Making Tropical Foliage


Tropical plants are easy and fun to create and can add a creative custom feel to any PTO/tropical diorama. This article will walk you through creating a quasi fictional type of tropical palm plant. This process is meant to be a guide as to one method that works. It can be altered or added to customize the process to fit your own needs. Most of the material you need is already in your house or on your workbench.

You will need :

  • Curable Clay
  • Hobby Wire
  • Aluminum Foil (kitchen foil)
  • Paint
  • White glue
  • CA glue
  • Grass material
Forming the Stalks
I will walk you through a short palm like plant, more of a bush/shrub. Again this can be altered to fit your needs. Take a small portion of the clay. The brand I use is Sculpy, any clay that you can bake and cure will work. You can also use self curing materials like Milliput. Roll the clay out into a tube. Then apply a bit more pressure to one end to taper what will become the top. The desired shape is somewhat of a carrot shape, long slender, shallow tapered cylinder I use my finger or a pair of fingers depending on the size. You can use any rolling devices you like. See image 1.

Once you have a shape that you like you need to texture it. One common method I use is to put horizontal 'growth stripes' around it. To do this take a dental pick/scribe tool and gently roll a series of groves around your stalk. On a smooth surface I press the tool into the clay at the base of the tool blade and gently pull back on the handle of the tool. This motion automagically drags the stalk with the tool leaving a nice straight even 'growth stripe'. Remember this is nature and exact isn't totally necessary. If you are not satisfied, simply re-roll the stalk and start over. See image 2..



Project Photos

Optional texturing methods
There are a variety of ways you can texture a tree. The options are bound by your imagination.
You can take a stiff wire brush and gently rub in short vertical texture to represent pealing bark. You can take a sharp knife and actually peal back small sections of the clay almost like a half peeled banana. You can also use a pin to etch in more individual vertical texture. Very coarse sand paper will also do the same vertical texture. Sand paper works great as a general bumpy texture too. Simply lay your sand paper down flat and gently roll the stalk over the paper.

Once the stalks have been formed and textured you need to cure them. This will be dependent on the product you use. I use a baking clay and bake it based on the instructions. I place the pieces on a section of aluminum foil and pop it in the oven. Now, don't become a story for the local club, they are hot, use an oven mitt for this next step. When they are sufficiently cooked I take them out and let them cool. Let them cool and then use a pin vice and drill a small hole in the top end of the stalk. This will receive the foliage later.


Painting The Stalks
As far as color preferences, nature provides us with an almost endless array of color tints and shades. What I do is decide if I am going to have a dark or light overall plant. From there I get the basic colors I need along with white and black for mixing different shades.
As you can see from the pictures I try to use a base color of clay that will lend itself to tree like material. This saves a step in base coating. If you don't have that option I would base coat the stalks in a light brown color of choice, something along the lines of buff or earth. If you've ever split open a tree, the inside wood is almost always light in color (adjust to the type you are modeling). Once that is dry then I mix a base color for my plant. I usually mix it a bit thin. This helps let the under layer show through. If I want full coverage I add a second coat. The diluteness also helps with non-uniformity. Take a look at a tree, the color is basically the same but it is full of variegation and differentiation. The next process is to add a wash. I mix a darker version of the base color, pretty dark and again on the thin side. I add the wash into the recesses of the stalks. I usually do two coats, waiting for the previous one to dry before adding another one. I will add a wash of green or brown to add variety and points of interest. See image 3.


Palm Fronds
You will need a few thing in this step, aluminum foil, wire, and CA glue. The gauge of the wire you will need depends on how big you want the frond stems to be. The thicker the wire, the thicker the stem. For small size shrubs and bushes I use medium gauge wire without any insulation. The trick to this process is to get a sheet of aluminum foil that is fairly large. Get it large enough to be able to cut out all your palm fronds from around the edge.
The way I do this in assembly line fashion is to take my wire, cut a 1" piece and insert it into my CA bottle (deep enough to get 1/2 the wire wet). I remove the wire and touch it to the edge of the foil allowing 1/2 to overhang the edge. I repeat this process until I have either used the whole sheet of foil or I have enough stems glued to make the number of fronds I want. When you start adding the wire to the sheet you need to make sure you have about an inch or so of space between each wire stem. That will give you a good amount of foil to make a frond. At this point you should have a sheet of foil that looks like it needs a hair cut. . I let the CA try for a while at this point. See Image 4.

Decision Point - Time to think ahead - Here you must decide if you want ridged bumpy veins in your leaves. If you do it is best to do it now before paint has been applied. I take a blunt etching tool and lightly scribe in ridge details as I see fit.

I then break out the air brush. I mix up the base color green I am going to use and spray a 1-2 inch band around edge of the foil. Turn the foil over and spray the top 1-2 inch band around the edge. When you are mixing colors nature has a way of making the bottom side of leaves a shade darker than the top. So take that into consideration and darken the bottom side. See image 5.





Freeing Your Fronds
At this point I take a new #11 exacto blade and insert it into my knife handle. The foil is delicate and it is important to use a new blade so that you cut the foil and not tear it. Now your job is to cut free any size or shape palm frond that you wish. You can make long slender leaves, or rounded leaves, or tear drop shaped leaves. Be aware that this process is best after the paint has dried a bit and is not fully cured. Once it is cured this process will chip the paint and make more touchups later. Do this early and the paint will cut better. See image 6

Detailing the Fronds
I take each frond and insert the wire into a piece of packing foam so that the entire batch is accessible with the leaves facing outward. See image 7.

I can then take the foam and rotate it quickly to get to each leaf. This is where the previous planning takes affect. As far as adding veins I mix up a thin batch of yellowish/light greenish paint. Using a thin brush I gently paint on various lines to represent the veins in the leaves and if you planned ahead to have ridges you will want to paint them the necessary vein color or highlight color. I will darken and lighten the color and add highlights and shadows. Depending on the desired affect I will add a dark wash to tone down all the colors and blend them together a bit. See image 8.




To complete one of these plants simply add a drop of white glue in the hole you drilled earlier in the stalk. Then insert however many fronds you want (Or can fit). Before the glue drys take some grass material and cut short pieces. Take these little pieces and add them to the white glue. This is to represent some plant material detailing. Set aside to dry.
Adding to your base
You add these little gems to any diorama the same way you would any other plant material. Decide where the plant needs to grow and make and adequate hole to insert just the base of the stalk in. Add a bit of your choice of glues and pop it in. See image 8. Add grass of your choice around the base to make it blend in and there you have it - Palm frond plants. See image 9


About the Author

About Scott Lodder (slodder)

I modeled when I was a teenager. College, family and work stopped me for a while. Then I picked it back up after about 12 years off. My main focus is dioramas. I like the complete artistic method of story telling. Dioramas involve so many aspects of modeling and I enjoy getting involved in the ...


Scott Outstanding and ver usefull feature you wrote Thanks for taking the time to make it clear to us all Very good addition to the feature section indeed
JUL 04, 2003 - 01:19 AM
Excellent work Scott.
JUL 04, 2003 - 01:44 AM
Great article.
JUL 04, 2003 - 01:53 AM
Great article slodder ........... much needed and appreciated! Thanks man!
JUL 04, 2003 - 02:17 AM
Great feature Slodder!!! Ciao
JUL 04, 2003 - 02:17 AM
GREAT HELP!!! cheers
JUL 04, 2003 - 04:50 PM