Archive for February 2010

Dune Contours

February 28, 2010

Cardboard cut out to simulate the dune contours

I started work today “on exhibit”.  There were a lot of people at the museum, so I got to talk to a lot.  I have decided that I will not wory about how much I get done and try to be available if anyone has questions or wants to talk.  Amazingly, I was still able to get a lot done!

As you can see from the photo, I cut some contours out of cardboard to start to plan out the look of the sand dune foreground.  When I return to work on Tuesday I will see if I want to change things before I give the cardboard to the construction shop to cut out of plywood.  They will screw the plywood to the base and I will staple on wire mesh so I can put plaster and sisal down for a strong support surface.  White glue will be spread over the plaster and sand sprinkled on to make what should look a lot like a sand dune!

Grid Math

February 26, 2010

I just went over the Point Pelee diorama and measured the spacings between the grid marks.  They range from 5″ at the center line to 5 3/8″ at the corners and 4 7/8″ at the side.  This makes sense because the closest distance to the viewer is at the sides of this diorama and therefore the grid squares would have to be the smallest there.  At the corners where the distance is the farthest from the viewer, the squares would have to be larger.  Wilson’s grid makes all  points on the grid related in this way-perfectly sized to the distance the wall is from the viewer.

So I now know some of the coordinates that can help me come up with a pretty good guess of what lens he used on his camera and the spacings he laid over his slides to make this diorama.  Backing up…Wilson’s grid is ingeniously related to his reference photos such that the viewer of the diorama is in the same relation (or angle of view) to the diorama background as Wilson was standing at the site taking his photos.   It’s as though when you stand in front of a Wilson diorama, you get to stand in his shoes in the landscape.  Wilson was producing virtual reality long before there ever was such a thing.

The mechanics of the grid are as follows:

The distance from the central viewing point to the center of the diorama wall (in this diorama that distance is 54″) and the distance between the first and second vertical (5″) is equal to the focal length of the camera and the grid spacing on his slide.

I know he used either a 50 mm or a 35 mm lens which into inches translates respectively as 2″ or 1 3/8″.  The grid for his slides was either 1/10″ or 1/8″  In this case the math indicates he used a 35mm lens, probably a stereo camera, with 1/8″ spacings over his slides. [35mm or 1 3/8″ X 5″=6.875   6.875 divided by 54=.127 (very close to 1/8″ or .125)]  Double click on the scans below and you should be able to read them:

A letter from James Perry Wilson to Thanos Johnson 2 years after he finished the Point Pelee diorama in which he describes his gridding method. Jan 4, 1966

A Surprising Discovery On the Diorama Painting

February 24, 2010

We moved the diorama shell to the Peabody today from West Campus.  It was surprisingly easy to get it loaded at West Campus, drive it over to the museum, unload it, and get it into the freight elevator-with many thanks to the detailed planning of Tony Kobylanski, mover extraordinaire!  But once we got it out of the freight elevator and into the museum it was a different story.  The diorama shell was strapped into a carrying crate that added just enough dimension that the whole thing wouldn’t go through a door into the Great Hall.  So we had to unstrap it and pick it up out of the crate.  A wooden bar was screwed to the base to keep the diorama shell from twisting.  With six guys, we were able to negotiate the first door fairly easily, but the second door into the exhibit area was more compact than the first.  We were just able to slide the diorama shell on its side and tipped back at an angle through the door.  Once in the exhibit area, we hoisted it over the rails and into place in the work area.  Thanks Rob, Walt, Maishe, and John.

John got on to a ladder and directed lights onto it and someone remarked that it looks like a religious altar.  I took some time to go over every square inch to make sure there had been no damage.  Unfortunately there were some paint chips loosened by the move that I will have to glue down, but mostly it weathered the trip well enough.  What I did notice on some areas were fuzzy black dots.  I touched one and it came off on my finger.  It was mold!  and as I looked, I noticed it was limited to only certain areas in the midground, none in the sky and none in the lower foreground.

Close-up of mold. Note the fuzzy beige mold as well!

I’ve run into mold before with some of Wilson’s easel paintings.  Wilson worked very hard to control the glossiness of his paintings.  As noted in the previous blog, he would use only turpentine in areas he wanted no gloss and, if necessary, he would use a solution of water and buttermilk to matte areas that still had some gloss.  The buttermilk not only dulls the paint, but adds a layer of protein on which the mold can attach.  In this painting, the buttermilk was applied to trees and shrubs and the mold follows these very contours.

Painting Conservation

February 23, 2010

Sunrise From Whitehead 8 August 1940, James Perry Wilson, oil on canvasboard, 12X16

We had to make a tough decision today to not hang one of JP Wilson’s best paintings because the paint in the sky was flaking and might be damaged in the public gallery.  Wilson painted his skies with oil paint thinned with turpentine only.  This gives the sky a very matte finish which enhances the illusion of atmospheric depth.  Below the horizon, he would sometimes mix his paint with an oil medium that imparts a glossier finish and works well in the stronger values of the foreground area.

Oil medium acts as a binder that adds a flexible, rubbery quality to the paint , lengthening its lifespan.  By using only turpentine, Wilson made a drier paint with less binder to hold it together which, as we see here, sometimes starts to crack and break apart over time.

Close-up of the cracking sky in Wilson's painting.

Wilson painted the same way in his diorama painting.  All paint above the horizon was mixed only with turpentine, below he might use an oil medium.  There have been problems over time with paint flaking in the Peabody dioramas, but not like the kind seen in the smaller paintings.   My guess is that the paint was applied more thickly in the dioramas and the shells are more stable than the canvasboards of the smaller paintings.  The damage seen in the dioramas is usually caused by other factors like an external water leak or the canvas glued to the shell underneath pulling away.  I always dread diorama repairs like this because matching his sky paint is almost impossible and I won’t even try.  If I ever have to fix the sky, I search high and low for any fragments of the paint that may have fallen off into the foreground and try to glue them back or we hire a professional painting conservator to repair it correctly.

Warbler Work

February 18, 2010

Top view of the warbler carving finely painted by Dorie. No feathers yet-stay tuned!

Dorie Petrochko has been busy painting and experimenting with feather placement on the bird models.  She is getting some good results, though I am not certain we are there yet.  This is a very shallow diorama and the models, if we us them, have to be in the realm of unbelievable quality.  I know from previous experience that good carving and painting don’t cut it when you can get a close look of the models (They work beautifully in the distance).  Therefore we are trying to glue feathers to the model to soften the harder lines of the carving.  This is a huge challenge and will take some significant R & D.  If it works, we will have something we can use in many ways throughout the museum-not just in the dioramas.

Dorie is making a silicone mold of the beak on the taxidermy mount. Epoxy will be cast into this tiny mold. The epoxy cast of the beak will be glued into the carving. The lengths we have to go to!

J.P.Wilson’s 1944 Observations of New Haven

February 12, 2010

Photo taken by James Perry Wilson 9th of October 1944

James Perry Wilson had come to New Haven in September of 1944 to begin working on the Shoreline diorama.  The diorama background had been painted with the final coat of Permalba white oil paint that would take several weeks to dry.  He had just spent a week working on the miniature model and wanted to start on the full scale work as soon as the paint dried.  Because this group was comprised of three landscapes, the composition of the miniature model would take two more weeks of meetings and changes with Peabody Museum curators.  In his spare time, Wilson walked the Yale campus looking at the architecture and taking roll after roll of slide film.  It was during this time that I think he developed his final mature photographic grid ideas that would appear for the first time in the 1947 Beaver group at the American Museum of Natural History.    The following are his notes about architecture in New Haven and Yale campus (Letter to Thanos A Johnson Oct. 18, 1944)

“Now for a few observations on New Haven,  If you look at a map of the city, you notice the fact that in the center of town the streets form an exact square, from which the rest of the city radiates.  This square is apparently the oldest part of the city.  It is like this:

The two shaded blocks in the middle of the square form the Green.  What gives this Green its unique character is the fact that in one block, as indicated, are three churches in a row.  The center and right-hand ones are Colonial buildings, of red brick with white trim and spires.  The left-hand one, built later, is Gothic.  Since they have an open block in front of them, they can be seen from some distance all around, and form a striking feature.  The University centers around the area to the West of the Green, but spreads out a considerable distance in various directions.  Peabody, itself is a part of the university, and there are other halls around it.  Yale was founded in 1701 and one of the original buildings survives, Connecticut Hall, a red brick Georgian structure of pleasing character.  Practically all the other buildings are much newer, and there was apparently tremendous building activity and an unlimited supply of money, after 1900.  The result is a large number of Collegiate Gothic buildings, very consistent and harmonious in character, and truly magnificent in lavishness with which they were carried out.  Almost all of these are built of a stone of rich yellowish tone, sometimes almost rust color….In some of the recent buildings they have departed from the Gothic theme to revert to Georgian brick, with very pleasing results.

Peabody was also built in the Gothic vein (unusual for a museum)…In contrast to the vast sums lavished on the other buildings, Peabody was a sort of stepchild.  It happened to come along just at a time when sharp economies became necessary.  After the plans had been approved, orders were issued demanding that costs be reduced 20%.  This necessitated cheapening materials, etc. and has since caused endless trouble.  For example, $10,000 was saved by using a poorer quality brick than originally specified.  To date, they have spent $50,000 trying to repair the damages caused by leakage!”

Progress update

February 11, 2010

The last week has been busy.  Kevin and I have been sculpting False Solomon Seal leaves and together we produced one more clay form with a dozen new leaves.  I put silicone rubber over it today and will finish the mold on Thursday when I return after the snowstorm!  I also tried another casting test with 5 minute epoxy.  I mixed up a fairly large batch of epoxy and added a small amount of green oil paint.  This makes a nice translucent green casting material that I hope I can use for the leaves of the Solomon Seal.  The epoxy goes into the rubber mold with a layer of fiberglas fibers, but comes out unacceptably glossy.  To matte it down, I added dry green pigment while the surface is still tacky and today, I even added powdered sugar over the surface and the surface turned perfectly matte.   I haven’t given up on translucently colored hot glue as a casting material, but I haven’t had another chance to test it.  It takes time and tends to be quite fussy.  Most preparators use vacuform leaves when making a diorama, but the vacuform plastics are all clear.  I haven’t yet learned how to paint clear acetate extrinsically so it doesn’t go opaque.  Does anyone out there have a technique for this?   My experimentation casting intrinsically colored materials is because I don’t hold out much hope for extrinsic painting giving me the translucence I want.

Epoxy leaves-getting the translucency but more "bugs" to work out.

Dorie has come by and shown me progress on the painting of the cast of the black-throated blue warbler.  She says she is having trouble with the vinyl paint drying too quickly.  I bought acrylic retardant for her to experiment with so we’ll see if that helps.  Dorie and I discussed the thickness of the paint.  She thinks that if she paints too thickly, she loses the feather texture in the carving, but I thought from looking at examples of the quality of her painting work, that skillful painting can hint at feather textures possibly better even than the carved texture.

Three painted juniper branches. All color on these branches is oil paint.

Alexis has been working on the juniper and has knocked out all 3 branches that I collected from Stony Creek in December.  A friend was visiting today and I told him how these branches are completely covered with oil paint.  He couldn’t believe it.  He questioned me about the gradation from dark green to a more yellow green at the tips of the needles.  “All oil paint,” I answered.  “And the branches change color too?” he asked.   “Same thing, I replied.  Just skillful painting.”  I have to get more of the branches from the freezer so she can start on those on Thursday.

Freeze-drying juniper branches-what remains to be painted by Alexis!