William Stout: More Than Just Dinosaurs

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William Stout has done it all.

Comic books. Movie posters. Fine art. Museum murals. Theme park design. Art books. Film production. Stout has mastered them all and then some. “I call it the pinball school of career planning,” he jokes. “I’ve just bounced all over the place.”

Despite the varied paths his career has taken over the past five decades, Stout remains best known as one of the premiere dinosaur artists of the 20th century. His first book on the subject, The Dinosaurs: A Fantastic New View of a Lost Era, partially inspired Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, and firmly established Stout as the go-to artist for all things prehistoric. Since then, he has published nearly a dozen books on the subject, including special editions specifically for children.

Stout credits King Kong, which he saw at age 3 during a 1952 rerelease, for his enduring love of dinosaurs. “I think that movie did damage on a genetic level,” he laughs. The Rite of Spring sequence in Disney’s 1940 animated feature Fantasia helped cement his interest, as did the art of Charles R. Knight, one of the first artists to attempt a realistic representation of dinosaurs. “If you look at any dinosaur book published between 1910 and 1940, it probably has Charles Knight’s illustrations in it,” Stout observes. “He visually defined dinosaurs for the rest of the world.”

A science/math major in high school, Stout set out to be a doctor. But a move to a new high school changed all that. He knew instinctually that the education he was getting was sub-par (Stout routinely was punished for spending time in the library rather than attending pep rallies), and he feared being left behind in college. Pondering a new career path, he changed his major to art. Stout received a perfect score on his SATs, but his parents were too poor to send him to college. The State of California came to his rescue with a full scholarship to any college or university in the nation. Stout chose the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), entering as an illustration major.

At the time, CalArts was considered one of the best arts schools in the world. Ravi Shankar headed the music department. Animation was taught by Disney’s fabled “Nine Old Men.” Edith Head held court on fashion design. As an illustration major, Stout’s primary instructor was Hal Kramer, the first president of the Society of Illustrators.

Stout was in his element, outpacing most of his fellow students. Very quickly, he started receiving professional art assignments, which he was allowed to turn in as homework. In 1968, Stout learned of a new fiction magazine called Coven 13, and had one of his illustrations accepted for the cover of the first issue. After a chat with the editor, Stout ended up doing the covers and all of the interior illustrations for the first four issues. Stout had found his calling, and he never looked back.

Design, of course, was an integral aspect of Stout’s education. Every instructor and every artistic inspiration, from comic book legends such as Carmine Infantino and Gil Kane, to revered illustrators such as J.C. Leyendecker and Norman Rockwell, taught him a little bit more. “Although stylistically Leyendecker wasn’t that big of an influence, design-wise I learned so much from the beautiful shapes he created for each piece that he did,” Stout says. “He was Norman Rockwell’s idol.”

In college, Stout received instruction on design from Bill Moore, a man so brilliant that Stout jokes he couldn’t understand a word he said. Stout learned much more from girlfriend Judy Goode, ex-wife of artist Joe Goode. Judy had previously been one of Moore’s prize students; Stout found her understanding of design much easier to comprehend.

Regardless of medium or platform, design plays an integral role in everything Stout creates. With comic books, for example, the composition of shapes, shading and perspective helps inform a story’s mood, while also leading the reader’s eye across the page. “As an example of what design can do,” Stout says, “parabolas pointing upward will give the reader an uplifting feeling. If you flip them upside down so they look like ‘U’s, that will give a feeling of darkness and depression.”

Movie posters, on the other hand, require a completely different approach to design because they must be able to attract the eye from a distance. Stout learned the tricks of effective movie poster design from Tony Seiniger, the head of Seiniger and Associates, one of California’s top movie poster production companies. “Tony was a master at improving the design of my work and showing me the importance of a readable silhouette,” Stout says. “He showed how to make my work read from a distance. If it was on a billboard or a movie poster you were driving past, it would read immediately and people would get it.” Over the years, Stout has created the posters for such films as Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards, George Lucas’s More American Graffiti, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and many others.

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But Stout’s work in motion pictures goes far beyond drawing posters. He has been involved in many of the biggest movies in recent years, doing everything from storyboards to creature designs to full–blown production design, overseeing a staff of more than 1,000 craftsmen. “Design
is important to motion pictures because you need clarity,” Stout explains. “A film needs to be understood by the stupidest person in the theater—his ten bucks is just as valid as the genius he’s sitting next to. Storyboards really help in discovering how to tell the story clearly. I also use storyboards to design sets so we don’t end up building more than we need.”

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And then there is painting, which Stout has done on both small and very large scale, the latter being murals for several museums of natural history around the U.S. On those kinds of large projects, Stout begins with a list of the animals the museum would like included then uses his own knowledge, which is extensive, to decide what other animals to include from the same time period. “I like to give a museum more than they were expecting,” Stout says.

A variety of design points go into determining the composition and mood of a painting, whether it’s for a book illustration or a museum mural. “One of the most important is setting,” Stout observes. “Right now I’m looking at a picture I painted of a Ticinosuchus, an early ancestor of the crocodile. It’s from Antarctica, but back when Antarctica was covered with warm swamps and jungles. So I painted this moist, misty, very lush setting to put this creature into.”

Perspective is also integral. “I let a problem dictate the solution,” Stout says. “If I’m painting a T. Rex and want to give an impression of size, I’ll paint it from a low angle. One of the great things about painting prehistoric animals, and animals in general, is I can show stuff that no photographer ever could. One of my favorite paintings of mine is a humpback whale. It’s a bisymmetrical composition, and the whale is breaching. It looks so majestic. A photographer could wait his whole life and never get that shot, but all I have to do is think it up and put it down on canvas.”

Editor’s Note: Stout landed a spot on the HOW 100: A listing of 100 of the most talented and influential creatives working today. The complete list will be published soon—stay tuned!