Scenic Diorama & Vignette Tutorial

A mossy old tree with a chipmunk and an orange frog upon it.

As I began to explore the hobby of miniature painting a few years ago, I particularly enjoyed the basing element of the process.  I had been instantly attracted to the amazing and diverse bases of many different artists.

That interest led me to spend a good deal of my hobby time creating purely scenic pieces.  I’ve done urban scenes as well, but here I’m making a wild little place as a gift for my mother.

I think these mini dioramas or vignettes work quite well if you hide a lot of tiny details for the viewer to find. They’re a very fun escape from conventional miniature painting. And of course, all one needs to make a ‘scene’ into a ‘base’ is a nice figure!  I hope you find this tutorial helpful or motivational.

Using Milliput, dirt, snd small stones, the base is built up inside a wooden frame.

Turn off the metal.  Pick some music either with an insistent rhythm (Krautrock works best) or go full hog and play the sound of a babbling brook.  Watch out for the Japanese flute: too much of the stuff will make you crazy!

I begin building by simply selecting a format for my design.  This time I tried a cheap wooden frame I picked up at Blick for a few dollars.  Because of the recessed space, I used Milliput to create a little ridge along a swale.  I buried a couple of rocks in there for interest.  I knew this would be a compositionally challenging design, because it’s basically symmetrical, but I wanted to try out some color & lighting ideas.  I try to apply the basic compositional principles you got in middle school without spoiling the realism of the scene.

That’s dirt over the top put down with wood glue thinned with water.  Hard as a rock after a couple of coats.

With a stick added to serve as a fallen log, the base is primed.

Next I added a downed log.  Here I’m actually reinforcing the symmetry on a structural level, but I’ll later break it up visually.  The finished result will be pretty rumpled, and other blocks of color & focal points will obscure the underlying simplicity of the scene.

Earthy tones establish the basecoat.

Just a first pass of colors on everything.  To make each element stand out distinctly and to create a vibrant look, I’ve used dramatically different shades of brown, and the shadows are basecoated in Vallejo Model Color Dark Sea Blue.  I’m going for a sort of hyper-realistic scene, but it’s easy to throttle down the color.  Or put the hammer down!

Washes and Inks, including a bright purple from Secret Weapon, establish shadows and enrich colors.

Here you can see the lighting effects emerge a bit.  Toward the bottom you have orange, crepuscular shades, while I’m laying down heavy, no joke purple washes on the shady side of the hummock.  I use Amethyst from Secret Weapon.  It’s so intense it’s almost an ink.

At this point I’ll probably call this an evening scene with the sun at about 7:00.  I use this orientation to plan where different kinds of plants & things will go.

I’ve begun adding lichens to the rocks.  I use mostly the amazing and versatile patina technical paint from Citadel, mixing it with VMC Ivory, breaking it with too much water, thinning it with blue & green inks.  This produces some really lively looking lichens, I think.  The last picture in the article shows the effect nicely.

The log is painted in a yellowy olive, which stands out from the purple glaze.

Here I painted the tree.  Again, because I’m going for a stylized look, the main color of the log is a funny yellow-green.  There will be so many washes and so much undergrowth that you have to be really heavy with the basic color scheme if you want it to translate to the finished product.

Woodland Scenics moss is glued around the scene.

Once everything’s painted, I lay down a few layers of Woodland Scenics moss flock.  In my opinion, flock & grass tufts are the best products to create a sense of verdant growth in a temperate climate.  Most other products just look a bit fake to me.  I do not think static grass looks good, no matter how it’s put on.  I have a some other ideas I’d like to explore, but for now I just do what I think looks best.

Here I’ve used three kinds of flock: a dark green, a light green, and a proprietary mix of several flocks that accumulates as I collect leftovers from one project to the next.  Don’t put it back in your bag/jar, but don’t throw it out!

I wanted to keep the look clean to differentiate the vegetation from the earth beneath it.  When I want a more realistic look I sometimes tint the glue I use to set the flock, wash the flock heavily after it’s applied, and other things to blend it into the scene more.

My favorite colors are orange, green, and purple, in that order.  I think they look great together and I use them… a lot.  If you watch the things I paint, you’ll see the evidence.  In my painting I use a great deal of color, but so does nature!

Now the scene includes bright red, purple, and pale blu flowers, dark purple and brownish mushroom and tufts of grass. A butterfly sits upon the log.

Now I’m happy with the overall setting, I’ll start working on the fine details.  As this is a gift for my mom, I’ve put a stripe of red (a color she likes as well as I like orange) along the margin of the bare earth and the moss.

Highlight the moss sparsely, but use bright colors.  I typically use fluorescent green & a pale yellow green.  Yes, fluorescent.  I have yet to find a green that I like as well for the purpose.  Plus when you put on the blacklight it looks cool.


In nature, stuff clumps.  One of the biggest mistakes you can make when trying to convey realism is to spread things around evenly.  That looks like an unkempt garden such as mine.

Whatever those little red guys are (I’m not imitating any specific flower), they only grow on the sunny side of the rise.  The yellow mushrooms prefer the shade and definitely feed upon the decaying tree.  The dark mushrooms (yeah, they’re really crazy looking) lead the eye to the wall, as the larger mushrooms along the edge suggest that the main patch lies beyond the scene.

Little tricks like this help the scene feel more like a tiny slice of an entire world, rather than a sort of podium done in a natural style.  Many incredible bases are designed to look like that, and I am no less a fan of those scenes than what I’m doing here, but the key to creating a sense of intimacy rather than exposure is to ‘attack the edges,’ so to speak.

I hope some of those ideas are helpful. I plan to write some other short tutorials on tiny things like flowers, logs, and mushrumps. Until then, good luck with your bases!


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