How to Make a Realistic Diorama

A diorama brings a scene to life in three dimensions. A realistic diorama brings the reader into a specific, detailed world. Museums build life-size dioramas to offer educational scenes about different cultures, historical events and animal habitats. School projects include dioramas illustrating books, ancient cultures such as the Egyptian, Mayan and Inca peoples, and many other topics from astronomy to zoology. Details add realism to the diorama the same way that props and setting materials make a play on stage believable.

Sketch a plan for the diorama in pencil on grid paper. The usual diorama scale is 1 inch to 1 foot. Making a scale model means the elements of the diorama scene will be in proportion to one another. For example, if you have ancient Egyptians standing at an embalming table to prepare a body for mummification, the table is the correct height in relationship to the people and the body on the table is near in height to the other figures. Make a 3-foot tall table 3 inches tall in the diorama, and a 5-foot, 6-inch priest 5-1/2 inches tall. Pay attention to the relative sizes of objects to create a realistic effect. Sketch the scene as you want the viewer to see it--looking head-on at the front of the diorama.

Create a second sketch of the diorama from a bird's-eye-view straight above the scene. The University of Chicago 'Make Your Own Diorama' website recommends this method for planning for the placement of each part of the scene inside the diorama. For example, sketch the table, the mummy on the table, each of the figures and the locations of any props, such as the jars for the body's organs. Plan to put small items close to the front and larger ones closer to the background.

Set the diorama box on a sheet of white paper and draw around the box with a pencil. Sketch the background for the realistic diorama scene on the paper in pencil. For example, paint Egyptian style walls based on your studies for the indoor mummification scene or sky for an outdoor scene. Cut the background along the pencil lines and glue it inside the bottom of the box. Stand the box up on one side so the viewer looks into the open front of the box.

Use modelling clay to build up texture for a landscape to create a realistic outdoor diorama. Add real sand and real rocks, if desired. Paint bits of cork brown, grey, rust or tan to create realistic rubble for ruins, avalanches, rocky coastlines and other rough terrain.

Make creeks, ponds, lakes, rivers or oceans by painting the desired watercolour on the floor or back of the diorama box. Crumple cellophane in your hand to give it the texture of moving water. Cut the cellophane to the size for the water area. Apply white glue around the edges with cotton swab and press it down to glue it in place.


Shop craft and hobby suppliers for tools and materials for realistic dioramas.

Things You'll Need

  • Grid paper
  • Pencil
  • Box or diorama case
  • Ruler
  • White paper for painting background
  • Modelling clay
  • Natural material, such as twigs, rocks and sand for outdoor diorama scenes
  • Cut up corks from bottles for rough terrain and rocks (optional)
  • Cellophane for water surfaces (optional)
  • White glue
  • Non-toxic paint such as poster paints or watercolours
  • Paintbrushes
  • Cup of water to rinse paintbrushes
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About the Author

Gryphon Adams began publishing in 1985. He contributed to the "San Francisco Chronicle" and "Dark Voices." Adams writes about a variety of topics, including teaching, floral design, landscaping and home furnishings. Adams is a certified health educator and a massage practitioner. He received his Master of Fine Arts at San Francisco State University.