Creating a What If diorama – PRELUDE
I started out modelling in the late seventies, at about 10 years old, together with my dad. We would spend hours assembling and painting small scale-kits we bought at the local toyshop; mostly aeroplanes and ships. My first model was an Airfix Northrop “Freedom Fighter”painted bright metallic silver, with gloss black wheels. After that followed the Matchbox range of 1:76 armour that came complete with small display-bases.
When the magical day came to pass in which the toyshop showed a large 1:35-scale diorama showing Tamiya’s famous 88, that was it. I was hooked. I remember painstakingly trying to paint Panzergrenadier’s faces (while my Dad was absorbed by his motorized 1:15 Nichimo StuG). As the years passed, I discovered the works of Francois Verlinden and Sheperd Paine (who still influence me to this very day), and my room filled up with desperate attempts to emulate their style.
I have taken many short as well as longer breaks from modelling, but it has always been the hobby I kept picking up: the fascination always stayed – and there has been no period in my life I did not at least have a few boxes of packed “stash” in my basement or attic, waiting for the urge to strike again.
These days, firmly at it since just over a year (after a few international moves, and having the luxury of a proper bench and workroom) it is one of the most important aspects in my life.
I still focus on WWII AFV’s and dioramas in 1:35 scale, with the occasional foray into the more fantastic realms and eras, and a special fondness for groundwork, scenery and nature effects. My favourite modelling theme is the Eastern Front in WWII.
I am fascinated by the contrast between east and west, the clash of ideologies, the epic and brutal battles waged in the most diverse of locales and conditions, and the many varied landscapes and architecture of, both rural and urban, eastern Europe and Russia.
DEVELOPING THE CONCEPT
Most of my dio-ideas originate from three starting points.
- The models I want to use
- Their composition/interaction on a base
- The setting in time and place.
I write down notes, make rough sketches, and brainstorm away. Eventually the uncensored onslaught of images calms down/crystallises into a few concepts. I usually start building the required kits and the base in this phase and let things evolve organically from there. I don’t make a detailed plan and stick to it till the very end – I try to keep an open mind.
Spontaneity to me is a beautiful thing that often leads to surprising results – which I’m always after. I also like to try to add an extra element to my dios – a twist, if you will, that carries the piece beyond the purely ornamental.
In my humble opinion, there’s not much challenge in churning out another “tank-on-a-plank” or “attack-the-hell-out-of-things”-dio apart from honing one’s skills. Nothing wrong with that, but I. Want. More. Siege-warfare on fortified cities, like Brest, Sevastopol, and late-war Königsberg, and fortresses and castles in general, have always intrigued me.
I wanted to depict a scene featuring elements of old and weathered defence-works for some time. Photographs showed machine gun-troops amidst blocks of medieval stone, tanks abandoned at the feet of metres high (and -thick) walls dating from bygone ages. Such images struck me with the seemingly anachronistic contrast between medieval architecture and 20th century weaponry.
Associations aplenty, travelling both back into time, from the fortresses of Verdun, 1916, to siege warfare in the middle ages, and forward to post-apocalyptic defence-works and “Warhammer”-bunkers. The post-apoc thing left me wanting to incorporate a “What If” or “1946”-style vehicle: This currently very popular theme, centred on so-called paper Panzers (prototypes that were never physically realised) and fictitious battles, gives modellers a welcome chance to surpass historical correctness – and shamelessly indulge in a sci-fi-like approach to WWII-modelling.
Hover-tanks, endoskeleton-suits, flying saucers… you name it, it’s being done. All these thoughts were placed “on the backburner” until Jason approached me about writing an article for figurementors.com. His project, in which all possible fields and themes of miniature modelling cross over, I knew this was the perfect occasion to start building my fortress – a WWII-dio incorporating historical as well as futuristic/fantastic elements.
I had the old Verlinden “Castle Remains” in my stash: lovely, chunky ceramic kit. Arched window, doorways, rustic-style stone-pattern, nice and fat walls… and an amount of “rubble” segments that borders on the absurd. Well done, Francois (where are you now?)!
Originally intended to be used as the base of a tower, it just needed to be re-arranged a bit. Having decided to split the pieces up in two parts – foreground and backdrop, I set to work with my jigsaw. The adjoining walls were drilled and pegged with toothpicks, glued with PVA and left to dry overnight. The required fantastic touch was a good opportunity to use the VK4502-model – a paper Panzer – waiting patiently on my shelf for a fitting idea. With its bunker-like body and sleek Porsche turret (hey, I like contrasts – a lot) it would look great amidst those ceramic walls.
For appropriate figures I immediately thought of Soviet sappers in their characteristic body-armour (so reminiscent of WWI Sturmtruppen and medieval knights alike) “amoeba”-patterned camosuits. There are not many figures in these outfits available, so I jumped at Zvezda’s “Soviet Sappers Königsberg 1945”set. Sadly, the contents did not live up to the glorious box-art: the figures are overly simplified, and such little chunky monkeys that not even Hornet heads would save them.
Fortunately I stumbled across an old set of Warriors ““Russian Assault Troops, Berlin 1945” which comprises a brilliant pair of resin figures. Good faces, striking poses – excellent. They required next to no clean-up and no filler at all, and after gluing them together, I had the dio’s main elements ready to rumble.
I find the nicest dioramas are about storytelling. In this one, during the autumn of 1946, somewhere in eastern Germany, the VK has backed up into a defensive position. From among some old and overgrown fortress walls, it fires at approaching Soviet troops until it runs out of ammo. Hopelessly outmanoeuvred, the crew pulls a fast one. Hours later, the heat of the battle shifted elsewhere, Soviet sappers warily move in to investigate, possibly to secure the Panzer.
I pushed the assembled walls, VK and figures around on my bench, trying out the few compositions I had sketched up. Some worked, others did not. It became clear the base would benefit from having several levels, “sandwiching” the tank between the back- and foreground-walls.
Empty spaces suck, and overdoing things to claustrophobic levels always works well (in miniature). I also wanted the figures to be placed lower than the tank, to exploit their crouching poses.
I also decided to make it round for a compact overall look, to avoid dead corners, and offer (theoritically) visibility from all angles. The base itself is a nice fat disk of styrofoam from my favourite art supplies shop, 40 cm across and 7 cm thick. I’ve used these for dios before and really like them: the foam is light, cheap and easy to shape: it can be sawn, cut and even plucked to shape. It only has two drawbacks. Solvents (like white spirit, of which I use gallons during groundwork-painting) will eat it– so it must be sealed; I use a generous coat of undiluted PVA for this. The other one is that shaping it is one messy job: little white balls everywhere…keep your vacuumcleaner close.
After marking the various levels I started cutting and plucking, repeatedly placing the walls, Panzer and figures in place to check. The higher level at the back was a separate layer of styrofoam, cut to fit the base, glued on top. To prevent breaking/damaging the ceramic, I wanted to paint the walls as a fixed part of the base, so I glued them in place with more PVA. The whole base, walls and all, was given a quick coat of cheap black tube acrylics: I find this obliterating of that glaring whiteness helps me focus on the dio’s shapes and proportions better.
My standard groundwork-mix is a muddy gunk mixed from powdered papier-maché, black and brown acrylic paint, Shep Paine’s famous “generous dollop” of PVA and a few drops of detergent to break surface tension. This was spread around over the PVA-coated styro surface with a spatula, an old brush, and my fingers. Rubble, consisting of a few of Verlinden’s ceramic, kit-supplied, parts, some smashed-up plaster leftover castings, and a handful of crushed kittylitter, was added. I pushed this well into the gunk-mix, and kept it sparse – this being not a new, combat-generated ruin, but an old one; debris would be overgrown or buried in the earth, and not numerous (IRL, they form a popular source for free, nicely cut construction stone).
The whole terrain was then strewn with dirt from my garden. Nothing beats the real deal. Being a readily available mix of sand, earth pebbles and grit, it adds perfect texture to dio soil. The base was left to dry for a few days, then roughly painted (slathered, is a better word for it) with highly diluted enamels (Revell 87 “Dark Earth). This first coat is followed up by alternating layers of “oldskool” drybrushing with lighter shades of enamels, followed by brownish, greyish and blackish washes using both oils and AMMO-enamel-based washes, both heavily thinned – this is where those gallons of white spirit come into play.
In a similar fashion, the ceramic ruin-parts were painted, repeatedly washed and dry-brushed using many, progressively lighter colours. I don’t follow any rules or ratios: when it looks right, it is right. I speed up the drying process between layers with a hair-dryer. The final stage is touching up separate pebbles, shards and grains of sand with very light enamels (a little trick that makes all the difference).
DETAILING SCENERY AND FOLIAGE
Time for my favourite part: adding foliage! I use a mix of both natural and artificial products for this. The first category includes roots dug up from my garden, which can look great with a little help. Several gnarly ones were pressed into service around the background-walls. They were painted with greyish-green enamels, and some coated in my favourite algae-concoction, “Slimy Grime” by AMMO. I love this stuff.
Lichen and moss were made by painting on PVA and covering this with dried green tea-leaves and finely shredded foam sold as scatter material. Repeated washing and dry-brushing brought out the bark texture on the taller “trees”. This foam moss was also used extensively on the tall ruin’s walls and the “damnation corner” in the dio’s left foreground, to make them appear as old ruins, as opposed to recently damaged dwellings.
The stuff does the job, except for the colour – a glaring Kermit-the-frog-green. After the PVA used to glue it in place has properly dried, it is painted, or rather stained, with several very thin washes in deep browns and blacks. Together with the trees’ green tea-lichen, it is finally given a very superficial dry-brushing with bright yellow enamels.
I find grasses to be a bit of a problem: no matter what artificial product one uses, it always ends up looking… (drum-roll) artificial. The only product I like straight from the packet is Heki “Moorgrass”, which I found too succulent-and-fresh-looking for these autumnal ruins.
I used a few AMMO “autumn tufts” around the foreground ruins. Painting them lessened their likeness to carpet a little, but not much. I prefer the hairy, dried moss I found on some dead branches in a sunny part of my garden. Its tough, fine and longish fibres were a good colour, and I spent a happy hour gluing small patches to the groundwork, even planting some ripped-off tufts in pre-stabbed holes, like the old trick using unravelled hemp or sisal string (which I still find much too artificial). I haven’t got a clue exactly what this kind of moss is and my supply is running low – so I’m cherishing it like The Precious.
Apart from the moss, I wanted ivy on the walls. Lots of it. In past projects, I have used etched brass versions of this by Eduard, which looks far too rigid, as well as the fine-leafed rubbery one that comes in a dense mat by MiniNatur – which looks spectacular when used as creeping ivy, but notably less so when deployed as the hanging/climbing variant.
My favourite method is still the most time-consuming, but the most realistic, and fun to do once you get in the rhythm. The stems are made using bits of fine dried roots or rubberised horsehair (fantastic stuff, used as stuffing for furniture and dolls). This is glued in place with a few drops of PVA. The leaves themselves are the well-known (covers of ) silverbirch-catkins. You can gather these yourself straight from the tree in late summer, or order them online from scenery shops.
To stick them in place on the roots or horsehair, use tweezers to pick up a single “leaf”, dip it in PVA (I squeeze a bit in the jar-lids I use as disposable palettes), and position it where you want it. I’ve seen modellers use superglue and contact glue for this, but I prefer PVA because it’s gooey substance works well, its drying time allows for adjustment, and it dries completely transparent, it is ideal. Just don’t thin it for this job. I glue the leaves in a slightly adjoining, sometimes overlapping pattern.
After the glue has dried, they are painted with enamels. I use varying shades of green and add some yellow washes over some. Completing the groundwork, any bare spots on the terrain are given more pebbles, pieces of dried root and twigs, some more lose soil, all fixed in place with PVA. I also added some of the aforementioned rubbery ivy by MiniNatur, in small patches, around the feet of the walls.
The finishing touch were the laser-cut, paper “Detailed Leaves”, by my friend Lucas Gargoloff from LSG Laser Kits from Argentina. Unlike other commercially available miniature leaves, these actually feature the veins printed on them. Looking good after being glued in place one by one, they look downright spectacular after being touched up with orange and yellow enamel-washes. All that was left to do before mounting the Panzer, figures and accessories, was to cover the bare, blackened styro of the base’s edge.
For this I used a beautiful sheet of thin and supple corrugated cardboard I discovered at the art supplies store, cut to shape and glued in place with UHU Por – which does not attack the styro and dries very fast.
Of course the groundwork was not flush with the cardboard’s edge. I filled up the narrow gap all around it with small amounts of trusty groundsludge with an extra dollop of PVA and smoothed this with my fingers. The next day the corrugated sides were painted with un-thinned black acrylic, straight from the tube. The base was ready to be populated.
INTRODUCING THE VK4502
This is definitely one of the better armor-kits I’ve built. Breakdown of parts is well thought-out, with all parts sharply cast in surprisingly strong polystyrene. No flash, minimal mould seams. Assembly posed no problems and went fast – all the more because I skipped installing the provided full turret interior; I pilfered the parts for another project.
The kit comes with 20, solidly cast polystyrene 88 mm rounds, soft copper wire for the tow cables, a nice sheet of PE for the engine deck-grilles, and many sprues featuring the crisply moulded tracklinks to construct two lengths of link-by-link track. I didn’t bother with these, as I was hell-bent on using the set of workable white metal tracks by Master Models I had ordered especially for this Panzer.
It was my first time working with these, and I am genuinely impressed. Master Club’s track links are perfectly cast and require no clean-up whatsoever: no drilling, no filing – they are ready to use as they are. These guys truly give Friul a run for their money!
The only deviation in their construction was replacing the supplied resin trackpins with stainless steel dressmakers’ pins. I use this method on Friuls as well and find it works easier and faster and leads to stronger results than using wire. During painting, weathering and fitting them to the model, assembled workable tracks take a lot of handling. The steel pins assure they can take it.
After assembly, I patinated the tracks in AMMO burnishing liquid to a beautiful brownish grey, then rubbed them with a dish-washing sponge to lay bare the metal on the high spots. A quick wash with earth-coloured enamels, with mixed pigments strewn over while still wet, and they were mounted to the VK.
The only other additions I made to the Panzer were replacing some handles with brass wire, adding a turned aluminium RB Model 88-barrel with accompanying brass breech (this thing is so heavy, it pulls the turret up out of its ring), replacing the turret MG with a brass one by Voyager, and exchanging the kit’s tow shackles with a set of cast brass ones by Aber (which were surprisingly rough, with nasty casting lugs and half of the holes drilled off-center. Never had disappointing Aber gear, but apparently there’s a first time for everything).
The only scratch-building involved cutting off the original, short, exhaust pipes and substituting them for longer ones from plastic rod – a look I had seen on Dragon’s version of the VK. I also added a leftover Blitz stowage bin from the spares box, cut to fit the slanted armour plate, to the rear plate (the crew had to store their bread somewhere) and hung the obligatory “Scheisseimer” from the stowed jack. The entire vehicle was primed with Tamiya grey from a rattle-can and base-coated in enamels.
I decided to keep it in plain overall Panzergrau as not to disrupt its shape (after all, that is what camo does). I used the AMMO “wash for Panzer Grey” as a filter, deepening the colour to a warmer green-grey. Several pin washes with burnt umber and Paynes’ grey oils came next, to bring out detail.
Weathering began with minimal chipping (both with sponge and brush), a few rust spots here and there, then continued with my usual process of layered dust-coats, localised filters and pin-washes using various earth-, dirt- and dust-colours in enamels and oils. Among these were minute amounts of titanium white – pinhead-sized – as local “bleaching” filters to lighten up areas that had turned too dark during the whole process.
All colours were also used to make various trailing streaks. Dried mud on the running gear and lower hull was made with 3 different shades of pigments by AMMO (before fitting the tracks). I used their Fresh Engine Oil and Fuel Stains mixtures sparingly on the upper deck. Mud splashes were splattered on using thinned enamels, an old, stiff-haired brush and my thumb. The last touches were “metallising” edges and bare metal parts (tools, machine guns) with a 2B pencil, and adding a few strands of the hairy dried moss on and between the tracks.
POPULATING THE SCENE
As I said earlier, Warrior’s “Russian Assault Troops, Berlin 1945” is a good set. The two well- posed, -sculpted and – cast figures needed next to no clean-up. After removing the casting blocks from their feet and helmets with my jewellers’ saw, I just cleaned up the cuts with a needle file and super-glued the parts together. No filler was needed at all.
The only addition I made was equipping the “Faustnik” with the Panzerfaust with a spare PpsH-submachine-gun from an ICM-set (seemed only logical; the guy had the ammo-pouch cast on his belt), and added a sling cut from a piece of gift-wrap ribbon.
Pins were inserted in holes drilled in their feet, so I could place them around on the styro base during the planning phase – and later anchor them in the corks I use for as a safe grip while painting. I am an armour-modeller at heart and as such succumb to the sacrilegious habit of painting my figures the same way I paint my armour: quick ‘n dirty.
The figures were primed in Humbrol 93, a nice pale shade of tan I find perfect as an undercoat. Faces and hands were done with Vallejo’s flesh paint set, skipping the deepest shadow colour (which I find way too dark) and relying on Vallejo’s Game Colour Flesh Wash instead – wonderful stuff. The uniforms were painted in – surprise – enamels. I used Vallejo and AMMO acrylics for the amoeba-camo pattern and for detail-painting. Shading was done with several thin oil washes; highlighting with several gentle passes of enamel dry-brushing.
The body armour was painted in olive drab, shaded and highlighted as above, then burnished using a Q-tip to a slight, dark sheen. The edges were, like the VK’s, picked out with the 2B-pencil, as were the bolts (I could not resist). This simple but effective trick was also used to create the sheen on the metal parts of the guns. Faustnik’s Panzerfaust was painted using the exact same enamels, I used on the VK. After “dirtying” their boots, knees and elbows with some scruffily applied dark earth enamels (Panzer style), both figures were glued in place upon the dio.
I added minute amounts of dirt and white glue to merge their feet properly with the soil – nothing worse than “floating” figures. The VK was positioned next but not glued down, as I still wanted to add a few extras in the near future – antenna, AA MG, maybe replace that bucket with a brass one… I find it very hard to declare a model truly finished. The very last touches to the dio were the ones I enjoy the most: adding accessories here and there.
Most came from my trusty spares box (the cut down-sign with the skull and the abandoned ammo boxes are genuine 80’s Italeri and Tamiya). Everything was painted in you-know-what, washed and weathered using oils and pigments.
A special mention goes to the solid, turned brass shell-cases by Voyager. They come with separate, stamped bottom plates and were so heavy, smooth and shiny, it almost seemed a waste patinating them in AMMO burnishing liquid for PE. Almost.
To say I enjoyed making this dio would be a brutal understatement. From planning to finishing (including writing this article), it was an adventure by itself. I cannot thank Jason enough for fuelLing the spark of an idea that has been smouldering in my mind for quite some time, and giving me absolute freedom in following it. Here’s to inspiration – a word both he and I like, and use, a lot. May we all continue to find it – or vice versa. Happy modelling!
Enjoy the full gallery below!