Category Archives: How To

There’s no rush

As a modeller, there will be times when you get stuck at a certain stage in your project because you’re not quite happy with something. You’re faced with a choice of either proceeding and hoping it will turn out okay, or waiting. I favour waiting, for the simple reason that letting something marinate in your head for a while can often yield a better solution. 

Here’s an example. I’m currently adding propellers to a 1:600 scale B-29 bomber. The props in this scale need to be 8mm in diameter. I’ll be showing the bomber in flight, so I need transparent or translucent disks to mimic the look of spinning props. The material also has to be very thin. 

After looking at various options, I finally came across some clear rubber bumper pads at the hardware store. The pads are the right diameter, but are too thick and have a convex surface. I tried sanding them down by hand, but the rubber didn’t sand well and left tiny strands protruding from the surface. 

At this point, I could have used the bumper pads ‘as is’ and lived with the fact that they’re too thick and have a convex surface. But I decided to wait instead. This isn’t to say I put everything away. I left the B-29 on the work table so I wouldn’t forget about it. 

Every time I walked by and looked at the B-29, I’d mull over the problem. After a few days, I came up with the idea of using my drill. I already had a fine grit sanding bit so I gave it a shot. Voilà! No more rubber strands. The high speed of the drill bit made all the difference, producing a smooth, flat surface and reducing the overall thickness of the parts. 

The B-29 project can now move forward, complete with realistic looking props. Moral of the story: don’t rush, because in a few days you may come up with a better idea. 

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 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

Putting things in (forced) perspective

Linear Perspective

Creating the illusion of perspective (space and depth) in art has a long history. Renaissance painters are credited with revolutionizing the world of two-dimensional art by introducing linear perspective into their paintings in the early 1500s. This allowed them to realistically portray three-dimensional scenes within the confines of a two-dimensional art form. 

In a painting, linear perspective is achieved by using a central vanishing point where all lines converge. The illusion of perspective is further enhanced by reducing the sharpness and   saturation of distant objects. This mimics the effect of haze or mist in the atmosphere. 

 

Forced Perspective

Forced perspective is distinct from the linear perspective technique developed during the Renaissance. It is used in photography and dioramas (and sometimes architecture as well) rather than in paintings. In photography, forced perspective is used to change the apparent size of objects in the frame by juxtaposing them in a certain way. This is often used to comic effect. In the above photo, a thumb and forefinger have been positioned in front of the camera so they appear to be pinching a hot-air balloon. 

Since dioramas are three-dimensional, you may be wondering why a special technique is needed to enhance perspective. The answer is that dioramas have size restrictions. Let’s say you want to create a diorama of a car in 1:24 scale on a highway receding into the distance. An ordinary diorama would require a great deal of space for the highway. It could take up an entire hallway in your house. But with forced perspective, you’d be able to dramatically reduce the amount of needed space. 

In dioramas, forcing perspective is done by changing the shape of the object you’re portraying. In the case of the highway, you would accomplish this by modelling the highway in 1:24 scale at the front of the diorama and a much smaller scale (perhaps 1:240) at the back. The highway would gradually decrease in width going from the front to the back of the diorama, creating the illusion that it’s much longer than it actually is.

The benefit of forced perspective is that you’re able to achieve a grander representation of space and depth in your diorama, while still keeping the footprint of your display to a manageable size. This comes at a a price, since modelling objects in forced perspective is time consuming. There are no commercially available forced perspective model kits. A building rendered in forced perspective, for example, has to be built from scratch because it’s not square. Since it’s so labour intensive, forced perspective is not often seen in dioramas. 

I’ve recently started using forced perspective as a way to make my dioramas more visually dramatic yet compact in size. I’m currently working on a pair of forced perspective projects featuring legendary WWII fighters. The first showcases the Messerschmitt Bf109 and the second, the Supermarine Spitfire. The 109 diorama is nearly finished, and I’ll be discussing it in an upcoming post. 

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

Give your diorama a title

Every great work of art has a title. Whether it’s Michelangelo’s David or Van Gogh’s Starry Night, titling artwork has been a tradition for countless generations of artists. 

The first function of a title is to provide a convenient way of referring to a work of art. It’s much easier to say “I really like Starry Night” than “I really like that painting by Van Gogh with the blue night sky and stars and interesting brush work.” There’s also a second very important function served by a title which I’ll get to in a moment.

Some modern artists eschew titles and instead opt to use the curious descriptor Untitled for their works. At first glance this seems like laziness, but it’s actually worse than that. The absence of a proper title is another element of the subversiveness which defines modern art. As I’ve mentioned before, modern art is an attack on traditional art and a vehicle for cultural marxism. It is  political and social critique disguised as art, and its main purpose is to destabilize the core beliefs and values of Western civilization. So when a pop art painter doesn’t title his work, he does it for the same reason that he flouts all other artistic traditions.

Looking to the world of literature, writers no doubt enjoy coming up with the perfect title for their new book. After all, words are their specialty. They’d probably scoff at pop artists who call their works Untitled and simply write them off as illiterate.

Many diorama artists don’t attach a title to their work until they enter it in a contest or post a photo of it online. And some don’t use titles at all. This is most likely due to modesty: they don’t consider their diorama to be a work of art. They say it’s just a project they did over a few weekends and therefore doesn’t need a title. (By the way, if you don’t think a diorama is a work of art, read this post.)

Regardless of whether or not you think titling your diorama is immodest, here’s the second reason to title it: a title aids communication. You want your diorama to say something to your audience, and a title helps with that process. It gives the viewer extra information apart from what your diorama conveys visually. By adding written words to the imagery, it clarifies ambiguities and provides focus. It can even help tell the story.

Drug Runners is a good example of how a title can aid communication. Without the title, this diorama looks like a gunfight between two scruffy looking guys in a speedboat and what appear to be airborne infantry. Viewers may have trouble figuring out what’s going on. But add the title and everything becomes clear. The guys in the boat are running drugs and the infantry are trying to stop them. 

Titles can be long or short, and clear or cryptic. I prefer them to be short and clear. An overly long title suggests that your diorama is visually confusing and you need lots of language to explain it. And a cryptic title may be clever but doesn’t communicate as well.

Start thinking about a title for your new diorama even before you start building. It will help you focus on what you want to say to your audience, and you’ll end up with a better result in the end. 

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

How to pack a diorama for shipping

It was with a bit of trepidation that I began packing a diorama for shipment to a museum. My concern of course was that it would be damaged in transit and end up in several pieces. I found myself wondering if a note to the museum staff saying “some assembly may be required” would be in order.

Following the mantra “hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” I decided to plan for the worst case scenario: a disgruntled postal worker who has misplaced his winning lottery ticket decides to take out his frustrations on a large parcel labelled “fragile.” How to prepare for this scenario?

The most common indignity suffered by large parcels is that they tend to be thrown rather than picked up and carried. They’re also liable to be crushed under heavier parcels. So packaging should provide (1) shock absorption and (2) rigidity.

When packing a simple object with a hard surface (for example, a glass vase), shock can be absorbed by wrapping the object in several layers of foam, fabric, or bubble wrap. This is fairly easy to accomplish.

A diorama, on the other hand, is a complex object with fragile surface elements. This makes it far more difficult to pack. Attempting to wrap it up like a vase will result in broken pieces. The solution is to support the rigid parts of the diorama and leave space around the fragile parts. To pack my diorama Encounter in North Africa (which you can see being prepared for its journey above) I took the following steps:

1. Find a sturdy cardboard box slightly larger than the diorama you wish to ship. (If you want to be even more cautious, you can build a custom crate out of plywood, but this will increase the weight and hence the cost of the shipment.)

2. Create a “cradle” for the diorama by cutting foam to fit the bottom and all four sides of the box. The foam will provide shock absorption during shipping. It can be cut with a long, sharp kitchen knife and sharp scissors. Always wear gloves.

3. Make a bulkhead to provide resistance to crushing. The bulkhead, which you can see in the middle of the box, was made by sandwiching several layers of cardboard and foam together. It straddles the wall featured in the diorama, which is a hard, non-fragile surface.

4. Complete the packing by cutting pieces of foam to fill most of the box, supporting the bulkhead. Leave space around fragile parts (palm tree and figures). I don’t recommend gluing any foam pieces, bulkheads, etc. in place since this will make it more difficult for the receiver to remove the diorama from the box without damaging it. Instead, cut the foam pieces to a tight fit so they interlock and stay in place.

5. Use transparent packing tape to seal the box. Substituting green painter’s tape or some other tape may result in the tape peeling off during shipping, especially in humid conditions.

6. You may wish to put some “fragile” and “this end up” stickers on the parcel, although no-one knows if these actually make a difference!

This is not something you want to rush. I spread the work over a couple of days. You’ll feel much better knowing that you’ve done everything to ensure that your diorama will arrive at its destination with a minimum of damage.

By the way, postal services in some countries require inspection of parcels prior to shipping internationally. If you live in such a country and are exporting your diorama, don’t seal the box until you’ve brought it to the post office.

There are never any guarantees with the postal service, but if you follow these steps, your diorama should have a safe and pleasant journey to its new home.

-Ivar

Keeping costs down when building your diorama

When e-commerce went mainstream and turned the world of retail and wholesale on its head, it was the consumer who emerged as the winner. Liberated from the monopoly which local bricks and mortar stores used to enjoy, the consumer can go online and hunt for the lowest prices from sellers around the world.

In a previous post, I talked about the decline of the bricks and mortar hobby shop in the online age. Although it would be easy to feel sorry for the hobby shop owner who has been turfed out by online competition, it’s important to realize that he may have just become greedy and priced himself out of business.

Hobby retailers (bricks and mortar as well as online) have a habit of overpricing products which are available elsewhere at far lower prices. They rely on their image as a specialist retailer to justify big margins.

A good example is miniature lighting. I frequently use LED lighting strips in my dioramas. They outlast bulbs by a wide margin, generate very little heat, and are easy to work with. LED strips are available via hobby retailers as well as eBay (mainly from sellers in China and Hong Kong). Guess which is cheaper? The price difference is so big that I wonder how hobby retailers are able to sell any LED strips at all.

Some hobbyists may not have the patience to comparison shop, but for those willing to spend a few minutes surfing the web, the return on your time investment can be considerable. And it can add up over time.

Here are some tips which can be useful in finding the lowest price for the product you’re looking for:

· See if you can determine where the product is manufactured
· Determine what types of retailers carry the product (for example, paints are carried by art stores, hobby stores, hardware stores, home improvement stores, and last but not least, paint stores); also check if the manufacturer sells direct
· Compare prices at each type of retailer in the country of manufacture with retailers in your country (remember to include shipping costs when comparing)
· Check prices at portals like eBay and Amazon

It helps to keep in mind also that the more middlemen you can cut out, the better your price will be. Some products are resold multiple times before reaching the consumer, and the price goes up every step of the way.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that if you don’t mind waiting a bit longer for your product to arrive, you can save a lot of money. Basic shipping rates from China to North America are astonishingly cheap if you don’t mind the four-week wait. I’ve also found shipping rates from Britain to be very reasonable. In contrast, buying from a U.S. source can entail horrendously high shipping charges, particularly on eBay and Amazon. And look out for eBay sellers who price a product at a discount and overcharge for shipping.

You would think that large online hobby retailers would have lower prices because they get quantity discounts when they purchase stock. However, I’ve found that this isn’t always the case. Remember that retailers are under no obligation to pass along savings to their customers. The only consistent advantage I’ve found to buying from a larger retailer is better product selection. If you’re buying several items at once and can bundle them into one delivery, you’ll usually pay less for shipping.

There isn’t one universal rule for getting the cheapest price. It depends on the product you’re buying. So do your research and happy shopping!

-Ivar

Two-dimensional thinking and three-dimensional art

There’s a great line in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan when Kirk and Spock are waging battle with Khan in the Mutara Nebula. Spock assesses Khan’s tactics and tells Kirk: “His pattern indicates two-dimensional thinking.” This is just the information Kirk needs to defeat Khan.

The diorama artist works in three dimensions. Yet a surprising number of dioramas are as flat as the Serengeti Plain. Lest the diorama artist befall the same fate as Khan, he should take advantage of all three dimensions. A diorama with peaks and valleys is more spatially complex—and visually interesting—than one that is flat.

Although we live in a three-dimensional world, we carry out many of our day-to-day activities using a two-dimensional mindset. Driving a car is essentially a two-dimensional activity. You can go left and right but not up and down (unless you’re driving through a mountain range). Board games like Monopoly and Scrabble are two-dimensional. The words you’re reading on this page are two-dimensional.

Unless you’re a pilot, gymnast, rock climber, architect or skydiver, chances are you don’t do much three-dimensional thinking. But artists who work in three dimensions benefit from well developed spatial awareness. And this includes the diorama artist.

Certain dioramas will be flat out of necessity. For example, a diorama of an airfield is not going to have hills and trees. Most planes (save for helicopters and VTOL aircraft) need flat runways to take off and land, so a runway diorama will be mostly flat. But even in cases like this, there is usually a workaround. For example, you could add a wind sock (mounted on a tall pole) to your airfield diorama for a bit of spatial variety, as I did on The Wooden Wonder. Or you could go a step further and add a hangar or other type of building, if there’s room.

Setting your scene in the middle of a field or jungle makes it easier to work in three dimensions. You’re free to sculpt the topography to your liking. My Eagle Crash diorama uses a cliff side setting, with each Eagle on a different level to create visual interest.

As you begin working on your next diorama, think about what Spock would say. Are you thinking in two dimensions or three?

-Ivar