The film, comics and murals artist talks dinosaurs and a doubting wife
When did you realise you had some talent for painting?
I hit and missed with oils, until I encountered Norman Rockwell’s process and studied Frank Frazetta’s painting techniques. I built upon those foundations. My wife often told me, “Give up on oils – you’re so much better with other media.” Until 1989, when I began painting my first museum one-man show. My chops improved dramatically (and finally made my wife a believer). Did your distinctive comic book art style develop naturally? As a teen I copied Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson comics, then discovered Frazetta, Jean Giraud, Will Eisner and Robert Crumb. I was fortunate in assisting Russ Manning on the Tarzan of the Apes newspaper strips, and Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder on Little Annie Fanny. Their mentoring greatly increased my skills and taught me what it took to be a professional.
Of the film projects you’ve worked on, do you have a favourite?
Return of the Living Dead. It was brutal to make, but now it’s a cult classic. Masters of the Universe was fun. Pan’s Labyrinth may be my best film. Designing Jon Favreau’s Magic Kingdom was great until Disney’s attorneys got involved, killing that dream. I enjoyed creating Disney’s Dinosaur characters – though I wish they’d never talked!
How did your natural history work come about?
I’ve loved dinosaurs ever since watching King Kong aged three. My pal Don Glut was revising The Dinosaur Dictionary because of all the new dinosaur discoveries. The four pictures Don asked me to draw became 44. I reasoned these might be the only depictions ever of these creatures, so accuracy was vital. I joined the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, using each dinosaur’s discoverer as my adviser. The environments demanded accuracy, so I studied palaeobotany. During a visit my publisher asked, “If you could do your own book, what would you do?” Figuring he was just being conversational, my brilliant reply was, “I dunno”. He saw Dinosaur Dictionary illustrations scattered about my studio. “How about doing one on dinosaurs?” “Sure.” I forgot this conversation. Two months later he called. “Bill, we’ve got our book deal. Bantam wants to do your dinosaur book!” A gigantic project had dropped in my lap. The Dinosaurs: A Fantastic New View of a Lost Era became the first book to illustrate every recent dinosaur discovery. I’ve been known as ‘ The Dinosaur Man’ ever since.
What’s been the highlight of your career so far? And, any low points?
Working on Theodore Rex was a definite low. Starring Whoopi Goldberg in a part written for Val Kilmer, the massive chest pains I was suffering disappeared the moment I quit this most expensive direct-to-video movie ever made. A career highlight promptly followed: being awarded the National Science Foundation’s 1992/1993 Antarctic Artists and Writers Program grant. While spending three months painting 130 field studies in Antarctica, I scuba dived beneath the ice, camped in the Dry Valleys and scaled an active volcano. I then drove 1,000 miles through southern Chile, documenting the forests that have remained relatively unchanged over the past 40,000,000 years.
What’s been your most challenging commission to date?
The 12 prehistoric murals I painted for the San Diego Natural History Museum includes my largest canvas: 14x34ft. While painting the murals I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. So I offered the museum the option to replace me. To my amazement and relief, they stuck with me, even though it meant the murals would be behind schedule. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Mick Hager, the museum’s visionary director. Of everything I do, I enjoy painting murals (and my Legends of the Blues books) the most. They’re big, public and permanent. A real legacy.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
“Keep your big mouth shut,” and, “More life drawing”. I practise three hours of figure drawing every Sunday: it’s the quickest way to improve as an artist. You can see plenty more of William’s work, buy merchandise and read his blog, at his website, www.williamstout.com.
I’ve loved dinosaurs ever since watching King Kong at the age of three
Upper Cretaceous Antarctica “This work depicts speculation that creatures that dwelled on Africa, South America and Australasia during the Mesozoic also existed on the land mass between them: Antarctica.”
Dirty Spliff Blues “Lately my career has come full circle and I’ve been creating lots of CD/LP covers. This 2015 cover for the blues rock band Left Lane Cruiser is intended to help establish this distinctive zombie as a form of branding for the band.”