Diorama Design

December 31, 2009
I have been e-mailing my friend and accomplished diorama artist, Sean Murtha about the design of traditional dioramas and comparing them with Wilson’s designs.  Sean repainted most of the dioramas in the AMNH’s Ocean Life Hall in 2003 so he has a lot of practical experience painting in museum dioramas.  We have been writing each other about how James Perry Wilson was pushing the envelope with his diorama compositions.  Wilson understood that compositions of dioramas are unique in that there are infinite vanishing points across the diorama background and that the edges can be as interesting as the center.  I have copied our e-mails to each other below:  A note: the Point Pelee background is more traditionally designed with a central focus.  The wooded edge to the right and the small hill starting to the left directing the viewer’s gaze to the center..


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 better understand.  If you want to tell me your thoughts or write about the practicalities of painting a background, I’ll include it in a blog.


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.


Nov 18, 2009

November 18, 2009

We came close today.   The diorama was supposed to be delivered this afternoon, but we were given such short notice by the delivery company that we couldn’t find anyone at West Campus to be on the receiving end.  It is rescheduled for next Tuesday with Tony.  There is some discussion going around about possibly not being able to get it through doors, both at West Haven and at the Peabody.  The shell looks to be bolted together at a seam below the line of the foreground.   We may try to unbolt it and reassemble it in the exhibit hall.   Nice design Perry!

I worked today getting the preliminary text written.  Laura thinks there may be more to write.  Jane, Rosemary, Laura and I (Exhibits Central!) are going to meet tomorrow to discuss it.

I also talked to Patrick about getting botanical check lists for Point Pelee.  He is going to go to work on it.  I also e-mailed the archivist at the Canadian Museum, but so far have received very little from them.  Speaking of archives, I just received a bound copy of Thanos Johnson’s letters from the AMNH.  I gave Steve Quinn at the AMNH a copy while he was writing his book.  He must have given them to the archives when he finished.  I told them they could have them, but that if anyone published anything from them, I wanted to give my OK (They are very personal letters and Thanos wanted the publication of any of them screened.)  A note was enclosed saying that the AMNH archives didn’t want them under those conditions.  Oh well, I got a nicely bound copy of the letters now!

Nov. 12, 2009

November 12, 2009

A round of the Halelujah chorus please…The diorama shell is on its way!!!  I got an e-mail today from PacArt that they picked it up from the Canadian Museum of Nature yesterday.  I feel like one of those big Halloween air-inflated lawn displays that just got unplugged.  A load of stress has just dropped from my shoulders.  Now, I will get Patrick Sweeney to start the identification of the plants.  I have already asked my wife, Celia, if she would check the ornithology library to see if there is anything about bird migration through Point Pelee.  I will start the bird taxidermy tomorrow.

Nov.11, 2009

November 11, 2009

Today, Sally Pallatto from Peabody graphics printed out close-up photos of two sections of the diorama shell.  There is a yellow flower low in the sand, some dried grasses, a leafy shrub, and an evergreen with soft-needles.  I am fairly certain that I will need to reproduce these for the foreground.  Once the diorama is shipped, I will ask Patrick Sweeney, collections manager inBotany, to try to identify the plants specifically.  I have made an inquiry to a fabricating company that specializes in botanical creations for dioramas.  Once I get the specs on the plants, I will start to work on getting them reproduced, either in my shop or on the outside.

Nov. 10, 2009

November 10, 2009

I finished my freezer inventory today to see what I might be able to use in the diorama. These are birds that have hit windows, killed by cars, or by cats. I don’t shoot birds. When I came here in 1988, I was taken out into the field to learn how to use a shotgun. I fired it maybe two or three times, the noise was horrific, my shoulder was killing me, and I decided right then and there, I was not going to collect birds this way. Here’s what I’ve got:

I have the following (frozen) warblers in spring plumage (unsure of quality):
N. Parula
Common Yellowthroat
Yellow has no data, but looks to be in spring plumage.

I also have these (frozen) birds from May or June:
Winter wren
Am Goldfinch
Indigo Bunting
Red-wing Blackbird
Chipping Sparrow

I will start to work on these bird now. Many are old and so small that they will have to be skinned carefully. Many probably won’t make good mounts, but I will see what I can do.

Foreground Pt Pelee diorama

November 9, 2009

This is a (terrible) photograph from the Canadian Museum of Nature of what this diorama looked like when it was on display in their museum. I can make out a male and female cardinal, two bobwhites, and an orchard oriole.Pt. Pelee forgrnd

Nov. 9th, 2009

November 9, 2009

Lot’s pending on getting this diorama shell to New Haven. There is a ton of bureaucracy getting something shipped from Canada to the US. Monty Reid at the Canadian Museum of Nature has fully agreed to ship it down, but now there are forms to fill out (NAFTA, importer forms, exporter forms, MPF fees, PAPS stickers), agents to hire, Yale’s broker to involve. It is quite complex.

Once we get it shipped, I can start to identify the botanical specimens I will need to reproduce for the 3 dimensional foreground. Patrick Sweeney, in Botany, has agreed to help me with these identifications.

I am talking to Kristof about what birds he might have in his freezer. My ornithologist wife, Celia, has helped by inventorying his freezer contents. It turns out I already have a black-throated blue warbler, a black and white warbler, and a white-throated sparrow already mounted and available for installation if Rick Prum agrees to use them.