Squint For Details
In college, I had an art teacher who would tell us to squint our eyes to pick out the details. I know, it sounds counter-intuitive, but there is something to the loss of extreme focus that allows us to pinpoint details better. The contrast of the shadows and light literally let you see the forest for the trees. Or at least the difference between their shapes.
ABC easy as 1, 2, 3
As far back as kindergarten, we are taught that a combination of shapes can take on a different shape.
Example: Two triangle make a square
Add a third and it is a house.
Face the facts
A good chunk of customizing action figures is as simple as recognizing the different shapes in the most important features. Being able to recognize them and translate them onto a figure or vehicle is a huge difference maker. Take HypnoeHustler's Mad Max for example. It isn't Mel Gibson and it isn't Tom Hardy, but it hits on enough key features that you know exactly who the character is supposed to be. It is a great approximation for lack of an exact actor likeness.
Here's a bit of a different take on seeing details on different heads. drbindy was happy with his first take on the Hawk character from the Buck Rogers tv show. His initial head choice looked fine to me, but the neutral expression bugged drbindy enough to make a change. I quote him here not to pat myself on the back, but rather to show exactly what he was looking for to meet his vision for the new head choice. Considering they are both bald heads with long pointy noses, there was something more to the facial features that was not quite sitting right with the customizer.
It's the second head I made for the figure, the first using the ROC Zartan base. Mola Ram - as suggested by pluv - had the perfect jawline and steely gaze for the character.
For Mystery Science Theater 3000's Crow T. Robot the actual prop uses a plastic bowling pin for his mouth. There aren't a ton of bowling pins at this scale. So I started looking at 1:18 scale garage Coke bottles that had a similar shape and came across a water bottle that had the pseudo hour glass look. It isn't exact, but it looks close enough at this scale.
Let me give some props
Whenever I'm stuck on how to create something I fall back on, "What would Cap do?" His keen eye for shapes is astounding. I still remember fondly how he used the [metal clip from a ball point pen bent in half to create a stapler. It was genius.
I asked Cap recently how he ever thought of using the pen for that.
What I was thinking at first was, haven't I seen that shape before?...then I was reading with my pen on my mouth and when I ran the pen along the page(for eyes sake) that's when I saw that the shape was likened to a modern stapler. It was the same when I looked at the painted bazooka from Agent Annika and saw a recorder flute if you cut the end off.
For diorama building, squinting for shapes is helpful beyond props and decor. It can be used on a larger scale to provide focus for where you want to direct attention. Sometimes we, okay I, I can become obsessed with set dressing and props so much so that I lose sight of purpose. Adding electrical sockets and posters all over the place might be great details, but when you pull back and squint, where are your eyes drawn and is that the focus of the diorama? It is really easy to go from a "lived-in" space to a cluttered mess that would be hoarding at the 4" scale. If that look makes sense for your scene, great! However, if the computer screens or radio in your communications room do not immediately draw your eyes into to them, then maybe you want to rearrange things so they are the focus. You want something just short of blinking arrows pointing people's eyes to where the action is.
To use dribndy's castle interior for a second, here it is in its full glory.
Now, let's "squint" at that pic and see what stands out.
So the piano, the grandfather clock, the hanging chandelier, the person framed by the fire surrounded by other people and the guy in the white suit within that group; all the lighter items and characters stand out first. Even though this shot was intended more for showing off the entire set, it still manages to draw our eyes into that group conversation.
And vice versa
Sometimes recognizing cool shapes before you find a project for it works as well. Such was the case for joemichaels70's moonbuggy using milk bottle caps for wheels.
I don't remember the time frame, but I started with one, thinking there was something interesting with it, vaguely sci-fi. I think initially it looked like a rocket exhaust or something, and maybe a couple lined up in a repeating pattern might make for cool dio stuffs. Then I happened to put two back to back and thought it made a cool wheel and tried to think about what kind of vehicle would have those. I thought swamp, snow or sand. Something externally was going on, AT challenge or something? Anyway, I had the awe striker figured out, the AT moon buggy idea just coalesced.
I cannot tell you the number of times I've gone to throw out some candy packaging, fast food toy, or broken electronics, only to realize there was some interesting shaped part I needed to scavenge first. No idea why I needed it, but it will end up getting used at some point.
And in conclusion
So the next time you are stuck trying to find that perfect piece or make sure the center of attention is getting the attention it deserves, stand back, squint your eyes, and see what jumps out at you. Look beyond the colors, beyond the part's purpose. Break it down to something more akin to paint by numbers than big picture. See the contrasts. See the shapes. You'll be able to bring out the details that matter the most on your custom.