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Our Murals

Art for the Ages

New Murals offer a glimpse of the Pacific Coast's extinct ecosystems.

Interview Conducted by Richard Milner Natural History Magazine, March 2008, pp.51-54 © Natural History Magazine, Inc., 2008

Marine Life Off Southern California 3.5 Million Years Ago

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 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.

San Diego 30 Million Years Ago

Natural History Magazine : 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.

Natural History : 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.

Natural History : 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.

Natural History : 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. 


Natural HistoryMany 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.

Natural History: 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.

Natural History: 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.

Mural right: A mastodon treading warily through southern California wetlands is startled by a youngster. 

Photo by Tavo Olmos

Natural History: 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.

Natural History: Why was it so important to you to complete the mural commission yourself? 

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. 

Mural right: Camels, tapirs, horses, and early llamas roamed southern California 20,000 years ago, but none of those species—not even the horses—survived there after the end of the Ice Age.

Photo by Barret Oliver 

Contributing Editor Richard Milner 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 book, Darwin’s Universe: Evolution from A to Z , was published in 2009 by the University of California Press.