Tag Archives: diorama artist

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

The smartphone and the diorama artist

Some technological advancements do more harm than good. The smartphone is a good example. The original idea behind this seemingly harmless little gadget—providing people an affordable, mobile communications device along with Internet access—was sound enough. And in the hands of a responsible and self-disciplined user, this is exactly what the smartphone would have provided.

Unfortunately, responsibility and self-discipline fell by the wayside, leaving us with the typical smartphone user of today: an attention craving narcissist with a short attention span and a need for instant gratification. Addicted to social media, games, and the app of the moment, this mindless drone has eschewed the physical world for the instant gratification of cyberspace.

Aside from the obvious need for artistic talent, what are the personal qualities that make a good diorama artist? Traits like patience, dedication, a long attention span, the ability to concentrate, and a strong work ethic come to mind. The smartphone is a threat to all these things, because it prevents these traits from developing in children and weakens them in adults.

As smartphone prices have dropped, the number of users has multiplied exponentially. They are now part and parcel of the urban landscape, meandering down crowded streets at half the pace of normal pedestrians, head down, frantically texting with both hands. They don’t watch where they’re going, so others are forced to jump out of their way to avoid collisions. They remind me of the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation, those half-human, half-machine aliens that served a central machine consciousness called The Collective and had no independent will of their own.

Did the scientific minds behind the smartphone anticipate that their nifty little invention could encourage and amplify some of the worst aspects of human behaviour? Probably not. But it’s fair to say that the marketers who popularized this attention deficit device understood the commercial benefits of addicting an entire populace to their product. With each new game and app, the addiction intensifies.

Most addictions are harmful because they either directly endanger the health of the addict or alter them in a negative way. Let’s look at what smartphone addiction does to people.

Text messaging is one of the cornerstones of the smartphone’s feature set. Since this technology encourages brevity, full sentences are no longer used. Messages are radically condensed. After repeated exposure to short messages, the brain adapts, and longer messages become harder to process. After a while, no-one has the patience to read sentences or paragraphs.

People used to read books on public transit. Now, everyone is playing with their phone. We’ve become so used to abbreviated character strings that wading through an entire book seems like a chore. Our attention spans are getting shorter by the day.

Phone drones are not just on the city streets. These automatons indulge their addiction in cafes, restaurants, and even movie theatres. Try talking to one, but better make it quick. At the first opportunity, they’ll turn away to check their phone. This constant phone checking begins as a habit, and then develops into a nervous tick repeated hundreds of times a day.

Killing conversation is not the smartphone’s only achievement. By making the brain lazy, it also affects our ability to concentrate. A good test of this is how far you can make it through a novel. Can you remember all the subplots and minor characters? Or do you find yourself getting frustrated at the amount of mental energy you need to stay on top of the story? The proportion of the population that reads fiction has been declining for decades, so you’re not alone if you feel that getting through a long novel is a struggle.

If people don’t have the attention span to engage in a passive activity like reading a book, how does this bode for creators, builders and inventors, where even greater energy and mental discipline is needed? Michelangelo spent two years creating his David. Without the rigorous work ethic he held himself to, this monumental task might have taken much longer, or may not have been finished at all. I wonder how many modern day artists gave up halfway through creating the masterpiece that would have catapulted them to fame, because they got bored and decided to squander their time on Twitter instead.

And regardless of whether you’re a painter, sculptor or diorama artist, you need to have the ability to tune out external noise and concentrate single-mindedly on a task. In other words, you have to be comfortable with being alone with yourself. For the phone drone, this is a horrifying prospect.

The lack of research on smartphone addiction is surprising when compared to the enormous efforts taken to curb vices like cigarette smoking. Cigarettes still claim more lives than fatal traffic accidents caused by texting drivers. But unlike smokers, drivers who text often kill innocents along with themselves. So they aren’t harmless.

The damage wrought by the smartphone—which can be summarized as fundamentally weakening mental stamina—has gone largely undocumented. Social and psychological phenomena are notoriously hard to quantify. There are no smoking guns and no corpses to count. Apart from the odd YouTube video or independent blog, there is virtually no discussion of the effects of this tragically misused piece of technology. The mainstream media is silent on the topic. And there is a reason for this.

To governments and global elites, a socially alienated, weak willed, and undisciplined populace is highly desirable. People are easier to control when their attention spans are too short to make critical arguments against the status quo, and when they give up their real friends for ones they’ve never met, courtesy of Facebook. Because when their friends are gone, they must turn to the government for help.

Governments also like to know who you are, where you go, and what you do. Your smartphone provides them with this information. It’s a core component of the surveillance state, and you’re paying for it. And even better for governments, anything you text, say or tweet on your phone is evidence that can be used against you for the rest of your living days. We’ve opened Pandora’s Box, and we don’t even know it.

-Ivar

The irresistible urge to build

Anyone who’s attended a sociology class is probably familiar with the nature/nurture debate. That is, the opposing points of view about why people are the way they are. The “nature” side argues that biology is destiny, and that everything about human behaviour can be explained by genetic makeup. The “nurture” side, on the other side, makes the case that social circumstances, and childhood in particular, determine behaviour.

If you want to figure out where your love of building dioramas came from, the nature/nurture framework is a good place to start. Consider the “nature” side. Do your parents or grandparents share your interest? Even if there’s no-one in your family tree who built dioramas, there might be an architect, sculptor, engineer or painter. In that case, it’s likely that you were a recipient of a certain gene set that predisposed you to becoming a diorama artist.

Now look at the “nurture” side. Do you remember being exposed to childhood events that could have inspired your interest in dioramas? Maybe you went to the museum on a school field trip and were enchanted with big dioramas of medieval battles. Or you had a friend with an amazing collection of model cars. Or a teacher with a train set that took up his whole basement (as I had).

Depending on whether you speak to a sociologist or biologist, you’re likely to get vastly different answers about the origin of your interest in dioramas. The funny thing about academia is that by funneling students into specialized study streams, the educational system encourages tunnel vision. And the longer you stay in school, the worse it gets. I still remember my university sociology professor fervently denying that instinct was what caused birds to fly south in the winter. If I were to run into him today, I’d have some fun with this. I’d ask him if flying south was reserved for bourgeois birds. I’d suggest he start a crowd funding campaign to help the poor oppressed working class birds who couldn’t afford to summer in the tropics. Workers unite!

Lest we become victims of tunnel vision like my well intentioned but deluded professor, it probably makes sense to take the middle ground and acknowledge that most of the time, both nature and nurture come into play. For myself, I can say that it was definitely a combination of the two that got me into dioramas. How about you?

-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

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