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?