The Internet Craftsmanship Museum Presents:

Ray Anderson

Added to museum: 10/6/10

Museum quality dioramas freeze a moment in time in 3 dimensions

Ray Anderson at work painting figures for a detailed scene from the American West. (Click on photo to view a larger image.)


Dioramas are a form of the model maker’s art that preserves not just an object but an entire scene or moment in time. They may be populated with dinosaurs, people, armies or historical figures. Building an effective diorama is something that Ray Anderson has put a lot of time and thought into. He has built over 100 of them and a book has been published that illustrates the techniques he uses. In order to represent large expanses in a limited area, certain tricks of perspective, color and lighting are used to give the viewer the impression the modeler is trying to achieve. Many of his dioramas are now in museums, and others are owned by private collectors. One of his favorite subjects is documenting scenes from the past in the American West.

From engineering to model making

Ray received a degree in mechanical engineering and worked for 30 years in management positions in the automotive and aerospace industries. Since 1972 has worked full time on his miniatures, with a specialty in boxed dioramas. His work firsts won a Best of Show award in 1968 and he has won many other awards since in both England and the USA. He was the second person to be made a Grand Master of the Miniature Figure Collectors of America. His book, The Art of the Diorama, was published in 1988 by Kalmbach Books and remains an outstanding reference source for the miniature figure maker and diorama modeler. The material for the book was drawn from articles that appeared in Fine Scale Modeler magazine.

This is the cover of Ray's book on making dioramas. It was published by Kalmbach Publishing. Though no longer in print, used copies can still be found on We have one in the Craftsmanship Museum library. (Click on photo to view a larger image.)

An interest in building things started early

One of Ray's first projects was this Fisher Body coach built for a contest put on by General Motors. (Click on photo to view larger image.)

Mr. Anderson recalls that even as a child he always had a workshop and loved to build things. As a teenager he entered the Fisher Body coach contest that used to be sponsored by General Motors. They supplied the plans for the vintage coach that was the symbol of the “Bodies by Fisher” used in early GM cars. The coaches were quite ornate, and Ray completed a beautiful model from the plans. Unfortunately it took quite a while to build, and by the time he was done the contest had been discontinued. Years later he worked on full-size cars including the restoration of a 1925 Grand Prix Bugatti. From there his interest moved to live steam and he completed live steam locomotive from a set of plans and castings from Little Engines in Lomita, California.

The restoration of a full-size Bugatti race car was one of Ray's projects. He moved from there to an interest in live steam locomotives, building this 4-4-0 from a casting set. (Click on either photo to view a larger version.)

A start in modeling figures leads to dioramas

While in New York one time, he saw some beautiful 54 mm lead Napoleonic soldiers. It inspired him to want to make something like that. However, most of the lead figures he saw were crude with their clothing made from lead tooth paste or paint tubes. At this point he discovered the very detailed plastic Napoleonic kits by Historex. These figures could be modified by adding dissolved plastic with a brush, and clothing could be made with plastic coated Kleenex. Hair, fur and other textures could be created using the hot tip of a soldering iron. The surroundings could be created with Durham wood flour putty. Being able to create both the detailed figures he wanted along with an appropriate surrounding for them led to boxed dioramas.

Creating an effective diorama required solving many problems. Lighting could be controlled using small, long-life cool fluorescent lights. Easy access to the scene could be achieved with magnetic latches on the case front. For background, a lot of experimentation went in painting techniques. With the use of color and perspective he was able to achieve amazing results, such as simulating a 2000 food deep canyon in a space only 1-1/2 inches deep. He also developed techniques using clear resin to simulate water in every form from quiet pools to raging waterfalls. He now had the tools and materials he needed to model any scene. He could even show the passage of time by making two dioramas of the same scene with 100 years separating the action. His works often include an element of humor as well, which tends to get the viewer involved in the scene on a more personal level.

In addition to his favorite subject, the American West, Ray has depicted scenes of historical significance, fantasy scenes with dragons and other creatures and even a spaceman stranded on a small planet trying to fix his spacecraft so he can get home. Almost any subject can become the basis for a well-told story taking place inside a small enclosure.

Ray's hand with a paint brush provides some scale for this scene. Converted from Historex 54 mm military figures, enlarged to about 60 mm tall. Ray made the clothing from Kleenex coated with dissolved plastic. Many of the ornate , repetitive details were cast in epoxy using RTV molds. Most of the patterns are made from styrene. Small neon light bulbs are hidden behind the front wall to light the scene from behind. (Click on photo to view a larger image.)

In his book, Ray offers some advice to diorama builders in saying, “Always—that’s ALWAYS—make sure that each diorama you set out to build has a story to tell!” Taking his own advice for his hundredth diorama Ray wanted something really special. What he decided on was to model the high alter of the 17th century Benedictine Abbey in Weltenberg, Germany. After that he says he kind of lost interest in dioramas, because he could not find a subject to top that one in difficulty.

What makes a successful diorama?

In his book, Ray cites ten important elements that make for a good diorama subject. After building many such pieces, he notes that the following things will help any diorama:

1. Tell a simple story. You can hold the viewer's attention for a minute or two at most, so the clues to your story must be simple and obvious, although the conclusion may be left to the viewer's imagination. Often real incidents are used as the basis for the scene, as it is hard to come up with stories that are more compelling than some that have already occurred.

2. The piece should be as small as possible to create a personal, intimate feeling. The figures should be "small jewels," not "statues."

3. The scene should surround the viewer, making him feel part of the action instead of remote from it.

4. Ornate building interiors are generally more effective than outdoor settings.

5. There should be many minute, eye-catching details. He calls them "Campbell soup cans," like the one he included in the foreground of a scene of an old, abandoned house. It added a spot of color on the ground and is something that everyone recognizes.

6. Lighting should be indirect, often coming from the side to provide high shadow relief.

7. Most scenes can be effective without dramatic action. When dramatic action is required it should never include violence. Those can take place "off stage" in the viewer's imaginations.

8. Elaborate costumes are a great attention getters and corwd pleasers. This makes scenes from the twelfth to the eighteenth century highly suitable subjects.

9. The proper balance of construction time is approximately 50 percent for the scene and background and 20 to 30 percent each for the figures and the outer case.

10. The overall effect of the diorama and the outer case should be that they were created during the period depicted.

Ray notes that like any long list of rules, these aren't meant to apply all at the same time to the same diorama. Instead, understanding the reasoning behind each is the key to coming up with interesting scenes. He also feels an element of humor should also be included in each scene if possible. Ray says, "While many viewers are turned off by serious or unpleasant subjects, humor has universal appeal. Humor also helps break down the "fourth wall" by providing the viewer with something he can easily relate to."

From the real world to the virtual world

At this point he turned from physical models to computer graphic animation. He notes, “It is interesting that at 91 I have turned back to the diorama concept, but this time I have placed a 3D model of myself back 150,000 years to visit with the Neanderthal. I have also reduced my size to 10 billionth of a meter to take you on a tour of the human cell.”

Obviously, Ray likes a challenge. You can see some of his computer work on by searching for “Our Other World: The Cell”. The first of several segments can be seen at

In the dedication to his book Ray sums up his experience in having to come up with ways to solve many unique problems in model making posed by his complicated boxed diorama models in an era before the instant communication and cooperation now afforded by the Internet. He says

“This book is dedicated to all my fellow box builders who have had to develop the many diversified skills required on their own—the hard way. Like me, most have spent countless lonely hours at their workbench, agonizing over a problem and wondering whether there might be someone to help. In the early days of boxed dioramas kindred souls were few and far between, and even protracted pondering over a problem eventually yielded the same old conclusion: ‘Solve it yourself!’”


Here are some examples of Ray Anderson's work:

(Click photos for larger images.)

Entitled "The day Jeb finally hit paydirt," this diorama is based on a true story. As they dig the grave to bury old prospector Jeb, they discover gold. Note that the preacher's hat is full of gold nuggets and the grave digger is shoveling gold into the widow's apron while a friend in the lower right fills his boot. Details to set the scene include the widow's bonnet set on another grave marker and the pack mule loaded with gear. Incorporating an element of humor lends a universal appeal to a scene.

"A problem on the Powder River" displays dramatic action. As a canoe carrying explorers is launched over a waterfall, figures and their traps go flying. The rear figure tries to save himself by throwing a rope over a tree stump, but will it work? Ray's book shows how he use builds such a scene and how he creates the look of water, both still and in motion like this waterfall.

This boxed scene entitled "Il Gigante" portrays the sculpting of Michelangeleo's colossal "David" in 60 mm scale. Although "David" is 14 feet tall, the tiny diorama fits in a box only 1 foot wide and deep. David's book provides extensive detail as to how he creates the many figures he uses in his dioramas. Most start out as plastic soldiers, which he cuts, trims and repositions before adding his own details like clothing and hair. The final step, shown here, is painting. Another trick to make a small space seem larger to the viewer is to "force" the perspective by having the side walls angle inward and taper slightly to fool they eye.
One of Ray's favorite subjects is the American west from the 1800's. This diorama entitled "Perry Creek, Fourth of July" depicts a parade, but to make things interesting it is viewed from inside a blacksmith's shop as the parade passes by. The first photo shows how the scene is constructed with the use of many interesting angles, and the second photo shows what the viewer sees. Though much of the foreground is shrouded in shadow, the actual scene takes place in bright sunlight outside. Ray notes that his use of color includes many transparent layers. Even the sooty interior of the blacksmith's shop is built up using brown and blue, not dead black. A lot of research also goes into getting the costumes and details right.
  This western scene entitled "Thin Ice!" displays a full range of water-making techniques. The froth, splashes and ice flows are a combination of shaped acrylic and filled-polyester putty. His book goes into detail on how to achieve these techniques. The scene itself is full of detail in the clothing and animals, and the modified and sculpted figures display a lot of action as they tumble from their horses as they break through the ice. You can even see the showshoe tracks in the snow where the trapper they are following has walked in front of them without going through the ice.
This scene of an Indian in a birch bark canoe depicts a calmer water condition using multilayer colored polyester resin. Lily pads float on the water surface and a big catfish swims lazily to the right of the canoe. The canoe paddle extends down into the water.
An example of a more ornate outer case is a Venice canal scene entitled "Venezia." The frame was covered with genuine 23-carat gold leaf and then abraded, allowing the red undercoating to show through to establish an authentically old look.
This box, "Male Shooting Chant, Navajo," includes a complex, double-molding front frame with Indian paintings in the matted area. Ray finishes each box so that it may be displayed comfortably even in rooms with formal furnishings.
"The Coming of the Killer Whale People" includes a misty background painting to give the scene even more depth. The puddle in the center is styrene, installed before pouring the groundwork. The converted Historex figures are about 60 mm tall, making the scale approximately 1/25.
This historical scene shows John of Gaunt (father of King Henry IV of England) in 1359. The significance of the subjects from history isn't often apparent to the viewers, and the author learned over time that certain elements are needed beyond simple historical accuracy to make a scene appealing to the audience.

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