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Groundwork & Composition in Scale Modeling

by Lars E. Liljeblad

One of the most important steps in modeling is planning. Start with an idea, how do you want your finished model displayed. Do you want to keep its foundation as simple as possible or do want to tell a story? Try to decide at the beginning of the project what the main feature of the scene is that you want to show off. It will have an effect on your approach throughout the project. Having a goal and sticking with a plan from the beginning is essential. And although you have a vision from the start, as the scene for your finished model starts to progress and take life, you may want to adjust things a little as you go, sometimes there needs to be a little repositioning of a vehicle, or some more figures added or taken out or some equipment added etc. The same goes for the surrounding vegetation, grass, bushes, and trees.

Some helpful materials to get started are:

Planning & Ideas

When you start planning your scene, remember there is no one way of doing things in modeling, anything goes really, experiment and develop your eye for what looks good. If you find a photo of the subject your modeling that catches your eye, use some ideas from it but try to avoid literally copying it. This may reduce your ideas and flexibility, stay open minded and move the model and elements around until you get a nice balanced look. You want to be able to convey your vision to an audience. Fiddle around with your model and pieces for a few days until your happy with everything, make sure things are balanced. Get inspired, and excited! The project will flow with enthusiasm.


The key to an effective scene is composition. This step is definitely worth spending some time with; don't settle for good enough, remember the audience that needs to interpret your story. After spending countless hours perfecting your model, you want the base & scene to compliment your hard work. Just as a piece of fine art should not be set in a cheap frame, the same goes for your model; after all, the display base is your 3-D "frame."

Composition is designing a scene to guide the viewer's eye over the scene and allowing all elements to be visible. With vehicles, if a square or rectangular base is what you're using, never line it up parallel with the edge, you should create the illusion of spontaneity, as if the base extends beyond what you see. If you plan to add some figures to your vehicle, or, around your vehicle, spend some extra time and make sure the figure / figures are integrated in the story, some simple repositioning of heads and arms will make the composition much more effective. A figure adds a lot to your vignette, it not only gives the scene a sense of scale, but adds realism, and doesn't compete with the model for attention.

Another important thing to remember is to keep the scene a bit on the smaller side, in other words, don't leave to much excess dead space in your scene. Check out alternatives, sometimes an oval base looks better than a square or rectangle, or perhaps a turned circular base for a mounted figure, or smaller vehicle like a jeep, or a 2-3 figure vignette. The shape is really a personal choice, and is quite subjective, in the end it's whatever looks the most pleasing to the eye.

Artistic license is something that should always be part of your approach, to get a point across. Just because the real life item your modeling looks a certain way, doesn't mean you have to literally copy it. Often, something in full scale doesn't really translate into miniature. This is when artistic license is often needed to "suggest" something in miniature form, even though it's not like that in full 1/1 scale. Suggesting a feeling or look is more creative, that being literal, try to keep open minded.

Base & Groundwork

Now that your model is finished, and you have a plan, its time to put it aside and decide on a wood base, and the size you want. Find something around 1" thick to avoid warping after applying the groundwork material. Start with a piece of wood larger than what you have planned. Take your model, whether it's a tank, aircraft, mounted figure, car or whatever it may be, and place it on the wood where you want it. Now start adding the elements around the model such as figures, trees, plants or bushes, or maybe a fence or building. Once you have a nice "balanced" look to the scene, and you're happy with everything, mark the wood with a straight edge in pencil and cut the excess off.

The next step will be to start adding the groundwork material. Tape off the wood areas that you want protected, during the groundwork application. Now it's time to apply the Apoxy Sculpt or Celluclay to the base. Use a spatula, or your bare hands, and apply over the entire surface about Œ" thick. With the surface covered, take a medium sized rock with lots of shape and form and gently press it all over the wet surface to create a natural looking terrain. After this, sprinkle baking soda over the still wet surface to create some more texture. (It's important to note that you should keep working steady while the surface is still wet.) Now, moving right along, take your stones, rocks, trees and anything else intended in the scene and press into the groundwork putty. After everything is in place, take your model let's say it's a tank, and press it gently into the wet groundwork. Once you have a realistic look that conveys a natural looking weight where the vehicle has settled in the ground, take the model and press track marks into the ground leading up to its resting place.

Finalize your scene

Set your model and figures aside temporarily, now that everything is almost finished with your base. It's now time to start painting everything, including the vegetation elements. Sometimes it might seem ok to leave the roots from outside or the dried flowers from the craft store unpainted, however, the problem is since all the other elements in your scene are painted, it won't really blend with everything, making it unrealistic and looking odd. Paint everything, with the same care that went into your model. On a final note, you'll find your efforts very rewarding after all is done, and your model will be in a unique setting with a sense of scale. The more you do, the easier it gets, and you will develop an eye for what "looks right".

About the Author

Lars Liljeblad is a full time modeler who works exclusively for private collectors. His work can be seen on a variety of websites including his own http://larslil.com/ as well as www.scahms.org. His writing credits include work for Fine Scale Modeler and Sci-Fi & Fantasy Modeler.

Lars is currently president of the Southern California area Historical Miniature Society. Striving for excellence in modeling, the club holds a yearly international model competition exhibition which attracts modelers and collectors from around the world.

Lars is a former automotive metal fabricator and his other interests include collecting movie and television memorabilia, as well as history, science fiction, movies and music.

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