You Can Do It! Part 2: Rocks

If you look closely at the 2,600 boulders on our diorama of Little Round Top, you will see that they are not, in fact, rocks. How did Rebecca make them? How can you make your own?

Last year, we mewsed about toothpicks in the first installment of “You Can Do It,” our series on diorama-making tips for back-to-school kids (and parents—and anyone else who gets inspired, of course!). This Mewsing, we take a look at making rocks.

1. Use an air-drying clay that is easy to work with. While there are various kits and molds for making rock formations out of plaster, Rebecca prefers to use DAS, an air-drying clay. It is easy to work with and easy to get good results. No matter what brand you use, choose white clay, since you will paint it later to turn it gray. While DAS is firm, it is moist, so take note that your fingers will get a bit messy and you should work on a surface that can get messy too. Also, the clay is, of course, air-drying, so work with small chunks and keep the packaging closed up, so it doesn’t dry out before you finish using it!

2. Look at pictures. Rocks really aren’t hard to make. Pretty much any blob of clay will do. But if you want the rocks to look realistic, look at photos for ideas. This will help you see how rocks and boulders are shaped, or how rock formations pile up.

If you want to make a diorama of specific rocks, look at photos of the actual rocks. For “The Boys Are Still There,” Rebecca used hundreds of photos of the rocks on the battlefield, taken from different angles. Another useful resource is a satellite image of the area, such as from Google Maps, which will let you see what the formation or boulder looks like from the top, or how the rocks are spaced out on the ground.

Tip: if you are making rocks that will be on a slope or other unusual surface, make the rocks directly on your diorama base. For example, Rebecca had to mold the rocks over the edge of the cardboard box that she used for the base of Devil’s Den so that the rocks would fit correctly. On Little Round Top, she had to make the rocks onto the base so that they would fit into the curves and slopes of the topography.

3. Glue them down. Wherever you make your rocks, they won’t stick to that surface permanently. So, when they are fully dried, glue them in place on your diorama with white glue. If you plan to use ground cover like “Turf,” glue your rocks down first. This way your “grass” will go up to and around the bottom edge of the rock and make it look natural.

Tip: try not to get glue on the visible surface of the rock, or the paint won’t stick to it.

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4. Paint them. After the glue dries, mix a little bit of black acrylic paint with a lot of water and paint this “wash” over the rocks. Start light—you can always add more black paint or do multiple layers to get a darker gray on the rock. If the wash goes on too dark, brush water over the rock to thin it down and lighten the color. It will take some trial and error and practice to figure out what shade of gray you want your rock. When you’re finished, you’ll notice that the wash settles into the cracks of the clay and gives a realistic look—this is what “makes” a rock!

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Tip: If glue dried on the rock surface and your paint wash doesn’t stick there, you can scrape off the dried glue and try again.

Tip: real rocks might be very dark gray, but your rocks don’t need to be that dark. Trust your instinct; you’ll see what “feels” right and know when to stop darkening your rock.

5. Done! After the wash has dried, your rock is done! Add some turf around it, and don’t worry if some of the turf ends up on the rock. Real rocks have tree debris and lichens all over them. You can add tall grasses or little bushes around the bases of the rocks, too. After all, no one goes out to weed-whack around a boulder!

Making rocks is quite easy, but with a little extra attention, you can make very realistic rocks. As with anything, observation helps. If you look at real rocks, yours will look real. In fact, your teacher might not even realize you made them, they’ll look so good!