Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Mummified Vampire Heart, Part Deux

Since May I've been on a quest for a magic potion.

My search started because of this, a mummified vampire heart. It was made using techniques shamelessly stolen from some of the old time carny shows. The kind that would let you catch a glimpse of freakish anatomical wonders, or "gaffs", if you were willing to hand over a greenback. I was extremely happy with how the heart came out, but it was missing the deep, rich finish of those old school attractions. What did I need to do to get that tanned, leathery look?

I spent a few weeks trying to duplicate it with everything from wood stain to ink washes and came up empty. Stains could reproduce the rich colors, but once the gaff was varnished or shellacked the effect went flat. Liquid acrylic could build up depth, but after a few coats it looked like a shiny film of plastic. As my own experiments fizzled out I continued researching the history of gaffs looking for a clue. What was the secret behind those rich colors? These were guys that went from town to town putting on shows for most of the year, so it's not like they had a chemistry lab available to cook up some secret elixir. It had to be something cheap and readily available.

And it is.

The secret to getting that deep finish is something I noticed back in May, but I didn't make the connection until last month. You want the warm, buttery look of fine leather? Then you want to use the same compound that gives leather it's richness. The secret is wax. Plain old paste wax.

Ordinary shoe polish will do in a pinch, but basic powdered pigments mixed with paste wax gives you more control over the colors. Need a grungier, more aged finish? Add some powdered chalk to the wax and you get the perfect aging compound. It's opaque, it sticks in crevices and wipes off raised surfaces, and you can add twenty years of dirt and grime with a few minutes of buffing.

Here's what the mummified vampire heart looks like now. Just click through for the high resolution versions of all these pictures.



Isn't that awesome? The heart has a much richer palette of reds and browns, and the waxing really brings out the details and textures. The stake was waxed with a little burnt umber pigment and the results there are just as impressive.

Seriously, click through and look at the high res versions so you can see just how much of a difference it makes. The finish provided by the waxing technique takes a good prop and kicks it up into greatness. That's not me patting myself on the back, but an appreciation of just how useful an aging technique this is. Considering that it's been in use for centuries on gaffs like the Jenny Haniver I feel like an idiot for not trying it sooner.





The last shot is my favorite. This is what the black corrupted heart of an inhuman monster looks like.



Tomorrow I'll show off the rest of the project.

12 comments:

Surreality said...

Great job. Van Helsing would be proud of you!

You probably know this -you're the expert- but just in case:
You can get interesting dark tones on leather by using tea (not hot, of course, it would cause the leather to shrink). It works pretty the same with wood, fabric and other materials. The effect is much lighter, more nuanced, but you can repeat the process and play around a bit.

Propnomicon said...

@ Surreality

Thank you for the kind words.

I don't think I qualify as an expert, given the profound level of ignorance I regularly demonstrate. Just look how giddy and I excited I get over rediscovering a technique that was in use back in the 1500s.

Fringe Doktor said...

Don't know what to say but AWESOME!!!!!!!!

If you want REAL - you found it! I hope you will disclose the molding or sculpting (don't think so) technique, as well as the basic coloring / painting of the damned thing. Truly a perfect gaff...

My HEART goes out to you -

Fringe Doktor

Yellow Phantom said...

The heart looks amazing! Thanks for sharing the story behind the process.

Anonymous said...

This is truly horrible! Excellent :-)
I reckon this would fool medical students. So realistic.

biopunk said...

Well done!

And thank you for the technique tip!

Propnomicon said...

@ Fringe Doctor

Anatomical gaffs like this were created with the simplest of materials- plaster and latex. A carny would stop by at the local slaughterhouse and pick up an animal heart, plug the openings with wax, and then mold it in plaster reinforced with burlap. Simple waxed paper and cardboard separators were used for multi-part molds with lots of undercuts.

Once the plaster mold was done the original heart was removed and liquid latex was brushed inside the mold to form the initial skin. Then the central cavity was packed with cotton or kapok and more latex was poured in, swirled around, the excess poured out, and allowed to dry.

The genius of this method is twofold. One, it's doable with cheap materials available almost anywhere in the 19th century. Two, the latex repeatedly shrinks during the process and produces the gnarled, wrinkly look of mummified flesh. The effect becomes even more pronounced as the latex in the gaff ages and naturally darkens.

@ Yellow Phantom

Thank you for the kind words. And I love your avatar picture.

Tóbal said...

Hi!
It is a really amazing prop!!!
I understand its made of latex...is it?
Do you think it could be done with polymer clays? If so , what painting technics will you use to achieve flesh aspect? Wax and pigments too?
Thanks!!!

daniel said...

I have to say that this is the most amazing thing I have seen this year. Only four words come to mind when looking at your gorgeous vampire heart, and I think they speak for everyone who has seen it. "Wow. I want one." Thanks for sharing yet another great work of art with us.

ArtSnark said...

seriously icky-cool. Love it

Propnomicon said...

@ Tóbal

The basic shape of the heart, even with all the plumbing, isn't hard to duplicate. It's basically halfway between a cone and a sphere with some tubes sticking out the top.

The tricky part is the surface texture. I know this sounds odd, but if you look at the pictures you'll see that the surface texture of the heart is just like a steak. A well done steak, to be sure, but the structure is exactly the same. Cast a texture stamp off a piece of meat or cheap jerky and you could reproduce it exactly using Sculpey.

Kao said...

seems to be real