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

Light and motion

We perceive the world through five senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. Visual art, as its name implies, communicates with us through sight. Pet owners will attest that cats and dogs don’t share this visual bias, preferring instead to savour the touch, smell and taste of fine art. But let’s not dwell on the time that your dog mistook your meticulously detailed Saturn V rocket model for a bone, and buried it in the back yard.

To optimize the impact of visual art, we can leverage some basic science about how vision works. For example, we know that the eye is attracted to motion. If you’re looking out the window of a tall building, the first things you notice are pedestrians and cars moving below, and maybe some birds gliding by. If you’re lucky enough to have an ocean-side view, your eye will be drawn to the endless lapping of waves upon the shore.

The eye is also attracted to light. Walking on the street at night, we immediately notice streetlights, car lights, and if you’re in the country, the stars and moon.

Although light and motion are fairly easy to incorporate into many forms of art, the vast majority of painters, sculptors and diorama artists don’t take advantage of these tools. There may be an overdose of self-consciousness at work here, as many artists are fearful of being ridiculed for stepping beyond the bounds of the normal or typical. Modern art has broken many boundaries, but not all. I find it surprising that more visual artists don’t incorporate light and motion in their works. In the past, many purists would have argued that a “real” work of art should not shine, glimmer, spin or oscillate, but most of them passed away sometime in the 19th century.

At a recent art show, I saw an innovative wall sculpture which depicted a swimmer splashing around in a small pool. The swimmer was an electronic projection but the walls were actual three-dimensional pieces forming the perimeter of the sculpture. This created the effect that the swimmer was as real as the walls surrounding her—a brilliant way of exploiting the way in which the brain processes visual information.

Adding light and motion to a diorama is relatively easy to do, and is guaranteed to heighten its impact. LED lights are available in numerous shapes, colours and voltages, and can be wired to shine constantly or flash. Their long life span makes them ideally suited to diorama applications. LEDs can be incorporated in and around vehicles and buildings to create a range of different effects.

A diorama with a sufficient quantity of lights will become self-illuminating, so putting it in a dark room with the lights turned off will give you a night scene which can be especially dramatic. Turning the room lights back on will give you a daytime scene, so you get two distinct looks from one diorama.

Motion can be real or faked. Do you want to show your Spitfire Mk IX taxiing down the runway? Substitute a plexiglass disc for the propeller supplied with the kit. Through careful sanding and painting, you can create the effect of a spinning prop. Or you can go a step further and actually motorize the propeller.

When it comes to taking the next step with your dioramas, remember that light and motion are your friends. Not many diorama artists take advantage of these simple tools. If you do, you’ll be one step ahead of the game.

-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

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

Lose yourself in your art

Many artists relish the experience of losing themselves in their art. Think of the guitarist who closes his eyes during a solo, immersed in his music, or the painter who talks to his painting (yes, I’ve met painters who do this). In the act of creating art, the artist temporarily enters another world. In this world, the four walls of the studio disappear, and reality fades away.

The connection the artist establishes with his work is vital. The stronger this connection, the more successfully the artist’s talent and energy can be transferred to his work. So losing yourself in your work is a good thing. It means you’ve optimized the connection.

The success with which the artist can immerse himself in this other world varies from artist to artist. Experience is a big part of it. A novice musician at his first piano recital will be more conscious of his teacher’s presence in the front row than the nuances of the piece he is performing. At the other extreme, a master performer like Keith Jarrett will lose himself completely in his performance, to the point that he’s unaware of his humming and squealing as he plays. (This has been an endless source of consternation to the recording engineers at Jarrett’s studio sessions, but most of his fans don’t seem to mind.)

The diorama artist has it even better than the musician or painter, because he not only loses himself in another world temporarily as he creates his art, but actually creates a permanent fictional world as the end result. Novelists and filmmakers (documentary filmmakers excepted) also create permanent fictional worlds. We can add poets to this small and exclusive club if we include epic poems like Beowulf.

For those of us who enjoy a respite from modern day civilization (which is frequently less than civil), there’s something intensely satisfying about the ability to create a fictional world of your own design. Even one that fits on a bookshelf.

-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

The Force Awakens is a Disney movie, not a Star Wars movie (no spoilers)

The Force Awakens opened on December 18. I’ve discussed Star Wars modelling previously in this post: http://creativedioramas.com/2015/10/lag-time-or-why-it-takes-so-long-for-some-models-to-be-released/. So now seems like a good time to revisit the silver screen’s most famous sci-fi franchise. Predictably, mainstream media critics are tripping over themselves to praise the movie. It’s hard to find a negative review in a printed publication.

There’s a small but honest minority who point out that the movie is a tepid rehash of Episode 4: A New Hope. To make the film politically correct, Disney enlisted J.J. Abrams (the same director who turned Kahn into a white guy in the last Star Trek movie) to rewrite the Luke Skywalker character as a girl. And the stormtroopers, who were supposed to be clones of Jango Fett, have mysteriously changed nationalities and genders as well.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because Hollyweird has been applying the same revisioning formula to movies for several decades. It’s all part of the media’s cultural brainwashing agenda, which Disney supports and enables. This organization bears no resemblance to the Disney of old which delighted children with harmless fairy tales. Disney now provides impressionable young minds with role models like Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus, who shed their squeaky clean child star personas and go off the rails with alarming regularity. You can set your watch by it.

Since J.J. Abrams knows he’ll never approach the artistic level of a Gene Roddenberry or George Lucas, he doesn’t attempt to create original characters on his own. Rather, he confines himself to copying and/or rewriting existing characters, destroying any continuity established in previous films. This is euphemistically called “rebooting the franchise” but in reality it’s a joke on movie fans and a testament to the creative bankruptcy of film studios.

Some fans blame George Lucas, accusing him of selling out and abandoning Star Wars. Sell it he did, for the reported sum of $US 4.05 billion. But no-one can call Lucas greedy, given that he’s planning to devote a large chunk of the proceeds to charity.

What many don’t realize is that Star Wars would have met the same fate even if Lucas had stayed at the helm. He’s told reporters that he plans to divert his attention away from making movies for 12 year old boys, and redirect it towards making movies for 12 year old girls. Not surprising for a dad who now has two daughters.

Rather than being angry or bitter about what’s happened to Star Wars, let’s remind ourselves that all things are temporary—movie franchises included. George Lucas created a modern myth—a sci-fi epic that sparked our imaginations and stood the test of time. We should thank him for his great contribution to science fiction film.

I won’t be going to see The Force Awakens. It’s a Disney movie, not a Star Wars movie. But I’ll continue to enjoy all six episodes of the Star Wars saga. I watch them every Christmas—a time when we reflect on the things we loved as children—and this year will be no exception.

-Ivar

Do dioramas need figures?

There’s a generally accepted “rule” that a diorama must contain figures to qualify as such. If, for example, your A6M2 Zero is shown parked on a runway strip, along with a generous assortment of palm trees, sandbags, oil drums and spare parts, it is not considered a diorama, but merely a “base” for your Zero model. As soon as you add a couple of figures (let’s say a pilot talking to his mechanic), it is magically lifted to the status of a diorama.

The rationale for this dictum is that a diorama should tell a story, or at least depict an event. Thus, figures are needed.

I find this argument somewhat short-sighted. It’s quite possible to tell a story without figures. Consider the example of a 1:200 scale scene of a large aircraft (let’s say a B2 bomber) crash landing in a forest. Due to the scale, no pilot or crew would be visible through the cockpit canopy. And the forest would presumably be uninhabited, unless you count small animals (which would be difficult to model in 1:200 scale). This is a much more dramatic event than a pilot talking to his mechanic. Yet some would say the crash landing scene is not a diorama because it lacks figures.

There are many examples of great works of art which don’t depict people, yet still tell a compelling story. The science fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey is famous for the “machine ballet” which opens the second act of the film. Director Stanley Kubrick devotes several minutes to showcasing elegant spacecraft gliding through the void to the strains of The Blue Danube. He makes a powerful point by contrasting the beauty and harmony of these machines with the stilted, shallow and dull interactions of the characters in the movie. This is storytelling at its finest.

So how did it come to be that all dioramas are supposed to have figures? I’ll venture that it was a lack of imagination. No-one could figure out (pun intended) how to tell a story without putting people in it, so someone decided to dumb things down by mandating an easy fix: thou shalt have figures in thy diorama. Like most easy fixes, this one is a bit problematic: it makes false assumptions about how a story should be told. In fact, it’s a lot like the characters in 2001: stilted, shallow, and dull.

-Ivar