Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Taxidermy: In which we discuss the mounting of the skin


Last time, as you can recall by scrolling down to my last post, we dealt with skinning a fish for the purpose of stuffing and mounting it as a fishing trophy. You may also recall that I clumsily tore out the cheek of the fish, ruining its head. Thus, I cut it off.

The body of the fish still has a purpose, though; I shall use it as the bottom half of a taxidermy gaff representing a mermaid, as, for example, the feejee mermaid made famous by Barnum.

See how I did this after the jump!

So, while the fish's skin is pickling, take out the outline you made of the body earlier, and copy it on a longer piece of paper. Take this as a guide to design the general body of your soon-to-be dead mermaid. It doesn't need to be perfect, as long as the general measurements are accurate.

Then, take a piece of thick wire. I used an old metal clothes hanger. Use this piece of wire to make the spine of the critter. There is a natural curve in the human spine; try following it, it'll add authenticity to your beautiful work of art.

Here, you can see my sketch, and the spine. Add a smaller length of the same wire, cross-wise, where the collarbones will be placed later. This will add some much needed strength to the skeleton of the mermaid.

Now, all you need to do is take various materials of your choice and build the skeleton. I used 14g and 20g wire, with a lot of masking tape to build mine. You're on your own on this one, although it should be pretty simple.

A good anatomy book is very handy at this step. I personally use the book Human Anatomy for Artists: The Elements of Form by Eliot Goldfinger. A great book, it is.

Here's a couple of pictures showing how I made my skeleton:

As you can see, I removed the left arm. That's because I'm too lazy to make 2 hands. Hands are a real pain in the arsch.

Don't try to make it perfect, it's only a base on which the body will be built. You'll be able to change the pose, add stuff, etc. later on. What's important is that the proportions are right.

Also, you probably see that I didn't make a head. That's because I want to make the skull out of polymer clay, but I don't have any left. The head can wait.

Once the skeleton's done, it's time to take out the fish skin out of it's brine.

Rinse it in cold, soapy water and lay it flesh side down on a couple of layers of newspaper to absorb the excess liquid. Then, wipe of as much residual slime as you can from the skin with paper towels.

Let it dry out a little bit (but not too much) while you mix together salt and borax. I used a 50/50 mixture. However, you can get a bit creative. I added silica gel (Working in a shoe store means I have easy access to this crap), and following the info that the always awesome Mrs Knickertwist gave me, I added some rosemary leaves and orris root powder (not shown) to help with the smell and with bugs. I also stuck some cloves in it, just because I like the smell. This is facultative, of course. Salt & borax works very well all alone.

Once that's done, put the skin flesh side up on your work surface, and rub your mix thoroughly into the skin. Get it in every nooks and crannies, and add some specially on fleshy areas. This mixture will bring out the water from the skin (what we, french folks, call Dégorger) and make the fish dry faster, thus with less chances of rotting or getting mouldy. The borax is a mild disinfectant.

So, up to now, we let the fish marinate in brine, we rubbed it thoroughly with spicy seasonings, and we cleared the skin of it's excess water with salt. Hungry yet?

Ok, so now that's the skin is soaked in salt, you have two choices: either you slip the skin on a form you previously made, and then sew it together, or you sew it shut first and then stuff it.

I went with the second option.

Sewing something together shut is pretty easy, so I don't think you need me there. Only, here's a piece of advice: use waxed thread (I rubbed normal sewing thread with a candle), and a thick needle. Fish scales are tough. I broke a needle that was too thin while trying to sew this sucker up.

Once it's all sewn back together, stuff it. Don't use cotton. The best is excelsior (also called wood wool). I didn't have any so I used raffia; it did the job pretty well. However, keep something in mind: The effect I want to achieve is this:

(picture from )

not this:

(picture from )

If you want the sleek, smooth look shown in the second picture, a pre-carved wood or foam form is the way to got.

I left a bit of skin unstuffed at the top to leave me some working space.

Once it was stuffed, I poked the bottom of the « spine wire » down the fish until it cam through the tail. It was then just a matter of placing the skin correctly, sewing it in place and adding stuffing where it was needed. I then stapled the fins and tail open on pieces of cardboard so they'll keep their shape while drying.

All is left to do (as long as the fish skin is concerned) is to let it dry completely in a warm, dry area, which can take quite a few days. I sped up the process by sticking it in the oven at the lowest setting, but the smell of warm fish slime is not very pleasant, so I took the soon-to-be mermaid out of the oven and hung it over a radiator in a room where no one ever goes. Once it'll be dry, I,ll smoke it thoroughly with Nag Champa incense to get rid of the fishy smell and replace that with a weird, exotic aroma.

See ya in a couple of days for the rest of the process!

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