Photos by Barret Oliver
Marine life off southern California 3.5 million years ago, depicted in
a thirty four foot long mural by
William Stout, includes auks diving
from above and baleen whales
Fossils of plants and animals offer clues to what extinct creatures looked like,
how they survived in their surroundings, and what finally killed them off.
In “Fossil Mysteries,” a new permanent exhibition at the San Diego Natural
History Museum, fossils excavated and collected in southern California by
the museum’s paleontologists are brought to life in twelve murals created by
William Stout. Among the spectacular scenes, which range in size from six
to thirty-four feet long, are Ice Age vistas notable for their lack of ice, for even when
great ice sheets blanketed much of North America, the climate in southern California
(except for snowcapped mountain peaks) can best be described as Mediterranean. The
detailed reconstructions, including some that show aquatic life along the Pacific Coast,
complement the exhibition’s three-dimensional models and mounted specimens.
Master paleoartist William Stout, who worked with scientists at the museum to
portray the ancient animals and environments as accurately as possible, has had a
long and eclectic career. He has drawn comic books, designed theme parks, and
even contributed to the graphic satires of the legendary Harvey Kurtzman. His
long list of Hollywood credits includes consulting on the pop classic Jurassic Park and creating Edgar, the giant alien bug in Men in Black. I spoke with him recently about his life, his work, and the creation of the San Diego murals.
Plants and animals in this mural about his life, his work, and the creation of the San Diego murals.
detail lived near San Diego 30
million years ago; they are known from fossils recovered during excavations for new housing
Natural History: What do you consider the main purpose of your murals?
William Stout: Paleoart murals are a wonderful way of joining art with science. I see them as a conduit for the scientists to bring their ideas to the public.
NH: What do you strive for in these paintings, aside from scientific accuracy?
Stout: I try to come up with a concept that hits the
viewers emotionally. Once they’ve been grabbed emotionally,
they’re intrigued and want to know more.
NH: How does one evoke emotion with a picture
of prehistoric animals?
Stout: I use a number of devices. For instance, one of
the Mesozoic scenes takes place underwater; I decided
to set it at night. I’m a scuba diver, and my night dives
were some of my most memorable. It’s very eerie and
spooky, and I wanted to have at least one mural that
was scary. Kids love scary! With the mastodon that was
found at Wanis, near Oceanside, California, I chose a
low-angle view to convey the immense size and mass
of the creature [see illustration below]. With the
mural of extinct sea cows I was going for a completely
different feeling. One of the places that I dive is off
the coast of Catalina Island near Los Angeles. I love to
just sit on the bottom and watch the sea life swim by. I
wanted to capture that sense of serenity in a meditative
piece that people could look at and feel tranquil.
NH: What else do you look for in a mural subject,
besides emotion and accuracy?
Stout: I like to paint murals that are site-specific, so
I included some local landmarks of San Diego. I want
San Diegans to have a sense of ownership of these
pictures. When they view the Pleistocene plant-eaters
mural, they should be able to recognize Cuyamaca
Peak, which can still be seen from San Diego freeways
[see illustration below]. I also used that landmark as
a constant in three murals that depict one location at
different times, from 2,000 to 20,000 years ago.
Photo by Delle Willett
Paleoartist William Stout adds finishing touches to
baby lambeosaurs in his mural of dinosaurs that lived in
southern California 75 million years ago.
NH: Many of our readers are familiar with Charles
R. Knight’s murals that were done between the 1890s
and the 1950s. Were you influenced by him?
Stout: I consider Knight the father of paleoart. The
first to seriously combine art and science together, he
visually defined prehistoric life for the world. If you
pick up almost any dinosaur book written between
1920 and 1960, it’s got his pictures in it, either from the
American Museum of Natural History in New York,
the Field Museum in Chicago, or the Natural History
Museum of Los Angeles County. Many paleontologists
have told me that it was Knight’s murals, or Rudolph
F. Zallinger’s at Yale’s Peabody Museum, that inspired
them to choose paleontology as a profession.
NH: How did you go about constructing the new
murals for the San Diego Natural History Museum?
Stout: I started with a series of one-inch-to-one-foot
scale drawings. I got preliminary approval on those, and
then I enlarged them as quarter-scale oil paintings. Once
those were also approved, I took them to ThemeScape
Art Studios, which produces gigantic graphics for casinos
and theme parks. They stretched the full-size canvases for
me and then, using my quarter-scale paintings as a guide,
they blocked in the full-size version with oils. That saves
me from having to confront a huge blank canvas. They also
have the space and equipment to execute paintings of this
size. But I do have to go over every square inch revising,
clarifying, and filling in details. Anatomy of prehistoric
animals is highly specialized knowledge; I couldn’t expect
these guys to know this kind of stuff like I do.
NH: You have a variety of styles—a realistic style, a sort
of dreamscape style, a sci-fi style, and a cartoon style. What
determined your rendering?
Stout: I tried to make everything consistent with a realistic
yet Impressionistic style. The museum staff indicated
a strong affection for California Impressionism, a genre
represented in San Diego by such painters as Maurice
Braun, Charles Arthur Fries, and Alfred R. Mitchell. I
was also influenced by my favorite nineteenth-century
landscape painter, Thomas Moran. He’s a gigantic hero of
mine. Not just because of his art, but because of the great
impact he had on our entire country. It was his paintings
that inspired the national park system and helped to create
Yellowstone as our first national park.
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Photo by Tavo Olmos
A mastodon treading warily through
southern California wetlands is startled
by a youngster.
NH: What was your major difficulty on the project?
Stout: When I was about two-thirds of the way through
the murals, in October, 2006, I was diagnosed with prostate
cancer. The museum had every right to take back the
commission and have the murals finished by someone
else. But they rallied around me like family and stuck by me. I had successful surgery a few months later, and a
few months after that I went back to work and finished
them. I’ll always be grateful to the museum staff for their
unflagging faith and support.
NH: Why was it so important to you to complete the
mural commission yourself?
A detail of one of Stout s murals
depicts a saber toothed cat defending
its kill from a dire wolf.
Stout: I was also offered two other dream jobs at the same
time—designing a movie about Edgar Rice Burroughs’s
fictional hero John Carter of Mars, and a children’s television
show. I wanted to do them all! But I asked myself,
what’s the first thing I do when I visit New York? I go
to the American Museum of Natural History and look at
the Charles R. Knight and William R. Leigh paintings. I
knew from that answer I had to do the San Diego Natural
History Museum’s prehistoric murals as my own artistic
and scientific legacy, one that will hopefully live on and
inspire long after I’m gone.
Return to story
Photos by Barret Oliver
Camels, tapirs, horses,
and early llamas roamed
20,000 years ago, but
none of those species—not even the horses—survived there after the
end of the Ice Age.
Contributing Editor Richard Milner, an
associate in the Division of Anthropology
at the American Museum of Natural
History, has written on Darwin, evolution,
and paleoart, and has performed his one-man musical, Charles Darwin: Live
& In Concert, worldwide. His new book, Darwin’s Universe:
Evolution from A to Z, will be published early next year by
the University of California Press.
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