Tag Archives: artistic evolution

Taking it to the next level: the diorama as an artistic progression from the model kit

In a previous post, I commented that most diorama artists start out as plastic model kit builders. Then at some point in their evolution as a modeler, they progress to dioramas. This is the typical path for most diorama artists, and for good reason.

Plastic models are the three-dimensional equivalent of paint by number kits in the world of painting. When you buy a paint by number kit from a craft store, you get a board or canvas with pre-marked outlines indicating areas to paint. Each area has a number corresponding to a paint colour to use. And all the required paints are included in the kit.

With a plastic model kit, much of the work is already done for you as well. All the pieces that go into the model are pre-formed; you simply snap or glue them together and then paint the model. Detailed instructions are given, with numbered steps guiding you through the assembly process. There is also a painting guide included with the instructions. Much like paint by number kits, plastic model kits are an easy way to get into the hobby for an aspiring artist.

More seasoned hobbyists will go a step beyond the basics. The experienced kit builder will not only paint the model, but will also weather it to enhance the realism of the finished product. The more advanced paint by number artist will mix colours and create skillful transitions from light to shadow, creating a much finer result.

After successfully completing several dozen plastic kits, the kit builder may wish to take on a new challenge. This could involve modifying a kit (for example, converting a Spitfire Mk1 to a Mk2), or adding something to it (for example, scratch building a landing chute for a Vulcan bomber, as shown in the photo at the top of this page). Kitbashing, in which parts from several models are combined to create an original result, is another option for the experienced builder. Other modelers will want to go a step further, creating an entire scene which incorporates one or more plastic kits. And so goes the evolution from kit builder to diorama artist.

The word “evolution” connotes progress, and I think it’s the right term in this case for several reasons. First, creating a diorama requires the artist to use his creative imagination and come up with a scene he wants to depict. Second, it requires that he apply design principles to maximize the visual impact of the scene. Third, it requires knowledge of specialized modeling techniques, such as miniature landscaping. None of these skills are needed to build a plastic kit out of the box.

Dioramas aren’t the only evolutionary path available to the plastic kit builder. Some modelers go on to create original works from scratch. A miniature ship or plane can be carved out of a block of wood, or crafted from other materials (large museum miniatures are usually custom built, since there are no commercially available kits of the subjects in sufficiently large scales). Other modelers want to see their creations perform the same functions as their real life counterparts. So for those who aren’t content with a static helicopter, they can build a radio controlled one that actually flies.

The path that you take in your evolution as a plastic kit modeler will depend on your personal interests and skills. Will you sculpt original pieces out of a block of wood, build aircraft that actually fly, or create compelling scenes in miniature as a diorama artist? The choice is yours.

-Ivar

Making the transition from models to dioramas

Many modelers are content to build an out-of-the-box plastic model kit, display it on a shelf, and call it a day. Some will go a step further and buy aftermarket parts to improve the accuracy of their model or modify it. And those who are even more ambitious will kitbash a model, creating something new out of one or more out-of-the-box kits.

If you enjoy going a step or two beyond the basic out-of-the-box build, chances are you’ve thought about creating an entire scene to showcase your latest model(s). Welcome to the world of dioramas.

The diorama is a miniature slice of reality depicting an event or its aftermath. It is limited by only two things: your imagination and your skill at translating vision into reality. You can create a scene taking place on land, at sea, or on another planet. You decide what characters, vehicles and buildings will populate the scene, and what event will be depicted.

Most diorama artists have no shortage of imagination. The real challenge is translating your vision into a finished diorama. This sounds simple but can be a challenge for artists of all stripes. When George Lucas was deciding which of his Star Wars movies to film first, he realized that 1970s-era special effects would not do justice to all the scenes he had envisioned for the saga. He started with Episode 4 because it had the least demanding special effects, which could be achieved using the technology of the day.

To render your vision to its fullest potential, you must not only be a good craftsman, but make the right artistic decisions as well. Every work of art starts with an idea. Then the idea is usually fleshed out as a design. This could be as simple as a pencil sketch, or as complex as a computer generated 3D model. Some diorama builders skip this step, and run the risk of ending up with something that is awkwardly composed and visually weak.

For myself, I’ve found that the more dioramas you create, the better you get. As you become familiar with the diorama form, you learn to see what works and what doesn’t. Most artists go through a learning curve. There are, of course, exceptions. Orson Welles made his most critically acclaimed film, Citizen Kane, at the beginning of his career as a filmmaker. Reflecting on his career in his later years, he liked to joke that he started at the top and worked his way down. But he was an exception.

The mistake many diorama artists make is not realizing that they are creating a work of art. They see themselves as hobbyists and balk at the term “artist.” But if you don’t see yourself as an artist, you’re handicapping yourself from making progress. Your dioramas may be well crafted, but no-one will see them as art unless you do. So stop being modest. You don’t have to start hanging out at the art gallery and using words like “iconicity.” But having a basic knowledge of design principles is useful. Brush up on these and it’ll make a big difference to your next diorama.

-Ivar