Preparing to Paint Edith Kramer – That’s too much paint!

“Use little paint! Use less paint than you think.”

Is the mantra I have been repeating to myself while learning to paint Edith Kramer. Wax has inherent translucent properties that are crucial to its effectiveness in realistic representations in models. Therefore, during this stage, I had to work hard to add depth and life to Kramer, without losing this unique feature.

Wade Waxworks offered me the opportunity to first practise painting on wax. There, I made the most amateur mistake possible – I painted with too much paint (see below.)

My second attempt was more successful. The key to painting on wax is to dry brush oil paint onto the surface, taking the time to slowly build up the layers so that the translucency is not lost. There are also certain colours that are almost always used:

– Cadmium red (with a little violet if necessary for darker areas). Commonly used for ear areas.

– Flesh or Pale Rose Blush

– Buff titanium

– Burnt umber (great for freckles!)

– Olive green

– Naples yellow (for highlighting)

I have also looked at portrait painting on the traditional canvas, which has helped me understand how colour can insinuate anatomy. For instance, you can use highlights to ‘pick up structures’ but these must end once the latter does. Also, colours such as ‘cadmiums with black/cobalt blue/ultramarine and umber make good shadows.’ Areas of the face where there is thicker flesh are often painted with warmer colours, while where the bone is closer to the skin, cooler. Lastly, green undertones are more common on the face than I thought!

Before moving onto the final painting, I also practised on extra casts. During this stage, I have noticed that the paint started to crumble on top of the surface. Please see below photo for an example of the crumbling when I first painted at Wade Waxworks. I believe this crumbling on my casts can be due to several reasons:

  1. The surface of the cast is not clean enough.
  2. The surface of the cast is too shiny, which prevents the paint from properly adhering.
  3. The oil paints are reacting with the brushes.
  4. Too much paint!

The first point prompted me to look into conservation of wax, which gave me some tips on preparing a wax surface. Murrel, V. points out that due to the inherent ‘waxiness’ of the material, it tends to get dirty. (1971, pg. 97). Often, conservation workers in museums use aqueous washing composed of ‘distilled water with 2% Lissapol’ which is ‘brushed over the surface with a soft sable’ (1971, pg. 100). I will follow this process on the final cast before painting, allowing the surface to dry completely beforehand.

Additionally, I altered the surface of the cast through additional carving and brushing, in order to reduce the shine and help the paint adhere better. I filled any holes left by the casting process, paying attention to the temperature of the wax I used as filling – Murrel notes how ‘all tools used in cutting and finishing wax should be warmed’ (1971, pg. 102) but not too much, as there can be a colour difference in heated and colder wax.

I will also try sable brushes instead of synthetic ones.

I believe these points combined will result in a better paint finish on my model, which I will review in my last blog post at the end of the project.


Casting Edith Kramer – The Mystery of Wax

Before this project, I have only done casting in wax on a very small scale. This was going to be a great opportunity to explore this material in a different manner. I was ready to experiment!

Main stages of experimentation:

  1. Choice of wax
  2. Tint of wax
  3. Process of heating wax
  4. Process of pouring wax
  5. Cleaning up of casts

Choice of wax

One of the first things I considered, was the type of wax I wanted to choose for the model. Both Madame Tussaud’s and Wade Waxworks use a predominantly beeswax product, similar to these waxes sold by the British Wax Refining Company. As they produce waxwork models on a large scale, using these companies makes sense as they ship products in bulk with deals the larger the amount.

However, for my project, it would not be feasible for me to buy this type of product as I would not use the whole batch, therefore would not be a professional choice in terms of financial management of the project. The minimum I could order was 5kg, which would add up to £65.20 without shipping costs.

It was after reading Murrel, V. (1971) Some Aspects of Conservation of Wax Models that I made the choice to mix my own wax blend instead. In their study, they investigated various historical written and physical work on wax to divulge the type of wax that was used for figure casting throughout history.

‘the majority of finished wax sculptures were made with beeswax, probably bleached, with no additions apart from pigments and inerts.’

Murrel, V., 1971, pg. 96

‘one third of their bulk – of white lead and, apart from its obvious inclusion as a colourant, it may have been used to alter the property of the wax, reducing shrinkage and making it harder and thus more easily carved.’

Murrel, V., 1971, pg. 97

It is no wonder artists throughout history preferred beeswax as their main type of wax – as described in previous blog post, it has a vast past and narrative, combined with great malleable and translucent properties. Therefore, I decided this would be the best type to use for my model, particularly the bleached kind as I could then manipulate the colour far more easily. I ordered these in 1oz blocks, as I could control the amount I needed and work within the budget of the project.

Additionally, it is also important to note that Murrel (1971) found that artists often mixed their beeswax with other products. This is due to the inherent properties of beeswax, which are advantageous to the look of the models, but do carry limitations during the moulding process. Murrel (1971, pg. 97) notes that beeswax ‘contracts considerably when setting’ which results in a ‘soft and rather blurred impression’ in the cast. Due to this, I also chose to mix the beeswax with a more durable kind of wax – paraffin.

I experimented with the quantities of each wax, starting with just a purely paraffin wax cast. This was not only my clear-out cast of the mould, but also displayed the far decreased malleable properties of this wax, as it took a very rudimental cast with layers of the wax visible on the surface. This is partly because paraffin wax seemed to cool much faster than beeswax.

Mix of bleached beeswax and paraffin pellets melting in the bain-marie. A food thermometer was used to keep the wax at a safe temperature.

The latter experimentation stage was composed of a primarily beeswax mix with small amounts of paraffin wax. Below are some of my more notable mixes:

6x beeswax 1x paraffin (1x paraffin extra inside layer)6oz/170g 50g 50gNot enough wax for a durable mould
6x beeswax 2x paraffin (2x paraffin extra inside layer)6oz/170g 100g 100gThe mix did not pick up enough surface details. The layers of wax very visible on surface
7x beeswax ½x paraffin (2x paraffin extra inside layer)7oz/198g 25g 100gEnough for the whole cast. Good surface detail. Good translucency. Malleable surface. Durable cast due to under layer of paraffin wax.

The third mix on the list was the most successful of the lot, which I used for the final cast.

Tint of wax

A massive advantage of buying the wax in bulk, would have been that the wax was already tinted to a Caucasian skin tone widely used by the Madame Tussaud and Wade Waxworks workshops. However, as I chose to mix my own wax, I also experimented widely with the skin tone of my wax.

Although Murrel (1971) does not provide much guidance on this, I called Mike from Wade Waxworks to ask for advice on how to best do this. He advised using oil paints melted with a little bit of wax, which I amended by letting the mix cool completely and then flaking off controlled amounts into my wax. This ensured I could effectively manage how much of which colour I was adding to each cast and adjusting gradually to reach the best tint.

Edith Kramer.

Throughout the process, I was using the above image of Edith Kramer, and this model made by Wade Waxworks as benchmarks for the colour of the skin. Using an already made model helped me judge how the surface painting would show on specific wax tints.

Lastly, I also added another dimension to my casts, but using two main tints of wax – the top layers were more of a yellow-cream tint, while an under layer brought sub-surface scattering to the model through a more pinkish tint. Most importantly, the under layer was also composed almost entirely of paraffin wax, which made the cast more durable without affecting the quality of the surface.

Casting set-up in my kitchen! Health and safety hazards were reviewed beforehand, and all areas protected from any possible spills.

Process of heating up and pouring the wax

While working on the appropriate mix and tint of the wax, I was also paying attention to the way the materials are treated during the process. The wax must be kept below 75C during the heating process, which I controlled through a food thermometer. Bubbles can form in the wax if it reaches boiling point. This was a safety choice as well as below this temperature, the wax will not cause burns to the skin if an accident occurs.

Pouring the wax was also an issue. I did not have a melting pot to heat up the wax, which I replaced with a bain-marie. I had to take the wax away from the heat source to pour it, which would cause it to cool. I could not pour the wax once it reached a certain viscosity without risking the quality of the sculpt. At the same time, working too quickly meant the wax became disturbed and bubbles formed and showed up on the surface of the casts.

Mike from Wade Waxworks suggested using a funnel to pour the wax. I also reached out to others on social media, from which I was advised to heat the wax to a higher temperature in order to manage these air bubbles.

A combination of both these techniques worked. I heated the wax to 80C for the first pour, and ensured it was barely disturbed as I poured it in. Later layers were at a lower temperature. This ensured a cleaner surface quality.

Overall, this process was formed an a basis of prior experience, research, experimentation, and above all, contact with other professionals. Similarly as with the sculpting stage, I believe speaking with others continually changed my perspective and encouraged me to approach my work with curiosity. This helped me to achieve a good quality benchmark.

Check out a time lapse of my casting process on my Instagram here!

Some of the outcomes of my casting process.

Benchmarks – What standards am I setting for my model?

At this stage I think it is also important to establish some benchmarks that I will be aiming for in terms of quality of finish of my model of Edith Kramer.

Wade Waxworks produces stunning realistic waxworks with a high quality of finish. Their beautiful finish is broadly defined through a high standard of quality in all stages of production – from sculpting to dressing. Due to this, I will be using their models as benchmarks for my head bust of Edith Kramer.

Wade Waxwork’s Aa Ji model
Wade Waxwork’s Amma Ji model

I will be using their models of the elderly due to the age of my subject. I have respect for the accuracy and understanding of anatomy in their models. For instance, their Aa Ji model’s facial features flow well and are very cohesive. They portray the physical characteristics of their subjects such as age etc. in a highly realistic manner – Aa Ji’s cheeks droop to imitate the deteriorating physicality of muscle and fatty tissue over time without seeming forced or out of place, as the anatomy was constructed from a place of understanding underlying facial structures.

Another point I will use as a benchmark from their models, is their emotional representation. Have a look at Amma Ji’s model by Wade Waxworks – even though it is not an overtly expressive head bust, their neutral face still portrays a degree of personality and emotional representation that communicate with the viewer. They do this through careful appreciation of idiosyncratic features of the subject’s face, combined with research on their history and personal character. That is the realism that I am aiming for – a face with personality behind it.

During the moulding and casting process, I will also be paying attention to Wade Waxwork’s handling of the silicon, plaster and wax materials. To reduce clean up in the cast, they make jacket moulds for the silicon which stays in one piece. After the plaster jacket is made, a singular cut is made to the back of the silicon mould that results in a minimal seam line.

Their handling of wax is also something I am aiming for – their wax is tinted to match the base skin tone of their subjects so that there is minimal painting afterwards. I will be using Aa Ji’s model by Wade Waxworks to gauge the tint colour of the wax – I am going for a similar tone of light yellow with a touch of pink in Kramer.

Additionally, I will also be using qualities of the work of Ron Mueck, specifically during the sculpting of the model and the dressing stage. The National Gallery of Victoria explains how ‘his startling manipulations of scale are key to our experience of each work’ which is an element I am planning to represent in my model. Additionally, Mueck also pays special attention to dressing his models in clothing that imitates the full-scale version at whichever scale he chooses. For instance, in his model Two Women, the fabric was chosen and sewed together so that it would not only represent the thread line at half-scale, but also so that it would fall down their bodies in just the right way. As such, I will imitate the clothing of Kramer at half-scale in all ways – sight, touch, and even interaction with weight and gravity.

Jessica Ennis-Hill CBE model at Madame Tussaud’s London

Moreover, I am looking at Madame Tussaud’s and Wade Waxworks models to understand the benchmarks for the painting of my model. Both maker workshops finish their models with very light layers of oil paint that still allow the translucency of wax to peek through. This helps the realism. I will also be using the specific shades of paint that is normally used in painting of waxwork figures – I will touch on this more in an upcoming post.

Marble head of an athlete
ca. A.D. 138–192

Lastly, the presentation – I will be looking to Madame Tussaud and traditional head busts in order to present my model in the most fitting manner. I would like a simple stand that emphasises the informational and representational purposes of the model. I like the way traditional head busts such as the Marble head of an athlete let the viewer have the space to make their own impression of the head by not over-complicating the display. I will aim for this benchmark throughout all the features of the model, such as tucking the clothes into the edges of the bottom of the bust to create a clean look. The Brighton Museum used this tactic quite pleasantly in their facial reconstructions.  

Therefore, I am aiming for a delicate but durable, realistically representational benchmark for my model.

L-R: Whitehawk Woman; Patcham Woman; Ditchling Road Man; Stafford Road Man; Slonk Hill Man. © Royal Pavilion & Museums

History and Significance of Madame Tussauds Waxworks

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex as wax models made by the makers of Madame Tussauds

In my last blog post I discussed the properties of wax, and its inherent narrative. For the purposes of my project, I would like to invite you to see wax in the context of the Madame Tussaud museum, and the significance of its establishment and workmanship.

Nowadays, the company is established all around the world – one of their latest institutions opened recently in Delhi. However, the first Madame Tussauds’ exhibition was opened in 1835 after she toured the British Isles with her wax figurines in the early 1800s. Tussaud learned her technique of making realistic wax models through the tutoring of Philippe Curtius who at the time was making models for the medical field to aid anatomical study.

Crutious taught Tussaud the traditional way of making the sculpts from beginning to finish:

  1. Sculpt the bust in clay
  2. Make a plaster mould of the sculpt
  3. Pour the hot wax into the mould
  4. Paint the cured wax and dress figure, including wig making.
QUICK FACT! Today, the makers of Madame Tussaud workshop still use clay to sculpt their figures as it reflects the craftsmanship and pride in the history of the museum.

Madame Tussaud’s enterprise was more than just an exhibition though – her waxwork figures represented a version of the newspaper and the celebrity column, in the sense that she showed the people who was of importance at the time. In fact, in the documentary Madame Tussaud: A Legend in Wax, they describe how her waxworks at the time of the French Revolution, helped Parisians identify who was in charge – an important feature seeing as leaders kept getting executed!

In modern times, her legacy has no lesser impact. Edward Carey compares visiting Madame Tussauds’ exhibitions to a ‘museum of the human body’ and a lesson on physiognomy – as visitors we use it not to see what people achieved but to see what they looked like. We are excited about how we can stand next to a politician, measure our height against a Hollywood actress, or have a photograph taken right next to a fictional movie character brought to life. Carey calls it a fascination with the variety of people.

Not only that, it could also have a component of a fascination of connections with people, suggested by the attraction to touch the figures by visitors. Tussauds capitalised on this concept as it ‘has always enabled us to touch… royals, celebrities and criminals’ expands Patrick Barckham. He proposes that through this interaction with the waxwork model recreations of people we view as important social figures, we become engrossed in a ‘celebrity role were we [are] in control.’ These are ‘thoroughly, irreverently interactive’ exhibitions that inspire involvement purely by taking away the red tape and letting the visitor stand side by side of the models.

Visitors taking pictures with waxwork models at the Madame Tussauds museum in Hollywood.

Due to this history of waxworks brought into the UK by Madame Tussaud, and the continual significance they hold today, I wanted to follow this tradition in my work. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to make my model of Edith Kramer in wax rather than the similar, yet more modernised, silicon. There is deep tradition in waxwork models, and a proven intrinsic effect that they hold on us. We feel life when we look at a waxworks – perhaps drawn to the way the material inherently manipulates light that touches it, or relating to the narrative that has been build around these models in the Western culture by Tussauds.

I think it would be quite fitting then, to show the commemorative celebration of Edith Kramer’s life and work through a medium which builds a narrative of significance, creativity, and life.

Wax as a Material – What’s the fuss about?

Wax as a material is one of the most respected, and oldest materials from around globe. In fact, in her book Wax as art form, Thelma Newman (1966) describes the ‘story of wax’ to be so ‘colorful and at times so weird that it takes on the aspect of a fairytale.’ (p.12).

While in the UK we may recognise it from the candles on our shelves, and perhaps the Madame Tussaud’s museum, wax actually has a widely rich history. For instance, did you know that in the fifteenth century, wax was used by West Indians on their bodies to keep mosquitoes away (Newman, 1966, p. 13). Or have you ever heard of the ‘Batik’ tradition – a Malayan word for ‘wax writing’ that was practised by noblewoman in Indonesia around the thirteenth century after originating in Egypt. It is a way of ‘drawing a design on fabric with hot wax and then coloring the fabric with water-based dyes’ (Newman, 1966, p. 224) resulting in some beautiful pieces.

Batik in the making.

Want to find out a little bit more about wax? Check out some of the links below!

National Candle Organisation – If you are curious about the history of the everyday candle.

Encaustic Wax Painting – Tired of acrylic paints? Why not try painting with some tinted beeswax.

History of Batik – A deeper dive into the story of Batik.

Ukrainian Pysanka – Traditional Easter eggs from Eastern Europe decorated using wax

In terms of painting and sculpture specifically, wax was used in a multitude of ways. Beeswax for instance, the oldest known wax (Newman, 1966, p. 19) was used by Titian to soak the back of his canvases to protect them from damp. It was also quite widely used as a key component of the church candle.

The uses of wax through the centuries can be categorised into a few broad categories.

So why was wax so popular and used for so many purposes? This could be partly due to its qualities which rival that of the versatility of clay. This meant that the material was a tool for creativity, inspiring people to adjust it to their needs.

GOOD TIP! Dirt kills the consistency of wax (Newman, 1966, p. 106) which means it is important to consider the storage of the material between uses.

In addition to these properties, wax also has a notable relationship with the way it interacts with light. Newman describes wax as being ‘very good at transmitting light’ (1966, p. 108). Through this, the viewer is invited to see the sculpture in a more realistic manner. In fact, Newman claims that some artists ‘believed that it was possible for a sculptor to collect light from a given position and… render an equivalence to light yielding emotions akin to the feelings we have when we view a living figure’ (1966, p. 108). It is no surprise then, that wax has been used by some notable artists through history to create models for anatomical study and for aesthetically realistic purposes – through wax they could bring further life to their work.

The funeral effigy of Elizabeth of York, mother of King Henry VIII, 1503, Westminster Abbey

Therefore, I think I want to finish this post by highlighting that wax has a narrative to it. Rich history that embodies creativity of the individual is at the core of how wax has been used by cultures all around the world, and I think this relates quite well to the subject that I would like to recreate in wax form – Edith Kramer. As described in my previous post, Kramer emphasised the benefits of creativity on mental wellbeing, so I quite like the idea that I would be reflecting her practise in the actual material that I will use to make her. I also like how it relates a little to the reason why I chose this project as my closure to my University degree – my own experience of creativity and the way I have slowly explored its benefits in my personal practise.