or more plastic kits. And so goes the evolution from kit builder to diorama artist.

The word “evolution” connotes progress, and I think it’s the right term in this case for several reasons. First, creating a diorama requires the artist to use his creative imagination and come up with a scene he wants to depict. Second, it requires that he apply design principles to maximize the visual impact of the scene. Third, it requires knowledge of specialized modeling techniques, such as miniature landscaping. None of these skills are needed to build a plastic kit out of the box.

Dioramas aren’t the only evolutionary path available to the plastic kit builder. Some modelers go on to create original works from scratch. A miniature ship or plane can be carved out of a block of wood, or crafted from other materials (large museum miniatures are usually custom built, since there are no commercially available kits of the subjects in sufficiently large scales). Other modelers want to see their creations perform the same functions as their real life counterparts. So for those who aren’t content with a static helicopter, they can build a radio controlled one that actually flies.

The path that you take in your evolution as a plastic kit modeler will depend on your personal interests and skills. Will you sculpt original pieces out of a block of wood, build aircraft that actually fly, or create compelling scenes in miniature as a diorama artist? The choice is yours.

-Ivar

The smartphone and the diorama artist

Some technological advancements do more harm than good. The smartphone is a good example. The original idea behind this seemingly harmless little gadget—providing people an affordable, mobile communications device along with Internet access—was sound enough. And in the hands of a responsible and self-disciplined user, this is exactly what the smartphone would have provided.

Unfortunately, responsibility and self-discipline fell by the wayside, leaving us with the typical smartphone user of today: an attention craving narcissist with a short attention span and a need for instant gratification. Addicted to social media, games, and the app of the moment, this mindless drone has eschewed the physical world for the instant gratification of cyberspace.

Aside from the obvious need for artistic talent, what are the personal qualities that make a good diorama artist? Traits like patience, dedication, a long attention span, the ability to concentrate, and a strong work ethic come to mind. The smartphone is a threat to all these things, because it prevents these traits from developing in children and weakens them in adults.

As smartphone prices have dropped, the number of users has multiplied exponentially. They are now part and parcel of the urban landscape, meandering down crowded streets at half the pace of normal pedestrians, head down, frantically texting with both hands. They don’t watch where they’re going, so others are forced to jump out of their way to avoid collisions. They remind me of the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation, those half-human, half-machine aliens that served a central machine consciousness called The Collective and had no independent will of their own.

Did the scientific minds behind the smartphone anticipate that their nifty little invention could encourage and amplify some of the worst aspects of human behaviour? Probably not. But it’s fair to say that the marketers who popularized this attention deficit device understood the commercial benefits of addicting an entire populace to their product. With each new game and app, the addiction intensifies.

Most addictions are harmful because they either directly endanger the health of the addict or alter them in a negative way. Let’s look at what smartphone addiction does to people.

Text messaging is one of the cornerstones of the smartphone’s feature set. Since this technology encourages brevity, full sentences are no longer used. Messages are radically condensed. After repeated exposure to short messages, the brain adapts, and longer messages become harder to process. After a while, no-one has the patience to read sentences or paragraphs.

People used to read books on public transit. Now, everyone is playing with their phone. We’ve become so used to abbreviated character strings that wading through an entire book seems like a chore. Our attention spans are getting shorter by the day.

Phone drones are not just on the city streets. These automatons indulge their addiction in cafes, restaurants, and even movie theatres. Try talking to one, but better make it quick. At the first opportunity, they’ll turn away to check their phone. This constant phone checking begins as a habit, and then develops into a nervous tick repeated hundreds of times a day.

Killing conversation is not the smartphone’s only achievement. By making the brain lazy, it also affects our ability to concentrate. A good test of this is how far you can make it through a novel. Can you remember all the subplots and minor characters? Or do you find yourself getting frustrated at the amount of mental energy you need to stay on top of the story? The proportion of the population that reads fiction has been declining for decades, so you’re not alone if you feel that getting through a long novel is a struggle.

If people don’t have the attention span to engage in a passive activity like reading a book, how does this bode for creators, builders and inventors, where even greater energy and mental discipline is needed? Michelangelo spent two years creating his David. Without the rigorous work ethic he held himself to, this monumental task might have taken much longer, or may not have been finished at all. I wonder how many modern day artists gave up halfway through creating the masterpiece that would have catapulted them to fame, because they got bored and decided to squander their time on Twitter instead.

And regardless of whether you’re a painter, sculptor or diorama artist, you need to have the ability to tune out external noise and concentrate single-mindedly on a task. In other words, you have to be comfortable with being alone with yourself. For the phone drone, this is a horrifying prospect.

The lack of research on smartphone addiction is surprising when compared to the enormous efforts taken to curb vices like cigarette smoking. Cigarettes still claim more lives than fatal traffic accidents caused by texting drivers. But unlike smokers, drivers who text often kill innocents along with themselves. So they aren’t harmless.

The damage wrought by the smartphone—which can be summarized as fundamentally weakening mental stamina—has gone largely undocumented. Social and psychological phenomena are notoriously hard to quantify. There are no smoking guns and no corpses to count. Apart from the odd YouTube video or independent blog, there is virtually no discussion of the effects of this tragically misused piece of technology. The mainstream media is silent on the topic. And there is a reason for this.

To governments and global elites, a socially alienated, weak willed, and undisciplined populace is highly desirable. People are easier to control when their attention spans are too short to make critical arguments against the status quo, and when they give up their real friends for ones they’ve never met, courtesy of Facebook. Because when their friends are gone, they must turn to the government for help.

Governments also like to know who you are, where you go, and what you do. Your smartphone provides them with this information. It’s a core component of the surveillance state, and you’re paying for it. And even better for governments, anything you text, say or tweet on your phone is evidence that can be used against you for the rest of your living days. We’ve opened Pandora’s Box, and we don’t even know it.

-Ivar

The irresistible urge to build

Anyone who’s attended a sociology class is probably familiar with the nature/nurture debate. That is, the opposing points of view about why people are the way they are. The “nature” side argues that biology is destiny, and that everything about human behaviour can be explained by genetic makeup. The “nurture” side, on the other side, makes the case that social circumstances, and childhood in particular, determine behaviour.

If you want to figure out where your love of building dioramas came from, the nature/nurture framework is a good place to start. Consider the “nature” side. Do your parents or grandparents share your interest? Even if there’s no-one in your family tree who built dioramas, there might be an architect, sculptor, engineer or painter. In that case, it’s likely that you were a recipient of a certain gene set that predisposed you to becoming a diorama artist.

Now look at the “nurture” side. Do you remember being exposed to childhood events that could have inspired your interest in dioramas? Maybe you went to the museum on a school field trip and were enchanted with big dioramas of medieval battles. Or you had a friend with an amazing collection of model cars. Or a teacher with a train set that took up his whole basement (as I had).

Depending on whether you speak to a sociologist or biologist, you’re likely to get vastly different answers about the origin of your interest in dioramas. The funny thing about academia is that by funneling students into specialized study streams, the educational system encourages tunnel vision. And the longer you stay in school, the worse it gets. I still remember my university sociology professor fervently denying that instinct was what caused birds to fly south in the winter. If I were to run into him today, I’d have some fun with this. I’d ask him if flying south was reserved for bourgeois birds. I’d suggest he start a crowd funding campaign to help the poor oppressed working class birds who couldn’t afford to summer in the tropics. Workers unite!

Lest we become victims of tunnel vision like my well intentioned but deluded professor, it probably makes sense to take the middle ground and acknowledge that most of the time, both nature and nurture come into play. For myself, I can say that it was definitely a combination of the two that got me into dioramas. How about you?

-Ivar

The missing piece of the puzzle

I recently put the finishing touches on a diorama I almost finished three or four years ago. This particular diorama, Vulcan Homecoming, eventually became the header image for this website (you can see it at the top of this page).

When I was wrapping up this project three or four years ago, I had looked everywhere for a set of 1:200 scale airfield personnel. Unfortunately, that item was not available anywhere at the time.

Then last summer, I remembered that what was missing from this diorama was the airfield personnel figures. Once again, I did a quick Internet search. To my delight, the product I had been looking for a few years ago was now in stock at a European retailer. I immediately ordered it.

The figures are so tiny that I found them easier to paint after gluing them into place. An added challenge was working with the small rectangular base that each figure comes with. On a larger figure, the base can be easily removed without damaging the figure, but in this case, I didn’t want to risk it. Instead, I drilled small indentations into the tarmac so the base would be flush with the surface of the airfield. This required some puttying and repainting to get everything looking right.

The extra work was worth it. The figures give the diorama an extra dash of verisimilitude. Since they’re so tiny, you have to look closely to see them. The fine detail pulls the viewer in. From a short distance, you can’t quite make out what’s there. So the first reaction people have is “Hey, what’s that?” Then they look closer, and their next reaction is, “Cool.” Details make a difference.

-Ivar

Grumpy and Talentless

In a recent post, I explored the similarities of dioramas and model railroads. Having just returned from a local model railroad open house, I was reminded that not all train layouts (and model railroaders) are created equal.

Ducking through a tight doorway into what looked like a converted warehouse space, I observed a very large model railroad with lots of trains and track, bisected by a narrow walkway which zig-zagged through the layout. A few visitors had come on their own, and a few had brought their kids.

My initial positive impression, which was driven mainly by the sheer size of the set-up, turned to disappointment as I noticed that much of the track was laid directly on the layout table without any roadbed or ballast. The spartan looking track was occasionally flanked by mostly unpainted plastic structures perched on unadorned plywood, which did nothing to create even a basic sense of realism. There were some attempts at landscaping, some successful and some not.

All in all, it looked like the half-baked creation of a dull eight year old whose parents had never learned to say “no.” Hobbled by a short attention span, this easily distracted child had kept expanding the size of his layout without finishing the earlier sections he had started.

But wait you say, maybe the guys operating the layout were having a good time. Maybe they were handyman types who liked to roll up their sleeves and route wires, oil locomotive engines, etc. In other words, mechanic stuff rather than artist stuff. That would have been great. But these guys weren’t very good mechanics either. They seemed to be in over their heads, exchanging heated complaints about derailing trains, electrical glitches, and other gremlins of the model railroad world. Not a pretty picture.

What bothered me most about these model railroaders was not that they were grumpy and talentless. The worst part was that as ambassadors of model railroading, they were failures. Their open house did nothing to inspire interest in model railroading. If anything, it was like reading a list of things to avoid for anyone starting out in the hobby.

Looking around, I noticed that the kids, whose eyes should have been wide open in awe, looked bored. They were probably hoping they could cut their visit short. Which is exactly what I decided to do.

-Ivar

Inspiration

Since plastic models are the key ingredient in most dioramas, it’s natural that most artists start out building models and later progress to dioramas. This was certainly the case for me.

What then is the source of inspiration or motivating event that encourages the plastic modeler to make the transition to dioramas? There are several possible answers to this question. Let’s look at a few.

The quest for realism
Having spent several months assembling, painting and weathering your jet fighter model to perfection, you release it from the confines of your workshop and proudly bring it upstairs to the living room for all to see. And now comes the moment of truth: you place your model on the bookshelf. But something is not quite right. The woodgrain finish of the shelf is out of context, a far cry from the oil stained runway that a real jet fighter would sit on. Between a stack of books and a bunch of family photos, your model is just another knick-knack competing for space. It has entered bookshelf purgatory.

One way out of this predicament is to hang your model from the ceiling instead. But then you realize there is a better way: why not put that scrap of wood in your workshop to good use and paint it to look like a runway? With a proper runway base, your jet fighter now looks at home. It has become a logical component of a fully developed miniature environment, as comfortable in its habitat as a duck in a pond. You’ve taken a step forward in realism.

Inspiration from film and television
As a kid growing up with TV shows like The Thunderbirds and UFO, I was fascinated by the miniature sets created by Derek Meddings and his special effects teams. Who can forget the majestic pre-launch sequence of Thunderbird 2 as it emerges from its hangar on Tracy Island? Or the Interceptors rising from their circular underground silos to the surface of the moon? Great care was taken in the design and construction of these sets, and they always showed off the models in the best possible way. My first diorama was inspired by UFO. It featured a diecast Interceptor and Shado Mobile on a wood base built up with plaster and parts from a Super City building set.

Releasing your inner architect
Perhaps you always wanted to design and build a house, launch pad or cityscape. The diorama allows you to realize your dream in the scale of your choosing (and with considerably less capital outlay than the full size version). You are now chief architect, as well as engineer and contractor. And unlike an architect tasked with a full sized project, you have no committees to deal with, no permits to obtain, and no office politics. You get to channel 100% of your energy into the creative process. Not a bad deal.

-Ivar

The Wooden Wonder (1:48)

With a perfectly proportioned design combining power and grace, the de Havilland Mosquito excelled in a variety of roles. Its light birch and balsa construction made it so fast, it was virtually immune to interception. The Mosquito spearheaded many daring missions during WWII.

I spent considerable time mixing paints to get the right shade of PRU blue for this late model reconnaissance Mosquito. Even more work went into filling and sanding to bring the Airfix kit up to standard.

-Ivar

Vulcan Homecoming (1:200)

The Avro Vulcan was a Cold War era bomber designed with nuclear strike capability in mind. Easily the most beautiful jet bomber of the 20th Century, this magnificent aircraft didn’t see action until its twilight days, dropping a conventional bomb load on an Argentinian airstrip in the 1982 Falklands War.

I added a scratch built drag chute and aftermarket decals to the Cyber Hobby Vulcan. Fibre optics light up the runway and fire station, and two diecast Phantoms round out the scene. You may be able to make out the tiny Herpa airport personnel if you look closely.

-Ivar

Jedi Starfighter (1:20)

The Jedi Starfighter is Obi Wan Kenobi’s personal hot rod, a sleek delta wing fighter featured in Episode II of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.

A reworked Hasbro toy with custom LED lighting, scratch built landing gear and a new paint job, the Starfighter is ready to transport Obi Wan to his next daring mission (just as soon as he’s finished his coffee).

-Ivar

Light and motion

We perceive the world through five senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. Visual art, as its name implies, communicates with us through sight. Pet owners will attest that cats and dogs don’t share this visual bias, preferring instead to savour the touch, smell and taste of fine art. But let’s not dwell on the time that your dog mistook your meticulously detailed Saturn V rocket model for a bone, and buried it in the back yard.

To optimize the impact of visual art, we can leverage some basic science about how vision works. For example, we know that the eye is attracted to motion. If you’re looking out the window of a tall building, the first things you notice are pedestrians and cars moving below, and maybe some birds gliding by. If you’re lucky enough to have an ocean-side view, your eye will be drawn to the endless lapping of waves upon the shore.

The eye is also attracted to light. Walking on the street at night, we immediately notice streetlights, car lights, and if you’re in the country, the stars and moon.

Although light and motion are fairly easy to incorporate into many forms of art, the vast majority of painters, sculptors and diorama artists don’t take advantage of these tools. There may be an overdose of self-consciousness at work here, as many artists are fearful of being ridiculed for stepping beyond the bounds of the normal or typical. Modern art has broken many boundaries, but not all. I find it surprising that more visual artists don’t incorporate light and motion in their works. In the past, many purists would have argued that a “real” work of art should not shine, glimmer, spin or oscillate, but most of them passed away sometime in the 19th century.

At a recent art show, I saw an innovative wall sculpture which depicted a swimmer splashing around in a small pool. The swimmer was an electronic projection but the walls were actual three-dimensional pieces forming the perimeter of the sculpture. This created the effect that the swimmer was as real as the walls surrounding her—a brilliant way of exploiting the way in which the brain processes visual information.

Adding light and motion to a diorama is relatively easy to do, and is guaranteed to heighten its impact. LED lights are available in numerous shapes, colours and voltages, and can be wired to shine constantly or flash. Their long life span makes them ideally suited to diorama applications. LEDs can be incorporated in and around vehicles and buildings to create a range of different effects.

A diorama with a sufficient quantity of lights will become self-illuminating, so putting it in a dark room with the lights turned off will give you a night scene which can be especially dramatic. Turning the room lights back on will give you a daytime scene, so you get two distinct looks from one diorama.

Motion can be real or faked. Do you want to show your Spitfire Mk IX taxiing down the runway? Substitute a plexiglass disc for the propeller supplied with the kit. Through careful sanding and painting, you can create the effect of a spinning prop. Or you can go a step further and actually motorize the propeller.

When it comes to taking the next step with your dioramas, remember that light and motion are your friends. Not many diorama artists take advantage of these simple tools. If you do, you’ll be one step ahead of the game.

-Ivar