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.


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.