Design and Build a Mini-Diorama
The Rocky Mountain Region Convention at Salt Lake City in November of 2011 will feature a new and intriguing kind of contest. It’s a Mini-Diorama Contest. You are allowed up to 144 square inches of space to build a diorama of any kind. This is an excellent chance to improve your skills using a different scale, gauge or scenery type.
What is a diorama? To those of us that are model railroaders it is a three dimensional model of a scene. Usually a diorama is a static (non-moving) display. A mini-diorama is, in our case, a small one limited in size by total square inches. We can think of our layouts as grand-scale dioramas. For the contest these dioramas are limited to an area of one square foot which is about the size of a floor tile.
So what does it take to build a contest winning diorama? There are quite a few tricks and tips that can help you build your next contest winner. So get out your pencil and paper and let’s review these ten tips for designing and building an award winning diorama.
Tip #1: Plan, plan, plan. Many modelers start out by building something and then slapping it on a one foot square board only to find that it doesn’t fit. Take the time to plan your design. Draw it. Sculpt it. Make a mock-up of the model (such as a barn) using foam board or clay. Decide what objects need to be on the display and what objects should be left off.
The crisp white road against the dark green fauna makes this barn shot very interesting to the eye.
Tip #2: Tell a story. A diorama of a barn may look very nice. But it’s just a barn. If you want to draw the viewer in, you have to tell a story. What is the purpose of the barn? What is going on there? Is something going on BEHIND the barn (wink)? Maybe there is a farmer working on his tractor in the hot sun? How can you convey to the viewer that the farmer is hot? Is his hat off? Is his wife bringing him lemonade? Is the ground dry and dusty? Why is he working on the tractor? Answer these viewer questions by giving them hints and details that spell out the story. People are an absolute necessity on a diorama!
Tip #3: Use the elements of the diorama to draw the eye to where you want the viewer to look. If the farmer is the central figure, you’ll want to place him in a prominent place on the diorama. If he is in the bright sun in front of the darkness of the interior of the barn, people will look at him and not the inside of the barn. A fence running along the side of the farm going toward the farmer will stop the eye of a viewer and redirect it to the farmer. Even three cows staring at the farmer will direct the focal point.
Using a CAD system to layout the pieces of the diorama is a quick and fast way to get a feel for the look and dimensions.
Tip #4: Fit the base to the diorama, not the other way around. Most people start with a one foot square flat block and start their construction. It is better to work on a large foam or cardboard surface and layout out the scenic elements and then form the base to the models. Then when you have the design you want, cut away the material you don’t need on the base. This will often give you more rectangle or trapezoidal shapes for the base which add interest to the diorama. Circles work, too!
Once you have laid out the scene on a large sheet of foam you can use a hot knife to cut out the base.
Tip #5: Give your diorama a sense of place. Where is your diorama set? Maybe it’s in the mid-west? What does the mid-west look like? What kind of plants would you see there, or rocks for that matter? Take the time to understand the environment of the diorama and give the viewer clues as to where they are. Billboards and signs that represent local establishments such as “Kansas City Chevrolet” or “Toledo Mudhens Baseball” give the viewer a precise sense of location.
Tip #6: Give your diorama a sense of time. There are several important time elements. The first is time on the calendar. Is it the 1950’s or 60’s? Then there is time of year such as fall or spring. After that there is time of day which could be noon or even night. So maybe our farmer has a farm in the 1940’s and has just started his spring plowing. It’s near lunch so maybe his wife is bringing him a sandwich. Give the viewer context clues about time. If it is spring maybe new, yellow flowers are in bloom in the field and the oak tree has bright green leaves. A fall evening would require long shadows under the trees and behind the barn.
Tip #7: Control the use of color. While you will need to paint virtually everything on the diorama, by using shades and tints of color you can control the scene. A shade of red is red paint that has black paint added to it in order to darken it. A tint of red is when white is added to the red to lighten it up. You may hear your wife tell you that she “likes this shade of pink” but that is not possible as she can only like a tint of pink. She’ll hit you for saying that so just don’t go there. For areas where you don’t want the viewer’s eyes to look, such as the very edge of the diorama, keep those colors shaded and dark. For focal areas, lighten up the colors. In our barn scene you may want to use very light colored soil under the farmer’s tractor, and very dark soil in the floor of the barn. Darker plants should be in the background with lighter colors in the foreground.
Here the light color of the spilled hay contrasts with the dark inside of the boxcar keeping your eye from wondering in to the undetailed car shed.
Tip #8: Show action. While a diorama is normally a static or fixed model you can still show action by inferring it to the viewer. If a child is on a rope swing hanging from the barn, he’ll be hanging straight down. This doesn’t look right to the eye to see a young boy not in a constant state of motion. To infer motion, put the boy up in the door of the hay loft with the rope looped up and in his hand. This tells the viewer that motion is about to happen as they see him swing out in their mind’s eye.
The model had closed doors but I cut them out and just opened them enough that you get the feeling someone is or has been in there.
Tip #9: Give your diorama a non-flat surface. One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen in dioramas is that they are built on a flat base. Short of a concrete slab you almost never see any ground that is perfectly flat. Undulate the scenery and give it rise. When you build your barn, build it on an uneven surface and add a stone foundation to make it level.
Buy using a hot knife you can cut away and then add back foam to make the scene more rugged than flat.
The stacked stone makes the building look like it was built there and not just set on the scene.
Tip #10: Photograph and review your layout. Ok, let me warn you. This is a VERY painful step. By using digital photography you can print or view on the screen every little mistake you made. You‘ll find yourself scratching your head going “how did that fingerprint get on the side of the barn?” This is a great way to make your model as perfect as it can be.
The almost finished diorama still requires people, machines and trees but the camera shows the imperfections which we’ll clean up as we go.
Using these basics you can take your modeling talents up to the level of artwork! Commit to a friend to have a diorama completed for the contest and you’ll come out a winner no matter what your score. You’ll always learn from doing!