Life is short, break the rules. Forgive quickly, kiss slowly. Love truly, laugh uncontrollably and never regret anything that makes you smile. - Samuel Longhorne Clemens (Mark Twain)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Painting Composition influencing Diorama Composition

On some of the forums I frequent the composition of miniature dioramas can be a hot topic. It crossed my mind, again, when I was reading another blog regarding the composition of a painting. I realized that we actually share many of the same issues with those that work on canvas. When these discussions arise I have some main points that I always try to make when working on a diorama piece especially in regards to composition. Two figures stuck on a large base do not a diorama make. Here are the points I try to emphasize:

1) Know your story.
First thought here is if you don't have a title for your story do you really know what the story even is? I have run into this a number of times at competitions a person comes in and doesn't have or didn't even think about a title for the piece. If there isn't a title there isn't likely to be a good story either. Remember the miniatures and the scene, together, have to tell the story. If you have to explain it to everyone that looks at it then you have failed.
"Steady Lads!", while there are other titles that would work I choose this title because  concept was born from watching Zulu. A good story, everyone knew what was happening when they looked at it in the contest room.
Gold Medal winner at ReaperCon 2015
"Shopping II", perhaps not the best title but the scene was derived from my first version simply known as "Shopping".  Another good story, all the elements add to the story and help establish the setting. It does suffer a bit from being to large I think.
Best Hasslefree Entry at ReaperCon 2015.

2) Keep it small
Developing a diorama around the neat base that you found at the local craft store can be an exercise in frustration. Odds are good that it will be to big and you will be filled with the desire to fill every inch of it with something. That eats up resources and time and usually does not help tell the story. Keep it small so you aren't tempted to add a lot of extra "stuff", but everything you do add should enhance the story.
I allowed a commercial piece (the back wall) to set the size of the scene. Its actually to large. Adding the dumpster helped tighten up the scene by occupying a good chunk of what would have been dead space with an element that further established the location.
3) Set the Scene
I should be able to tell at a glance where the action is taking place. This is the foundation for your story without it the story may not be clear or even cause confustion. Setting the scene is usually not hard to do. In a modern setting it can be done with street signs and newspapers and the like. If it is supposed to convey a desert or an ice cave include the appropriate elements. Remember setting the scene can also may mean establishing a time of day or night as well. Is it morning, is it evening, did it just stop raining, is it cold, is it hot?
I think this does a good job of setting the scene. The light is glowing, the shadows are long (although the shadows were just being started at this point) that gives the feeling of darkness. The posters and the street sign (missing from this picture) set the place and the date. Unfortunately I managed to hide the key Jack the Ripper poster behind the soldiers. 

4) Select the Miniatures
I have seen a lot of dioramas were the creator has included way to many miniatures and end up with a crowded and chaotic scene. Now there are certainly times when you want to have a crowded scene but it needs to be a deliberate choice, not “I love these minis and want to use them together” choice. My suggestion usually is to include every miniature you want and then start removing miniatures until you remove one that ruins the story. Put that one back. Its back to the same concept of the setting the scene, if an element or mini doesn’t help the story then don’t include it.
This was my initial selection for "Shopping II". In this case I used the same female miniatures from "Shopping" and simply added the two black marketeers.

The initial figure selection for a diorama that didn't get done. I had considered adding another mini to this one but couldn't find another miniature that enhanced the story and the story is pretty solid.

5) Make a Mockup
It doesn't have to be anything more than unpainted scrap cardboard, but it will help you with the composition of the piece including what is enough, what is to much and what is not enough.
The original mockup for "Steady Lads". I wanted to be sure to include plenty of different heights to the scene to increase the dramatic tension I was looking for.

In this early version the interior of the building was going to be completely hollow with one soldier inside. In the next iteration my friend Michael (Clever Crow Minis) recommended that the building just be solid. In the final version I went with a hollow building and placed an "easter egg" in one of the windows. In this case a woman with a rolling pin looking outside at the commotion. She is there to be a point of interest if someone is looking closely and skirts that line of adding to the story. If a viewer notices her then she adds to the story, if they don't see her then it takes nothing away from the story, but it filled a space that I thought was particularly empty. Likewise there is a rat in the alley that very few people noticed. He adds to the setting if you see him but he's not required to set the scene either. In other words you should be prepared to break the rules.

Not bad but definitely needed some improvement, This may be the first time that I went to small on the first try.

Now in the 2D world composition is every bit as important and maybe even more so. I was reading James Gurney's blog and he refers back to one artist's evolution of a scene today which I found quite fascinating. I think is very useful to someone contemplating a diorama of any kind and helps establish that there is nothing wrong with changing things up.

So check this out and see how a 2D artist "mocks" things up and goes through different iterations before settling on the final version.


  1. This is a very well written article and the two dioramas featured are simply stunning. Thanks for sharing! The mock ups really show the thought that goes into the making of good diorama.

    1. Thanks, I'm glad you found it useful. I was re-reading it this morning and made a couple of edits, things I should have corrected before I pressed publish!