A magazine article from around 2005 on making realistic wargames scenery groundwork.
The Art of Flor(a)
One of the hardest things to get right on scenery is groundwork; groundwork being the vegetation and debris on the ground. This is often called “realism” and for me “Realism” on scenery and terrain is nothing more than the ability to fool the onlooker into believing what they see looks “realistic”.
What this means is that the gamer looks at a piece of terrain and thinks “That looks as though it could be real!” The fact that we’re using orange plants, purple trees and red soil on a Martian model is irrelevant – it “feels” realistic.
“Realism” is achieved by copying what nature does in real life: the manner in which nature covers an area will always feel right irrespective of the type of model we are building or the planet we are setting it on.
We achieve this “realism” by copying basic ‘rules’ of nature:
1: Vegetation will grow in stages: primary, secondary and tertiary vegetation.
2: Nature abhors a vacuum – i.e. if there’s space to grow something, something will always grow there (unless it is eaten or killed off by something else).
3: Nature and straight lines don’t mix.
At the same time though “realism” and a good wargaming piece of scenery don’t always go together. Sp we always have to remember that any wargaming model has to be playable and have areas where figures can be placed. As such the realism of a wargaming piece always becomes a “representation of realism”, not a copy of real life.
What we will do here is to run through a process called “layering” to show you how to produce groundwork and vegetation that will look realistic, be it from Mars, Massachusetts or Middle Earth but still allow you to wargame on the model..
The key to good groundwork is “Layering” – this is a process where we build up the groundwork from the soil upwards through a series of different heights (layers) to represent the primary, secondary and tertiary growth that generally occurs in the wild. The same approach works for man-made areas, rubble-strewn ruins and science fiction planets; a little bit of nature creeps in almost everywhere sooner of later, with layering we decide where vegetation can NOT, or should NOT, be placed as well as where it SHOULD be placed. Layering also helps us build a model in the right order.
Build down to build up.
Virtually no building just sits on top of the ground – they almost all have foundations underneath the ground and the buildings “grow” up from those. Wherever possible it is good to mimic foundations by using a raised ground level into which we cut out sections for foundations. The wall, or building, is then dropped into the area we have cut out and will then look as though it is actually coming up from foundations rather than just sitting on the ground.
The first image here shows some standing stones simply glued onto the ground – they look a bit odd just sitting there, now look at the second picture with the stones coming up through the ground – it looks a lot more “natural”.
Whilst there is nothing wrong with the first model, the second model looks more “realistic” simply because it has foundations and if you put two identical models next to each, the one with “foundations” is usually chosen as the ‘better’ or ‘more realistic” model.
Primary, Secondary and Tertiary vegetation.
Scientists often classify plant growth in an area in stages and this approach is useful also for modelling. Primary growth represents the very first things to grow in an area, followed by bigger plants, bushes, scrub and eventually trees.
We will think of Primary vegetation as grasses, mosses, lichens and weeds; Secondary vegetation we will consider scrub, bushes, tall grasses, reeds and rushes and Tertiary vegetation as being trees (or their equivalent).
What we do when we “layer” a model is to recreate these stages of growth. When aiming for “realism” we should also consider “what should be there” and we do that by giving our model an imaginary setting and then thinking what “would be there”.
To better explain what I mean let’s use an example:
We will consider what a “made-up” model of a 14th century ruined Abbey on Earth will look like, to do this we need to think what might exist around the Abbey, so what do we know about our model-to-be?
1: The Abbey is in England.
2: The Abbey has been abandoned and ruined for a long time, but substantial walls still exist albeit crumbling and decaying.
3: Humans visit the area but the land is not managed or farmed. Wild and domesticated animals do graze around the ruins though.
4: A village has grown up a mile or so from the ruins.
5: It is early Autumn.
But what does this tell us about how our model should look? Let’s see:
The Abbey is in a North European environment – This means that there will be lush vegetation as there is plenty of rain, lots of grasses and scrubby trees but probably very few large trees.
Animals that would eat foliage and destroy young trees graze the area, but grazed grasses will grow back very quickly whilst trees take much longer. Scrubby bushes and trees will grow in the areas where animals cannot reach. Some pathways have been eroded in the short-grazed grass by animals and humans coming to and from the ruins, especially area where gaps in the wall have appeared.
People have been robbing stones to use to make their own buildings in the nearby village, so there will be areas of rubble and freshly turned earth where humans have torn some of the Abbey walls down.
It is early Autumn so there will be some fallen leaves, but not many. Tall grasses may just be turning brown after seeding and most bushes will still have all their leaves. Moss and Lichens will cover a lot of the stones and ivy and climbing plants grow up some of the walls.
Suddenly we know an awful lot about our ruin and what we will need to use to make it look “realistic”:
Short grass (static grass), tall grasses (dark green and brown long grass), scrubby bushes (lichen and scatter), Moss and lichen (weathering powders, instant moss, scatters/flock) Ivy and climbing plants (leaves, scatters, vines).
OK, so we know what will go on the model and where it will grow… so we can just glue it all down and it’s done? Not quite:
How to do Layering.
Putting our materials on the model is not a case of gluing it down in any old order – we need to think carefully how and when each material should be done.
Lets take an example to show what I mean about how the building order can be important:
Imagine we have built our model and painted the walls; we have also added some vines using tacky-glue and scattered some scatter material over the vines to make some Ivy.
This all looks very good until we go add the static grass to the ground: as we add the static grass we realise that as well as sticking to the ground area it will also stick to the vines where we had put the tacky glue, ruining our vines and our model as they transform into big hairy caterpillars.
Clearly the ORDER in which we do things can have an effect and getting that order wrong can even ruin a model.
Generally the following order works well for most pieces:
- Ground scatters/Earth
- Static Grass
- Lichen/horsehair bushes
- Long grasses
- Surface rubble/leaf litter/deadfall
But you should remember that this order can be different on different models, or even different on different areas of a model. Planning the order of groundwork is therefore quite important.
Lets look at a simple small model to see how we layer the vegetation to make a realistic looking model:
1: Chose your base and chamfer the edges, we’re using 4mm MDF here.:
2: Cut out some packaging foam to act as the ground level.
3: Place your walls down on the foam and mark off where they go.
4: Cut out foundations for the walls. Cover the remaining ground with a PVA glue/sand/Talus mixture and let it dry.
6: Dry brush all the ground, put the painted walls in the foundations and glue them into place.
7. Using PVA glue (NOT tacky glue) down some cheap sawdust-based scatters in irregular patches using different shades and colours.
8 Pay attentions to areas near the bottom of walls and fill in any gaps
9: create a pathway through a gap in the wall by leaving it uncovered with scatter and showing the dry brushed ground underneath. Glue down some brown scatter along the edges of the path..
10: Glue on any “clump” materials such as matting or grass tufts on top of the ground scatter.
11: Cover the ground scatter with a tacky-glue, make sure not to cover the tufts of grass, it is a good idea to leave a few mm around the tufts without any glue. We use special liquid tacky glue called “Scatter Grip” for this – it is VERY sticky and scarily turns blue before it dries clear as you can see!
12: Add the static grass to where the glue is and let dry. Remember to be careful when picking up the model otherwise you will squish the static grass down flat.
13: This next photo shows you why we put ground scatter under the static grass – areas not covered with static grass are almost impossible to notice, this is because the ground scatter we put down first “fill in” any gaps in the static grass.
Also note how we are already starting to get a nice variation in heights of the vegetation.
14: Add some simple bushes next – Drill a small hole through the ground and the baseboard.
15: Take a cocktail stick and poke it into the hole until it is firmly wedged – then cut off the top of the stick leaving a short stub in the ground.
16: Remove the cocktail stick, put a dab of superglue on its end and wedge it back into its hole. When dry paint the bit that of the stick that is above ground with brown paint. This will now act as a support for the bushes we will add.
17: Make sure you sand or cut off any bits of the cocktail stick that stick through the base!
17: Trim off a couple of pieces of Lichen/Moss and place them to ensure they will fit. If you cut the bottom of the lichen flat where it will sit on the ground then this will help fixing it into place. You can use brown, natural or green lichen for the bushes, they all look fine.
18: Remove the lichen and attach Tacky-Glue to the cocktail stick stump, also add tacky glue to the base of the lichen and any areas that will touch walls or other objects that can support it.
19: When the tacky glue has partially set gently fit the lichen over the supporting stumps and onto the ground – let this dry.
20: Cover the lichen with tacky glue – but remember to leave some areas uncovered, as we want to see the interior branching just like a real bush. We’re using our blue-glue again so that you can see where we have put it.
21: Dust on some “bush scatter” to give the bush some “leaves” – this can be cheap scatter the same as you covered the ground with.
INSET PIECE -> LONG GRASS HOW TO
22: To add the clumps of grass poke a hole into the raised ground (the foam underneath the ground layer), take a clump of long grass, dip it into tacky glue and then place it into the hole with tweezers.
23: To add flat strips of grass take a scalpel or hobby knife and cut a small slot into the ground, take a strip of long grass dip into tacky glue and carefully insert into the slot – this is ideal for areas close to walls or for cracks in paving where grass does grow in lines.
24: Mix in some different colours of long grass, thinking where grass may have died off close to paths and so forth. At this stage you can also add weathering to the brick areas by dusting on some weathering powders, dried pastel or even coloured chalk. A mix of dark green and dark brown will give a nice dirty lichen look. Notice how clean the wall section above looks to that on the image below where it is now nice and “dirty”.
25: Put some glue down in areas close to the walls and then scatter pre-coloured rubble over the areas (either use some coloured plaster or buy some grey “ballast” from a model railroad supplier).
26: When doing the rubble it is best to start with gluing larger individual blocks on to the ground and then spread a bit of tacky glue over some of their surface. Next scatter ever-finer bits of rubble until you get a nice looking rubble pile.
27: Next add finishing touches like simple ivy (put some thin trails of glue over the wall to make a branching pattern and then dust on some leaf-flake or green scatter to make some easy Ivy)
28: and finally you can add some special elements such as fallen leaves by dabbing down some tacky glue and dusting it with leaf-litter or chopped-up dry leaves, herbs and so forth..