Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Wilson’s Natural History Dioramas

Michael Anderson has posted the eighth chapter of his online biography of James Perry Wilson, the master of diorama background painting.

Anderson's new chapter concentrates on JPW's work in the North American Mammal Hall of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, considered by connoisseurs of diorama painting as the finest ever accomplished.

Wilson traveled to specific locations, to gather stereo photographs, soil samples, and plein air studies.

Essentially self taught and science-minded, Wilson developed independent theories of color and light which allowed him to paint more naturalistically than most other artists. This 12 x 16 oil study of the Teton range was painted on location.

Anderson writes:
Of the twenty-nine dioramas in the North American Mammal Hall, Wilson would paint nineteen during the years spanning 1938 to 1954. His personal stamp is visible throughout the hall. These are levelheaded, realistic backgrounds, controlled by Wilson to have the greatest effect. There are no flights of fancy, there isn’t a thing painted that wasn’t in his references or empirically available to the eyes of someone at the site. While the realism Wilson brought to the dioramas is on another plane, his colors glow with such luminosity that many visitors have asked whether they are backlit. Wilson imparted a level of three-dimensionality to his backgrounds that had never before been as perfectly realized as this. The remarkable thing is that Wilson also grasped the spirit of a place that seemed to come naturally from the rightness of the finished work. 
James Perry Wilson, Chapter 8, the North American Mammal Hall
Book: Windows on Nature: The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History
Previously on GJ:
James Perry Wilson's Plein Air Oils
Wilson's Dioramas, Part 1
Wilson's Dioramas, Part 2
Wilson's Sky Blending Method


Daroo said...

I really like his panoramic painting rig.

It seems like he is finishing as he goes with very little canvas toning. Is that because he wanted to paint wet into wet and knew he wouldn't get to certain areas until his next session? Did he do a smaller color study before starting this multipanel study? It seems like he'd have to decide on a lighting scheme and stick with it.
It looks like a small photo is taped to the rig.

My Pen Name said...

I highly recommend "windows of nature" it's a fascinating look 'behind the scenes' of the dioramas -not to mention the photography is far better than anything i have been able to get w/ my camera at the AMNH

Tom Hart said...

I had exactly the same reaction as Daroo to his method of working across the canvas, apparently completing each section as he worked. That's interesting, especially considering the impressive results he got. But that seems to fly in the face of much of the instruction on plein air painting - that is, to establish lighting and shadow patterns early, and stick to them.

Owlchick said...

I also recommend Windows on Nature to anyone who wants to know more about the murals at AMNH. Also, for those living in NYC, there is an animal drawing class held after hours in the halls that runs for eight weeks twice a year. It's absolutely wonderful to be there with a sketchbook and a bunch of fellow artists - I've learned so much.