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  • Writer's pictureEleanor Crook

The Colouring of Waxworks, a bonus technique lesson for your Christmas!

I swore long ago not to be secretive or protective about my techniques - especially as I have learned them from the experiences of artists alive and dead who have experimented before me. So here are some recent findings made while extending my range of complexions in painted wax, for you to evaluate, try out, improve upon and hopefully elaborate into your own system. I don't use the techniques of Tussauds; there are many ways to colour a wax model, but here's what I'm working with currently.

The face in this experiment is a hand modelled one not a lifecast. You might recognise him if you've taken part in my dermatological moulage classes at the Vrolik Museum Amsterdam or the Narrenturm in Vienna. The wax is, as ever 1718 in white from British Wax of Redhill, Surrey, UK - quite a hard mix that you can use for an exhibition piece as long as it's lined with a resin, ceramic or jesmenite core. Here is is before and after painting. I think it is made opaque with titanium white so the reflective pigment is present in it when you buy it.

Sometimes I melt a tiny bit of oil paint into the wax ( over a bain marie, never apply direct heat.) Enamel bain maries work best , like this:

Really small amounts of oil colour go a long way, to tint the base note of my wax and influence the resulting complexion. Imagine you are mixing the colour a human would wear as foundation for any skin tone. For an olive skin I'm currently trying the wax uncoloured, then with a dab of raw sienna which gives a yellowy base, then with a dab of sepia which ( depending on manufacturer, they vary) which gives the olive tone. Careful with that one, it can also look a bit corpsey!

This batch of test pieces uses the following tubes:

Michael Harding zinc white (slightly transparent)

Rembrandt Stil de Grain ( the one I use the most)

Michael Harding red oxide ( the colour of the iron in your blood)

Old Holland Ivory black ( slightly blue hint)

Rembrandt Raw Sienna

Rembrandt Olive green

Old Holland Crimson Lake deep

As a medium I'm using Liquin light gel , but you can use any liquin and fine detail too. I use it to speed drying between coats and because it dries to quite a good satin finish eventually which reads ok as skin, especially if you control its shine under lighting with face powder.

I'm keeping turpentine away because it can eat through previous glazes of colour.

I apply the colour by stippling again and again with a slightly worn out taklon brush. I use 3 - 5 layers , adding most of the tone in the second layer. Look in the mirror and judge which parts of your face are more or less flushed , or if you are lucky enough to have someone modelling for you check out the colour differences between zones of the face. It is not like observational portrait painting - you are looking for local colour like a make up artist, not for effects of light.

A tip: any white pigment can look like makeup on a waxwork, it's best used in the first 1 or 2 coats to set the skin tone if you need it as part of the main complexion mix. Using Ivory Black to damp down and neutralise colours does work but can give a greyish cast - I find the olive green more useful to stop the colours looking too ruddy. If surface veins are visible through the complexion you are colouring, they traditionally go on early , and ultramarine or Prussian blue can do the job if applied as a thin thin glaze. Here is an example from medical wax history shared recently by a friend on social media, sorry I did not keep a note who posted it, let me know if it was you! The yellow tint in this example is from using a mix of beeswax with rosin, which varies in colour but is yellowish.

This set of layers gives a good effect for a complexion like mine - Scottish, ruddy, pallid at most times of the year! I realise many of the waxes I have made gravitate to my own skintone and it's exasperation at that limitation that has me experimenting this week.

So here are my findings. First, the raw wax compared with raw + sepia. This makes quite a dark skintone.

You can see the effect of stippling the colours listed over the base colour here. The paler face has a different treatment each side, with an extra layer of browns on the right. These examples don't contain any zinc white paint at all.

Ok the next - here is a raw sienna tinted one. You see it gives a strong yellow base, useful for some skin types. I've put a similar paint treatment over it as the ones above, quite transparent with plenty of liquin light gel.

Next come the ones where I've used more oil paint and made a sort of foundation layer involving some zinc white - mixing the kind of colours you see on the beauty make up counter , in pressed powder compacts and foundations, for real faces.

The dominant colour in the one on the left is raw sienna, on the right it's Stil de Grain. I was trying to be quite careful and painterly, blending variants to match the natural colour variations in a real face. The left one reminds me a bit of Torrigiano's painted terracottas. Here's his effigy of Henry V11 - from a death mask -

Lastly we come to the one I'll be using on my next medical waxwork for the soon-to-reopen Hunterian Museum. I was going for an olive complexion, so the base has a touch of sepia. I've photographed it next to the yellowish base so you can see the difference. On the right hand side of the pic you can see the effect with zinc white in the "foundation" layer, on his left hand side just brownish mixes.

Here it is then, a nice balance of warm and cool tones just like you get in a real face and getting toward the paint jobs on some of the wooden Spanish polychrime saints that I so enjoy.

There you have it. I hope you found it useful to see the details of this experiment - if you try it, you're bound to come up with your own tricks and versions, and let me know if you find some new modes of skintone expression. Seasons' greetings, from my December studio!

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