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The (Annotated) 2002 John Arcudi Interview – Part Twenty-Five

Stout’s annotations are in italics.


The next things I wanted to talk about are the Paleozoic Life murals you painted for the Houston Museum of Natural Science. How did that come about? It must have been really different for you; what was it like?

STOUT: The best! The Houston Museum of Natural Science was revamping their prehistoric hall. They contacted me because they wanted to license an enlargement of my painting “Mosasaur and Loons” for their new permanent prehistoric hall. In our conversation, I asked if they were planning to have any new murals painted for the new hall. They replied in the affirmative that they were indeed planning to have two 27 feet-long murals painted that would depict Life Before The Dinosaurs. I asked if I could bid on that murals project. They told me I could, and my bid won.

These two murals read right to left.

Life Before the Dinosaurs 1
Life Before the Dinosaurs 2

Prior to that I was one of two finalists for some new prehistoric marine murals for The Smithsonian. I didn’t get the gig because at the time I didn’t have enough oil painting samples of prehistoric life to show them, so the other artist got the job. It was frustrating because I saw painting murals as my next big career step.

It took me nine months to paint both murals, and that was probably the happiest nine months I’ve ever had in my life. It was great on a number of levels.

One reason was that I was painting art that was being permanently installed in a museum so that for decades people will be able to come and see my paintings in a fairly respectable place. I thought about how whenever I visit New York, I always make a beeline to the American Museum of Natural History Museum to see the Charles R. Knight prehistoric murals.

Charles R. Knight Tyrannosaurus rex mural for the American Museum of Natural History

Like his murals in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have become for Charles Knight, my murals would be my public artistic legacy.

Charles R. Knight Tyrannosaurus rex mural for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History
Charles R. Knight La Brea Tar Pits mural for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

Two, it was my first experience painting really large; it turned out to be an unexpectedly physical experience. I actually got a workout painting these paintings. In order to see them properly, I would paint a bit and then run across the yard (I was painting them outside under natural light) to get the overview, and then run back. Plus, the size of the paintings was giving my arms a workout as well, just in covering that amount of square footage on canvas.

Since I was painting big for the first time, I was also learning; I found out that there are things that you don’t do painting big but that you can get away with painting small. One of those things is intensity of color. A bright color accent that looks good small is far too intense and too much to take when it’s gigantic.

I went through a whole series of steps in painting the murals. I did several concept drawings and sent them to the museum for their approval. Then I did detailed color studies, small inch-to-a-foot oil painting versions of the paintings for the museum’s approval before I went to full size.

The step-by-step process of painting my murals is examined in detail in my book William Stout – Prehistoric Life Murals, available at my website shop (bazaar).

ARCUDI: Was this based upon your usual system of problem solving, or is this because that’s the way Rudolph F. Zallinger did it for the Peabody Museum?

Zallinger mural for the Peabody Museum

STOUT: When you’re painting something that’s 27 feet long and permanent, you want to make all your mistakes while it’s still tiny and easy to change. It’s important to invest a lot of time in the preparatory stage so that by the time you get to the full-size paintings, everybody’s on the same page and all your problems have pretty much been solved.

At the same time, I’m rarely content to just do a job as given to me. I like to expand its depth to reach different levels.

One of the things I love about the Cambrian Period is the creatures discovered in British Columbia‘s Burgess Shale formation. The museum asked for four Burgess Shale creatures to be depicted. Because I love this particular subject so much, I painted twenty-four different Burgess Shale species.

Detail of Life Before the Dinosaurs 1 showing the Burgess Shale creatures

The basic outline of the Houston job was to depict prehistoric plants and animals from point A to point B in timeline fashion. I thought, “Wouldn’t it add to the psychological interest” – because these two paintings are each 27-feet long, a total of 54 feet, or more than five stories of painting – “if I painted this travel in time so that it also becomes a travel through the time of day, serving as a kind of visual metaphor?”

I did just that.

When you enter the hall and observe the beginning of the painting it’s nighttime. As you progress in time the sun comes out and by the time you’re at the middle of the mural it’s noon; when you get to the end of the mural it’s sunset. So there’s a subconscious psychological transition from morning to evening going on while the prehistoric time periods progress as well.

The murals I painted for the Houston Museum of Natural Science led to my painting three Cretaceous murals for Walt Disney’s Animal Kingdom, twelve murals for the San Diego Natural History Museum and two for the San Diego Zoo. The creation of the Houston, Disney and San Diego Natural History Museum murals are detailed in the book William Stout – Prehistoric Life Murals. The San Diego Zoo murals are featured in Fantastic Worlds – The Art of William Stout.

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