Monday, January 12, 2009

James Perry Wilson’s Dioramas, Part 2

In the midst of World Wart II, a young soldier wrote a series of letters to James Perry Wilson, painter of the illusionistic diorama backdrops for the American Museum of Natural History in New York (see yesterday's post). Mr. Wilson replied with valuable insights about his approach to color and atmosphere:

“It is one of the fundamental principles of aerial perspective that the dark tones of a landscape are the first ones affected by the interposed veil of atmosphere.

“A green tree in the foreground, for instance, will appear dark green in the shadows; but you don’t have to get very far away from it before that green disappears entirely, especially if you are looking toward the sun. In the middle distance the shadow areas in the foliage will take on a violet tone, while the sunlit parts are only a little cooler green than they are close up.

“At a distance of several miles this violet will become more and more blue. By this time air will have begun to affect the sunlit parts also, and the green will begin to disappear. A forest-covered mountain fifteen or twenty miles away, in clear air, will probably appear of a violet hue; but if it is fifty or sixty miles, it will be a clear pale blue.

“Another thing to remember is the effect of air on values. Here again it is the darkest tones that are affected first. The deep shadows and the halftones melt together, while the detail is still distinct in the highlights. As the distance increases, both dark and light objects approach the sky in value; but the light objects will hold out the longest.

Objects lighter than the sky grow darker as they recede, instead of lighter, and they grow warmer instead of cooler. You can observe this on a clear day when there are cumulus clouds in the sky. As the clouds recede they become yellowish, and those away off in the distance will be pinkish. (Note: the above image is the painted background from a Peabody Museum diorama.)

“The reason for this diverse behavior of light and dark objects is to be found in the fact that the air absorbs and scatters light of the shorter wavelengths toward the blue and violet end of the spectrum, while transmitting the reds and yellows whose wavelength is longer. Toward sunset, when the slanting rays of sunlight have to traverse a thicker layer of air, still longer wavelengths are filtered out and the sun appears red.

“Do you remember the band of pinkish light across the top of the mountain in the Jaguar group? What happens here is that all the blues are filtered out high up in the sky, and by the time the sunlight reaches the lower air and falls in front of the mountain, it is decidedly reddish. So you are looking at the mountain through a reddish veil instead of a bluish one.

“The most important thing to remember in painting a sunset effect is to keep all your tones harmonious and consistent. And if you have bright clouds, yellow or rose-colored in the blue sky, don’t paint your sky too blue. Keep the blue very quiet. That way your clouds will appear much more brilliant and luminous.”

Color Palettes
According to his assistant, Ruth Morrill, Wilson used the following nine colors, along with Permalba white.

Ultramarine blue
Cobalt blue
Windsor blue
Cadmium yellow pale
Cadmium yellow deep
Yellow Ochre
Indian red
Cadmium scarlet
Alizarin crimson

“He could make anything he wanted from those colors,” Ruth Morrill said. He did not use black and only rarely used browns. He regularly premixed graduated tints of each of the primaries on his palette before commencing to paint.

According to one of Wilson’s letters, the entire distance of the Connecticut shoreline diorama (above) was painted with ultramarine, light red and yellow ochre. “It is astonishing what variety you can get with these three,” he wrote, “especially since both the red and the yellow are rather subdued colors. I recommend your experimenting to see what you can do with just these three. They are bound to impart a mellow quality to the greens, which is a good thing.”
More information
As blog reader Armand Cabrera pointed out, there’s a good article on JPW in American Art Review, December 2000. There’s another detailed article in the Peabody Museum publication Curator, October 2000. Both articles are written by Michael Anderson, who has compiled 20 years of research about Wilson. I am grateful to him and Ruth Morrill for sharing their unpublished interview material.

Jaguar image courtesy Supreme Fiction, which has an interview with Stephen Quinn about the art of the diorama, link.


JohnB said...

A fascinating post. His painting of the Connecticut countryside is as strong an argument for the effectiveness of a limited palette as I can imagine.

An artist friend in Connecticut has an original Perry Wilson landscape in his dining room of some second growth spring woods and the depth he achieves from his use of color is nothing short of mesmerizing. It is in a somewhat looser style than his dioramas, but his sure sense of color and design is all there.

Kellie Marian Hill said...

I'm so glad you posted this.... his work is so beautiful! Every now and then I know I'll make excuses for myself, "well, maybe that just can't be done in paint"- and there's always something like this that will put everything in perspective, make me realize how much is possible and how far I have to go as an artist. In an encouraging way :)

Unknown said...


Thanks for posting this . His work is inspiring and his color theory is something I am going to think about.

Thank You also for listing his color palette...especially the 3 colors used to produce a painting. Wow.

LuisNCT said...

Thanks a lot for that two last posts. I didn't know Mr.Wilson's work but, if I travel anytime to NY, one of the first things I'll do is going to the natural history museum to look his work.
And all his words about light, atmosphere and color are very clarifying.

craigstephens said...

Wow, lot's of great information there. Thanks for posting that!

jeff said...

Great post. I was reading Principles of Color by Faber Birren and the ideas James Wilson uses for atmospheric perspective is pretty much the same as what I was reading.
It's also how Frank Mason describes how to make things recede.

Violet/gray into a blue/gray.

His choice of blues is good, Cobalt, Ultramarine and Phthalo.

I always have Yellow Ocher on my palette it's a very versatile color and it is a good low chroma combination with Cadmium Yellow.

Jeff Z said...

This post is pure, unadulterated 24K gold. Thanks so much Mr. G!

Unknown said...

What superb technique to be able to achieve such an illusion. Thank you for posting these!

innisart said...

Wonderful information! Thank you for doing the research to post this!

Mary Bullock said...

One of the best posts I have ever read anywhere! Great information - I'm going to have to reread it over and over until I can absorb it all. Thanks so much!
The Figurative Realm of Mary Bullock

Anonymous said...

Now I'm going to have to go back and take another look at some of my more recent landscape work, re-evaluate...and repaint if necessary. Very valuable information. Thanks so much for posting it!

Moai said...

These posts on James Perry Wilson are excellent. It's very inspiring to see what he was able to achieve. Thanks for sharing his wisdom with us.

jeff said...

I found this web site and it has a video of Wilson working.

James Gurney said...

Everybody: I'm glad you found this stuff helpful. I was afraid it might be too technical, but I'll share more of these detailed notes in future from time to time.

Jeff, thanks for the links. I should say that both Stephen Quinn and Michael Anderson, the champions of JPW at the AMNH and the Peabody are both very accomplished artists in their own right, and their work can also be seen in their museums.

DThompson55 said...

I have so much to learn. The occasional technical posting like this really helps me understand that there is a lifetime of learning ahead of me. But I'm looking forward to renewed ABC postings as well.

EricFortune said...


June said...

I have just discovered your awesome blog! I will have to catch up on all your old posts now. This post alone was awesome! There's so much to learn!

Gregory Becker said...

Hello James. My name is Gregory Becker. I am at a discovery stage in color theory. I have a question about color and value. Please consider it.
If I have a color wheel made up of lets say 12 sections. 3 primaries 3 secondaries and 6 tertiaries and lets say I superimposed a value wheel that represented those colors over the color wheel. I know that the tones would appear to gradate from white to black, if I started at yellow, and made my way to violet. But there would be two value gradations, one on the red side and one on the blue side.
My question is, do they gradate at equal strengths along the way?
Another question just popped in my head.
What if that tonal wheel had a certain degree of transparency and could spin freely on top of the color wheel I wonder what kind of color theories could come from that? If each color has a complimentary then it stands to reason that each value also has a complimentary. What do you think?
I ask because I cant seem to break free from the black and white to include color. I took up drawing 4 years ago and I just fell in love with it. I am 41 now and streamlining my education is the name of the game.
By the way your blog is incredible. A person could get a thorough knowledge of art from it. I commend you on that.
One more thing I have a picture of what I’m talking about on my blog if you want to take a look.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, dt, June, and Eric--there's more where this came from...

Gregory, Good questions, but a bit hard to answer if we're not looking at the same wheel. But basically you made a very important and sensitive observation: Colors are at their brightest saturation at different hues. Color wheels reflect that fact by varying value as you go around.

I suppose you could say that a given value has a complement--another value that would cancel it out to a neutral value. If you don't mind technical stuff, this website has a lot on color theory: