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Military Miniatures - Dioramas and Scenery

( Originally Published Mid 1950's )

Visions of great leaders and battles start to form in the collector's mind even before he has finished painting his first miniature soldier. He is suddenly on the fields of Waterloo giving advice to Napoleon, with Pickett at Gettysburg, or with Custer at Little Big Horn. Vivid panoramic flashes of shells and rockets, heroism and coward-ice, gorgeous uniforms and tattered rags, the jubilation of the victor and the sorrow of the vanquished — all this and more comes alive in the collector's mind as the figure he is creating becomes more life-like with each stroke of his brush. It is only natural that the collector has a desire to use his military miniatures to depict a particular incident, so that even those who do not collect military miniatures will be able to see history in three dimension and share his enthusiasm. For, although a hobby is a personal thing, its joys and pleasures are increased a hundredfold when it can be shared with others.

A diorama is often thought of as a great stage covering a vast amount of space that the average home or modern apartment could not accommodate. This, however, is not true. A diorama is a scene that tells a story, and this may be done within a few square inches with even one or two figures and scenery, or it can Involve hundreds of square feet and thousands of figures that could not be housed in anything smaller than the exhibition hall at your local county fair. In fact, the smaller dioramas often get their point across better than the large complicated ones, and they most certainly are more welcome in the home.

In making a small diorama you should select a particular event from history and portray the action, while using the minimum number of figures possible, with the feature character or characters overshadowing all other figures and props. The action displayed on the small diorama should show just one event or action and, if it is portrayed with skill, the active mind of the viewer will complete the picture. History is full of outstanding events as well as equally important events that, although not as well known, will still furnish the bases for small dioramas. "Sergeant Ewart of the Scots Greys capturing the eagle at Waterloo," "Washington at Valley Forge," "General John Gordon, CSA, giving water to the wounded General Francis Barlow, USA, on the fields of Gettysburg," "Burnside riding the railroad handcar" — these are only a few of the many exciting events you will find through-out military history that lend themselves to the making of small dioramas. There may even be events in your own military career that can be recreated. Humor and fictitious characters can also be worked into fascinating little dioramas. Who among us, who were involved in the unpleasantness with Hitler, did not love Bill Mauldin's "Willie and Joe"? The adventures of these two characters alone would furnish many ideas for humorous dioramas.

Small dioramas are usually displayed in cabinets, on tables, shelves, on the mantel or almost any place through-out the house or apartment. Their small size makes them welcome in any room as a color spot, a conversation piece, and to add interest to the room. Since they are portable, it is imperative that they be built on a sturdy base. If the scene is to contain just one of two figures without trees or other tall scenery, a piece of wood an eighth of an inch thick, providing the base is no longer than about 6 inches by 2½ inches, will be sturdy enough to support the diorama. Pieces of wood like those used for venetian blinds make good bases for small dioramas. Naturally, the diorama will look much better and be more acceptable in the room if you make the base from thicker wood and finish the edges with paint or stain and varnish. A very satisfactory base can be made from a deep picture frame such as those sold in hobby stores and artists' supply shops. Select a frame of the desired size which has high sides that are formed in graceful curves or angles; then turn the frame upside down and cut a piece of flat wood that will fit into the recess of the frame where the picture would normally go. Cement or nail the wood into the frame and then finish the outside of the frame with stain and varnish; this will give you an attractive and sturdy base for your diorama that most certainly has a professional flair.

Before fastening the figures to the base, study their positions carefully and be sure that the action and story you are going to portray will not be hidden by any scenic effects you need to complete the picture. When placement of the figures is decided upon, fasten them securely to the base. It is a good idea that, in addition to cement, you drill holes in the bases of the figures and fasten them with small wood screws or small nails. The figures should be fastened in place first, because when scenery is added you can bring the earth up over the bases of the figures, which will give the effect of standing on their own feet without the aid of the usual flat bases.

Among the purists, there is naturally the feeling that nothing looks more like earth than earth, nothing more like rock than rock. These are undeniable facts, but effect and results are what we are after and in many cases other materials are just as realistic looking in their final form and in many cases much easier to work with. Should the scenery on your diorama consist only of the ground the figures are standing on, texture can be obtained with a variety of artificial grasses and sands sold in model railroad and hobby stores. You can also use sawdust or wood chips and, if you like, real earth, and maybe even a small stone or two. There are a great variety of adhesives that may be used to hold the scenery in place; clear varnish, wood glue, model airplane cement, or any of the hundreds of commercial adhesives that are on the market. The only important thing is to have something that will hold the material you use onto the base permanently. One of the best adhesives for scenic work is "Sodium Silicate" commonly known as "Water Glass," and if you live in a rural area you may know it as "Egg Preservative". This may be bought in any drug store and the druggist will know what you are talking about by any of its three names. Beside its many qualities for scenic work, it also has the advantage of being inexpensive. To fasten the scenic material to the base, paint a heavy coat of adhesive on the base coming up over the bases of the figures and then sprinkle the material on the adhesive and allow to dry; after this it is only a matter of painting the scenery, which will be explained later.

The ground is seldom perfectly level and as your dioramas grow in size you will most certainly want to work high spots and gullies into the base so that the overall effect will be more natural. The materials to build up scenery contours are almost unlimited and experience alone will help you select the material you favor. Some of the materials used are plaster of paris, patching plaster, asbestos flakes, furnace cement, as well as a variety of mixtures carried by many hobby stores. Each has its advantages and disadvantages and you alone must be the judge. There are, however, two mixtures that have found general favor among diorama makers and either one may be just what you are looking for. The first is "papier mâché," the old standard material which is not only light in weight but hard and strong and takes paint well. Papier mâché is prepared in this manner: old news-paper is first dampened and then torn into tiny bits which are dropped into a pan of hot water; the pieces after soaking are torn into even smaller pieces and rubbed between the hands until the pulp is very fine and no bits of news-paper can be seen. The pulp is then put into a cloth and squeezed to remove as much water as possible. A large amount of pulp may be made and stored in a covered container for future use. However, do not add paste to the mixture until you are ready to use it, because paste becomes moldy in a short time when not used. You may use wall paper paste or any type of paste that is prepared with water. Add one part of prepared paste to two parts of the pulp and mix thoroughly; this makes a mixture that is very easy to apply in making scenery. Another favorite mixture is asbestos flakes, which may be purchased at hardware stores, or plaster of paris and water glass (sodium silicate). The three materials are mixed together until a smooth thick mixture is obtained, this mixture will cling to framework and can be molded well. It also dries hard and strong and is easily painted.

Naturally, you must have a framework on which to put whatever plaster or pulp mixture you use and the general practice is to make this from wire screen. If the diorama is very large, fine chicken wire can be used; but if the diorama is small, window screen wire is more satisfactory. With small wood blocks set up a frame for the rises in the terrain; be sure that the blocks are fastened securely to the base of the diorama. Over this framework tack the screen which will give the mixture something to cling to. With a small trowel, a knife or your hands, work the mixture into the screen so that it hooks through the wire, and then continue to model the terrain to suit your fancy; allow the material to dry before painting.

Beside the hills and ravines, there are also such things as trees, stumps, bushes and rocks that will supply more interest to the picture. Rocks may be small stones cemented in place or they may be modeled from the mixture used to form the basic scenery, and then painted. Bushes and small trees may be made from twigs you have gathered, or they too may be modeled to suit their particular role in the diorama. You may purchase trees already made in the average model shop to serve the purpose, but if only one or two trees are needed it is better to build a scale model tree, taking the same care with the details that you did with the figures in the diorama. In building a tree you must first make an armature or skeleton for the trunk and branches; this is made from soft iron wire. Start with several long pieces of wire forming first the uppermost branches of the tree; with more pieces of wire proceed to form other branches of the tree, winding the wire around and down the trunk as the branches meet the tree, and this will automatically thicken the trunk in a very natural manner. Let end of the wire ex-tend beyond the base of the trunk and twist these into roots, some of which should be inserted in holes in the diorama base to hold the tree upright and others to form exposed roots on the ground. If you are depicting a winter scene where no leaves are on the trees, proceed to cover the wire with any modeling compound such as self-hardening clay, plaster mixture, or even any of the plastic metals. Bark texture can be worked into the trunk with a sharp instrument and burls can be modeled very realistically. In the case of a tree having foliage, the same procedure is used except that pieces of lichen are fastened to the ends of the branches; this can be done by twisting the ends of the wire branches in the lichen. Lichen is a moss that can be purchased in a variety of colors from any store selling model supplies. Besides the above use, it is also ideal for making bushes, hedges and other scenic effects. The leaf effect on the trees can be made even more realistic by applying a thin adhesive such as water glass to the lichen and then sprinkling the lichen with sawdust colored to the type of leaves you desire; after the adhesive dries shake the loose sawdust from the tree. Trees are of a great variety of shapes, and you will do well to study pictures of real live trees just as carefully as you do figures before modeling them.

Tree stumps can be modeled or cut from tree branches to the size you desire; you will even find that the knots in boards can be knocked out to make exceptionally good stumps for your dioramas. Stone fences can be modeled from clay or even built up with real stone, or you can cut the fence from soft wood such as balsa, making indentations to indicate stone with a pointed instrument; brick can be modeled in the same manner. Wood or rail fences are easily made from twigs or pieces of split wood. In fact, you can reproduce any scenic effect with effort and imagination.

Just as in the completion of the individual figure, the piece de resistance in diorama making is the painting, for here the skill of your modeling and layout will be given life and brought out in all its glory. But before starting to paint you must observe and study nature, either in real life or in colored photographs and paintings, because not all grass and leaves are green, nor is all earth just brown, nor all rocks gray. The earth, the sky, water and foliage are a rainbow of color and shades, and it is the proper placement of colors that bring out the life-like quality you are seeking.

The type of paint to use is up to you; it may be casein, flo-paque, oil colors or even show-card paint. The important thing is that it must not be glossy when dry. You will no doubt have better success with tube oil colors because they are easy to mix, and an inexpensive set will contain a variety of colors to produce all the shades you will need. Another thing to remember in painting scenery is that nothing looks bright and new; for a long, long time the hills, trees and rocks have been exposed to dust and weather. Not only do the sun and sky reflect and cause a variety of shades in the trees, rocks and grass, but also you will find that there is just a slight yellowish brown tint in nature. This dusty tint added to the gray of rocks or trunks of trees makes them spring into life, and the same thing holds true of all other parts of your diorama. It is said that this yellowish hue in nature is the color of earth, the dust of which is ever present in the air. Fact or fiction, the important thing is that the tint is present in nature, and when it is added to your paints it tones down the brilliant colors and makes them much more life-like. In oil colors raw umber is the shade that should be used to give the tint to your colors, but remember just a hint will do the trick.

As in painting a military figure, start painting the parts of your scenery that will be overlapped by other colors. For example; start with the rocks. In rocks there are a great variety of shades depending on the type, such as limestone, granite, or sandstone, and the colors may be a great variety of shades of gray, red, brown, blue, or yellow. A rock has anything but a painted look in nature and a natural effect is what you will desire; instead of painting the rocks, stain them so that the color penetrates and gives your simulated rocks the effect of having color the whole way through, just as in the real thing. This is done by thinning your paint down to where it is just a wash, and applying it to the rock formations with a large brush allowing it to soak into the plaster; continue with coats of wash until the shade you desire is obtained. Apply the wash generously and allow it to run into the crevices, and the varied densities of color will make the rocks more realistic.

Painting the balance of the landscape is carried on in much the same manner. The important thing is to re-member the great variety of shades and colors in nature; earth runs in every shade from gray to black and from light red to deep brown, and grass may be seen in a variety of shades from very pale greens to rich dark shades that are almost olive. As you observe nature and study colored illustrations, you will also note that it is rare indeed to see a great expanse of solid green grass; instead there are many spaces of earth colors and it is important to reproduce these in your scenes. When painting landscapes, you will find it invaluable to have some colored illustrations of rural scenes to help guide you in colors and shades.

The type of thinner you use will naturally depend on the type of paint being used; turpentine for tube oils, water for casein or show-card color, and dio-sol for flopaque. A very handy mixing tray can be had by using cup cake tins; a different color in each compartment will give you the colors within easy reach without the danger of knocking over open bottles. Apply colors to the landscape freely; allow the various shades to blend and the results will be most pleasing. You will find that several thin coats of paint are more realistic in landscape painting than one heavy coat.

It is possible that you have a spare barn, a vacant exhibition hall, a big empty basement, or maybe a fair sized room that no one is using, and you decide to pitch the whole battle of Waterloo or Gettysburg in miniature. All of the foregoing ideas and methods will work out for your project with the exception of the base, because the dioramas mentioned previously are small portable ones built on flat bases. The project you have in mind certainly isn't portable and tables will have to be built to support it. The larger diorama base should not be flat-top tables but rather open framework ones supported on legs that will bring the top about waist high to the average man. A sturdy framework can be built from 2 x 2 wood for the legs and 1 x 4 wood for the frames. You can nail the open top tables if you like, but they will be more sturdy and also have the advantage of dismantling easily ( should the occasion arise) if you take time to assemble them with wood screws or nuts and bolts. Before putting in the cross braces, plot your terrain on paper by laying out where various roads and level sections will be. By doing this you will be able to insert curved pieces or odd shaped pieces of wood to support the level surfaces. Since the rest of the top remains open you may form the supporting screen (which will hold the plaster) into deep gullies, and you may also place supports above the tabletop to support the high ground, giving you an advantage in realism over the flat-top table.

The larger sized diorama also introduces other features that are not normally found in the small portable scenes — rivers and streams and backdrops. There are a variety of ways to model streams. First you can use real water, which gets messy and is not at all recommended; then there is of course the old mirror trick which usually ends up looking like just what it is — a mirror. Streams, however, can be modeled very effectively, as any other part of the landscape. First lay out the bed of the stream in the width and direction desired. No doubt the stream will be shallow, so model the earth, undergrowth, and stones that would be on the bed of a stream, and paint them in their natural colors. However you must bear in mind that water reflects the things around it such as sky and trees, taking on the tints of the surrounding objects. Therefore, add to the colors of the stream bed a wash of bluish green. The watery look may then be added by giving the stream bed a coat of glaze or varnish to make it shine, or you may use clear cellophane to cover the bed of the stream, which will give a very realistic effect with the colors showing through. Remember to bring the banks of the stream down into the water in some places and out over it to show undercuts where the water has worn it away. Naturally, if the stream is to be very shallow, the colors of the bed will be brighter; the deeper the stream, the lighter the colors on the bed. Here and there a dull rock jutting up through the cellophane or glaze will add to the effectiveness of your handiwork.

When you make your large diorama, one thought is going to flash into your mind as a great revelation : small figures behind the standard sized ones to give the effect of distance. If you don't think of it, some bright-eyed visitor viewing your efforts is certainly going to offer the suggestion as a helpful bit of sage advice. But, unless you are prepared to go into hours of study, mathematics, color values, and shadows, you had better push the idea behind you just as you would Satan. There is more to creating an illusion of distance than making things smaller in the background. Each component part of the whole scene must diminish, not only proportionally in size, but in density of color and angle of the base. Colors are more brilliant in the foreground and detail is sharper; as you move into the middle area the colors and details become lighter and less distinct, and naturally in the background colors and details blend into soft flowing lines. This is the very stuff of the illusion of distance, and if it is not followed with accuracy and skill the diorama will have the affect of giants in the foreground being supported by midgets in the rear. The height of the diorama and the position of the viewer would also have an affect on the illusion you would be trying to create.

You can observe these conditions by walking outdoors and looking up the street and imagining lines and angles from your point of observation to the horizon. You will find that your eyes will be on a level with the horizon, whether you are standing on a high or low level, and that the sides of the street come closer together as they near the horizon. The buildings also condense, but not only do they become smaller, they also fit roughly into a long triangle with the apex in the distance. The people on the street also fit into the imaginary triangles and grow smaller and less distinct in coloring and detail as they go into the distance. You will note that although the street may be level the people appear to be standing or walking higher than you are.

If you have never seen an artist at work, you have seen movies or cartoons of them and have noticed that from time to time they hold a brush or pencil up to eye level, run their finger up and down to get a measurement, and then transfer the measurement to their canvass or paper. The canvas or piece of paper the artist is working on could be compared to a piece of glass held in front of your diorama. The points where the light rays pass through the glass would form the picture anyone looking at your diorama would see. The viewer's eye would be the apex of a series of triangles passing through the glass to the various items on the diorama. For example, lines from the head and feet of a foreground figure would pass through the glass at one position and the lines from a figure of the same size and on the same level, but in the middle of the diorama, these lines would pass through the glass not only closer together than those of the fore-ground figure but the one from the feet would be higher on the glass. This same condition would exist with various items in various positions on your diorama; this explains why the people on the street seem to be standing higher in the distance, although they are on your level. This also explains why you should think twice before you go into perspective with figures on your dioramas.

The scenes you are going to set up in your large dioramas really won't need a variation in sizes to gain perspective; you will no doubt have scale distances between the various figures and installations in the scene, so they will automatically fall into the proper perspective, no matter from what angle they are viewed. The only time there would be a real need for a variety of sizes of figures to gain perspective would be in a diorama or shadow box that is very narrow and yet shows a deep battle field.

You should have a backdrop or continuation of your scene painted on the wall so that your scene doesn't drop off into nothingness. Here perspective is important, and the time put into good planning and good painting will add immeasurably to the effect of your whole project. Remember that the horizon on the backdrop should be in line with the eye of the viewer (you will have to strike a happy average on this, because everyone who sees your work isn't going to be the same height). If you are going to paint figures or buildings into the background, they must fall into proper perspective with figures and houses in the foreground, and remember to make their coloring lighter and their details less distinct than those of fore-ground objects. Another important factor to keep in mind is how light is going to fall on your display. The lights used in the room will naturally cause the objects on your diorama to cast shadows; it would look odd for all objects in the foreground to cast shadows to one side and all objects on the background to cast them on the other side. So, while painting the background have all the lights that will be used turned on and study the shadows cast by the figures; then duplicate their positions on the backdrop.

Do not bring the back of the diorama up directly to the backdrop and hope to continue painting a road or other objects in perspective on the backdrop. Put a break of shrubbery, a stone fence, or some other scenery between the meeting points. For example, a road would curve in behind a stone fence on the diorama and then reappear in perspective on the backdrop.

Hundreds of books have been written on perspective and the study of one will be of particular value in the making of backdrops, and, if you must go into varied sized figures to gain perspective, it will be impossible to do a creditable job without a complete understanding of the subject.

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