Category Archives: Artistic Musings

Second Anniversary

The release of my new book, Diorama Design, marks the second anniversary of Creative Dioramas. It’s now available on Amazon in both ebook and print formats.

Diorama Design is a practical guide to design theory for modellers who like to build dioramas. I explain key design concepts and show you how to apply them, using actual dioramas as case studies. Diorama Design will teach you how to think like an artist and increase the visual impact of your dioramas.

If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, thanks for your continued interest. Feel free to browse the catalogue of previous posts in addition to whatever’s on the home page, and use the search box if you’re after a specific topic. Here’s looking towards Year Three!

-Ivar

Diecast replicas, instant gratification, and the vanishing art of model kit building

Today I had an interesting conversation with the manager of a local store specializing in aviation related merchandise. This store just underwent a major revamp. The most striking change was a huge increase in the amount of floor space devoted to ready made diecast aircraft replicas. This section was not only expanded, but also moved to the front of the store. In contrast, the plastic kit section was shrunk down in size and relegated to the back of the store.

When I asked about this change, the manager confirmed that diecast replicas were outselling kits by a huge margin. He went on and on about the quality and fine detail on these replicas and how much they’ve improved over the years. I pointed out another trend, which is that people are losing the patience to build kits. He agreed with this but didn’t seem concerned.

In our world of instant gratification, it should come as no surprise that fewer and fewer people are building model kits. Instant gratification has become a core Western value, and you can see it in the short-term planning that corporations use, the tactical (rather than strategic) mindset of politicians who can’t see past the ends of their own noses, and the effects of technology.

Communication technology is probably the biggest cuplrit in training ordinary people to expect instant gratification. While everyone blindly praises the uninterrupted 24/7 contact which digital telephony has enabled, no-one seems to have noticed the ugly side effects.

For the first time in human history, verbal conversations are being replaced by snippets of text. These text messages are to face-to-face conversations what finger paintings are to a Rembrandt. They’re devoid of poetry and depth, not to mention basic punctuation. Instead of witty banter, we have emoticons. No wonder children are so easily addicted to smart phones. These devices are a grammar-free playground of reassuring smiley faces, ideally suited to short attention spans. As our minds are remapped to favour brief, careless messaging over communication with content and substance, we are reverting to our preschool selves.

The other danger of this new technology is the way it undermines our mental focus. A mobile phone conversation is invariably conducted while running for the bus, ordering at a restaurant, or doing any number of other activities. So only a fraction of the user’s attention is focused on the conversation. This is akin to an Olympic sprinter running a race while trying to tie a shoelace at the same time.

Harried urban drones like to flatter themselves as multitaskers. Although the term “multitask” sounds full of promise, the hard reality is that the human brain is akin to a one-CPU computer. We pretend to multitask by switching frantically from task to task every few seconds, only raising our blood pressure and shortchanging the task at hand. We ignore the fact that the human brain is simply incapable of concentrating on more than one thing at a time.

So back to diecast replicas. For those lacking the motor skills or hand-eye coordination to build a model kit, there’s a place for these products. But most of the time, they’re a cop-out. The buyer is taking a shortcut to the end result, not realizing it comes at a cost. Gone is the joy of artistic creation, with all its ups and downs, and that sublime moment at the end when you can proudly display something you made with your own hands. For those who thought about building a kit and succumbed to the instant gratification of the diecast option, it’s a choice they’ll eventually regret.

-Ivar

 

The Jupiter 2: An icon of spacecraft design

More than any other vehicle I was exposed to as a boy, the Jupiter 2 from Lost in Space captured my imagination and held me in thrall. I searched in vain for a model kit of this venerable spacecraft for many years. Every time our family travelled to a new city, I’d always ask at the local hobby shop if they had a model of the Jupiter 2. And the answer was always no.

Issue #29 of Sci-Fi & Fantasy Models magazine sheds light on the mystery of the kit that never was: “Aurora actually considered releasing a Jupiter 2 kit during the 1960s but decided not to do so because they felt the simple saucer lacked commercial appeal.” In retrospect, this was possibly the dumbest business decision ever made in the history of the plastic model kit industry.

Sometime in the early 1990s, I happened to see an ad in a scale modelling magazine that brought to mind the phrase “better late than never.” It was a kit of the Jupiter 2 from a company I had never heard of: Lunar Models. I placed my order immediately and waited three long months for the product to be delivered. What eventually arrived was a plain white cardboard box with two wobbly vacuform pieces of the top and bottom of the hull, poorly cast resin landing gear, and a transparent circular piece for the engine. Given the exorbitant cost of the kit and the ridiculous wait time, I made a note to myself never to order anything from that company again.

I was able to find an LED chaser kit to animate the engine lights, carefully placing 32 LEDs in a circle and wiring everything together. My Jupiter 2 is unique in that the LEDs are red and orange, which is how I imagined the lights to appear when watching Lost in Space on a black and white television as a kid. A plain lightbulb was used to illuminate the top dome and the interior. I cut out a hatch for the battery pack in the bottom hull and positioned a push button switch to be flush with the hull when in the “on” position. The viewport and interior were scratchbuilt since none were supplied. Although the project took about ten times longer to finish than I expected it would, the results were worth it. I finally had a replica of the Jupiter 2.

The Jupiter 2 design owed a debt to the C-57D featured in the classic sci-fi film Forbidden Planet. (The name of this ship makes you wonder what happened to the C-57A, B and C . . . and for that matter, what happened to the Jupiter 1?) UFO mania was rife in the 1960s, and both the C-57D and Jupiter 2 capitalized on this. What helped make these terrestrial UFOs unique was the spinning lights on the bottom of the hull which somehow provided propulsion for interstellar travel. Those mesmerizing lights hypnotized a whole generation of Lost in Space fans, and the Jupiter 2 still retains its status as a classic of sci-fi design today.

A circular spacecraft has a certain elegance which no other design can match, because the circle is the most perfect geometric shape. It has no sides or corners. A saucer shaped spacecraft can change direction seamlessly, unlike a conventional ship, which must point its nose in the direction it wants to fly. If UFOs do in fact exist, then it would make sense that a race advanced enough to create such a craft would choose a circular design.

The Jupiter 2 was a much better design than the C-57D. It had a viewport, which was not only practical for astronauts who like to see where they’re going, but lent visual interest by making the interior of the ship visible. And the contours of the hull looked just right, whereas the C-57D came across like a child’s drawing.

I also liked the Jupiter 2’s landing gear, a tripod arrangement which was much more stable than the C-57D’s central column. If you made the mistake of landing the C-57D on a surface less than perfectly level, the whole ship would be in danger of toppling over. Although the C-57D had three boarding ramps, these were not meant to support the ship, since they were extended after the ship landed.

Designing fictional craft that are grounded in real world physics is vital if you want to broaden your audience to include not just laymen, but technically minded people like scientists and engineers. This is one reason for the widespread and enduring appeal of Star Trek.

But most movie and television producers are not big on realism, or even common sense. A frequent gaffe is not checking that the miniature of a fictional spacecraft matches the full size set, and that the interior of the ship is spatially compatible with the exterior. Looking at the Jupiter 2 from the outside, it’s obvious that a ship of its dimensions and layout would have room for just one level, since the lower part of the hull would house the propulsion system.

It should also be obvious that there would be no room for niceties like a chariot and space pod. But this didn’t stop Irwin Allen and his producers from including them in the Jupiter 2. Allen, a graduate of journalism school, had no technical savvy. Nor did he have the business sense to hire someone who did. This resulted in glaring scientific inaccuracies that plagued most of his productions.

The biggest mystery of the Jupiter 2 is how that array of spinning lights on the bottom of its hull can propel it across interstellar distances. A quick search of the Internet shows that there are almost as many explanations for the propulsion system as there are LEDs on my Jupiter 2 model, and none of them are plausible.

Oh well, you can’t have everything. Quibbles aside, the Jupiter 2 remains a classic which has stood the test of time. Although this elegant craft didn’t emerge in kit form until many years after Lost in Space was cancelled, several companies eventually got around to it. The current Moebius kit is the best of the lot, and is still being sold today. Aurora, you really blew it.

-Ivar

Historical dioramas from Spain – Part Four

In this final installment on dioramas in Spain, we journey to the Castillo de Almodovar, a picturesque medieval castle perched atop a hill near the town of Cordoba, Spain. The castle is based on a roughly rectangular floor plan of 5,624 square metres. Access is via a long, winding road to the castle entrance at the top of the hill. Once inside, a long ramp takes you to the Courtyard of Arms. From here you can see a total of nine towers, the highest of which is 33 metres tall. Architecturally, the castle is a mix of Neo-Mudejar (Moorish Revival), Gothic and Romanesque styles.

I was pleasantly surprised to find a diorama of the castle within its walls, set up in the centre of a small, dungeon-like room. Projectors in the ceiling illuminate the diorama with lighting effects, re-enacting a siege of the castle, and speakers provide sound.

Displaying a single diorama in the centre of a dark room, with nothing else to distract, gives it a certain theatricality. As you enter, the diorama commands your full attention.

The diorama consists of the castle itself, the hilltop base, and nothing else. There are no figures of attacking soldiers, or armaments being brought to bear. All these extra elements are provided by the projectors in the ceiling, along with flame and explosion effects. As with the diorama from Quebec City, Canada I discussed, there’s an integration of physical and virtual elements which work together to create a complete experience for the visitor.

The Castillo de Almodovar has a long history. Originally a Berber fortress built in 760, the castle came under Christian rule with Fernando III in 1240. Beginning in 1360, it served as the royal residence of Pedro I. It underwent numerous architectural changes with each new owner. The castle was eventually handed over to the knightly Order of Calatrava and then to the Order of Santiago. The Earl of Torralva undertook an extensive restoration of the castle from 1903 to 1936. Twelve centuries after its initial construction, the castle not only still stands but is remarkably well preserved.

-Ivar

 

Historical dioramas from Spain – Part Three

In this third installment on dioramas in Spain, we have a 1:1 scale recreation of the Zeluan Airfield operated by the Spanish Army near Melilla, Morocco, between 1913 and 1927. This 1,000 square metre display, completed in 2016, takes up an entire hangar at the Museo de Aeronautica y Astronautica in Madrid, Spain. How’s that for a super-sized diorama?

Spanish Army garrisons served the Spanish protectorate in Morocco from the late 19th Century until Morocco gained its independence in 1956. In the early 1920s, Spanish forces were tasked with quelling an uprising by the Berbers—tribes of the Rif, a mountainous region in the north of Morocco. Spain and its ally France deployed some 150 aircraft in the Rif War, also called the Second War of Morocco.

The Zeluan Airfield diorama is bisected by a path that visitors follow as they explore the scene. Large panels on the walls show maps of North Africa. A few truckloads of sand appear to have been brought in to recreate the desert base. But the stars of the diorama are the replicas of five period aircraft. The first of these is a French Morane-Saulnier G, a wire-braced monoplane which first flew in 1912. The second is a British AVRO 504. Due to its outstanding performance in WWI, Spain acquired 50 units of this model.

Third is a German Fokker C-III, a reconnaissance aircraft, and fourth, a British De Havilland DH4. One DH4 was apparently acquired as a civilian donation. The residents of various towns in Spain collectively raised money to buy the plane, and gave it to the army as a gift.

Last and perhaps most significant is the Bristol F.2B, a British two-seat fighter aircraft which first flew in 1916. It featured innovations such as a Rolls-Royce Falcon inline engine and a Vickers .303 inch machine gun synchronized to fire through the propeller. A second swivel-mounted gun was operated by the observer, who faced the rear of the aircraft. The F.2B became the most successful two-seat fighter of WWI and nearly 5,000 units were produced, serving in over a dozen air forces around the world. Although designed primarily as a fighter, the F.2B was also adapted for bombing and reconnaissance duties.

Aerial tactics in the Rif War included strafing attacks and makeshift bombing runs in which explosives were thrown by hand at enemy infantry positions. The bombs were designed to fall nose first, and a fuse in the nose detonated the bomb on impact.

The diorama was completed over the course of five months. The first three were dedicated to finding the right clothes and weapons to equip the 16 mannequins featured in the diorama. The mannequins represent mechanics, gunsmiths, pilots, and office clerks. The remaining two months involved assembling everything to create the final scene. Impressive!

-Ivar

 

Historical dioramas from Spain – Part Two

This is the second installment in a series on Spanish dioramas, which I started with my previous post. The diorama shown here is also from the Museo de Aeronautica y Astronautica. It depicts the first balloon used in Spain for military purposes, from the year 1889. The diorama inscription informs us that the inflatable sphere was 10.8 meters in diameter, with a volume of 682 cubic meters. This aircraft was assigned to the 4th Company of the Engineering Arm of the Telegraphers Battalion.

The balloon was accompanied by horse drawn support vehicles supplying a hydrogen generator and a 500 meter cable. The technological contrast between this aircraft, which represented cutting edge technology at the time, and the horse drawn vehicles, which were comparatively primitive, adds to the interest of the scene.

The balloon was named Maria Cristina after the reigning Queen of Spain, who had a keen interest in lighter-than-air aircraft. Accompanied by Lieutenant-Colonel Lícer López, she participated in a test flight of the balloon to an altitude of 300 meters.

Compositionally, the diorama is nicely done. The balloon itself should naturally be the focal point of the diorama, and the artist has succeeded in making it so. The eye is immediately drawn to the balloon not just because of its size and height, but also its golden colour, which sets it apart from the greens and browns of the surroundings. In addition, the balloon is the most brightly lit object in the diorama, which adds even more emphasis. It is positioned off to one side and visually balanced by the support vehicles at the other end of the scene.

What makes this diorama especially effective is the illusion that the balloon is actually floating into the air on its own. This effect is reinforced by the slack in the control cables which the men around the balloon are handling. If all the cables were taut, they would look like stiff rods supporting the balloon, and the effect would be lost. Also, the area directly underneath the balloon is dark, hiding any physical supports. The background photograph adds a further element of realism and helps sell the scene.

-Ivar

 

Historical dioramas from Spain – Part One

The Museo de Aeronautica y Astronautica in Madrid, Spain features not only an extensive collection of full size aircraft, but some impressive miniatures and dioramas as well. To start off this series focusing on dioramas in Spain, I’m going to discuss a diorama by Miguel Martinez Jimenez entitled La Legion Condor Alemanes en Espana 12 Enero 1939.

The Spanish Civil War began when Francisco Franco’s Nationalists rebelled against the Republican government of Spain in 1936. The Nationalists received support and armaments from Germany and Italy, while the Republicans were assisted mainly by the Soviet Union and France. The Luftwaffe supplied four fighter squadrons to Franco (along with bombers and other aircraft) as part of the Condor Legion, manned by German pilots. The war claimed some half a million lives before Franco emerged victorious in 1939.

This diorama depicts two Condor Legion Messerschmitt Bf-109 aircraft on a Nationalist airfield. One is undergoing repairs in the hangar and the other is parked outside. The Spanish Civil War was the Bf-109’s first theatre of engagement, and the innovative German fighter proved itself to be vastly superior to its outdated Soviet-sourced adversaries. The 109’s uncontested superiority in the skies over Spain was instrumental in securing Franco’s victory.

The monochromatic Condor Legion markings are rather sombre looking and the roundels on the wings remind me of the “x” you’d write next to your candidate of choice when casting your vote at the ballot box. The 109 parked in front of the hangar is missing its entire cockpit canopy. Since it’s unlikely that all three canopy sections would be simultaneously removed for maintenance, we can assume that the absence of these pieces is accidental. The 109’s are in 1:32 scale and are probably kits rather than scratchbuilt miniatures, so the canopies would have been separate parts which simply came unglued and were lost at some point.

The scene is far from an idealized portrait of an airfield. Fuel drums are haphazardly scattered about the hangar, shop tools are strewn on the floor, and doors are left ajar. One of the mechanics is sitting on the wing of the 109, doing nothing.

The colourful regalia displayed on the hangar wall are the visual focal point of the scene and provide some political context. In the centre is the standard of the Condor Legion: an Iron Cross superimposed over red and yellow. The standard is flanked by a Spanish flag on the left and a swastika on the right, symbolizing Franco’s allegiance to Nazi Germany.

-Ivar

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.

-Ivar

 

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!

-Ivar

Dioramas in film – Ronin

Ronin (1998) is a classic espionage flick featuring exotic European locales and first-rate performances from Robert De Niro and Jean Reno. It’s the only film I know of whose title is explained with a diorama. The diorama is not a special effect but an actual “character” in the movie.

When Sam (De Niro) is wounded during a mission, Vincent (Reno) takes him to the country mansion of his old acquaintance Jean-Pierre (Michael Lonsdale). After treating Sam’s wound, the kindly Jean-Pierre recounts the tale of the 47 ronin—masterless samurai—of feudal Japan who avenged their master, sacrificing themselves for his honour. We see Jean-Pierre at work in his study, putting the finishing touches on a miniature samurai figure. He then places the figure in a diorama depicting the climactic battle waged by the 47 ronin. The diorama is fairly large and features several beautifully detailed samurai figures engaged in battle.

The famous ronin displayed in the diorama are of course paralleled by Sam, Vincent, and the other mercenaries depicted in the film. Sam is portrayed as ex-CIA, and Vincent is presumably a retired agent gone freelance as well, making them both ronin of a sort. Like the ronin of old, they are masterless, but continue to devoutly follow a shared warrior code. Through Sam, we learn some of the strict rules of this code. Whenever asked to reveal vital information, his response is “I don’t remember.” When asked who his contacts are, it’s “We went to high school together.” You get the idea.

What makes the film especially satisfying is the camaraderie which develops between Sam and Vincent. Through their easy banter, we learn about the unspoken discipline which governs their world. In the final scene of the movie, the two men are having a coffee in the same café where the story began, and we hope they’ll stay friends. But the code prohibits it. So when Vincent picks up the tab and Sam says “I’ll get the next one,” we know there won’t be a “next one.” And as Vincent leaves the café and turns up his collar against the cold, we get one last glimpse into the secret code of these modern day ronin.

-Ivar