Diorama Design

I have been e-mailing my friend and accomplished diorama painter, Sean Murtha, about comparing the design of traditional natural history dioramas with those of James Perry Wilson.  Sean repainted most of the dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Ocean Life in 2003 and understands the practical problems as well as the uniqueness of painting on curved walls in dioramas.  Sean also is an avid student of James Perry Wilson and responds quickly when I bring Wilson into the conversation!  Sean and my e-mail messages are included at the end of this blog, but I will try to summarize so you can decide if you want to read the whole thing.

Wilson understood that the perspective of a diorama could be significantly different than that of an easel painting if its coordinates were plotted correctly.  Wilson developed a gridding system that put the viewer in the same relation (or the same angle of view) that he actually had at the site when painting his reference painting and taking panoramic photographs.    Wilson was producing “virtual experiences”  for museum visitors as far back as the mid 1940’s!  Most other diorama artists were trying to get the same thing with their artistic intuition, but without the system of grids, the wings of the diorama conspired against them to wrap with the physical wall of the background.   So they tried to hide them with hills, mountains, rock outcroppings, trees, bushes, or whatever they could find.  Many of the traditional diorama designs hid the edges and produced a viewing “alley” down to the center of the diorama where the long distant view could be seen without distortion on the center (usually flat) wall.   Wilson, as he gained confidence in his system, painted some long distant views right on the encroaching side walls and probably felt great delight to see them contradict the physical surface of the wall and recede into the distance.  Peabody’s Bighorn Sheep diorama has a mountain valley confidently stretching off for miles and miles that Wilson painted on a wall merely 10′ from the glass.  No other diorama artist was attempting this and it is what makes Wilson’s dioramas distinctive.

That said, Wilson would still use a traditional design.  The Point Pelee background is one of those more traditionally designed with a wooded edge to the right and a small hill starting to the left.  

This photo shows a close up of the right side of the Pt. Pelee diorama shell. Wilson produced a visual wall with the sand dune, trees, and bushes which forces the view into the center and the long focus on the sea in the distance.


I am especially intrigued by the design of dioramas.  The classic design is the long vista out front and either rocks, jungle, bush, hills hiding the sides.   I think Wilson was really playing with that standard and trying to do something more interesting at the edges.  It’s something I am trying to understand better.  If you want to tell me your thoughts or write about the practicalities of painting a background, I’ll include it.


I am intrigued by your thoughts about Wilson and his “edges”… I had never thought much about it before but once I read it I thought “aha…” because I recognized my own “standard” approach to it. I think most diorama painters, myself included, approach them like, well, just big paintings, and compose them as such, whether deliberately through training or intuitively. Most paintings attempt to draw the eye inward… it’s a “no -no” to pull the eye out towards the edge. But you’re right… Wilson was willing and able to break those rules, realizing that to simulate the real world, space extends outward in ALL DIRECTIONS. What wouldn’t work in an easel painting works in a diorama, because, in breaking with the visual rules that govern most art, it removes another obstacle to our suspension of belief. One of the marks of a Wilson diorama is that the viewer WANTS to crane his/her neck to look around the frame (and is often rewarded for doing so– I think of the bison at the AMNH, and one of my favorite trees, visible far to the right in the White Rhino group). Interestingly, it is only in the larger dioramas, where you need to turn your head to see the whole thing, that he does this in… all of the smaller dioramas I can think of right now are traditional in design, with a strong central focus and little distraction at the edge, and these were the ones I always looked at more as “paintings”, the ones I went to study when I was struggling with a particular problem.  Perhaps it was his lack of formal training, which you discuss in his bio, that enabled him to “break the rules” so willingly.  But I think it more likely that (since his small paintings show a thorough command of composition), he understood all of this and had given great thought to the notion that a diorama had its own goals and its own unique rules.


About this edge thing, another diorama that makes me think of this is the beaver diorama at the AMNH.  If you look at the right corner there is a funny drop off to the water that I don’t think works very well, but it breaks the classic rules dramatically.  Our Bighorn sheep diorama is the one that works successfully at the edge with the long valley going off into the distance on a wall that is merely 10’ from the window.  Now that I think of it, the Shoreline has Long Island Sound on the left wall with nothing to hide it.


Mentioning the Peabody bighorn sheep reminds me of the Jeffrey Pine diorama in the forestry hall at the AMNH, the big conifers on the edge of a mountainous valley. To the left, you’ve got the open valley, mountains receding into the glare of the sun, and to the right, the long shadows of the trees running back in perfect perspective to that beautifully painted fire-scorched trunk. That painting has in effect two clear and opposite vanishing points, both at or just beyond the frame. That always blew my mind and now I have a better understanding of why.


The crux of what I’m saying is that every other diorama painter seems to have approached the diorama using the same rules they learned for painting a flat rectangular canvas– to compose entirely within the frame. Even when working in plein air, an artist is selective; what portion of the panorama before you do you choose, for one, and then smaller adjustments to make the painting work AS A PAINTING. Wilson’s plein air work follows this, but he seems to me to have realized that a diorama background painting has a different purpose, and did not hesitate to break the traditional rules of composition to achieve this. In some of the examples we have talked about, he seems to be playing very boldly AGAINST the rules, especially the rule that says that nothing should pull your eye OUT of the painting. I don’t think he did this merely out of fidelity to nature, but rather I think he realized that subconciously we recognize a “traditional” composition as a painting, but by breaking out of that mold he messes with that recognition; in other words our brain shifts from “viewing art” mode to “viewing nature” mode. And by drawing our eye to the edges, with obvious visual vanishing points  or other interesting distractions, he beckons us to imagine more just out of sight– just like looking out a window. I may be crazy but I think there is something to this. It truly is “art concealing art”.

One more thing… in a normal flat painting, the viewer really can take it all in at a glance. A good composition then leads the eye around within that rectangle. In a big diorama, the viewer cannot take it all in at once. Just as in real life, one must turn your head. Smaller pieces of the background have to work independently… and Wilsons marginal vanishing points and such do create this kind of thing. “traditional” diorama compositions are far less successful in this regard.

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