Tag Archives: diorama

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

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

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

Eagle crash (1:87)

The iconic Eagle from Space: 1999 is one of my favourite spaceships, and Brian Johnson’s masterfully orchestrated crash sequences were the inspiration for this diorama.

The crashed Eagle is a modified MPC kit (rebuilt spine and passenger pod, drilled out and reshaped thrusters on command module, accurized main engines). The Lab Pod Eagle is a Warp resin kit (built out of the box). The Gunship Eagle is my own design, a kitbash using MPC Eagle parts, aftermarket resin missiles, landing gear from the MPC Darth Vader Tie Fighter kit, and various other pieces from the spares box.

The repainted HO scale figures from Preiser fit the MPC Eagle perfectly, suggesting that the kit’s true scale is closer to 1:87 than 1:72.

-Ivar

Drug runners (1:35)

This diorama was inspired by my trips to South America. An army helicopter crew faces off against two contraband smugglers.

I converted a Dragon LSSC to a speedboat by narrowing and shortening the hull. The water was made by pouring several layers of tinted Envirotex resin. The OH-6A helicopter, also from Dragon, is perched on a dock made from a modified Verlinden Wooden Bridge Section.

-Ivar

Batmobile winterscape (1:35)

This diorama was inspired by the night scenes of the Batmobile stealing through snow-covered streets in Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1989). I liked the contrast of the Batmobile against the fresh white snow.

I used Bandai’s Batmobile, a white metal Batman figure, a kitbashed Miniart Ruined Garage, and roof trusses from a gantry crane kit. Everything else was scratchbuilt.

-Ivar

The model railroad and the diorama

German toy maker Marklin produced the first model train set in 1891. According to www.marklin.com, it consisted of a wind-up locomotive with cars and an expandable track system. Electricity came to model railroads much later, and wasn’t popularized until the introduction of a 20-volt system in 1926, which replaced the former household current setup. These early train sets were commonly in O Gauge, which translates to 1:43 scale.

In 1935, O Gauge was “halved” into HO (1:87 scale), opening up model railroads to a wider audience. Although little historical data exists on the subject, it seems likely that this was the point when it became practical to begin creating realistic miniature train layouts. By the latter half of the 20th century, HO was the worldwide standard for model trains. To this day, many model train retailers continue to emphasize HO stock in their stores, although N Gauge (1:160) is also very popular.

About half a century after model railroads appeared, plastic kits came on the scene. Like model train companies, kit manufacturers introduced a series of scales (including 1:32, 1:48 and 1:72 for aircraft and 1:35 for military kits) which have been adhered to consistently ever since.

It would have made things far easier for the diorama artist if model railroad and plastic kit manufacturers had agreed to a common set of scales, but you can’t have everything. This lack of matching standards means that we sometimes have to resort to a bit of poetic license when adding items from the model train store to our dioramas. If you’re creating a scene in 1:72 scale, HO scenery and landscaping products will work quite well, but HO vehicles will look a bit too small.

Whether or not you like to get diorama accessories from the local model train store, diorama artists owe a great debt to the model railroad world. The whole concept of recreating vehicles—and entire scenes—in miniature was introduced by model railroad manufacturers a century ago. There were commercially available model trains well before plastic kits came out. You could argue that diecasts also predated plastic kits, but unlike trains, they weren’t usually used to create a complete scene like a model railroad.

It would be oversimplifying things to say there was a direct evolutionary path from the model railroad to the diorama. A better suggestion might be to think of them as following parallel paths, with the model railroad getting a head start on the historical timeline. There’s a lot of overlap between them. Both use realistic miniatures to depict places and events. Not all dioramas feature the lights and moving vehicles common to model railroads, and not all model railroads place as much of a premium on realism as do dioramas. But the similarities are there.

A good example of the overlap between model railroads and dioramas is Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg, Germany (http://www.miniatur-wunderland.com/). Billed as the “largest model railway in the world,” this permanent HO exhibition features several distinct sections depicting both actual and fictional locations.

What’s interesting about Miniatur Wunderland is that it’s much more than a model railway. There are moving cars, buses, ships, and even aircraft (not only can you see planes taxiing on the runway, but taking off and landing as well). To call it a model railway doesn’t really do it justice. With the variety of vehicles and scenes featured, you could call it a mega-diorama.

For the diorama artist, no trip to Germany would be complete without stopping in to marvel at this impressive exhibition. Is it a diorama or a model railway? The answer is “yes.”

-Ivar

A three-dimensional photograph

Thinking of your diorama as a 3D photograph is a good way to evaluate its visual impact. Although a photo is two-dimensional and therefore less complex than 3D art like dioramas and sculptures, it’s easier to start with the basics. In other words, it makes sense to master 2D design principles before moving on to 3D.

Here are some questions a photographer asks when composing a photo: Does the eye naturally gravitate towards the main subject? Is colour used effectively? Is the composition visually balanced?

The discerning photographer will go a step further, and consider how well a photograph creates a mood. A photo can be positive and upbeat or sombre and depressing. It can create tension. It can arouse anger. It can create a sense of awe.

Many years ago, on vacation in New Orleans, I walked into an antiques shop which included large format original prints by famous photographers. Turning to take the stairs to the second floor, I looked up. At the top of the staircase was a 4×6 (feet, not inches) print of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico by Ansel Adams. This was one of those rare occasions where everything seems to go quiet and time stands still. I slowly made my way up the stairs and paused in front of the photo for several minutes, mesmerized. To this day, I don’t recall seeing any work of art that could rival that photograph for its power to inspire a sense of awe. And that includes anything in The Louvre, MOMA, and countless other galleries and museums I’ve visited.

Think back to the last time you saw a truly memorable photograph or painting—one that you found yourself still thinking about after you left the art gallery. Chances are it touched you emotionally in some way. When you embark on your next diorama project, think about how you can create an emotional connection with your viewer.

-Ivar

Is the diorama art?

As someone who loves art, I’ve often wondered how many diorama builders see themselves as artists, and see their creations as works of art. We accept without hesitation that a photograph, sculpture or painting is a work of art. But what about dioramas?

We could take the easy way out and remain agnostic, like The Joker who said in Tim Burton’s Batman: “I don’t know if it’s art, but I like it.” But let’s explore the issue and see what happens.

Since the vast majority of dioramas are populated with commercially available plastic models, the purist might argue that they contain content which is not 100% original. Therefore, they cannot be considered original works of art. And although some dioramas rely more than others on off-the-shelf models, the purist would argue that any non-original content immediately disqualifies the diorama as a true work of art.

I would argue that the “original content” argument is of little or no relevance in the present day world of art. Ever since Pop Art emerged in the 1950s, measuring the amount of original content in a piece of art has become irrelevant. I recently saw a sculpture at an art show which was made entirely of Lego blocks.

Photography is another art form which does not hold up particularly well to the “original content” argument. The landscape photographer does not construct anything that appears in his photo. The content was conveniently created for him billions of years ago. He “borrows” content from his immediate surroundings every time he presses the shutter release. By manipulating variables such as lighting and composition, he creates a work of art which qualifies as “original,” even though the physical content depicted in the photo is not of his own making. Most of the time, the photographer is able to borrow the content for his photos with little or no protest—but not always. Photographers have gotten into costly and embarrassing legal scrapes for photographing people and places without permission, which is arguably worse than being unoriginal. I have yet to see this fate befall a diorama artist.

Another protest we often hear when debating the diorama’s place in the world of art is its association with children’s crafts. But children make lots of things when emulating adults. A child’s sand castle is a sculpture, but no-one would accuse Rodin’s sculptures of being glorified sand castles. Children also love to finger paint, a technique appropriated by numerous modern artists of the 20th Century. Painter Jackson Pollock liked to lay his canvases on the floor and then fling, drip and spatter paint over them. Luckily, his parents were not around to make him clean up the mess.

If we adopt the position that anything exhibited as art is a work of art, then the diorama easily qualifies. Several have been featured at art fairs, alongside art of every description. And in countries around the world, people pay admission to admire professionally built dioramas. I’m not talking about museums which often contain historical dioramas to support the exhibits, but dedicated diorama galleries.

So how did the diorama become a wallflower at the art world’s high school prom? Without a dedicated PR team, perhaps it was inevitable. We diorama artists tend to be quiet types who don’t care what the world thinks of us. We are not likely to be found trumpeting our achievements on Facebook or Twitter, or taking selfies in our studios. And it’s a safe bet we’ll never have our own reality show. We prefer to create, not promote. And for most of us, the satisfaction we get from finishing a project is enough.

But if you feel that recognition is an important part of the experience of building dioramas, I have a simple suggestion. And you don’t need a PR team. Here is what you do: The next time someone asks you how you like to spend your spare time, don’t hang your head sheepishly and mumble something in hushed tones about plastic models. Look them in the eye and tell them you’re an artist. I guarantee you’ll feel a lot better by the end of the conversation.

-Ivar