Where To Start?

One of the most rewarding aspects of running our museum is when we hear how a child has been inspired to make dioramas after seeing ours. But sometimes this inspiration can be scary—for the parent! Make a diorama? Where do we start? What do we use? I’m not craftsy! Don’t panic—keep calm and read today’s Mewsing!

Making your first diorama is really as simple as you want to make it. In my opinion, there are two rules to making dioramas:

  1. If you like it, it’s perfect. When it comes to your diorama, the only opinion that matters is yours.
  2. If you feel yourself going crazy, back off on the detail.

With these two rules in mind, let’s venture into some concrete tips for making your first diorama. This is not an exhaustive list, but it should help to calm fears and inspire confidence by giving you ideas to start the creative juices going.

  • Use a box for a base. Actually, a box isn’t necessary—our original version of “First Bull Run” had our cats and trees set up on a shelf. However, if you want a base, there’s nothing easier than a box. It’s sturdy, you can glue materials onto it, and you can poke holes in it for toothpick fence posts or if you need to wire something down. On our modified “First Bull Run,” we wired down the trees and cats.

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  • Use colored paper. Whether you have colored paper or use paint, marker, or colored pencil, paper is the easiest ground cover ever. Green paper for grass, brown paper for dirt, blue paper for water, and done!
  • Use anything you have lying around. If you want to do a Civil War scene, it’s okay if you don’t have Union and Confederate soldiers, horses, and cannons. You can use any toys you have. Star Wars figures? Designate one as Gen. Lee or Col. Chamberlain. No horses? Use toy zebras or dogs or giraffes. A diorama tells a story, and it can still tell the story of, say, Chamberlain’s bayonet charge down Little Round Top, even if the colonel looks like Luke Skywalker and his troops are marshmallow Peeps. After all, our soldiers all have tails!
  • 2021-10-09 20211008_200452Keep your eyes open. Look for things you can use on your diorama. Do you have a yard? Find twigs or sticks for trees or logs. Is there gravel on your driveway? Pick up some stones for rocks on your scene. We have even used dried snippets of mums for saplings on Devil’s Den and the Angle.
  • Draw a backdrop instead of making a big scene. Many of our early dioramas had backdrops. The Confederate Camp had a night sky made of black construction paper with glitter for stars. The little scene of Gen. Robert E. Rodes getting shot has a simple backdrop of a galloping artillery team, hinting at what was happening around him without our needing to make a team of horses. Sometimes, we drew more complicated backdrops. “The Burning of Darien” involves several houses engulfed in flames. The backdrop of “Burnside’s Bridge” continues the bridge across the creek and shows the far bank.

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  • Use cardboard. Cardboard is a wonderful thing. Do you want a house or barn on your diorama? You don’t have to buy a plastic one. Just get a piece of cardboard (a cereal box is great) and draw the front of your house on it. Cut it out. Draw a side. Cut it out. Keep going until you have all four sides, then tape them together. A couple of rectangles for the sides of the roof, and you have a house! Later on, you can get more complicated, but don’t worry about that now. (Someday, we’ll Mews about how we made the Leister house for our diorama of Gen. Meade’s headquarters.) We also used cardboard to make the walls of the room where Gen. Lee surrendered to Gen. Grant, folding it to the right size and shape, and drawing the windows, curtains, and other features on it.
  • Copy a picture. If you’re having trouble envisioning what you want to do, find a picture and then arrange your figures to match it. A couple of our old dioramas are based off of paintings by one of our favorite Civil War artists. When we were kids, we learned how to draw animals by copying pictures in books. It’s a good way to learn as you start out, and then as you improve, you will venture out on your own and let your imagination take over.

Making a diorama is not as hard as it sounds, so long as you do not try to do too much. Start small. In 1995, Rebecca made two clay cats as toys. We never imagined those cats would explode into a 26-year-long hobby and a museum of thousands of cat-soldiers teaching history!

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