Archive for the ‘Wilson Dioramas’ category

Love of Painting

March 5, 2010

Plein air painting by James Perry Wilson, oil on mahogany board 8X10

I had an interesting conversation with a musician in the exhibit the other day.  He talked about how inspired the plein air paintings were to him.  I was telling him that Wilson would go out to his favorite painting sites and paint studies like these in a couple of hours.  I have interviewed several friends who went out with him to paint.  They describe a painter with a singular focus.  He would start to paint with his knees slightly bent and would not move for several hours until the painting was finished.

We talked about how an artist can go into the “zone” where everything drops away and hours can pass without notice.  It seems clear that from the description of other painters and the look of these paintings that Wilson would drop into the “zone” more often than not while painting.  And what I mean by the look of these paintings is  that they all seem to have an intimate quality as if Wilson had made a deep connection with the landscape.

Tetons at Sunset, 19 September 1938 by James Perry Wilson oil on canvas board 12X16

It’s ironic to me that other diorama artists thought Wilson’s high realism and use of perspective grids and photographs deadened his artistic impressions of the places he was painting.  Exactly the opposite seems to have happened.  Because of the verity of the landscape, Wilson’s attention to detail, and the deep connection he seemed to make while there, his dioramas breathe life and spirit like no others.  The musician and I wondered about whether he ever wrote or talked about this spiritual quality people seem to feel looking at his paintings.  I have found nothing and so I hesitate to write about it since it is conjectural.  His apprentice, Fred Scherer told me he had never heard Wilson talk about it, but he was sure that he was thinking that way.  One thing that is clear is that Wilson’s dioramas are really in a category of his own.


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.

Diorama Design II

January 10, 2010

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.

Diorama Design

January 2, 2010

I have been e-mailing my friend and accomplished diorama painter, Sean Murtha, about comparing the design of traditional natural history dioramas with those of James Perry Wilson.  Sean repainted most of the dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Ocean Life in 2003 and understands the practical problems as well as the uniqueness of painting on curved walls in dioramas.  Sean also is an avid student of James Perry Wilson and responds quickly when I bring Wilson into the conversation!  Sean and my e-mail messages are included at the end of this blog, but I will try to summarize so you can decide if you want to read the whole thing.

Wilson understood that the perspective of a diorama could be significantly different than that of an easel painting if its coordinates were plotted correctly.  Wilson developed a gridding system that put the viewer in the same relation (or the same angle of view) that he actually had at the site when painting his reference painting and taking panoramic photographs.    Wilson was producing “virtual experiences”  for museum visitors as far back as the mid 1940’s!  Most other diorama artists were trying to get the same thing with their artistic intuition, but without the system of grids, the wings of the diorama conspired against them to wrap with the physical wall of the background.   So they tried to hide them with hills, mountains, rock outcroppings, trees, bushes, or whatever they could find.  Many of the traditional diorama designs hid the edges and produced a viewing “alley” down to the center of the diorama where the long distant view could be seen without distortion on the center (usually flat) wall.   Wilson, as he gained confidence in his system, painted some long distant views right on the encroaching side walls and probably felt great delight to see them contradict the physical surface of the wall and recede into the distance.  Peabody’s Bighorn Sheep diorama has a mountain valley confidently stretching off for miles and miles that Wilson painted on a wall merely 10′ from the glass.  No other diorama artist was attempting this and it is what makes Wilson’s dioramas distinctive.

That said, Wilson would still use a traditional design.  The Point Pelee background is one of those more traditionally designed with a wooded edge to the right and a small hill starting to the left.  

This photo shows a close up of the right side of the Pt. Pelee diorama shell. Wilson produced a visual wall with the sand dune, trees, and bushes which forces the view into the center and the long focus on the sea in the distance.


I am especially intrigued by the design of dioramas.  The classic design is the long vista out front and either rocks, jungle, bush, hills hiding the sides.   I think Wilson was really playing with that standard and trying to do something more interesting at the edges.  It’s something I am trying to understand better.  If you want to tell me your thoughts or write about the practicalities of painting a background, I’ll include it.


I am intrigued by your thoughts about Wilson and his “edges”… I had never thought much about it before but once I read it I thought “aha…” because I recognized my own “standard” approach to it. I think most diorama painters, myself included, approach them like, well, just big paintings, and compose them as such, whether deliberately through training or intuitively. Most paintings attempt to draw the eye inward… it’s a “no -no” to pull the eye out towards the edge. But you’re right… Wilson was willing and able to break those rules, realizing that to simulate the real world, space extends outward in ALL DIRECTIONS. What wouldn’t work in an easel painting works in a diorama, because, in breaking with the visual rules that govern most art, it removes another obstacle to our suspension of belief. One of the marks of a Wilson diorama is that the viewer WANTS to crane his/her neck to look around the frame (and is often rewarded for doing so– I think of the bison at the AMNH, and one of my favorite trees, visible far to the right in the White Rhino group). Interestingly, it is only in the larger dioramas, where you need to turn your head to see the whole thing, that he does this in… all of the smaller dioramas I can think of right now are traditional in design, with a strong central focus and little distraction at the edge, and these were the ones I always looked at more as “paintings”, the ones I went to study when I was struggling with a particular problem.  Perhaps it was his lack of formal training, which you discuss in his bio, that enabled him to “break the rules” so willingly.  But I think it more likely that (since his small paintings show a thorough command of composition), he understood all of this and had given great thought to the notion that a diorama had its own goals and its own unique rules.


About this edge thing, another diorama that makes me think of this is the beaver diorama at the AMNH.  If you look at the right corner there is a funny drop off to the water that I don’t think works very well, but it breaks the classic rules dramatically.  Our Bighorn sheep diorama is the one that works successfully at the edge with the long valley going off into the distance on a wall that is merely 10’ from the window.  Now that I think of it, the Shoreline has Long Island Sound on the left wall with nothing to hide it.


Mentioning the Peabody bighorn sheep reminds me of the Jeffrey Pine diorama in the forestry hall at the AMNH, the big conifers on the edge of a mountainous valley. To the left, you’ve got the open valley, mountains receding into the glare of the sun, and to the right, the long shadows of the trees running back in perfect perspective to that beautifully painted fire-scorched trunk. That painting has in effect two clear and opposite vanishing points, both at or just beyond the frame. That always blew my mind and now I have a better understanding of why.


The crux of what I’m saying is that every other diorama painter seems to have approached the diorama using the same rules they learned for painting a flat rectangular canvas– to compose entirely within the frame. Even when working in plein air, an artist is selective; what portion of the panorama before you do you choose, for one, and then smaller adjustments to make the painting work AS A PAINTING. Wilson’s plein air work follows this, but he seems to me to have realized that a diorama background painting has a different purpose, and did not hesitate to break the traditional rules of composition to achieve this. In some of the examples we have talked about, he seems to be playing very boldly AGAINST the rules, especially the rule that says that nothing should pull your eye OUT of the painting. I don’t think he did this merely out of fidelity to nature, but rather I think he realized that subconciously we recognize a “traditional” composition as a painting, but by breaking out of that mold he messes with that recognition; in other words our brain shifts from “viewing art” mode to “viewing nature” mode. And by drawing our eye to the edges, with obvious visual vanishing points  or other interesting distractions, he beckons us to imagine more just out of sight– just like looking out a window. I may be crazy but I think there is something to this. It truly is “art concealing art”.

One more thing… in a normal flat painting, the viewer really can take it all in at a glance. A good composition then leads the eye around within that rectangle. In a big diorama, the viewer cannot take it all in at once. Just as in real life, one must turn your head. Smaller pieces of the background have to work independently… and Wilsons marginal vanishing points and such do create this kind of thing. “traditional” diorama compositions are far less successful in this regard.

Publication: A Diorama Takes Shape: Bringing the Genius of James Perry Wilson To Life

December 9, 2009

Illustration of the Yale Divinity School in a letter to Thanos Johnson 10 November 1944.

From 1944 to 1945, Wilson wrote, what was almost daily letters to Thanos Johnson, a young private in the US army, describing, in detail, his progress working at the Peabody Museum.  The letters are wide ranging, discussing , not only diorama work, but also architecture, music, and photography.  They were saved by Thanos and given to me in the late 1990’s.  They are the best description I have ever found of what Wilson did to create his extraordinary background paintings and they tell specifically the story of what is arguably the best diorama by Wilson, the Shoreline diorama.

I have been working with our publications editor, Rosemary Volpe and Sally Pallatto, our graphics wizard to create a publication to be sold with the upcoming exhibit.  The booklet will have a section on the Point Pelee diorama with information about the bird migration that streams through every year in the spring and the fall (written by my wife, Celia Lewis).  There will be a brief section describing the other Peabody dioramas and there will be an article, written by me about the creation of the first Wilson diorama at the Peabody, The Shoreline group.  The text relies heavily on Wilson’s letters to Thanos Johnson.

I am also publishing my biography about Wilson on the Peabody website.  The first chapter about his early years is up and on view at