Copyright 2002 T. Sheil & A. Sheil  All Rights Reserved

All Gauge Model Railroading Page

Tinscale Worlds

How to make miniature scenes and villages

Making a vignette:

The small scenes we make can also be called vignettes. They are little dioramas which tell a story of a moment in time. Most are simple enough to be stated in a few short sentences. Our stories are not lengthy or deep. They are slices of life, wherein time is frozen and in mid-event.

The folks who seriously worked at dioramas had rules. Their work was a permanent scene, fully scenicked right down to the ground on which figures stood. One essential rule was to design the diorama to be viewed from eye level.

Our Tinscale vignettes have a few similarities to the serious diorama, but only in principle. For most of us, the scenes we make will be viewed from a higher angle than eye level. We plan to be viewed at least partially from above. After all, how many guests would crawl on their bellies to get an eye-level view of your Yule Tree village? How many can scoot down and see an entire toy train layout from eye level? We tend to view from above, and need to fix that in our calculations.

We work with the eyes, and that means adjusting for the way 99% of people scan that which is before them. We tend to scan left to right, then right to left, in a clockwise loop. When stringing together pieces in a single scene, or a string of vignettes, it helps to work with the normal scanning pattern of the human eye.

Of course, we can also use tricks to move the eye in other directions. Our eyes see motion, color and shape in that order. Place an animated accessory or brightly lit, brightly colored scene on the right, and they eyes head there instantly. It can inspire them to focus more time on the right-to-left scan than the normal left to right.

Keep in mind that the first scan is always left to right, even if it is quickly drawn to the animation of bright scene and barely passes over the rest, on that first pass,.

We work with implied motion to move the viewer's eyes in a given direction. Implied immobility brings the scan to a halt at that point, while implied movement or imminent movement directs the eyes where we want them. We can have a person's scan stop at points along the way, or move it smoothly by use of implied immobility and implied movement.

A vignette is a combination of elements. Like the painting that is a combination of colors, our vignette uses its several elements to create a single entity. It is a brief story. Scenery and buildings provide the background which set the era, season, place and mood. Objects are the props, while people and objects are the actors. You can make a vignette without people, after all! I qualify vignettes in two ways: scanned and stopped. A scanned vignette is one that the viewer will scan across as he moves from scene to scene. A stopped vignette is one that draws the eye to a specific item or place within the miniature scene. For instance, the viewer would scan across and through the vignette of a Victorian gentleman tipping his hat to a lady as they pass on the village street. The viewer would stop at a scene of firemen rescuing a cat from a tree. The stopping point is the cat, who is the central object of the story. Good technique requires arranging firemen and spectators so they direct attention to the cat. You know you have done well when the scene looks natural rather than staged.

A complex vignette would have a central theme and some side action. Let's use the example of the cat rescue. The main event can provide a magnetic force that pulls together a variety of smaller actions. For instance, the worried cat owner and her friends stand watching and worrying, while young men watching from another point find the cat rescue comical. Closer to the fire truck, small boys stare in awe at the valves and dials and gauges on the fire engine. Perhaps a fireman is telling the boys what the gauges are. At the bottom of the tree might be the barking dog who chased kitty treeward. All of these little tales fit into the larger story.

The idea is to fit just enough mini-tales without cluttering or overshadowing the central event.

We are fortunate that in this day and age, we have so many excellent resources available. The figures from Lemax and Department 56 are well-animated. Many are made as mini-scenes in their own right, such as the Lemax checker-players and Tinker with children. Figure sets like these make storytelling much easier. All we have to do is find the scene in which they fit.

What of figures that are not made as part of a scene set? That is where you come in. You make the scene, using the different figures to show everyday life in your miniature world. Keep in mind that for many, many years, scene sets were rare. People had to use imagination and creativity. They had to risk blowing a scene, in efforts to make individual figures work together in a vignette.

The one thing I cannot impart here is how to pack your vignette with a feeling. You can have all the right elements, and still make a scene that is lifeless. By the same token, you can have all the wrong elements and make a masterpiece vibrant with life.

So we move around a miniature world, from vignette to vignette, scene to scene, zone to zone.

Simpler Scenes

What with all the emphasis by model builders on scale, we might have lost some of the fun of Tinscale.  When we work the Tinscale way, we are not making a permanent scene where everything is bolted down, set to scale and heavily decorated.  Tinscale is the art of placement.  Most Tinscalers are either making toy train layouts or holiday villages.  Neither is concerned with scale, diorama-quality scenery.

The first stage in making scenes is the ground.  For snow-covered scenes, we use a felt-lines tablecloth.  The felt lining has the look of snow, but is flat enough that even small accessories can stand on their own.  These cloths are very durable, and after making seasonal displays can be washed and stored for next year.  Look for tablecloths that are fireproof, fire resistant or fire retardant.  Safety first!

For other seasons, the classic Tinscale ground cover is outdoor carpet.  This carpet is flat enough that figures stand on it without gluing.  It is sturdy and gives the area a look of being grassy.  Roads can be added by using plastic roadway, placed on carpet.  Or carpet sections can be cut, and roads placed between them.  Lemax and Department 56 make roadway materials in brick, cobblestone and blacktop.

The real task for us is placing our houses, people, etc. That is the art.  And in the forthcoming pages, we will show you a few principles which lead to a great miniature village.  Some material is printed, some are illustrations.  Use both to get a feel for how to design realistic and fun miniature scenes.  You don't have to be a skilled model railroader to have the greatest miniature village.  You just have to know a few tricks to make a memorable and appealing miniature world.

Use these materials to learn.  Just click the links!

START Here: Tinscale - Make different size pieces work together - this is the overview and primer!

Quick and Easy Vignettes - collected articles explain the art

The Miniature World - ways to use scenery and buildings to set the stage.

Working with Miniature Figures - how to place figures for the best scenes

Illustrated Lessons:

Here you will see some of the things in the above article demonstrated.

1 Working with Figures - Conversations:  placing figures together

2 Working with Figures - Sets and Scenes: examples of grouping miniature figures

3 Working with Figures - Simple Scenes with Individual Figures: making a small  scene

4  Working with Figures - Perspective Plus: placing miniatures of different scales together

5 Working with Figures - More Perspective: tricks to use figures with differently-scaled objects

6 Working with Figures -  Man-to-man and man-to-house perspective: differently-scaled buildings and people work together

7 Working with Figures -  Working with Figures: Stances, Walking, Speed and Character: how different figures affect scenes

8 Working with Figures - Sporting Snow: winter figures are examples of making larger scenes

9 Working with Figures - People and Houses and Tinplate, too!  Placing figures with buildings

10 Working with Figures - People and Doorways (and Diners) - how to use reference points for placing figures, especially with undersized buildings

Other Lessons

Holiday Villages Building Placement: short examples of how buildings can affect the viewer

NEW - Tinscale & Holiday Village Buildings - placing buildings for the maximum effect

Station Settings: placing figures realistically in stations and depots

Viewer Manipulation - how placing items alters how your scenes are viewed

Halloween - brief illustrated ideas for Halloween & Autumn

Trains in Your Village - finding the best trains for your miniature world

Animated Scenery - operating animated accessories add motion to your world

Village Examples

Here we use our 2001 Yule Village to illustrate some points about Tinscale Scenery

1  The Victorian Village

2  The Modern Village, Wilds and Seaside

3  Holiday Villages Close Ups

4  The Train!

And of course, click below to see our Yule Village for 2002:

Our Yule Village 2002

Classic Toy Buildings from the 40s and 50s

Here are some of the old tin buildings they made years ago.  We add them as a bonus, and hope you enjoy seeing these old-time treasures:

Click here for Tin Buildings

Classic Yule Holiday Figures from Germany

These are some of the delightful "flat" figures made in Germany for hundreds of years.  They are the ancestor to toy figures and holiday miniatures of today.

Click here to see Classic Yule Holiday Figures from Germany

Tins Cans, Tin Boxes and Colorful Tins

A little holiday treat for our friends! For those who love decorated tins of all kinds, we present part of our personal collection.  Includes holiday tins and tins decorated as houses, trolleys, stadiums, etc.

.Click here for the world of Colorful Tins!

Click here to return to All Gauge Model Railroading main page