Monday, January 18, 2010

Taxidermy: In which we add flesh to the beast

Greetings, one and all! We are getting close, dangerously close, to completing the amazing feejee mermaid. This time, we'll see how one can apply a realistic, strong skin to the upper body to make it look like the dessicated flesh of a mummified corpse.

This part is my favorite. It's fun and messy, and doesn't require much talent nor concentration; it's impossible to make it look bad.

To add flesh and skin to some bone or armature, I like to use a combination of materials to achieve maximum strength and realism. For large areas, it's simply a matter of layering. For highly detailed zones, such as the hands or face, it's almost like sculpting with papier mâché.

Read the full tutorial with pictures after the jump.

To give you a general idea of the techniques I'll be using, I'll refer you to these websites:

The classic « Snot Rag » paper & glue method, except that I'll use latex instead of glue

The always ressourceful Cobweb's method, which uses nylon stockings and rubber cement

And last but not least, 3 simple techniques explained by gore galore to create different degrees of « fleshyness »

These three pages will be very helpful if you want more info, but I'll try my best to explain my methods thoroughly.

First, the materials!

You need absorbent stuff. I used toilet paper, cheese cloth and nylon stockings. Paper towels, old fabric pieces and cotton batting all work great too. Don't be afraid to experiment!

You'll also need some kind of goo to hold it and smooth it all together. I used liquid latex, which I strongly recommend, but it can be replaced with carpet adhesive, rubber cement or white glue (which is what I generally used when I didn't have the money to buy latex. It looks great, it's realistic to the touch, but it's a lot more fragile than latex.)

However, the great Homer Tate used shredded newspaper and powdered horse hoof glue to create his oddities, so as you can see, everything goes.

fish girl by Homer Tate

Now you need some way to support your dead fish chick. I drilled a hole in a couple of layers of plywood and stuck the mermaid's spine wire in it. I removed the head to make it easier to work on it and to reduce weight.

I started out by rubbing a bit of latex over the whole armature to make it sticky. Then, using pieces of cheese cloth dipped in latex, I smoothed a bit the shoulders to hide the fact that it's just a bunch of wires. I then slipped a piece of stocking over the torso, and glued it down with more latex.

I also made the spine stick out more with a piece of toilet paper soaked in latex and twisted into a long, thin snake.

What's fun with the latex soaked paper is that you can shape it with tools, like you would do with clay. Creating indenations for the vertebras and smoothing one part into another is thus very simple to do.

Simple using a nylon stocking could work with the torso, but I like to have a bit more stiffness, texture and depth in my dead bodies. Thus, I plastered the torso with a layer of toilet paper squares. That's when the « snot rag » mache technique comes in handy.

Be careful to blend the edges in the fish body correctly, or it'll look fake.

A good trick to make the edges easier to blend is to tear up all sides of the toilet paper. A torn edge blends into its surroundings better than a smooth one.

In the last picture, you can see I already covered one arm. Of course, as you can see, the arm is much thicker than the wire of its armature. To add bulk to the arm, I used cheese cloth. I simply wrapped the whole « bone » of the arm with the cloth until I was satisfied with the thickness, and glued it down with a bit of latex. In the next picture, you'll be able to see the arm covered with the cheese cloth.

Once satisfied, I cover the arm with a skin of toilet paper & latex once again.

It's now time to work on my nemesis: THE HAND.

It's quite simple, actually, but still, it's a real pain in the buttocks to do.
I start out with a piece of nylon stocking to make the webbed part of the hand.

After this, it's just a matter of using the toilet paper soaked in latex once again to build up the fingers, just like I built up the spine earlier.

Now it's my favorite part: making the face.

Using a toothpick, my trusty toilet paper and more latex, I built up and sculpted the features as realistically as I could.

Do you see the ressemblance with Ramses II?

I then stuck the head back on the body, and built up the neck the same way I did the arm.

All done!

Now let it dry overnight. We'll do the finishing touches later.


  1. I came to your site via craftster, beckoned by your beautiful mermaid. You are incredibly talented, and articulate too! It was a pleasure to explore your projects. Thank you and take care.

  2. Thanks to you! I'm glad you enjoyed my work. It's always a pleasure to receive such flattering comments.

  3. It's amazing that you wrote a tutorial for such a complex project.

  4. Actually, I found the process of documenting the construction and writing the tutorial almost as fun as actually making the mermaid!

    You have an amazing talent.