Ray Anderson on Successful Dioramas

From his book The Art of the Diorama (Kalmbach, 1986) via the Internet Craftsmanship Museum

Dioramas are a form of the model maker’s art that preserves not just an object but an entire scene or moment in time. They may be populated with dinosaurs, people, armies or historical figures. Building an effective diorama is something that Ray Anderson has put a lot of time and thought into. He has built over 100 of them and a book has been published that illustrates the techniques he uses. In order to represent large expanses in a limited area, certain tricks of perspective, color and lighting are used to give the viewer the impression the modeler is trying to achieve. Many of his dioramas are now in museums, and others are owned by private collectors. One of his favorite subjects is documenting scenes from the past in the American West.

Creating an effective diorama required solving many problems. Lighting could be controlled using small, long-life cool fluorescent lights. Easy access to the scene could be achieved with magnetic latches on the case front. For background, a lot of experimentation went in painting techniques. With the use of color and perspective he was able to achieve amazing results, such as simulating a 2000 food deep canyon in a space only 1-1/2 inches deep. He also developed techniques using clear resin to simulate water in every form from quiet pools to raging waterfalls. He now had the tools and materials he needed to model any scene. He could even show the passage of time by making two dioramas of the same scene with 100 years separating the action. His works often include an element of humor as well, which tends to get the viewer involved in the scene on a more personal level.

In addition to his favorite subject, the American West, Ray has depicted scenes of historical significance, fantasy scenes with dragons and other creatures and even a spaceman stranded on a small planet trying to fix his spacecraft so he can get home. Almost any subject can become the basis for a well-told story taking place inside a small enclosure.

In his book, Ray offers some advice to diorama builders in saying, “Always—that’s ALWAYS—make sure that each diorama you set out to build has a story to tell!” Taking his own advice for his hundredth diorama Ray wanted something really special. What he decided on was to model the high alter of the 17th century Benedictine Abbey in Weltenberg, Germany. After that he says he kind of lost interest in dioramas, because he could not find a subject to top that one in difficulty.

What makes a successful diorama?

In his book, Ray cites ten important elements that make for a good diorama subject. After building many such pieces, he notes that the following things will help any diorama:

  1. Tell a simple story. You can hold the viewer’s attention for a minute or two at most, so the clues to your story must be simple and obvious, although the conclusion may be left to the viewer’s imagination. Often real incidents are used as the basis for the scene, as it is hard to come up with stories that are more compelling than some that have already occurred.
  2. The piece should be as small as possible to create a personal, intimate feeling. The figures should be “small jewels,” not “statues.”
  3. The scene should surround the viewer, making him feel part of the action instead of remote from it.
  4. Ornate building interiors are generally more effective than outdoor settings.
  5. There should be many minute, eye-catching details. He calls them “Campbell soup cans,” like the one he included in the foreground of a scene of an old, abandoned house. It added a spot of color on the ground and is something that everyone recognizes.
  6. Lighting should be indirect, often coming from the side to provide high shadow relief.
  7. Most scenes can be effective without dramatic action. When dramatic action is required it should never include violence. Those can take place “off stage” in the viewer’s imaginations.
  8. Elaborate costumes are a great attention-getters and crowd-pleasers. This makes scenes from the twelfth to the eighteenth century highly suitable subjects.
  9. The proper balance of construction time is approximately 50 percent for the scene and background and 20 to 30 percent each for the figures and the outer case.
  10. The overall effect of the diorama and the outer case should be that they were created during the period depicted.

Ray notes that like any long list of rules, these aren’t meant to apply all at the same time to the same diorama. Instead, understanding the reasoning behind each is the key to coming up with interesting scenes. He also feels an element of humor should also be included in each scene if possible. Ray says, “While many viewers are turned off by serious or unpleasant subjects, humor has universal appeal. Humor also helps break down the fourth ‘wall’ by providing the viewer with something he can easily relate to.”