Archive for the ‘Preparing the Foreground’ category

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.

Dune contour change III

March 27, 2010

Finn mixing plaster. Blue insulation foam used to build up low areas.

I work in fits and starts.  I mentioned in an earlier blog that my sculptor friend Bob Taplin visited me last Saturday and thought I should frame the viewing window so I can see what will be seen and from what vantage.  I had the Peabody construction shop build the frame and they came down and installed it on Weds.  I could immediately see that my dune contours were off.  The high point on the right was too high and the low gully through the middle was too low.  So Thursday, I knew I had to re-do it, but I sulked around hoping I could find a way not to have to re-do it and I worked on the wildflowers instead.   On Friday I had to face the inevitable and I started to tear the foreground down so I could make a new one.  I pulled out a clump of grass, removed the juniper and got my sawzall out.  I carved away from the top of the high area and built up the low areas with blue insulation foam.  This morning everything was ready and my son, Finn and I got in early and plastered up a new dune.

Finn smooths plaster. (Note how the gloves from the first photo have disappeared)

“Bird’s Eye” Viewpoint

March 22, 2010

Close up of grasses painted in the Florida Everglades diorama at the Peabody Museum

My friend and fellow sculptor, Bob Taplin visited me in the exhibit Saturday.  Bob has done some forced perspective relief sculpting and recently had an exhibit at MassMoca of several intriguing miniature dioramas using Dante’s Inferno as a starting point.  He has grappled with odd perspectives and was a great help analyzing the background painting with me.  I started by showing him the grass conundrum.  We took a walk up to the Florida Everglades diorama to see another Wilson group with tall grasses.  This was instructive because the Fl. Everglades has the tall grasses painted life size and they come up just under the horizon all the way into the distance.  The viewpoint is almost at water level, right down with the viewer’s feet muddy in the marsh, .  This confirms that the viewpoint in the painted background in Point Pelee is from a high point looking down because the grasses would be painted the same way as the Everglades painting if we were on the same level as them.

But then Bob had a very interesting observation.  With the sand dune at waist level, the only way the horizon line could be where it is at 62″ off the ground, the viewer would have to be SITTING or KNEELING in the dunes.  We went upstairs again and I realized that all the other dioramas are created such that the viewer has the illusion that one could step right into the diorama.  The opening of the window starts a little over a foot off the ground and the eye level is at a normal height to the viewer to enhance this illusion.   In the Point Pelee diorama, the viewing window will start at about 36″, very different than most other dioramas.

The "visible" artist! taken show the relationship of the viewer to the landscape in the Pt. Pelee diorama.

The only other dioramas with this kind of elevated window that I know of is in the American Museum in New York in the Small Mammal dioramas.  I remember that the effect in that hall is that you are in a very intimate relationship with the animals.  You are right down on your hands and knees in the dirt with them (or sand in our case).  This is brilliant diorama planning to bring the focus down onto the smaller mammals and birds.

I received this update from Steve Quinn at the AMNH on March 25th:

Hi Mike,

The height of the viewing windows for the groups here at AMNH are pretty
variable. I just did a quick run about to give you some accurate numbers.

Akeley Hall of African Mammals – all windows start at 18″ – most of the
group have their habitats constructed on the existing floor level (same
level as the public is standing on) but some have the habitat built down
below floor grade (mountain gorilla, waterhole, upper nile, colobus, etc.).
The horizon is still plotted at 62″ or 63″ but the lower habitat creates
more of a birds eye view (colobus, waterhole) or a drop in elevation
(gorilla,nile). I think it’s nice when you have the option of going below
floor grade in the foreground when your designing from scratch.

Small Mammal Corridor – start at 34″ ( Pine Marten, ermine, flying
squirrel, etc.) and 24″ (Badger, Wolverine, etc.)

North American Mammals – all large groups start at 18″ (wapiti, grizzly,
bison, jaquar, coyote, etc.) and the smaller group in the side corridors
(raccoon, mountain beaver, jackrabbit, ringtail,etc.) start at 30″. All
horizons at 62″ off the floor.

Whitney Hall of Oceanic Birds – all groups start at 30″. All horizons
plotted at approx. 62 (Jaques)

So, the heights are variable, but the larger groups are like ours here at the Peabody, starting about 18″ off the ground.  I forgot that the windows of the corridor dioramas had higher levels.  So this isn’t as unusual as I first thought it to be.  But interesting nonetheless!


March 18, 2010

Less than a week ago I blogged about how quickly the foreground was moving along…This Tuesday, Patrick Sweeney, from the Peabody herbarium, came down to look at how I had placed the grasses and he pointed out a problem that I think I didn’t want to see.  He said that the grasses in the foreground were twice the size of the painted grasses and he thought the tie-in was not convincing for this reason.  My talented volunteer, Michael Bobbie was listening and he agreed.  Patrick and Michael suggested that maybe the perspective was from a high dune looking down.   After discussing it further, I decided to try out the high dune effect.  Michael and I pulled the foreground away from the background and I removed all the grasses and the juniper I had installed earlier.  Then we got some blue insulation foam and cut out some contours that looked like they might work as a form for the higher dune.  We put the foam right on top of the old dune, mixed plaster again, dipped sisal into the plaster again, and covered the substructure AGAIN.  By the end of the afternoon we had the plaster painted and covered with sand blending in with last week’s work.

I needed a day on Wednesday to look at it and react to the change.  I decided it was good, so today I began adding grass, but not in the place where it had been.  This time I focused on the painted clump to the left.

New grass

Then right at the end of the day, I decided to get more juniper and install that on the far right hand side.  All of juniper is still in the freezer, so I had to retrieve a piece and bring it up to the diorama.  It is unpainted, but as you may remember from an earlier blog, it has already been sprayed with latex rubber to hold the needles in place.  With a cut here and a drill hole there, I installed the new, dull-looking juniper branch and reinstalled the other branches.  It is easily removed for painting.  I think Alexis, another talented volunteer, is going to have to paint some more juniper!

Newly installed juniper branch.

I think this is looking hopeful.  If I put grass in this area to the right it will be away from the background and closer to the front.  We’ll try that and see if it works visually.  Nothing is sacred.  I will keep changing things until you can hear the warblers sing!!!.

Hairy Pucoon and Shitake Mushrooms

March 18, 2010

Today I finished one of the molds for the hairy pucoon leaves.  I mix 5 minute epoxy with oil paint to get a translucent colored cast which seems to work quite well if you don’t have access to a vacuform machine, maybe better. I mix the epoxy and get it into the mold, add a layer of fine fiberglas, slap the vaseline covered cast into the mold and clamp it-all before 5 minutes is up.  I wait 30 minutes so the epoxy sets well and unclamp it.  The epoxy always sticks to the vaseline covered cast  and I have to pry it loose.  Today to unstick the epoxy  I used a tool with a sharp point to loosen the edge and as you might guess, I jabbed it deep into one of my fingers.  Without hesitation I yelled out the 4 letter version of shitake mushrooms and ran for the bathroom to wash it.  (My sincere apologies to anyone who might have been in the gallery.)  This is where the reality of working in front of the public gets a little raw.  I’m so used to working alone.  I sing, talk to myself and occasionally an expletive erupts without anyone there to take note (at least I think this is so!).

On a similar note, Ray deLucia told me a story about working with William R. Leigh, one of the highly talented diorama painters from the 1930’s at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.  He told me this story:

“Leigh was very profane.  He was up painting on the 3rd floor corridor and he was talking with someone.  He was really mad-you could hear him saying g..damn this and f… this and that.  He had this stentorian voice and it traveled.  I was up on the 3rd floor and I looked up over the edge just to see if anyone was listening.  There was a crowd of people below looking up at me.  I could tell they thought I was the one cursing.  I quickly ducked back down and made my escape.”