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Sea Cows Illustration by William Stout
Going Back in Time
Through the Eyes of an Artist
By Carina Stanton Illustrations by William Stout
It’s hard to imagine a time when sabertooth cats stalked prey in the hills near downtown San Diego or 34-foot megalodon sharks ruled the waters off La Jolla shores. So, when exhibition curators at the San Diego Natural History Museum began planning FOSSIL MYSTERIES, a 75-million-year trek back into the history of southern California and Baja California, Mexico, they looked for an artist who could create murals that take visitors back in time. As it turns out, they didn’t need to look far because internationally recognized paleoartist William Stout makes his home in Pasadena, California.
Most days Stout can be found painting on the front porch of his Craftsman home and listening to whatever music he chooses to inspire him that day, whether it is Stravinsky or The White Stripes. That’s when he isn’t touring the Antarctic, collaborating with movie directors, or attending science meetings and comic book conventions.
At age 56, Stout is in the prime of a prolific art career with work appearing in album covers, comics and popular movies like Men in Black. But he is also known as a paleoartist who translates scientific evidence into captivating images of the prehistoric.
When Stout first heard about FOSSIL MYSTERIES last year he made it no secret that he was interested in the project. “As a paleoartist and a member of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, I was concerned that the murals for this important exhibition be first rate, whether I did them or not,” he said.
Many may be familiar with Stout’s paleoart in his 1981 book The Dinosaurs: A Fantastic New View of a Lost Era. The book was one of the first to illustrate a shift in thinking, presenting new research on dinosaurs as swift and even intelligent.
“When I was a kid we were taught that dinosaurs were stupid, sluggish, cold-blooded creatures, but now we know there is a lot more to their story,” he explained.
Stout is now in the process of completing 12 murals for FOSSIL MYSTERIES, some as large as 35 feet long. Each mural is painted in a distinctive plein-air style, created outdoors in natural light. The murals include known landmarks, such as Cuyamaca peak, that will take visitors through several periods of natural history in southern California—from the age of dinosaurs, through the Ice Age, to just a few thousand years ago.
Attention to scientific detail is essential to Stout’s paleoart. He consults with scientists and researches academic literature for each of his paintings to make sure every aspect of an image is correct, from the animals he focuses on to the plants in the background.
This accuracy is important because FOSSIL MYSTERIES is a new kind of exhibition. Rather than simply explaining the past, visitors will go back in time, ponder a mystery, examine fossil evidence from the Museum’s paleontology collection and use scientific tools to discover answers for themselves, as paleontologists would.
“Being a paleontologist is sort of like being Sherlock Holmes—you get tiny bits of information—clues, really—windows to the past that can be pieced together,” Stout explained. “For the average visitor it helps to have a visual aid and that’s where the murals come in.”
Stout began his career in the comic world, working on comic strips like “Tarzan of the Apes” and Playboy magazine’s “Little Annie Fanny,” but he admits that dinosaurs have fascinated him from an early age. His prehistoric paintings have been exhibited alongside those of famed paleoartists, including Charles R. Knight, whose paintings of early life for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City a century ago continue to inspire Stout’s work. Knight’s work is featured in the Museum’s exhibition, Dinosaurs: Reel & Robotic (opening May 28).
“Murals are my favorite things in the world to paint. They are the face of the museum and they serve as windows into the past that capture the imagination,” Stout said.
Stout is also completing an illustrated book of Antarctica, past and present, based on his travels to the continent.
SAN DIEGO NATURAL HISTORY: FIELD NOTES, April 2006