Review – Sheperd Paine’s “How to Build Dioramas”

My adoring fans often ask me, “What inspires you to build dioramas?” and “Did you remember to turn off the hot wire foam cutter?”.  Well, I always forget to turn off the hot wire foam cutter so let’s discuss what, or rather who, inspires me to build.  Specifically, I get a lot of inspiration from Sheperd Paine.  He was a key figure in the model building industry until his death of a stroke in 2015. 

Along the way, he was a U.S. Army veteran, military historian, and freelance artist.  His work made the pages of Sports Illustrated and Fortune magazines, as well as numerous modeling and hobby publications.  His shadowboxes were some of his most popular work.  Shadowboxes are dioramas meant to be viewed from one perspective and sometimes included features like light and smoke. 

I first heard of Sheperd “Shep” Paine in a forum discussing how-to tips for dioramas.  His book How to Build Dioramas was recommended as a good way to get started.  In an era of video tutorials, image filled websites, and (oh sweet irony) blogs, I was skeptical about the need to purchase a book about the topic.  Eventually, I took the chance and picked it up. 

It has been a worthwhile investment and despite my multiple readings still manages to teach me something new.  Lack of reading comprehension aside, it stays fresh to me because each tip is worthy of mastery in and of itself.  I’ve picked out a handful of tips that apply to dioramas regardless of topic or scale.

Tell a Story

An expertly crafted model tells you a lot about the modeler.  An expertly crafted model in the context of its environment tells you a lot about the model.  That is often the more interesting story.  Paine notes that a diorama is, “not just a model of an object or group of objects, but of an event” (Paine, 1980). 

He notes that an interesting diorama doesn’t need to be an action scene.  A well-crafted diorama that shows seemingly mundane events can be as appealing. 

The story you are telling will help you determine how you craft the diorama.  According to Paine, there should only be one center of attention in the diorama with everything else in support of that.  Is the focal point a figure, vehicle, or battle?  Maybe the environment is the focus.  A destroyed apartment building may be the central figure in your scene.  These elements can be crafted as the main characters in your story. 

Convey Your Idea

Paine points out that you are building the diorama for an audience.  As such, the ideas you are communicating need to be effectively transferred.  Without the ability to narrate your diorama at every viewing, action must be conveyed. 

A pilot sitting in a model airplane could mean any number of things, takeoff, landing, airstrip alert, etc.  Adding a grounds crew figure pushing a staircase away from the airplane might imply the pilot is getting ready to takeoff, while pushing it towards the craft would imply the pilot getting ready to leave the plane.  Regardless, by adding an action element to the scene you have more effectively conveyed an idea.

Another way to convey an idea is by placing the model in an environment in which it is doing what it was meant to do.  A bulldozer plowing up dirt is such an example.  A bomber with its payload dropping out from under it is another way to tell the viewer what this model is and what it does.

Artistic Balance Vs. Symmetry

Every diorama will have a left side, right side, and a center.  Each of these areas should contain something for the viewer to look at.  Effectively filling these areas provides balance and is generally more appealing to look at.  Paine suggests looking at your diorama like it is a teeter-totter.  Do all the visual stimuli happen on one side?  If so, the diorama isn’t balanced. 

Don’t confuse symmetry with balance.  Symmetry evenly distributes the visual stimuli across the diorama.  Paine finds this less interesting to view.  It may be difficult to maintain a dynamic scene with a symmetrical layout.  Keeping your main character the focus, balance the empty space around it with supporting images.

A model or figure aren’t the only stimuli you can add.  A grassy slope or rocky outcropping can add balance to part of the model.  Rubble, ammo cans, etc. are all possibilities. 


What I’ve written about today covers parts of the first chapters of the book.  The rest of the book gets into the hands-on aspects of materials and of building various features.  It is a great resource for increasing your skill set. 

I found it infinitely useful to see diorama design through his eyes.  There are so many ways to set yourself up for success before you even begin to start snipping parts off the sprue.  I recommend this book for experts and beginners alike. 

Works Cited

Paine, S. (1980). How to Build Dioramas. Waukesha: Kalmback Books.

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