A Surprising Discovery On the Diorama Painting

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.

Explore posts in the same categories: Wilson Dioramas

3 Comments on “A Surprising Discovery On the Diorama Painting”

  1. Dorie Says:

    Very interisting about the buttermilk. I am surprised the painting lasted this
    long condsidering the mold’s love of protein ! Where were the conservators
    on this one ?

  2. Sean Murtha Says:


    I’ve always wondered (and worried) about the long-term effects of buttermilk (or any other organic material used in a diorama). When restoring the old dioramas at the Vanderbilt museum last spring, I considered it but only for a moment; those had so many problems that I didn’t want to add any other variables! (Those backgrounds probably used standard oil mediums, and no stipple-brushes, so glare was an ever-present issue). I’ve avoided buttermilk in my own dioramas too, but had to use it on the Tiger shark at AMNH, which was very dark and strangely lit, so we’ll have to keep an eye on that one!
    As for this Wilson, I’m surprised he had shine problems on an area so far below the horizon… usually matting a dark area makes it look too pale. Curious…


    • Sean, The buttermilk is in an mid-area that has some atmospheric effect-it seems to work well there-though when you see it you will be able to judge for yourself. I’m looking forward to having your eyes on it.

      I’m finding I can use a brush to get the majority of the mold dust off, but it leaves a dot of black which seems to come off with a slightly enzymatic solution (spit!) I don’t think that’s going in the blog!!! Michael

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