Rice paddy diorama

Completed in June 2011.
Primarily paper and clay.
1/35th scale.

It's been a while since I did a "water diorama" and I think I'm going to try another one here. Normally ships go in water, but I had so much fun building (part of) an airplane a couple projects ago that I think I want to combine planes and water this time. So, I need a time and a place to start. Let's do something from China, say 1937. I'm going to model a crashed Chinese fighter plane in a rice paddy.

The Sino-Japanese War started in 1937 and didn't end until Hiroshima. During this time the Chinese military fielded a wide variety of airplanes against the Japanese invaders. A large number were shot down over China, many surely falling into nameless rice paddies and pretty much forgotten about. And surely local villagers would come across these wrecks at some point, that's what I'm going for here.

My scale will be 1/40, just a tick under my usual 1/35 so that I can squeeze my air plane down to a size that will fit nicely in my frame. I would love to make it bigger, maybe 1/18, but that would be way too large for both my workspace (kitchen table and stovetop) and really way too large to mail to anyone who wants it. As this plane was shot down and has crashed here, I don't mind ripping off the wings nearly at the roots and the rear end off before the tailplane, so I can keep it under five inches long and a couple wide. The idea is that this fragment of the plane will be laying half-submerged in a rice paddy about a foot deep, so that all that shows above water is the top part of the fuselage.

First up the frame. I'm going to use a plain 5x7 photo frame as the base, one with an inset center section so that I have some raised sides for "depth". My goal is about a foot of standing water, which in 1/40 scale would be around a third of an inch.

As the plane will be "sunk in the mud" so to speak, I really need to make the plane first then "build the groundwork around it". What I'm building is a Russian-built Polikarpov I-16 Type 10 monoplane fighter, a simple but rugged design that proved to be a capable airplane in trained hands. The plane's fuselage has seven circular bulkheads, which I've measured from plans and cut out of stiff cardboard. On the bottom, I've flattened it out (it'll be underwater anyway) and laid a solid piece of thick foam board to act as a base. Along the sides and top I connected the bulkheads with thin strips of cardstock. This is the "skeleton" of the fuselage. I made a cowling out of clay as it was an odd rounded shape. Then I "plated" it with cardstock, keeping the joints where they should be. I then roughed it up a lot, ripped some holes in the sides and top, and frayed out the torn edges at the back and along the wing roots. The idea is that this plane was shot up by some Japanese fighter and the pilot made a barely-controlled crash landing here in this rice field. The landing was hard enough to rip off the wings as they dug into the mud and the back end of the fuselage, already weakened by battle damage, tore right off. The "heavy" part of the plane, the engine and cockpit area, remained intact and slid to a stop eventually against a mud bank. I didn't take a lot of "in progress" photos, but here are a couple I did take...

Since I want the engine compartment half-open, I have to model enough of the engine that it looks legit. The base form is clay, with a lot of bits of paper and wood to make up the various exhaust pipes and support frames and whatnot. The cockpit is also open, the I-16 in Chinese service had an "open cockpit" design anyway, with just a small glass shield in front. This was a throwback to the WWI designs, though most old school pilots preferred the openness in combat, which mostly took place at low levels anyway. Made the instrument panels, side bars, and set out of clay, wood and paper. The windscreen is paper with some clear plastic cut to look broken.

Ok, time to paint. I started by covering the entire plane with a "bare metal" color, Metallic Gunmetal Gray, as I plan on weathering it so that the bare metal shows through in spots. Engine details were painted in black with pale white carburetors and reddish pipes. The next coat is the Dark Olive Green favored by the Chinese Nationalist Air Force in that time. I purposely made it faded and scuffed in parts, I want this plane to have been baking in the sun for a while, as well as being rained on and occasionally swamped.

On to the base. I want to have a muddy path cutting diagonally across the frame, you see those in rice paddies, separating the fields. So I first painted the base a dirty brown color. Then I used some clear acrylic molding gel I got at Hobby Lobby with an old gift card, tinted it brown, mixed in some grainy sugar and some cut up corn stalks from my broom, and made a pathway. As it was drying I nudged the plane up into the mud. I'll add the propeller later once I figure out how this is going to work (or not).

I then added a second layer of the same sort of mixture, this time with a handful of fine-grain gravel from the driveway and a more greenish paint tint. I built up the sides of the pathway and extended the mud out into the water a bit where I figured wind and waves would push it around the plane wreck. As the mud was drying I cut up an old fake plastic plant and made some thick grass plants and stuck them around in the mud. Once this all dries hard, which will take several days, I'll paint and paint and paint some more.

For figures I made two Chinese farmers, a husband and wife. The husband will be calf-deep in the water with a fishing stick and the wife, unfortunately, will go back in the parts box as she turned out crappy. The diorama doesn't really need a second figure anyway, it's unbalanced enough as it is. At this small scale, he is less than 2 inches tall and that doesn't leave a lot of room for details but I think he looks ok. Well, "ok" if you don't mind that he looks like a hobo witch with elephantitis and orange skin...

The water is Liquid Nails brand Clear Sealant, which is vastly easier to work with than caulking and dries twice as clear. I smoothed out a layer up to the level of the frame, carefully working it into the various nooks and crannies with a wet fingertip. Drying time was a couple of days, but I used that time to paint and make the figure. And yes, mom, I worked in a well-ventilated area with a sock tied around my face (she worries so...). As it turned out, however, this was a failed experiment. The sealant, while indeed drying crystal clear, was a nightmare to work with, refusing any and all attempts to smooth it into a flat surface and being next to impossible to squish into corners. This will definitely be the last time I use it, I'm going back to the caulk. So in the end I had to go back and cover over the sealant with my standard acrylic latex caulk, which turns out to be a trillion times easier to smooth out into a flat surface. With all the colors showing through the murky top layer of caulk, plus some more painting work along the edges to blend the colors together, it looks pretty good now. Maybe should have tried to make some rice stalks or something to put in the water, but I didn't think of that until too late.

And so, I think this one is done. Lessons learned? Still trying (and struggling) to give these dioramas "depth", so that they don't just look like items on a flat surface. Also working on shadows and light and all that, experimenting with color is something that takes a lot of time and practice. Should have "buried" the plane in the mud more, and at an angle, would have looked better. Also should have left more open water space for a water buffalo or an ox, that didn't work out as planned. And caulk is the way to go for us cheapskates. But overall, not bad, getting better each time.

Total cost was 10 bucks for some new paints and a pack of brushes, plus a dollar picture frame, plus another 5 bucks for the damned sealant and another 5 for a new block of Sculpey, so in the end I probably spent around 25 dollars total. That's much more than I wanted to, but now I have some more stocks to work with in the future.

Here are the final pictures of the Rice Paddy diorama...

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