Wilson On-site Painting

JP wilson painting on-site for the Jeffrey Pine diorama AMNH circa 1954

JP wilson painting on-site for the Jeffrey Pine diorama AMNH, circa 1954 Same painting, different day?

The following is a recent e-mail exchange between me and Sean Murtha:

I was going through my photos today getting ready for a presentation and discovered an interesting pair of photos of Wilson painting at the Jeffrey Pine site.  check out these two photos (I’ve cropped them down so you can see what he is painting):

My sense of this that clearly, they are the same painting and he is working on them either at different times of the day (cool morning, hot afternoon) or on different days.  What is interesting though is that he has positioned the easel in a completely different spot at a different angle to the first photo.  I think by this time, the painting is being used only as a color reference and he is using panoramic photographs for the projection to the diorama background.  Maybe he is getting more information about the trees, but I also think that he has got the curved plane in mind.  What do you think?

Sean’s reply:


Yes, this is great!  I agree that he is rotating his view… I suppose working on a curved canvas is impractical, so he is moving the easel to follow the rotation of his body. Furthermore, as described below, I think the canvas was “following the sun” (perhaps better to say “following the shade”), pivoting like a sundial so that the sun never fell on it directly.  The jacket/no shirt thing is interesting, and I would be more inclined to think they were on different days rather than morning/afternoon.  The direction and quality of the light is so important in that painting, and (assuming it’s afternoon) the morning light would be from a completely different angle, coming from behind and falling straight on the canvas, which I know from experience is an impossible situation.  I know Wilson understood light and shadows well enough to compensate, but in the “jacket” photo you can make out some shadowed rocks beyond the painting that are a pretty good match for what’s on the canvas. The light in the “jacket” photo is fairly high and slightly to the left, and the canvas is angled to JUST MISS getting sun on it… notice the brush is in full sun, and there is a taped-on picture or something above the canvas which appears to cast a shadow on the support bar of the easel, just below the canvas. The “shirtless” photo appears to be about the time of day indicated in the diorama.  My guess is that the “jacket” photo was taken in early afternoon (on a cooler day) with the sun just west of south and the “shirtless” photo late afternoon with the sun in the west, but he’d have to be pretty fast to have done all that in one day!  I’d love to see the un-cropped photos… they might clarify the situation.

Another possibility just occurred to me… the shirtless photo looks candid but the “jacket” photo looks “set-up” (having been involved in quite a few of these myself, I’ve come to recognize them!), in which case all of the above is nonsense.  The above sounds better, though.

Thats my 2 cents.


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