Category Archives: Artistic Musings

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

Dioramas in Film – Quo Vadis

Quo Vadis (1951) is a biblical epic about a Roman army commander who falls in love with a beautiful Christian hostage and begins questioning the despotic rule of Emperor Nero. Like all epics of its time, the film features many magnificent sets, some of immense proportions. 

Of considerably smaller proportions is a diorama which appears about an hour and a half into the movie. Nero is conversing with his architect, Phaon, and we are introduced to an elaborate miniature of a new Rome envisioned by Nero. Filled with classical architecture, the diorama is made all the more elegant by virtue of being rendered entirely in whites and light pastels. The level of detail is impressive. 

From a storytelling perspective, the diorama is central to the film. It symbolizes the egomaniacal fervor of Nero, who sees this new Rome as a tribute to his glory as Emperor. Nero has no interest in what benefits a new city could potentially offer its citizens. Rather, he speaks haughtily of the foul smells which will disappear when the city is built, and he even has a new name for it: Neropolis. The city is an expression of his megalomania.

Rather than remaining an elaborate sketch of a distant dream, this diorama portends ominous events which soon come to fruition. In order to build his new city, Nero must first destroy the old one. So he gives the order to burn Rome to the ground. From the safety of his palace, he plays the lyre as the flames rise. Nero’s final touch is to blame the Christians for starting the fire, giving him the excuse he needs to hunt them down.

These events propel the film to its climax, which is grandly staged in the tradition of historical films of the period.  Although Quo Vadis never achieved the critical acclaim of Ben-Hur or Spartacus, it’s a fine work with a well deserved place in the pantheon of biblical epics.   

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


Dioramas in Film – Diamonds Are Forever

After looking at the diorama from the movie Goldfinger, it’s time once again to return to the world of James Bond. Diamonds are Forever (1971) takes Bond to Las Vegas, where a diamond smuggling investigation puts him in the middle of a plot involving satellites, high energy lasers, and his arch nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  

High above Las Vegas is the lavish penthouse of billionaire industrialist Willard Whyte. The most distinctive feature of this Ken Adam designed set is the floor, which has a circular glass inset containing a diorama of Whyte’s worldwide business enterprises. Several meters in diameter, the disk-shaped diorama is surrounded by three curved couches which hug its perimeter, accentuating the circular motif. The diorama goes a step beyond the one in Goldfinger by virtue of its glass roof, which is flush with the floor and is supported by a gleaming metal lattice. The shape of the lattice mimics the latitude and longitude lines on a world map. 

Auric Golfinger’s cleaning lady would have had her work cut out for her dusting the massive diorama of Fort Knox. The reclusive Whyte, who abhors intrusions into his private lair, wisely decided to cover his diorama with glass, keeping it permanently dust-free without the need for outside help. If you read my previous post on keeping dust off your diorama, you’ll appreciate the eminent practicality of this design. 

The other advantage of the glass cover is more floor space. You can walk over Whyte’s diorama, since the glass is part of the floor. Goldfinger, on the other hand, has to be careful he doesn’t take a misstep and fall onto Fort Knox. 

The diorama in Diamonds are Forever is highly stylized, populated with miniatures of missiles, oil rigs, etc. which are almost toylike in their simplicity. Since the miniatures have to be recognizable from a distance, this visually reductionist approach works well. A ring of floodlights also helps ensure that everything is visible. So striking is the diorama that it’s shown in nearly every shot of the film’s penthouse scenes. Cinematographer Ted Moore clearly recognized the value of Ken Adam’s contribution and leveraged it to the hilt. 

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

Third Anniversary

Today marks the third anniversary of this blog. The more I write about dioramas, the more I discover that there’s no end to how much we can learn and develop as modellers and artists. For myself, moving to forced perspective dioramas has opened up a new world of possibilities. I plan to continue exploring this technique and see where it takes me. 

My book, Diorama Design, has been out for a year now and is selling well. You can find it on Amazon in both ebook and print formats.

Whether you come to this blog regularly or just once in a while, I wish you continued success in your growth as an artist. Happy diorama modelling!

-Ivar 

Dioramas in Film – Goldfinger

James Bond returns to this blog with a look at the Fort Knox diorama from the 1964 movie Goldfinger. The diorama appears midway through the movie. The titular villain has assembled the top mafiosi from around the U.S. to brief them on his daring plan to raid the gold depository at Fort Knox. They gather in Goldfinger’s lavish briefing room, a superb set designed by Ken Adam with strong Frank Lloyd Wright influences: a vast horizontal expanse of luxurious woods set off with stone walls and a massive fireplace. 

Goldfinger begins the briefing by flipping a switch on the side of a pool table, which rotates upside down to reveal a large control panel. He brings up a wall-size aerial photograph of the Fort Knox vicinity and begins to explain his plan. And then comes the highlight of the scene: a section of the hardwood floor slides aside and a huge diorama of Fort Knox emerges on a motorized lift. 

The diorama is the focal point of the scene. It’s fully lit, while the surrounding actors remain in the shadows. Goldfinger points with a pool cue at various elements of the diorama as he outlines his strategy to break into the most heavily guarded bank in the world. 

The Bond villains have always been known for their elaborate lairs. These locations are generally big, visually striking, and outfitted with all manner of technological contrivances. And Auric Goldfinger is no exception. He takes great pleasure in dazzling his guests, maintaining an unerring air of superiority as the master villain in the room.

There’s one man in the scene who is unimpressed by Goldfinger’s presentation: James Bond. We find out that 007 has been watching the briefing from a hidden vantage point underneath the diorama. It’s quite amusing, if not entirely believable, when we see Bond’s eyes behind the Fort Knox model, and none of the characters notice. Bond’s irreverent lurking completely deflates the grandiosity of the scene and robs Goldfinger’s presentation of its dignity. Once again, 007 gets the better of a criminal mastermind.  

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 new book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

Dioramas in Literature – Moonraker

In a previous post, I wrote about the diorama featured in the Robert de Niro film Ronin. Dioramas occasionally make an appearance in pop culture, and the one in Ronin was notable in that it was central to the theme of the movie. 

I was pleasantly surprised to come across the term ‘diorama’ in another espionage tale—not a movie this time but a book: Ian Fleming’s Moonraker. In this instance, the diorama is not manifested physically, as in Ronin, but the word is used as a literary device. The passage can be found in the ‘Dead Reckoning’ chapter: 

Out at sea, in the early mist that promised a hot day, the South Goodwin Lightship could just be seen, a dim red barque married for ever to the same compass point and condemned, like a property ship on the stage of Drury Lane, to watch the diorama of the waves and clouds sail busily into the wings while, without papers or passengers or cargo, it lay anchored for ever to the departure point which was also its destination. 

This passage showcases Ian Fleming’s writing at its most poetic and evocative. He’s flipped the script: dioramas are usually an example of art imitating life, but here, it’s life imitating art. 

So how did Ian Fleming become acquainted with dioramas? The most likely explanation is that during his work for Naval Intelligence in WWII, he attended briefing sessions in which dioramas of strategic military locations were used as visual aids. Using aerial reconaissance photos as source material, dioramas were often constructed to help formulate a sabotage plan, bombing run, or other military operation. Being able to visualize the target of the operation in three dimensions was vital to successful planning. 

Although literature critics often peg the Bond novels as pulp fiction, I suspect they do so more out of disdain for the politically incorrect nature of Bond’s character, rather than objective and unbiased evaluation. When Fleming created the original gentleman superspy, the term ‘politically correct’ was still decades away from infecting western culture. The 1960s gave us books and films which were intended as pure entertainment . . . a far cry from the subversive media of today. This is one of the reasons that era remains beloved by so many.  

Fleming’s output lacked consistency, but his better works compare favourably to the top authors of the espionage genre. Aficionados of Bond books tend to agree that Moonraker is among his finest works.

The novel bears little similarity to the film. Although both stories take inspiration from the world of astronautics, the plotlines are completely different. The titular craft in the novel is a military rocket based on Cold War era technology (a forerunner of the modern ICBM), whereas in the movie it’s a manned space shuttle. And while Fleming’s original story maintains a sober tone throughout, the movie vacillates between campy humour and grim realism. The producers never figured out if they wanted to make a comedy or a drama.  

James Bond will return (to this blog) in Goldfinger.  

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 new book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

Small challenges

When I first got into building plastic models as a boy, I assumed that the most challenging kits were the really big ones: an aircraft in 1:18 scale or a battleship in 1:350. Something about the sheer size of these kits seemed daunting.

This assumption is no longer holding up very well. I’ve recently switched to smaller scale dioramas, and am discovering the challenges which are unique to smaller kits. 

The first consideration is anatomical: the size of our hands. Once you’ve reached adulthood, this is a constant. So the smaller the part, the more difficult it is to work with. This is true for all stages of the construction process: cutting the piece off the sprue, trimming the flash, sanding it, painting it, and gluing it in place. If you’ve ever had a 2mm long part do a flying leap off the end of your tweezers and disappear in a shag rug, you can relate. Although large scale kits have small parts as well, losing one isn’t usually a deal breaker, because it will be a detail part rather than a main component. 

The second consideration is that the smaller the kit, the more difficult and time consuming detailing becomes. Painting canopy frames on a 1:32 aircraft is easy. In 1:144 scale, not so much. To achieve a good level of detail on a very small kit often requires extensive modifications made with special materials and tools.  

Small kits present challenges to manufacturers as well. Errors in the size and shape of parts become more noticeable as the size of the kit decreases. And there is the simple fact that styrene parts can only be made so small. This is why antennas on 1:200 scale aircraft are always too thick. 

Errors in accuracy are especially problematic with decals. A decal which is 2mm too wide will look fine on a 1:24 scale aircraft, but will appear cartoonishly oversized in 1:144. Manufacturers frequently make errors in the size of the decals provided with their kits, and even aftermarket decal companies get it wrong. I’m currently working on a 1:200 scale Junkers Ju-88 which came with 1:144 decals! I ordered aftermarket decals for the kit which were advertised as 1:200 scale, but found that even they were too large. Since decals provide such a big part of the visual impact of a kit, they need to be the right size. Seems like common sense, but as they say, sense is not common. 

Part of the problem with small scale kits is that they tend to be marketed at kids. These kits are at the low end of the price spectrum, within reach of the junior modeller’s budget. This explains why the Ju-88 I’m working on is a snap-fit kit. With kids as their target market, manufacturers assume they can get away with inaccuracies. What they may not realize is that kids don’t build plastic models any more. They’re too busy playing with their phones. 

So it’s clear that very small kits have their own unique challenges. At the other end of the spectrum, large kits are beyond the budget of many modellers. Somewhere in between is where most modellers find the happy medium. This explains the popularity of midrange scales like 1:72 and 1:48 for aircraft and 1:35 for armour. These scales are large enough that a magnifying glass isn’t needed to put them together, and small enough that they don’t break the budget. But if you’re up for something different, try a small scale kit.

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 new book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

A visit to Reptar Aviation Museum

Reptar Aviation Museum in Szolnok, Hungary features one of the finest aircraft collections in Eastern Europe. The main hangar spans the complete history of flight, while the outdoor area focuses on warbirds from the Cold War era. A long row of MIG jet fighters begins with a MIG-15 and ends with a MIG-29. Also included are two immaculate F-104 Starfighters, some enormous MIL helicopters, and a variety of other aircraft from Russia and Eastern Europe. 

Several incarnations of the MIG-21 — the most produced jet fighter in history — are on display. Perhaps the finest example at the museum is a silver MIG-21 in Hungarian Air Force markings, number 9512. This perfectly restored warbird, sporting four rocket pods, is parked at the far end of the outdoor exhibition area in a custom built blast pen. 

Another distinctive MIG-21 at the museum is Red 1904 of the Sky Hussars aerial display team, sporting an eye catching mustard yellow finish. It is known as Cápeti, a reference to a French cartoon called Sharky et Georges (in Hungarian, Cápali és Cápeti).  

Aviation modellers will delight at the large dioramas on the ground floor of the main hangar. And not to be missed is the wreck of a WWII Ilyushin IL-2M dredged from the ocean floor. If you ever wanted to model a crashed aircraft, this display is an excellent visual reference. Something you don’t see every day!

The easiest way to get to the museum is by train from Budapest. If you catch an IC train, the ride takes about an hour and a half. Once you arrive in Szolnok, it’s a short cab ride from the train station to the museum. For more information, see https://reptar.hu/en/. 

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 new book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar