Leafmaking from a Master

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,


Explore posts in the same categories: Preparing the Foreground

One Comment on “Leafmaking from a Master”

  1. Dorie Says:


    I have a good source of beeswax for you if you want to try beeswax for your flowers. The watercolor paper idea sounds interesting too ! Have you ever tried
    that ?

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