Category Archives: Artistic Musings

An early box diorama

This box diorama of a sailing ship, entitled Skonnertbark, is part of the current ‘Sex & the Sea’ exhibition at the Seaplane Harbour museum in Tallinn, Estonia. It translates from Norwegian as ‘schooner barque,’ a type of ship often used in the lumber trade across the Baltic and North Seas in the 1800s and early 1900s. The diorama is of modest dimensions, measuring about 40x20x10cm.

The ship model features wooden sails, an unusual choice which prioritizes artistic impact over realism. However, what’s most interesting about this diorama is the background. The outer cabinet is a simple rectangular box, but there’s a second inner box on which the background is painted. The sides of the inner box angle in towards the ship. This has the effect of muting the harsh ‘crease’ between the sides and back of the background. Rather than a full 90° angle, the artist has smoothed out the transition from side panes to back with a gentler angle. There’s still a visible join but it’s much less jarring. 

‘Sex & the Sea’ runs from August 3, 2019 to January 19, 2020. The exhibition features several box dioramas, a multimedia presentation, and other works, painting an intimate picture of life at sea.

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar


Art imitating art: photographers turn to dioramas for inspiration

Issue 217 of Digital Photographer magazine features an article called ’10 Pro Ways to Use Aperture.’ One of these ways is experimenting with diorama effects, also called miniature faking. Using this technique, photographers purposely reduce the depth of field (the area of the picture which is in focus) to make photos of full-size scenes look like miniatures. 

This is a great example of synergy between two art forms, and a little surprising given that photographers long sought to maximize depth of field in their photos, not minimize it. In the early 20th Century, photographers Ansel Adams and Willard Van Dyke sought to create a movement which promoted a photographic aesthetic of clean, highly detailed images with everything in the frame in perfect focus. Thus began Group f/64, which soon attracted several more renowned photographers, including Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham. The group’s name came from the aperture setting of f/64 which provides the maximum possible depth of field on a large format camera.    

Most art forms go through many phases with the passage of time, and photography is no exception. Although it’s a more modern art form with a shorter history than painting or sculpture, photography seems to have reached a point where everything that can be done, has been. Photographers have tirelessly explored variations in focus, colour, and light and shade to create images that reflect every corner of the creative psyche. 

The application of diorama effects in photography is a sign that photography has entered its post-modernist phase. Just as post-modern architects take inspiration from past eras and give them a fresh twist, photographers are discovering the benefits of a post-modern approach. Miniature faking recalls the soft, fuzzy images of the early days of photography, when photographers sought to imitate Impressionist painters. In those days, a crisp, well-lit photograph with good detail and contrast was considered unartistic. It was jarring to a public that had grown accustomed to the atmospheric, stylized pastel images of artists like Monet and Degas. 

Photography eventually broke away from its original identity as the poor cousin of painting and grew into a distinct art form with its own aesthetic. Over the span of a century, it’s gone through many phases and has reached a certain level of maturity. 

And now, dioramas are providing shutterbugs with a new source of inspiration. So in addition to art imitating life and life imitating art, we have art imitating art. 

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar


Fourth Anniversary

Today marks the fourth anniversary of this blog. Over the past year, I’ve shifted my focus entirely to forced perspective dioramas. Portraying vast distances in a modest sized diorama requires a lot of careful planning to make the end result convincing. I find that I’m spending more time in the design stage to ensure that things turn out the way I expect them to. 

I was pleasantly surprised to find a new audience for my book, Diorama Design. It turns out that some of the more aesthetically minded model railroaders out there have taken an interest in the Seven Principles of Design and other concepts in the book. Last month I gave a talk at the British Region NMRA Convention in Aberdeen, Scotland, to promote Diorama Design to this newfound market. The talk was well received.

Over the next year, this blog will continue to feature my own projects, new product announcements, notable diorama exhibitions, and general observations about art and design. Whether you build dioramas, railroads, or just like to read about three-dimensional art, I invite you to stay tuned for another year of Creative Dioramas. 

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar


Diorama Design at 2019 NMRA British Region Convention

I spoke to a small but enthusiastic audience of model railroaders at the NMRA (National Model Railroad Association) British Region Convention in Aberdeen, Scotland on September 28. The talk was titled ‘How to Maximize the Visual Impact of your Layout’ and was based on concepts discussed in my book, Diorama Design

I began the clinic by pointing out that dioramas and model railroads have a lot in common, as discussed previously on this blog. Making this point was a prerequisite for the success of the talk, and everyone seemed to acknowledge the similarities. It was interesting to see that most of the attendees described themselves as ‘artists’ rather than ‘engineers’ when it comes to model railroading. I went over the Design Process and the Seven Principles of Design, showing how these concepts can be applied to the world of model railroads. 

A good barometer of how well you connect with your audience is the number of questions you get at the end of the presentation. I fielded over twenty minutes of questions, which took us well past the end of the allotted timeslot. 

It’s always great to connect to an audience that’s sincerely interested in the subject matter, and with dioramas and train layouts being such close cousins, a connection was definitely made!

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.

-Ivar

Small Worlds Tokyo to open in 2020

The world’s largest indoor diorama theme park is slated to open next year in Tokyo, Japan. This massive display will include a combination of real and fictional dioramas. Real world locations will include Towns of the World, Kansai International Airport, a Space Centre, and Tokyo. Fictional locations will be based on popular manga and anime series such as Sailor Moon and Neon Genesis Evangelion.

The dioramas are reported to be in 1:80 scale and the facility is to cover a total of 8,000 square meters. Some of the miniatures will be operational, including aircraft that fly and spacecraft that lift off. 

The facility will be located in the Ariake District on Tokyo Bay and is scheduled to open in Spring 2020.  

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.

-Ivar

Diorama Design presentation at Scotland NMRA Convention

I’ll be delivering a clinic at the NMRA Convention in Aberdeen, Scotland on September 28, 2019. It’s titled Maximize the Visual Impact of your Layout and will draw on concepts outlined in my book, Diorama Design (available in ebook and print formats at Amazon).

In case you’re not familiar with the National Model Railroad Association, it’s the largest organization devoted to the hobby and has a worldwide presence. The British Region of the NMRA is hosting the event, which takes place from the 27th to 29th of September.  

Whether you prefer to build model railroads or dioramas, the concepts I’ll be discussing apply equally. I discussed the similarities between the two hobbies in a previous post.

The convention is open to everyone from 10am to 4pm on Saturday the 28th, so you can attend on that day even if you’re not an NMRA member. The cost for non-members will be £5 at the door. 

The exact time of the clinic will be confirmed at a future date. Visit http://convention.nmrabr.org.uk/ for more information. Hope to see you there!

-Ivar


Space: 1999’s Eagle Transporter flies again

Round 2 Models has just announced an upcoming injection kit of the venerable Eagle Transporter, the iconic spacecraft from Space: 1999. The 1:72 model will be approximately 36cm (14”) in length, making it slightly larger than the 30cm (12”) versions which have been released over the years by companies such as MPC, Warp, and Product Enterprise. Pre-production renderings show that Round 2 has taken care to faithfully reproduce the correct proportions of the Eagle.

It’s been 44 years since the debut of Space: 1999, and the fact that new tools of the Eagle are still being produced is testament to the staying power of this timeless spacecraft. Given that Round 2 just released a 1:48 Eagle Transporter a few years ago, the demand for Eagle kits is evidently stronger than ever. For a subject to be offered in multiple scales by the same company, it has to be extremely popular. 

Some fictional spaceships become famous because they’re associated with a hit show or movie. Star Trek’s USS Enterprise is a good example. Regardless of its own merits, it’s always going to have a fan base due to Trek’s immense popularity. This isn’t the case with the Eagle. Both seasons of Space: 1999 generated mixed reviews, and for many, Brian Johnson’s special effects were the most impressive thing about it. The Eagle stands on its own merits. 

A big part of the Eagle’s enduring appeal is its clever blend of the mechanical and the organic. On the surface, the ship is all machine: modular sections bolted to a tubular frame ‘backbone’ which runs the length of the ship. A straightforward, utilitarian design with no superfluous design flourishes.

But on a subconscious level, we perceive something organic. In designing the Eagle, Brian Johnson wanted to give the ship an insect-like appearance, and he succeeded. Its tubular frame  gives the impression of an exoskeleton. The landing gear struts flex like the legs of a grasshopper. And the command module’s two viewports at the front of the ship look like eyes. These organic design elements lift the design of the Eagle above the ordinary.

The Eagle is a practical spacecraft. The design is based on recognizable, real world technology. It uses nuclear propulsion, something which already exists today. Unlike the Enterprise or Millennium Falcon, it doesn’t travel faster than light. It doesn’t attempt to stretch the laws of physics. 

The landing gear are set wide apart to provide stability on take off and landing. The vertical thrusters are where you expect them to be to provide lift. A bit of poetic license has been taken with the fuel tanks, which are too small to provide enough liquid propellant for all but the shortest journeys, but this is a minor quibble. The interchangeable pod amidships allows the Eagle to perform a variety of roles, transporting both passengers and freight. I wonder if Brian Johnson took inspiration from the Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane helicopter of the 1960s, which accommodates interchangeable payloads. 

Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane

The sound designers of Space: 1999 decided to give the Eagle a recognizeable jet turbine sound. So when it’s flying, it sounds like any jet aircraft you might see at the airport. This again constitutes poetic licence, since the Eagle is rocket powered, but it helps establish a sense of familiarity. 

The ultimate test for any fictional spacecraft is how good it looks when it’s flying. The Eagle takes to the air in a flurry of moondust as its vertical thrusters power up. This is much more visually interesting than the anti-gravity drives common to science fiction vehicles, which give no visible indication as to when they’re operating. 

The Eagle banks and rolls like an ordinary aircraft, even in space. Although not technically accurate, this is a convention which most science fiction shows and movies have adopted, simply because audiences are used to seeing aircraft flying in the earth’s atmosphere. However, the Eagle’s lack of anything resembling wings gives it a unique look when in flight. 

One thing the writers of Space: 1999 got right was coming up with plenty of stories in which Eagles ran into trouble and crashed. These sequences were done entirely in camera with models flown on wires through elaborate miniature sets, and still stand today as some of the finest crash landings ever filmed. Few computer generated effects can match the visceral thrill of an Eagle crack-up. The most spectacular sequences occurred in Season Two, where Eagles could be seen careening into dense forests with flashes of pyrotechnics. My Eagle Crash diorama was inspired by these scenes.    

In many ways, the Eagle has always been the true star of Space: 1999. It successfully melds present day aerospace concepts with an optimistic look towards the not too distant future. 

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.

Eschewing realism for artistic impact

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.

-Ivar


Diorama Design at RPM East 2019

Veteran model railroader Nicholas Kalis just delivered a presentation entitled Enhance Your Layout’s Story Telling – Practical Steps at RPM East 2019 in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, USA. A good part of the presentation was based on my book, Diorama Design

RPM stands for Railroad Prototype Modelers and is a major NMRA model railroading seminar. It includes presentations, operating sessions, open layouts, and a large model display room. The event took place on March 22nd and 23rd. 

Mr. Kalis spoke to a large room of model railroad aficionados about the visual elements of train layouts. For his presentation, he used many of the principles covered in Diorama Design, including:

  • Four Steps in Design
  • Design Basics – i.e. Geometry, Topography, Space and Color
  • Illustrated successful applications in model railroads of the Seven Principles of Design (Balance, Unity, Contrast, Emphasis, Movement, Repetition, and Rhythm)

He recollects the event as follows:

I drove through mostly virgin forests  – with my wife keeping me company – 3.5 hours each way to reach Greensburg, Pennsylvania to deliver my clinic. The audio-visual set-up was superb. The RPM folks even had one person assigned to introduce me. A second volunteer was on hand in each clinic room to insure that the audio-visual equipment worked properly. I found a friendly crowd of some 40 attendees seated to hear my presentation. During my presentation I found a receptive audience. Some even stood up to take photos of the slides projected on the screen. At the end of my presentation, four individuals approached me, in turn, to request a copy of my PowerPoint slides. One of the gentlemen handed me his business card which showed he had travelled all the way from Minnesota – quite a trip. He was a professional model railroad builder. One fellow was glad to finally meet me as many years ago Railroad Model Craftsman published my email in which I had defended this author (RMC had published an article he penned that described how to build accurate urban buildings – someone had written RMC to complain that such an article did not belong in a model railroad magazine.).

I’m delighted that Mr. Kalis was able to use the concepts in Diorama Design for his presentation, and that it went so well. Model railroads and dioramas are close cousins, and when thinking about the energy and creativity that goes into each of them, that well-known phrase ‘transferable skill set’ comes to mind. 

If you like to build dioramas or model railroads and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, check out Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

The RBG Escarpment Train

The Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) is a major tourist attraction in Burlington, Canada. As the name implies, the focus of RBG is horticulture. However, the site also features a G gauge (1:29 scale) model railroad layout, which was donated to RBG by Norman and Jackie Wells of Burlington in 2017. 

Known as the RBG Escarpment Train, the specs are impressive: nine diesel and two steam locomotives, 122 metres of track, and 476 figures on a 37 square metre layout. Although the sheer size of the layout commands attention, what really makes it memorable is the varied topography. There’s an intriguing mix of hills, valleys, tunnels and bridges, with lots of variation in height. Creating a continuous run track plan with this much of a vertical span is quite challenging, and the RBG Escarpment Train succeeds beautifully. 

Varying the topography accomplishes the same goal in both railroad layouts and dioramas. It creates visual interest. Multiple levels are always more interesting than one level. Unless you’re in the desert or in the middle of a lake, you generally see topography all around you. It’s part of nature, so employing it in a layout or diorama will also contribute to the realism of the scene you’re creating.   

The layout incorporates full lighting, allowing visitors to enjoy nighttime as well as daytime views of the exhibit. The nighttime version is especially striking.

The RBG Escarpment Train lives up to its name and is definitely worth a visit (more info at www.rbg.ca) next time you’re in Southern Ontario. Even if you’re not a gardener!

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.

-Ivar