Diorama Design II

I originally thought the Point Pelee diorama was unique since there seemed to be no evidence of Wilson’s grid,  the preparatory charcoal lines that usually extend down below the level of the painting.  The grid is typically how Wilson would transfer his reference paintings or photos so the illusion of standing in the landscape would be as close to the actual experience as possible.  In my museum work, I have had the chance to get inside, behind the glass, of  many of Wilson’s dioramas.  If  I can get to the background without disturbing the fragile foreground, I try to  measure these grid marks to determine their size.   In this diorama, these lines are not easily found, but they are there.  What is seen clearly are right angle marks in charcoal with a letter and number used to identify it.   On this diorama you can see marks with labels: A2, A3, B1, B2, B3.  I think these mysterious marks correspond to Wilson’ panoramic slides.  I have seen his panoramic slide series labeled just this way.  Sean Murtha agrees and thinks he used the marks while he was painting to register is slides.  Wilson painted, referred to his slides, painted some more.  It may be that he used the registration marks to help him find exactly where he was quickly  when he looked at the slides.

Earlier, when I had missed the grid marks, I mulled over the possibility that Wilson had not used a grid.  Ray deLucia, a foreground artist at the AMNH in an interview said that he knew Wilson didn’t use a grid with some of his backgrounds, so I was thinking this might be one of those dioramas.  But the marks are there, they just don’t extend down below the painting very far.  I have studied photographs of Wilson’s next diorama work at the Boston Museum of Science-the same registration marks appear on both his scale models and the full-size dioramas.  Additionally, the grid is always present in the unpainted charcoal under-drawing.  So the registration marks and the grid coexist side-by-side.

I also kicked around the idea that Wilson may have experimented with projecting slides onto the background and contacted Nat Chard, head of the architecture department at the University of Manitoba.  Nat is maybe as obsessed about dioramas as I am and understands the mechanics and math behind James Perry Wilson’s grid method better than anyone I know.  I have pestered Nat with questions about projection perspective for many years and he has patiently explained with diagrams how it works.  So when I floated the idea that Wilson may have projected his slides to the background, he basically told me he thinks it is absurd.  The difficulty this would create with focusing each slide, the distortion that would be seen at the edges where each slide contacts the other and consequent  problem with “stitching” each slide together, and finally the inability to get an accurate angle of view,  all of these Wilson solved with his grid.  Another nail in the coffin for this idea.  It is a mystery why Ray deLucia thought Wilson would sometimes skip the grid.  I know all of his dioramas and it seems quite clear to me that they were all gridded from 1940 on.

Explore posts in the same categories: Wilson Dioramas

One Comment on “Diorama Design II”

  1. Sean Murtha Says:


    Do you have clearer photos of those marks? Is it possible that the grid is there but doesn’t extend below the painted area? I agree with Nat that projecting the slides is doubtful. (It would be interesting to hear from any other artists who have used projection, to see how they handled focusing and stitching problems.) I can’t imagine any reason why he would have changed his method, unless it was due to time-constraints or some other outside interference.


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