Archive for April 2010

Done With the Dunes (for now)

April 24, 2010

Point Pelee Foreground at the time of the exhibit closing.

Today was my last day “on exhibit”.  It was quite eventful because I had a visit from Harry McChesney who painted dioramas at the NY State Museum in Albany.  Harry is the only diorama painter other than Sean Murtha who has ever tried out JP Wilson’s gridding ideas.  He gave me a copy of his grid drawings for the Mastodon diorama many years ago.  They are unlike anything I’ve seen of Wilson’s, but they clearly grid the background the same way.  I have been interested in these drawings because in many cases, Wilson would produce his grids on paper.  He was absolutely conversant in architectural methods using plans and elevations on an architect’s drawing table to find the measurements and bring them to the museum.

Harry told me that he started this diorama in 1973 and wanted to grid it because the background was an irregular curve.  He produced the drawings and was ready to start, but the administration thought he was taking too long, so they hired Jan Vriessen from Canada to paint the background.  Vriessen projected slides onto the background and painted what was projected.  Harry assisted Vriessen.  How many things are wrong with this picture!  I’ll ask my friend Nat Chard to submit something to the blog about why projecting slides is a bad idea.  Harry said if Wilson were there he would have walked off the job.

Close up from today April 24, 2010

On Monday, the diorama (with it’s new foreground) will be wrapped in plastic and a wall built around it right in the exhibit gallery.  It will “sleep” behind the wall while the next exhibit is running.  After that exhibit closes in three months, the construction shop will have time to build the presentation case for the diorama.  It will include a 54″X54″ window on a slant and a light box on top.  Then it will be installed permanently in the CT. Bird Hall.  During the next 3-4 months while the diorama is walled up, I will work on the taxidermy mounts and the plants to get them ready for installation-in the prep lab down in the basement of the Peabody.  It was great to be “on display” and I met a lot of interesting people and some awesome kids, but I am ready to not have to be “ON” all the time and work quietly by myself or with my volunteers in my shop.  Look for the diorama in the Bird Hall this fall.


Leafmaking from a Master

April 23, 2010

Gary Hoyle is one of those artist/museum preparators that everyone in my job likes to have in their rollodex (I still use one!)  Gary worked for 28 years at the Maine State Museum in Augusta, ME and he worked together with another museum talent, Fred Scherer.  Fred worked at the American Museum of Natural History for 30 years before moving to Maine to live a more sedate life.  Fred learned all aspects of diorama-making at the AMNH, including background painting with James Perry Wilson.  While in Maine, Fred worked at the Maine State Museum, producing exhibits.  Gary couldn’t have had a better mentor than Fred to work alongside at the Me State Museum.

Wax plants by Gary Hoyle

Gary responded to an earlier plea of mine to find a way to make translucent leaves for the diorama.  With his approval, I am copying our conversation:

Good Morning, Michael.

From what I’ve just read on your blog, it looks like you’ve had some very challenging weeks.  But it looks like you’ve met the challenge well and probably learned a lot in the process.  One thing I’d suggest, if you haven’t done so, is to install lighting, if not permanently, at least a temporary system that mimics the final result.  Otherwise you are working against too many variables.  Fred Scherer, who I worked with for many years and who also worked with Wilson, always specified the need to work under the permanent lighting.  He told me that he and Wilson always began their paintings after the permanent lighting was in place [ I’m sure some “tweaking” had to be done at the final installation].  He also stressed that the illusion of a diorama could easily be dispelled by not establishing the horizon at eye level.  He and Wilson use to measure willing museum visitors in order to determine an average eye level horizon line.

As far as artificial plants are concerned, I haven’t gone back onto the final phase of the fossil construction.  That will be later this spring.  However, the test runs have ironed out some bugs.  I’ve found that by scoring hot press watercolor paper at weights of 140lbs or greater, I can mimic venation and create an acceptable thickness to the leaf.  Sealing the paper with a spray fixative causes some swelling and very fine sandpaper is needed to remove proud fibers and reduce gloss if necessary.  Two piece plaster molds can then be made, after which a casting material can be used to create the leaves.  Previously I used the traditional wax method with colored beeswax and cotton, but I’ve started playing with a 50% mix of hot melt glue and paraffin wax.  The hot melt reduces the brittleness of the wax while the paraffin’s “greasy” quality helps prevent mold lock during de-molding.  I also found that mixing oil paints with poppyseed oil rather than other traditional media worked well to incorporate pigment into the glue/wax mix.

To attach your flowers to stems, you really need a magnifier stand with a built in light to keep your hands free and prevent headaches from the visor type magnifiers.  You also need to work with a pin vise.  Over the years I’ve worked on many complex plant “problems” with beeswax, cotton and various size steel wires and my trusty pin vise.  It’s always a challenge but sometimes the results are spot on [see attachment].  I’ve always used flock for my “fuzzy” plants, most often beige or white.  I’ve never tried static charge, though I’ve thought about it at times.  Please let me know how it works for you.  Remember that a layer of glass will separate the visitor from the foreground, so some details aren’t necessary even at rather close distances.

With kind regards,


Hi Michael,

I could not respond to you yesterday because of finish carpentry issues.  Before I answer your questions, let me suggest an experiment that I haven’t tried as yet.  Take some white crepe paper and cut out paper petals [be sure that the grain of the paper is aligned with the long axis of the petals].  Then on a warm piece of metal heated by a hot-plate [the metal should be just above the melting temperature of the glue/wax mix] place a few “crumbs” of your colored glue/wax mix.  Place your paper petals over the melted glue/wax to absorb the mixture, then use a warmed spatula to press the paper slightly.  Lift the base of the petals with forceps.  When cooled slightly use a rounded metal tool, like a large stylus [I’ve used various size ball bearings affixed to steel handles]. to shape the petal in the palm of you hand.  I’ve used this technique several times with colored beeswax.  The beauty of it is that you can create three-dimensional petals, and if the wax is not too opaque, the crepe ribs look like venation.  I’ve done this quite effectively with violets [sorry that I have no photos of those].  The unknown in all this is the behavior of the glue/wax mix.  Give it a try and please let me know your results.

In regard to the use wire, I always begin assembling a flower from the inside out.  Here’s where good old sun-bleached beeswax shines.  First I select a wire that is strong enough to support the weight of wax, etc..  It should also be small in diameter [try this and you’ll get a feel for the size wire that you need].  I then straighten the wire by stretching it in a vice.  Next, I cut the wire into appropriate flower-stem lengths plus a couple inches.  I pull the wires through a fold of 100 grit sandpaper to roughen their surface then insert a wire into a pin vice and crimp the tip of the wire into a tiny hook.  I twirl the pin vice and spin a thin layer of cotton evenly down the “flower stem.”  I then tighten the cotton by taking a small piece of sand paper and folding it so that the abrasive side is facing out.  As I twirl the cotton again I lightly compress it in the paper fold.  The result is a smooth cylinder of cotton with a wire core and a little bud of cotton at its tip.  Using a wax tool I heat a few crumbs of colored wax over an alcohol lamp [slow but effective] or a propane burner [fast but can char wax quickly], I then run the liquid wax with one stroke down the cotton cylinder.  When the wax cools I twirl the cotton wax cylinder through a fold of sand paper, this time with the grit side in the fold.  This removes the little bumps.  Then I run one or more finish coats of wax down the cylinder and check for thickness with calipers.

The little ball of wax at the tip of the cylinder becomes the heart of the flower.  I usually start at this point and then do the above stem work later.  I attach, or create from wax, the central elements of the flower then attach the petals with a heated wire.  If the flower is in a cluster of stems, I carefully grind the end of the raw wire so that one side is flat.  I then can attach two flower stems to a more robust wire with solder [ here wet cotton is necessary at the wax cylinder base to prevent melting].  Of course, as you know, flock, spines, etc. are applied later.

I do not know of a source of 1/8 inch flock and I’m not familiar with the plant that you’re working on, but your idea of fiberglass may yet work.  With fine forceps you may be able to insert the fibers into a wax stem.  If the stem is warmed in water and the glass fibers heated, you may be able to place them just where you want.  Obviously this is labor intensive work……………..

With kindest regards,



April 15, 2010

Dorie Petrochko and the yellow warbler

Dorie Petrochko is raising the bar with painting the bird carving casts.  Yesterday she added just a bit more color to the wings so that a slight bit of yellow shows on each folded primary feather.  It looked like she was using a “00” brush.  Later, she felt finished enough with the painting to start glueing a few feathers on.  I told her that this model is so well painted that only a very few feathers would be needed to enhance what is already there.  We have been debating whether the duller birds come across better in the models.  I am wondering if the bird’s plumage is lighter and with less contrasts, it inherently looks softer.  This hypothesis will be tested because Dorie plans to paint a male Canada warbler next which is anything but dull or without contrasts!!

a skin and the painted model

By the way, Dorie is starting a natural science/scientific art school with two other scientific illustrators this fall.  This is very exciting to see this starting in New Haven.  Here is what she wrote me about it:

The CT School of Natural Science Illustration at Yale-Peabody West Campus will be launched this September. The classes will be held at the new Community Education Center at West Campus.  The schedule will be listed on the Peabody Museum website under West Campus Programs/ Education.  It will also be listed in the Peabody Explorer for next fall.  In September we will be offering classes in Fundamentals of Natural Science Illustration, Botanical Illustration in Watercolor, Drawing Butterflies in Colored Pencil, Drawing from Museum Specimens, Field Sketching and Natural Science Illustration in Pen and Ink.

New Foreground Material

April 10, 2010

Wax flowers and epoxy leaves make up the Hairy Pucoon model

Work has continued to progress even though I haven’t had time to keep the blog up to date.  I have been working on the Hairy Pucoon model and have gotten one sprig finished far enough so it only needs some wax work, a final light painting, and hair!  I would like to finish two more sprigs so I can paint them all at once.  The leaves are cast in epoxy mixed with a small amount of green oil paint.  Wires are glued to the back and they are  inserted onto a wire “stem” using plastic tubing.  All the leaves are finished with green wax to bring it up to a high level of finish.  The flowers and sepals are made with wax, very carefully put on wire and inserted at the top.  They are quite fragile.  After I get to applying the final layer of paint, I will cover the leaves and stem with matte medium and blow a finely chopped fiberglas over it to simulate the hair that covers the actual wildflower.

The model in the foreground. Note the space between the foreground and background.

I have added more plaster to the dunes to soften the contour, but I think I am closing in on the final look of the dune.  Note that there is a space of approx 1″ between the foreground and the background so no shadows are cast at that junction.  This was a trick developed in the early 1900’s by diorama artists at the American Museum in New York.  Any shadows cast on the background painting kill the illusion of three dimensionality.  Lighting has yet to be put into the Point Pelee diorama, so you will still see all kinds of shadows at this time.