Archive for the ‘Diorama History’ category

Wilson On-site Painting

March 26, 2010

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.



“Bird’s Eye” Viewpoint

March 22, 2010

Close up of grasses painted in the Florida Everglades diorama at the Peabody Museum

My friend and fellow sculptor, Bob Taplin visited me in the exhibit Saturday.  Bob has done some forced perspective relief sculpting and recently had an exhibit at MassMoca of several intriguing miniature dioramas using Dante’s Inferno as a starting point.  He has grappled with odd perspectives and was a great help analyzing the background painting with me.  I started by showing him the grass conundrum.  We took a walk up to the Florida Everglades diorama to see another Wilson group with tall grasses.  This was instructive because the Fl. Everglades has the tall grasses painted life size and they come up just under the horizon all the way into the distance.  The viewpoint is almost at water level, right down with the viewer’s feet muddy in the marsh, .  This confirms that the viewpoint in the painted background in Point Pelee is from a high point looking down because the grasses would be painted the same way as the Everglades painting if we were on the same level as them.

But then Bob had a very interesting observation.  With the sand dune at waist level, the only way the horizon line could be where it is at 62″ off the ground, the viewer would have to be SITTING or KNEELING in the dunes.  We went upstairs again and I realized that all the other dioramas are created such that the viewer has the illusion that one could step right into the diorama.  The opening of the window starts a little over a foot off the ground and the eye level is at a normal height to the viewer to enhance this illusion.   In the Point Pelee diorama, the viewing window will start at about 36″, very different than most other dioramas.

The "visible" artist! taken show the relationship of the viewer to the landscape in the Pt. Pelee diorama.

The only other dioramas with this kind of elevated window that I know of is in the American Museum in New York in the Small Mammal dioramas.  I remember that the effect in that hall is that you are in a very intimate relationship with the animals.  You are right down on your hands and knees in the dirt with them (or sand in our case).  This is brilliant diorama planning to bring the focus down onto the smaller mammals and birds.

I received this update from Steve Quinn at the AMNH on March 25th:

Hi Mike,

The height of the viewing windows for the groups here at AMNH are pretty
variable. I just did a quick run about to give you some accurate numbers.

Akeley Hall of African Mammals – all windows start at 18″ – most of the
group have their habitats constructed on the existing floor level (same
level as the public is standing on) but some have the habitat built down
below floor grade (mountain gorilla, waterhole, upper nile, colobus, etc.).
The horizon is still plotted at 62″ or 63″ but the lower habitat creates
more of a birds eye view (colobus, waterhole) or a drop in elevation
(gorilla,nile). I think it’s nice when you have the option of going below
floor grade in the foreground when your designing from scratch.

Small Mammal Corridor – start at 34″ ( Pine Marten, ermine, flying
squirrel, etc.) and 24″ (Badger, Wolverine, etc.)

North American Mammals – all large groups start at 18″ (wapiti, grizzly,
bison, jaquar, coyote, etc.) and the smaller group in the side corridors
(raccoon, mountain beaver, jackrabbit, ringtail,etc.) start at 30″. All
horizons at 62″ off the floor.

Whitney Hall of Oceanic Birds – all groups start at 30″. All horizons
plotted at approx. 62 (Jaques)

So, the heights are variable, but the larger groups are like ours here at the Peabody, starting about 18″ off the ground.  I forgot that the windows of the corridor dioramas had higher levels.  So this isn’t as unusual as I first thought it to be.  But interesting nonetheless!

Hairy Pucoon and Shitake Mushrooms

March 18, 2010

Today I finished one of the molds for the hairy pucoon leaves.  I mix 5 minute epoxy with oil paint to get a translucent colored cast which seems to work quite well if you don’t have access to a vacuform machine, maybe better. I mix the epoxy and get it into the mold, add a layer of fine fiberglas, slap the vaseline covered cast into the mold and clamp it-all before 5 minutes is up.  I wait 30 minutes so the epoxy sets well and unclamp it.  The epoxy always sticks to the vaseline covered cast  and I have to pry it loose.  Today to unstick the epoxy  I used a tool with a sharp point to loosen the edge and as you might guess, I jabbed it deep into one of my fingers.  Without hesitation I yelled out the 4 letter version of shitake mushrooms and ran for the bathroom to wash it.  (My sincere apologies to anyone who might have been in the gallery.)  This is where the reality of working in front of the public gets a little raw.  I’m so used to working alone.  I sing, talk to myself and occasionally an expletive erupts without anyone there to take note (at least I think this is so!).

On a similar note, Ray deLucia told me a story about working with William R. Leigh, one of the highly talented diorama painters from the 1930’s at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.  He told me this story:

“Leigh was very profane.  He was up painting on the 3rd floor corridor and he was talking with someone.  He was really mad-you could hear him saying g..damn this and f… this and that.  He had this stentorian voice and it traveled.  I was up on the 3rd floor and I looked up over the edge just to see if anyone was listening.  There was a crowd of people below looking up at me.  I could tell they thought I was the one cursing.  I quickly ducked back down and made my escape.”

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!”

Ray deLucia

December 23, 2009

Ray deLucia working in Peabody's Rainforest diorama, June 1991

Ray deLucia was one of those unforgettable characters that one runs into working in a museum.  Sporting a handlebar mustache and goatee and always quick with a laugh, Ray worked at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York from the time he graduated from Yale art school in 1938 to when he retired in 1978.  He was a talented foreground artist who had a hand in the fabrication of a significant number of the AMNH’s extraordinary dioramas.  He had a theatrical flair for creating the three-dimensional trees, rocks, cacti, you name it, Ray could make it.  His 40 year tenure at the AMNH overlapped with James Perry Wilson’s from 1938 to 1957.  They traveled together on museum expeditions all over the United States collecting material for the Mule Deer, Coyote, Jaguar groups, to name a few.  Later, Ray continued to work with Wilson on the Peabody dioramas, coming to New Haven to collect foreground material for the Forest Margin diorama and to help paint the bog diorama on his vacations and weekends.    During my tenure, Ray came to the Peabody from 1990-1996 to clean and conserve Peabody’s 11 dioramas.  This was a great opportunity for me to work with Ray and learn everything I could about our dioramas from one of the AMNH “old-timers”.  Ralph Morrill, Peabody’s preparator, was my primary mentor with the Peabody dioramas, but Ray rounded out my training.

While working together on the Peabody bog diorama, Ray told me the secret of how to preserve the small spruce shrub in the foreground by spraying it with latex to hold the needles in place while it dried. (see yesterday’s entry for details)  Ray would pepper his conversations with funny anecdotes of working at the AMNH.  Here is the one he told me then.

All the preparators at the AMNH were underpaid and hungry to work on outside jobs to make a little extra money.  The administration drew up specific rules for doing outside work, but for the most part, condoned the extra work.  Ray received a call from a theatre company looking for a small evergreen tree as a prop in a play.   Ray had done this kind of work before in the dioramas and took the job.  Typically, these calls come in at the 11th hour and this was no exception.  Ray had to go out, cut the tree, spray it with latex and paint it in a short period of time.  While preparators grumble about the short notice, they generally also double the fee!  Ray worked all day and late the night before the tree was to be dropped off.  Everything was going well and the final job was to drill a hole in the tree trunk and screw it to a plywood base.  As Ray drilled into the trunk, the drill caught on the green wood and the whole tree spun violently in his hand.  The latex is good for drying needles, but won’t withstand a good spin.  All the needles flew off in all directions and he was left holding a bare tree!  It was midnight and the deadline for drop off was the next morning.  Ray spent the rest of the night gluing individual needles onto twigs.  He dropped off a very sorry looking tree the next morning, but as is the case with a lot of preparation work, the client was happy and Ray (who knew better!) got paid!