Category Archives: Design & Construction

Encounter in North Africa (1:35)

In this scene, a boy and his sister come upon the awesome sight of a German tank trundling down a village lane. The long barrel Panzerkampfwagen III was one of the most elegant armour designs of WWII.

Lots of experimentation went into mixing the right shade of desert yellow for this Tamiya kit. The wall was scratch built.

-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

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

The sci-fi diorama and the road to artistic freedom

One of the great things about the science fiction diorama is the “fiction” part. This means that unlike the historical diorama artist, you’re less constrained by the bounds of realism and authenticity. You don’t have to worry about custom mixing the correct shade of PRU blue for a WWII reconnaissance Mosquito, or wondering how dirty a Panther tank would get after a 1944 tour in North Africa. (I’ve asked myself both these questions.)

When you set your science fiction diorama on another planet, no-one can accuse you of a lack of realism, because no-one has actually seen the planet. Freed from the constraints of verisimilitude, you can set your sci-fi figure/car/spaceship in a field of purple grass and trees that have three trunks and fuchsia coloured bark, if that’s what you want to do. You’re limited only by your imagination. The only extraterrestrial setting that wouldn’t afford you this creative freedom is the moon (in the unlikely event that the person giving the critique is one of the gentlemen pictured above). Barring this, your diorama can be a blank slate.

When designing my Eagle Crash diorama, I planned to set the scene on an earth-type planet. But rather than dressing the scene with oaks, conifers or other earth-type trees, I decided to create my own. Fans of Space: 1999 will recall that after the moon was torn out of earth’s orbit, the denizens of Moonbase Alpha never saw earth again. But they visited many interesting planets, some of which looked like earth and some of which didn’t. So I could dress my diorama however I wanted and still be true to the premise of the show.

This was the perfect opportunity to try my hand at creating a tree from scratch, using the “wound wire” method described in Advanced Terrain Modelling by Richard Windrow. What I ended up with looked like a tree, but not one that you’d find anywhere on earth. And it didn’t matter, because on this particular planet where the Eagle had crash landed, the trees just happen to look exactly like the one I made by winding wire together. And said tree is now an integral part of the finished scene, with no further explanation necessary.

I revisited the Eagle Crash diorama a few years later and added a third ship to the scene. I call it the Eagle Gunship, and in case you’re wondering, it didn’t appear in any episodes of Space: 1999. But I enjoy kitbashing models and had some extra Eagle parts in the spares box, so I decided to create my own variant of the Eagle. And again, I was able to do this because of the “fiction” in science fiction.

-Ivar

Is a diorama ever completely finished (and should it be)?

If you ever went to Boy Scouts as a kid, you may have heard the maxim that a Boy Scout always finishes what he starts. This seems like sound advice for young minds. It encourages the development of persistence, focus, and personal discipline. But like most well intentioned advice, it shouldn’t always be taken too literally.

Take dioramas for instance. Unlike other works of art which are formally completed at a point in time, dioramas invite constant tinkering. As your skills develop, you’ll be tempted to make improvements to dioramas you finished long ago (or thought you did). This is appealing for a couple of reasons, one being that reworking an existing diorama is a more manageable project than starting a new one, and the other being that it doesn’t require you to free up more shelf space.

Dioramas also require occasional repairs. If you move frequently, you may find that your diorama doesn’t travel well. It may not get along well with pets either (don’t let your cat see that realistic field grass you just bought for your latest tank battle diorama—he’s likely to tear it up as soon as you’ve glued it down, adding a new slant to the term “battle damage”). Repairs may not disqualify a diorama from being “finished,” but they can subtly alter it. This is something other visual artists don’t have to worry about too much. Photographers, for example, don’t generally bother trying to fix a print which has become dog eared or has had coffee spilled on it. They just run off another print.

Dioramas can also be altered by adding new content. Some of my earlier dioramas were visually quite sparse, featuring one or two vehicles surrounded by lots of unused real estate. A few of those dioramas have since benefitted from the addition of an additional vehicle or figure.

Artists often struggle with how much content to put into their diorama. In the world of design, unused space around the main subject is called negative space. Although negative space is not intrinsically undesirable, it has to be carefully balanced with—you guessed it—positive space. This principle holds true in most forms of visual art. There has to be balance.

Dioramas tend to look empty if they have too much negative space. Of course, going to the other extreme and cramming in too much content is no better. I’ve noticed at model shows that “cramming” is quite prevalent among novice diorama artists. They seem to be nervous about having any empty space in their diorama, so they fill it up with something, like a baker spreading chocolate chips over cookie dough. One drawback of cramming is that your main subject tends to be drowned out by everything else. It also leads to weak composition. And finally, if there is too much going on, no-one will be able to discern the story you’re trying to tell.

So back to the original question. Is a diorama ever finished? I would answer this with a resounding “sometimes.” About half of my dioramas remain as they were the day I finished them. But others have been modified in some way over the years, some more than once. My earlier dioramas are the ones I’ve modified the most. They weren’t as carefully planned, since I used to go from one sketch straight to the construction phase.

My more recent dioramas have benefitted from better pre-planning. I sketch, assess, tweak, and sketch some more, until I’m convinced I’ve arrived at the best possible composition. Only after several sketches do I begin construction. This approach means that fewer design changes are needed after construction has started. And I prefer it because it’s a lot cheaper and easier to make changes in two dimensions than three.

So although it’s great advice to finish what you start, it also makes a lot of sense to treat your dioramas as perpetual works in progress. The occasional tweak or embellishment keeps them current, reflecting your evolution as an artist, and ensures that you’ll continue to consider them as valuable pieces in your collection.

-Ivar

Eagle crash (1:87)

The iconic Eagle from Space: 1999 is one of my favourite spaceships, and Brian Johnson’s masterfully orchestrated crash sequences were the inspiration for this diorama.

The crashed Eagle is a modified MPC kit (rebuilt spine and passenger pod, drilled out and reshaped thrusters on command module, accurized main engines). The Lab Pod Eagle is a Warp resin kit (built out of the box). The Gunship Eagle is my own design, a kitbash using MPC Eagle parts, aftermarket resin missiles, landing gear from the MPC Darth Vader Tie Fighter kit, and various other pieces from the spares box.

The repainted HO scale figures from Preiser fit the MPC Eagle perfectly, suggesting that the kit’s true scale is closer to 1:87 than 1:72.

-Ivar

Drug runners (1:35)

This diorama was inspired by my trips to South America. An army helicopter crew faces off against two contraband smugglers.

I converted a Dragon LSSC to a speedboat by narrowing and shortening the hull. The water was made by pouring several layers of tinted Envirotex resin. The OH-6A helicopter, also from Dragon, is perched on a dock made from a modified Verlinden Wooden Bridge Section.

-Ivar

Batmobile winterscape (1:35)

This diorama was inspired by the night scenes of the Batmobile stealing through snow-covered streets in Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1989). I liked the contrast of the Batmobile against the fresh white snow.

I used Bandai’s Batmobile, a white metal Batman figure, a kitbashed Miniart Ruined Garage, and roof trusses from a gantry crane kit. Everything else was scratchbuilt.

-Ivar