New Foreground Material

Posted April 10, 2010 by Michael Anderson
Categories: Preparing the Foreground

Wax flowers and epoxy leaves make up the Hairy Pucoon model

Work has continued to progress even though I haven’t had time to keep the blog up to date.  I have been working on the Hairy Pucoon model and have gotten one sprig finished far enough so it only needs some wax work, a final light painting, and hair!  I would like to finish two more sprigs so I can paint them all at once.  The leaves are cast in epoxy mixed with a small amount of green oil paint.  Wires are glued to the back and they are  inserted onto a wire “stem” using plastic tubing.  All the leaves are finished with green wax to bring it up to a high level of finish.  The flowers and sepals are made with wax, very carefully put on wire and inserted at the top.  They are quite fragile.  After I get to applying the final layer of paint, I will cover the leaves and stem with matte medium and blow a finely chopped fiberglas over it to simulate the hair that covers the actual wildflower.

The model in the foreground. Note the space between the foreground and background.

I have added more plaster to the dunes to soften the contour, but I think I am closing in on the final look of the dune.  Note that there is a space of approx 1″ between the foreground and the background so no shadows are cast at that junction.  This was a trick developed in the early 1900’s by diorama artists at the American Museum in New York.  Any shadows cast on the background painting kill the illusion of three dimensionality.  Lighting has yet to be put into the Point Pelee diorama, so you will still see all kinds of shadows at this time.


Dune contour change III

Posted March 27, 2010 by Michael Anderson
Categories: Preparing the Foreground

Finn mixing plaster. Blue insulation foam used to build up low areas.

I work in fits and starts.  I mentioned in an earlier blog that my sculptor friend Bob Taplin visited me last Saturday and thought I should frame the viewing window so I can see what will be seen and from what vantage.  I had the Peabody construction shop build the frame and they came down and installed it on Weds.  I could immediately see that my dune contours were off.  The high point on the right was too high and the low gully through the middle was too low.  So Thursday, I knew I had to re-do it, but I sulked around hoping I could find a way not to have to re-do it and I worked on the wildflowers instead.   On Friday I had to face the inevitable and I started to tear the foreground down so I could make a new one.  I pulled out a clump of grass, removed the juniper and got my sawzall out.  I carved away from the top of the high area and built up the low areas with blue insulation foam.  This morning everything was ready and my son, Finn and I got in early and plastered up a new dune.

Finn smooths plaster. (Note how the gloves from the first photo have disappeared)

Wilson On-site Painting

Posted March 26, 2010 by Michael Anderson
Categories: Diorama History

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

Posted March 22, 2010 by Michael Anderson
Categories: Diorama History, Preparing the Foreground

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!


Posted March 18, 2010 by Michael Anderson
Categories: Preparing the Foreground

Less than a week ago I blogged about how quickly the foreground was moving along…This Tuesday, Patrick Sweeney, from the Peabody herbarium, came down to look at how I had placed the grasses and he pointed out a problem that I think I didn’t want to see.  He said that the grasses in the foreground were twice the size of the painted grasses and he thought the tie-in was not convincing for this reason.  My talented volunteer, Michael Bobbie was listening and he agreed.  Patrick and Michael suggested that maybe the perspective was from a high dune looking down.   After discussing it further, I decided to try out the high dune effect.  Michael and I pulled the foreground away from the background and I removed all the grasses and the juniper I had installed earlier.  Then we got some blue insulation foam and cut out some contours that looked like they might work as a form for the higher dune.  We put the foam right on top of the old dune, mixed plaster again, dipped sisal into the plaster again, and covered the substructure AGAIN.  By the end of the afternoon we had the plaster painted and covered with sand blending in with last week’s work.

I needed a day on Wednesday to look at it and react to the change.  I decided it was good, so today I began adding grass, but not in the place where it had been.  This time I focused on the painted clump to the left.

New grass

Then right at the end of the day, I decided to get more juniper and install that on the far right hand side.  All of juniper is still in the freezer, so I had to retrieve a piece and bring it up to the diorama.  It is unpainted, but as you may remember from an earlier blog, it has already been sprayed with latex rubber to hold the needles in place.  With a cut here and a drill hole there, I installed the new, dull-looking juniper branch and reinstalled the other branches.  It is easily removed for painting.  I think Alexis, another talented volunteer, is going to have to paint some more juniper!

Newly installed juniper branch.

I think this is looking hopeful.  If I put grass in this area to the right it will be away from the background and closer to the front.  We’ll try that and see if it works visually.  Nothing is sacred.  I will keep changing things until you can hear the warblers sing!!!.

Hairy Pucoon and Shitake Mushrooms

Posted March 18, 2010 by Michael Anderson
Categories: Diorama History, Preparing the Foreground

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.”

Tiny Flowers

Posted March 16, 2010 by Michael Anderson
Categories: Preparing the Foreground

Stellated False Solomon Seal flower made from hot melt glue and an insect pin.

I have been working out the fine details of the Stellated False Solomon Seal wildflower.  I had to brainstorm a way to make the tiny flowers only 1/4″ across.  I am again coming up against the problem of translucency.  Translucency is important, it’s what makes a flower look like a flower.  Diorama foreground artists have typically used wax to make flowers and wax is a very good translucent solution-except when you get this small…Gay Malin, a recently retired preparator and artist from the Albany State Museum, taught me how to use a material called Elvax many years ago.  It is essentially hot melt glue in pellets.  It has all the translucency of wax but more resiliency and flexibility.  I melted some Elvax on a sheet of aluminum at about 300ºF and mixed in a wisp of white oil paint so it would remain translucent.  I then re-melted it (it cools very fast) into very thin whitish sheets that I peeled off the aluminum (pre-treated with vaseline).  I then used a scalpel and a metal ruler to slice off 1mm wide strips.  These were then cut into approx 3-4mm lengths.

1mm strip for petal making

I put a #1 insect pin in my vise.  I pick the elvax “petals” up with a forceps which is fun because they like to escape by springing out of the forceps onto the floor.  I use a wood burning tool that has a rheostat set at a low temperature and just touch the end of the “petal” to the insect pin to glue it in place.  After 6 petals, I add tubing to the insect pin and consolidate them into a cluster and I’ve got my flower.  I will heat another insect pin and use it to melt a spot at the middle of each to pull up tiny elvax stamens.  I’ve been telling people that this is the limit of my eyesight and patience for small work.

A cluster in the making.