We’ve now reached the part of the design process where all the research that other scientists have done really comes into play. For me, this is the most fun aspect of designing dioramas, since it feels like I’m putting together a puzzle. After pouring over texts on Tertiary Period vegetation, consulting the museum’s scientists to decide which landscape features to emphasize, and finding images for reference materials and inspiration, I gather these resources together and piece them into a collage that I’ll use to make the final design.
My very first step is to consult the scientific research to determine the type of climate and landscape I’ll need to portray for a given time period (e.g., was Miocene Wyoming hot and swampy, or cool and dry? Had grasses already taken over?). Once I have a general idea of the predominant ecosystem, I look for modern corollaries to that past environment, like photos of “tropical canopies”, “riparian forests” or “open woodlands”. In this case, Google image search is my best friend. Even when Mark and Kelli send me renderings of paleo-environments by other artists (which definitely makes my life easier!), I still look for modern approximations. That’s because these images give me a sense of how all the vegetation is organized spatially. If I’m trying to put the visitor in the middle of a tropical forest, they shouldn’t have a very deep field of view since the trees grow densely. On the other hand, if I’m placing the visitor at the forest’s edge, I’ll need to it be less enclosed, with more light and space in the foreground. When learning to draw figures you’re often told not to start with the details, but to make stick figures and build on that structure. The same’s true with landscapes: don’t start with the leaves on the trees, start with the layout of your scene. That’s why I consult photos, to help me with the layout.
Speaking of layout, sometimes major scenic features can serve a thematic purpose. Wyoming’s landscape changed a lot from the early Eocene to the late Miocene — that’s the story we’re trying to tell. I wanted people to notice these changes, while having an intuitive sense that we’re still talking about essentially the same geographic area. How, then, to highlight change while providing continuity? I decided to use a particular landscape feature to tie all the dioramas together. Using a body of water seemed to make the most sense, since it could change to show how the environment was getting cooler and dryer, and serve as the reason the animal specimens were congregating in each little “scene”. In the first diorama, I have a stream running through a dense semi-tropical forest; as the woods open up, it becomes a larger body, like a pond or eddy of a river; as things dry out in the Miocene, is goes from a river that doesn’t completely fill its banks to a trickle in a dried out stream bed.
With an idea of how I’ll organize the landscape, it’s time to populate the scene. So, I turn back to the paleo record to figure out exactly what types of plants were around. Sometimes what I find is pretty general (ex: “palms”), other times the species mentioned are extinct, and still other times, especially in the Miocene, I can find specific genera that are still around today (ex: birch, ephedra, pines, and the like). This is very helpful when it comes to doing an image search for reference materials. Because we decided on a fairly abstract style I don’t have to get leaf shapes perfectly right, but the shrubs and trees do need to have the right overall shape and proportion — hence the need for references.
My next step is to import all these reference images into Illustrator so that they’re right at my fingertips when I get down to business. But more on that in the next post…