Viewing the fine art photography of Jennifer Nichole Wells is like falling down a rabbit hole into another dimension. The Jacksonville, Florida-based photographer constructs and photographs miniature dioramas of mysterious and whimsical worlds. Here, she discusses her creative process behind these small-scale scenes.
Why do you create tiny worlds?
There are many things I want to create, ideas I want to get across, emotions I want to express. I don’t fully accomplish this when I go out and shoot photographs — I need to put more of myself into each image.
With miniatures, I create every detail of any world I build and can easily express an emotion through them. An image of a miniature is more representational: a ghost of real life, which pulls you in and makes you see in a different way.
Where do you build your scenes?
I live in a one-bedroom apartment. I converted the dining room into a studio space, where I construct and shoot my scenes. The area gets messy, but it works. I have storage drawers for my tiniest miniatures, and a unit for my supplies and some larger miniatures.
Take us through the process of constructing a miniature scene.
My work begins with an idea. I mull over this idea, working out every kink in my head before I construct the scene. If it’s a scene for which I’ll need supplies, I research and order the items. When everything is in place, I get to work. I’ve worked on an image in my head for so long, so the creating and shooting is relatively straightforward. I’ll build from ten minutes to four or five hours, depending on the complexity of the image. The shoot will take another ten minutes, with editing on top of that.
What materials and tools do you use?
For pre-built props, I use model train accessories (mostly HO, and occasionally N or O scale) and 1:12 dollhouse scale items. For everything else, I use fabric, cardboard, acrylic paint, clay, foam, and wood, as well as the occasional household object. My X-ACTO knife is my most versatile tool. I use it for many things, from cutting off and repositioning an astronaut’s arm to cutting a square of foam core to use as a backdrop.
I like so many of your scenes, especially your “Stormy Night Sail” scene. How did you create this?
I used thin sheets of bass wood and toothpicks for the ship, using wood glue and super glue to attach everything (this bass wood tended to crack when bent, to my dismay). I attached more toothpicks as the posts for the sails, and painted it brown with gold stripes using hobby acrylic paint. The sails are tiny squares of white fabric, super-glued on. The whole ship is about three inches long. I sculpted the ocean on a cardboard base with air-dry clay, painting it dark blue with white tips. I painted the background as well, on a piece of cardboard.
How is photographing a miniature scene different from taking a normal picture? What are challenges specific to a miniature photographer?
There seems to be a new challenge with each picture, though I run into regular hurdles. First, sometimes miniatures are too small! When working with paint and glue, I end up getting more on myself than the subject. I’m used to having glue-covered fingers. Then, there’s lighting. I have two tabletop studio lights, each head about two to three inches in diameter. These are great for dollhouse scale and more expansive HO scale scenes, but when I work on small scenes, they tend to be overblown. To counter, I use the flashlight on my phone, natural light, or candles.
Making everything to scale — so that all the items in a scene make sense together — is a challenge. Also, getting the right angle for a shot can be tough — you’ll find me sitting in all kinds of strange ways on the floor while readjusting my tripod!
You use miniatures in print and graphic design projects, like cover illustrations for books and music albums. How did you get into this type of work?
Read a tutorial from Jennifer on designing a book cover in Photoshop.
I love bringing books and albums to life through illustration. Images help draw the eye of potential readers and buyers. My dad self-published a book in 2012 and gave me free reign with his cover. His book, Working Would be Great if it Weren’t for Managers: Thoughts on Business, Life, and Slackers, seemed to call for a bit of an ironic image. I created a disjointed image of a man asleep at his desk, with papers all over the floor. I loved working on this cover, and it reinforced my desire to work with more artists.
I got my next assignment through a freelance site, then one from a friend, and so on. I added a page about my illustration and design services on my blog and started promoting myself as an illustrator. To my delight, this is how the next author I worked with found me.
Can you walk us through your creative process for projects like this? What was your inspiration for your Kate Chopin cover, for example?
When I work with clients on covers, I compile all the details: book dimensions, page count, publisher info, and so on, so I can set up my document. If permitted, I read their book and discuss image ideas. I go back and forth with the author, sending sketches, ordering props, and getting feedback at every step. When the image is complete, I edit it, pull it into a template, and work on text, colors, and flourishes.
The Awakening cover that I created for a Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge worked in a similar way, only it was a fan-made cover, so no client was involved. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is my favorite book. I’ve read it numerous times over the years. The scene of Edna walking into the water was the scene I needed to illustrate. This is the moment that she gets what she’s been searching for the whole novel: she finally becomes free. There are so many interpretations of the cover in existence, but I’ve never seen one of this scene.
I wanted to keep the image light to give it an air of hope. I used a photograph of a cloudy pastel sky as the backdrop. I sculpted the ocean with air-dry clay and painted it teal, with white foamy tips. The figure, pushed into the clay before it was painted, is a nude HO scale figure — meaning, she’s about one inch tall. I painted her hair a dark blonde to make it similar to Edna’s. Then, I took the photo. My camera naturally desaturates images a bit and adds in some orange-red tones. Normally, I’m all about editing this out. But believe it or not, this image is unedited. I liked the faded, airy, warm feel. I then overlaid text and an underline for the final cover, and played with fonts until I found one that fit the mood.
What’s the most versatile material you use? The most unconventional material you’ve used?
My most versatile materials are definitely cardboard and Crayola air-dry clay. I use cardboard for stages, backgrounds, desks — really anything flat. I use Crayola air-dry clay to make oceans, ghosts, snowmen, mushrooms, and more. I’d say one example of an unconventional material would be paintbrush bristles: I’ve painted and cut them down to make grass and brooms.
The translucent clay you used for your jellyfish looks cool, by the way.
My use of polymer clay is fairly new. I love the medium: I’ve played around with it in the past but never actually made anything. Now I’m making animals: so far, a jellyfish, some cats, a squirrel, and birds.
What has been your most involved scene to create so far?
Each new scene presents its own unique challenges, and I can get frustrated for a long time. But once I get everything worked out, I instantly forget this struggle.
I’ll talk about “Gears” and “Stormy Night Sail.”
With “Gears,” I used tiny watch parts and glued them together with E6000 adhesive. I placed each figure on a base and background made of two mirrors. I then sprayed the sculpture down with liquid gold ink and water. This presented a few challenges: putting the pieces together and holding them while they dried without getting my fingers stuck, spraying everything with water while hoping the glue was strong enough not to go back to mush, and shooting the image so that I, or my camera, wouldn’t be caught in the reflection.
My main issue with “Stormy Night Sail,” which I described earlier, was building the ship. I wanted to connect all the wood elements together with nails (the metal parts of thumb tacks, detached with wire cutters). I thought the riveted, yet useful effect would be nice. I stabbed myself in the thumb too many times to count and created cracks through the wood. Ultimately, I went with wood glue instead.
As an aside, any image that’s “at night” like this presents lighting and shooting issues: you need enough light to show details, but too much will look like daytime.
We love your interpretations of our Daily Post challenges, as well as your own series: One Word Photo Challenge. Can you tell us about it?
I’ve always loved the challenges on WordPress.com, and I respond occasionally to prompts, the Weekly Photo Challenge, Cee’s challenges, and a few others. I view the submissions to these challenges as one big collaborative art project. It’s fun to see how people interpret the themes.
I view the submissions to these challenges as one big collaborative art project.
I thought it might be interesting to start my own challenge. I had a few goals: one, to keep myself shooting images weekly; two, to encourage others to keep shooting and posting; three, to post topics in advance so people have enough time to create something new or sort through their archives; and four, to challenge myself and others to think about simple themes in creative ways.
On Flickr? Check out Jennifer’s One World Photo Challenge group.
Each week for the One Word Photo Challenge, I share a one-word topic. To start, we used color words, then moved on to weather-based topics, and are now completing topics based on people, places, and things.
I’ve been amazed by the responses. I never expected the challenge to get up to 60 contributors (and counting), and I’m grateful to all the participants who help keep it going. I’ve met a lot of people that I may not have stumbled across otherwise, and I feel that we’ve formed friendships — and a community.