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.