Saturday, December 7, 2013

Archival footage of diorama painting

The American Museum of Natural History shared this short video featuring archival footage of James Perry Wilson's working method. Wilson painted many of the finest diorama backdrop paintings for the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The video refers to a unique grid system that Wilson used for projecting a scene onto a curving backdrop, so that the forms don't get stretched out. Wilson called the grid "the unsquare square." Based on his background as an architectural illustrator, he was meticulous about planning, and did a complete full-size charcoal drawing on the back wall before painting in oil. You can see him covering up the drawing as he applies the paint. (Direct link to video)

Wilson was also unusual for plein-air painting completely in the nude, but that's another story.
More about the diorama art in Stephen Quinn's book: Windows on Nature: The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History
Thanks, Jason Peck


Kimberly M Zamlich said...

This is amazing...what a great craft and interesting story amidst today's backdrop of digital art...KMZ

Kate said...

That was wonderful. But too short! I wanted to see much, much more, and for longer.
I loved seeing the charcoaled plumb-bob line being snapped.

Linda Navroth said...

Wow--that's so cool! Wish it was a longer documentary. I'd read about Wilson, but it was neat getting a little clip of him actually painting one of the dioramas. Thanks for posting this!

Unknown said...

I've just spent a very enjoyable and educational time viewing the whole series of diorama related videos from the Museum of Natural History. Once again, I thank you for making us aware of these treasures!

James Gurney said...

Glad you all enjoyed it. Thanks should go to Jason Peck, who told me about the video, and Stephen Quinn, the person at the natural history museum who not only wrote the book about the diorama artists, but also lobbied to make sure the dioramas themselves were preserved. There was a contingent at the museum that wanted to remove the dioramas to make the space for more modern displays.

Jason Peck said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jason Peck said...

Hey James,

Thanks for sharing this, it was really a delight to see Wilson in action. I really enjoyed seeing him develop the grid, as well as the drawing in charcoal. I wonder if the American Museum of Natural History has more footage of Wilson painting.

jytte said...

What a fantastic artist. Maybe he did not want to get his clothes dirty when he was painting in nude ? LOL :o)

Anonymous said...

In Ross King's book on Michelangelo, he related that Bramante believed the Michelangelo wasn't ready for the job of painting the ceiling because he didn't have a familiarity with painting perspectives from below on a curved surface.

What I find fascinating about this is that the architect knew that these elevations had been hammered out and codified by other artists.

Seeing the grid used here, I am wondering how this man discovered or rediscovered this knowledge that I admit I am desiring to have as well.

I am also interested if you have such knowledge? Would you be interested in passing it along to us your beloved readers?

Thank you in advance,


James Gurney said...

NY Studios, I would suggest you take a look at Michael Anderson's excellent online biography of JPW. Michael is from Yale's Peabody Museum, and he's done a lot of research on JPW and his methods:

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for the link!!!