Northern Water Snake


Note light showing between the snake and the log

A Northern Water Snake (Nerodia s. sipedon) model is located on a fallen log in the Shoreline diorama. Light can be seen between the snake and the log, which immediately destroys any illusion of reality. This has bothered me for many years. I initially thought that the model had been jostled from its position on the log and that I only needed to fiddle with it enough to get it back into its correct orientation. I made several unsuccessful attempts to reposition it and finally realized that the cast had distorted over time making a good fit impossible. I decided the only way to fix this problem was to cast a new snake.

The model was made in the 1940’s from an actual Northern Water Snake. The snake was collected, euthanized, and put in position on the log. This may have been tricky and pins may have been used to keep the lifeless snake hugging the log. A plaster mold was made over the snake and log. When the plaster had set, the snake was removed. The plaster was dried and liquid latex rubber was slushed into the mold and the excess poured out. The rubber was left to dry and another layer was poured in. Layer after layer was added into the mold to make the final rubber cast.  The latex cast was removed from the mold and then trimmed and painted with oil paint. Over the intervening 70 or so years the latex became hard and brittle and it distorted enough not to fit on the log.


1940’s latex snake cast taken off the log in the Shoreline diorama.

I inherited several old plaster amphibian and reptile molds saved in my storage area when I took this job. Unfortunately, this particular water snake mold had not been saved. Since I couldn’t find the original plaster mold, I made a new silicone rubber mold of the latex cast. I generally use platinum-cured silicone rubber because it lasts longer in my mold archive than the tin-cured silicone. Platinum silicone is slightly more expensive and is more easily inhibited by other substances with which it may come into contact. This proved to be the case with the latex snake. There was intermittent inhibition of the silicone over the body of the latex snake where uncured rubber was left behind. I’m not sure what caused this, but my guess would be that any contact with any of the old, exposed latex might have inhibited the silicone. The inhibition wasn’t extensive enough to redo the mold and I was able to get a passable cast in polyester resin. I chose polyester resin so I could heat the cast to make it pliable enough while hot to form fit to the log. Before I heated it, I drilled small nail holes over the body so I could nail it into place while it cooled.

After the cast was reformed to the log and cooled (it will now keep its new shape), I removed it from the log, cleaned up the cast, re-sculpting some of the areas marred by the inhibition, and painted the entire cast white to prepare it for final painting in oil paint. Greg Watkins-Colwell, the herpetology collections manager, provide an alcohol specimen from which to refer for painting. When it gets reinstalled, I will nail it onto the log just to be sure there will be no further distortion over time.


Polyester resin cast (note nail hole in the body of the snake cast)

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Grass Restoration

dscn0472I have encountered some new challenges as I continue with the renovation of the Peabody Museum’s stunning Shoreline habitat diorama. As you can see from the photographs, the foreground grasses are looking quite “tired”. These are 100% real clumps of grass collected back in the mid 1940’s. I believe the grass was soaked in glycerin by Ralph Morrill, the foreground artist, to keep them from drying out and getting too brittle. He then hung them bottom side up to dry, which initially helps to hold the grass upright. Green spray paint was applied since they would lose their color over time. There are three types of grasses here, each with unique problems to solve. There are the low-lying clumps of grass that look to me like they have been trampled by years of unsteady preparators entering the diorama to clean the inside of the glass and provide occasional maintenance. dscn0476There are the spindly tall grasses topped with heavy seed heads that, over the years, have gravitated, top first, toward the ground. And lastly, there are clumps of sedges comprised of long arching blades of grass. The sedges seem like they are in the best shape of all of the grasses, but to me, they look less than robust, like they might be drooping too much.dscn0473

Before going too far into the restoration of the grasses, it is important to consider the original conception of this area of the foreground. Albert Parr framed and innovated the ideas for the Connecticut dioramas during his directorship of the Peabody from 1938-1942. Parr was critical of the kinds of habitat dioramas he had seen in New York at the American Museum of Natural History in the Southern Asian Hall and the African Hall where all evidence of human impact on the environment was whitewashed away. Parr thought that any habitat displayed should have evidence of human occupation embedded into the presentation and into the educational curriculum and he designed the Connecticut Hall with that in mind. A note: Parr’s idea of depicting human impact was to become a widespread paradigm for museum displays across the US, the Peabody’s Connecticut Hall was the first exhibit hall of this type. As Patrick Sweeney, the botanist pondered the grasses in the Shoreline diorama, we noted that the grasses are species seen in disturbed environments such as a footpath. Indeed, there appears to be a path curving in front of the cattails and heading toward the pond in the background.

Parr’s philosophical context for how the foreground was designed makes my work more complicated. Patrick suggested that maybe I shouldn’t do anything to the “tired” looking grasses and leave them as if someone had just walked over them. This idea conflicts with my view that the diorama appears shabby. While it may be a realistic depiction of a degraded habitat, does it translate that way to the everyday viewer or does it diminish their appreciation of a beautiful Connecticut coastline? When Parr became director of the American Museum of Natural History, he had a beer can dropped in the foreground of the Desert diorama. Again, this was injecting realism at a base level into a pristine environment. The beer can became a beacon for educators to discuss issues of litter and pollution, but it also looked like the foreground artist might have left behind contraband from a clandestine liquid lunch. The offensive beer can was removed.

In lieu of making too big a deal of this, I made a decision to try to remediate the shabby look. I figured that without labeling, most visitors would miss the nuance intended by the “tired” grasses. I make a lot of these decisions as I work on the Peabody dioramas and on the one hand, I always try to bring the scientific staff into the mix to make sure the science is correct, but in aesthetic questions such as this, I make my own informed guess at what would look the best.

To start, I chose to work on the tall drooping grasses (Latin name?) because they stood out as most in need of help. These fallen grasses almost completely obscured some of the members of the family of black ducks in the far right corner. When I entered the diorama, I found that some of the grasses were laying on top of the taxidermy mounts indicating the extent of their droopiness. I tried placing thin, stiff spring wire into the clumps to prop up fallen grass stems. These wires disappeared into the grasses and worked to some extent to hold up the existing grass. I also used wire “lassos” to hold groups of grasses to the upright wires. This lassos proved less effective as the wire holds groups of grasses unnaturally upright. I talked over these results with my assistant, Stefan Hurlburt, and he pointed out that the grasses have hollow stems and maybe we could run the spring wires up into the body of the grasses. Extra clumps of the long stem grasses have been in a box in storage since the 1940’s so we could run the spring wire into these grasses rather than remove the ones in the diorama. Stefan cut each individual grass off the clumps so he could get to the inside of the stems. The diameter of the spring wire I had was too large to fit, but I ordered thinner wire in 3’ straight lengths relieving the task of straightening coiled wire. Stefan patiently inserted this wire into the grass stems high enough so that the grasses should stay upright and be able to prop up other droopers. They are all lined up ready to be installed.dscn0469

Stefan and I removed most of the small grass clumps  from the diorama and brought them back to my lab to work on. I made a decision to add new blades of grass that were sliced out of thin strips of paper and painted green. Stefan spent a lot of time gluing insect pins to the paper blades and inserting them into the clumps.dscn0468dscn0467

I liked the way they perked up the grass clumps. We got quite a ways down this road before I remembered that even the restoration of grasses should have curatorial input. And I’m glad I did because Patrick Sweeney came by, looked at our restoration work, and gave it a resounding thumbs down! He wasn’t exactly sure what type of grass we were working with, but he was almost positive that they would not have had flat blades of grass like the kind Stefan was putting into the clumps. Luckily, the paper grasses were only held in place by the insect pins and were easily removable with no damage to the clumps Patrick thinks the form of the new grass will probably be rolled or conduplicate, though he will let us know for sure once he researches it.

Finally, our attention was directed to the sedges. Stefan did some research into what we might be able to find commercially. We had a sample that looked good sent to us. The grasses are made from a PVC and were a very good match. Stefan cut off individual grasses from the larger bundle and glued spring wire 5”-6” up the blade of grass. Stefan mixed up a more yellowish green and repainted them to match the diorama’s specimens. Since this looked like it was going to work, we asked to have three more bundles sent and were told there was a $250 minimum order which would be more like three cases of grass bundles, so that ended that. Our next choice will be to harvest some of the grass from the diorama, glue spring wire to the blades and reinstall them into the sedges.dscn0474

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New Developments in Leaf Making

Nicole has moved on back to her post at the Entomology Department and I now have another very able volunteer Stefan Hurlburt.



Stefan comes in every Weds and moves the leafmaking work by great leaps forward! Stefan has modified the casting process since a leaf cast with 100% five-minute epoxy is too flexible at the thin casts we are making. We found that another more rigid epoxy at Polytek, a 1010 epoxy with 1212 catalyst. The 1010 is too brittle, so we have found that mixing it 50/50 with five-minute epoxy gives us a perfect blend of not-too-rigid and not-too flexible for the leaves. Also, we have found that the wires that hold up the leaves can’t be too thin or the weight of the leaves will cause them to droop. All these little tweaks to the method are inevitable in the fabrication process.

The aluminum branch was a challenge in different ways. We needed to make the branch out of something rigid to serve as a “lifter” underneath the old, droopy leaf canopy. We had to span at least 36” out from the large maple tree branch, so we started with a ½” aluminum rod. We had to taper the rod over the 36”. I tried hanging it from the ceiling with a heavy weight on one end. I heated the rod with an acetylene torch. This has worked in the past with steel rods where I was able to taper the whole length of it by heating it with a torch. I wanted to stick with the aluminum to keep the weight down and ease the drilling of multiple holes for branches and leaves. The heated aluminum wasn’t as cooperative as the steel. It didn’t stretch and eventually broke off with the heat. Plan B then was to put the rod into a drill and, with it rotating, run it back and forth over the belt sander. This is a dirty process. One person needs to run the drill while another keeps pressure on the rod as it is run over the belt sander. Eventually, the taper can be produced this way, but it is hard, dirty work. We also broke three sanding belts tapering one rod.

Tapering the aluminum rod.

Tapering the aluminum rod.

Once the main branch is tapered, smaller forking branches are added. We produced these with ¼” tapered aluminum rod. These are no longer than 8” and are easy for one person to taper on the belt sander. At the butt end of each branch, the rod is turned on a small 1” belt sander to make a 1/8” nub that will be drilled, inserted, and pinned into the main branch. Actual sugar maple branches are used as guides to get the right placement of branches. It turns out sugar maples branch in pairs opposite each other off the main branch. After the smaller branches are attached, the main branch is bent 3-4 times to look realistic.

Aluminum branch

Aluminum branch

Small silicone peels are made from actual sugar maple branches. Auto body filler (bondo) is used to cast realistic texture and details onto the aluminum branch from the peels. Bondo is easy to sand and feather into the aluminum branch. Usually, there is a small bud remnant between the forks of two branches. These were made with a ½” pin with white glue and cotton string wrapped around it. Finally, I used a grey spray Krylon to finish it off. A note of interest: The original fabricators of the canopy used a solid grey color to paint their branches since the branch is in silhouette and no variations of color can be seen. Their painted branches are actual woody branches and it is a mystery why they painted them at all.

Stephan also painted the leaf petioles orangish-pink with acrylic paint in an airbrush. We initially tried using a brush, which left globs of paint. (I knew this was a bad idea, but I was too lazy to set up the airbrush!) Of interest: ANY paint that extended up onto the leaf turns opaque. Even the airbrushed pigment in light coverage starts to turn the leaf opaque. I experimented with applying Kremer dry pigments by brushing them over the leaf surface. While in a Medical Illustration program, we learned a method of illustration on paper called “carbon dust” where we ground down graphite to a fine powder and used a dry brush to apply it to our drawings. I have heard of other artists using this method with pastels. It turns out this is a good way to create blushes of color on the leaves and maintain the translucency!

Epoxy Leaves on the aluminum branch. Note small details between branches.

Epoxy Leaves on the aluminum branch. Note small bud remnant details between branches.

We fabricated a mounting system with sections of ½” plumber’s pipe mounted on a section of wood that was placed into a hole in the large branch extending out from the trunk of the tree. The branch had been made hollow with hardware cloth covered with plaster casts of bark, so a hole was put in for seating the mount out of view from the front of the diorama. The aluminum branches fit snugly into the plumber’s pipe and a ¼ 20 set screw holds it firmly.

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Sugar Maple Production

Forest Margin Canopy

Forest Margin Canopy

Progress report:

Nicole and I successfully pulled a couple of branches out of the diorama by un-wiring them from the scaffolding of the diorama. By carefully snaking them out, we were able to limit damage. When we got them to my lab, we clipped off the leaves that were drooping or damaged, repaired the damage (white glue) or reheated them to reduce the droopiness. We stripped back the plastic insulation to expose the wires and reattached each of them to the branch by drilling new holes and epoxying them into place.

Leaves Forest Margin

Leaves Forest Margin

This appeared to be a hopeful method to redo the entire canopy until we reinstalled the branches. Re-installation turned out to be almost impossible to accomplish without damaging the fragile wax/paper leaves. If it were only a few leaves, it would be OK, but it was more than I was comfortable with, so we will leave the other branches in place without restoration. We will make a number of aluminum branches with the new epoxy leaves to put in under the old branches. These will serve as braces to support the older branches and the new leaves will provide a more pristine lower level of the understory most visible to the visitor.

In the mean time, Nicole is patiently teaching me how to find my way around Photoshop. Who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? But, they never said how long it might take to teach them (or if they will remember once they’ve learned it!)! Anyway, Nicole discovered a low-tech way to morph the flat photographs of the leaves into the undulating molds. This is something 3D scanning will, no doubt, solve in the future, but we don’t have the capacity to do it now at the Peabody Museum. Actually everything I have developed with the leafmaking will almost surely become a simple process when 3D scanning and printing develops more in the future. I’m looking forward to it!

My Photoshop Work (my notes-not necessarily the best way):

Nicole’s process is to wet a piece of the fabric we use to print the backs of the leaves (Jacquard Habotai 12mm) and place it wet over the mold of the leaf. She gets it to adhere to the surface of the mold and traces the contours of the leaf with a wax pencil onto the fabric. This is a simple way to get the contours needed to stretch/morph the print so it will match the mold. That contour drawing is photographed and opened in photoshop. The photograph of the leaf is also added as a layer to the canvas so the contour drawing and photograph are both seen on the screen of the computer. The images both have to be the size of the actual leaf. I measure the central vein from the bottom point where all the veins come together to the intersection of one of the more prominent, laterally branching veins further up the central vein. I measure the mold with vernier calipers to get the actual measurement and then resize both images so they are the same (Edit-Transform-Scale hold the shift key and drag up or down from the corner). I also had to rotate the images so the central vein is as vertical as possible (Edit-Transform-Rotate)

Some other minor adjustments had to be made (which took me an afternoon to figure out). The contour drawing had to be lightened and made translucent enough to drag over the photo so the veins can be seen on both. To lighten the contour drawing (Layer-New Adjustment Layer-Selective Color) I chose Black as the color and clicked the Absolute button to get the drawing to stand out on a white background. In the Layers box I adjusted the opacity to get some translucency. I also added contrast and lowered the brightness a bit so I could see the drawing better (Image-Adjustments-Brightness/Contrast) Then by dragging the contour drawing layer over the photo layer on the right side of the screen, I can superimpose the contour drawing over the photo and see both images at the same time.

I used “Puppet Warp” (Edit-Puppet Warp) to morph the photo to fit the contour drawing. To adjust the photo more accurately, I add “More Points” in the Density box at the top of the screen. You start by pinning the image where you don’t want it to move. I pin the central vein and sometimes ancillary veins coming off the central vein so they don’t move. You will have to play with how many pins are needed to keep areas unaffected by the warping. To warp the image, click and drag the point. This is how I warp the lateral veins to match the contour drawing. Once the vein matches, I leave the pin to hold it in place and move up the vein to the next point and do it again until I have the vein matched all the way.

Finally, I use the “clone stamp” tool located on the left of the screen. I adjust the size at the top of the screen. By holding down the Option key and clicking, the color is chosen. By clicking the cursor, the color is laid down over existing colors. I add color to any areas of the photo that don’t fill in the contour drawing.

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Back to Sugar Maple Leaves

I got sidetracked from diorama work for four months by the Peabody’s new Samurai exhibit. One of the great things about that exhibit was that I worked with Nicole Palffy-Muhoray, a grad student, who worked long hours with us as part of the exhibit team and who helped get the exhibit opened on time. After the exhibit opened, my job switched back to the dioramas and going into production with the leaf making.  One weak point I have with this process is that I haven’t been able to master the photoshop part well enough to get the images ready to print. I asked Richard Kissel, my supervisor, if I could hire a consultant to help me with the photoshop work since this has been a roadblock to getting started. After some discussion, we thought Nicole might be able to do it without having to hire a consultant. In less than two days Nicole had the leaves resized in photoshop and she figured out a simple way to “morph”the flat photographic images into the 3D molds since before I was cutting between lobes to get the veins to fit. (She will write this up in a forthcoming blog entry.)

The Forest Margin diorama (1950) is a world-class diorama and was the second one constructed at the Peabody Museum after the Shoreline diorama (1945). By the time they got to this diorama, James Perry Wilson, the background painter and Ralph Morrill had cemented their friendship and working methods. One of the compositional ideas was to produce an overhead canopy of sugar maple leaves. These get illuminated from above to glow as if the sun were shining through them.


Ralph Morrill choreographed the production of the leaves in the late 1940’s. He had a team of art students from Southern Connecticut University cutting leaves one-by-one out of crepe paper. Lines were penned in along the central and secondary veins with some tertiary veins added. Wires were glued along the central vein and the leaves were dipped in colored wax with a quick spin to remove excess wax. Final touches included spattering oil paint over the surface, burning insect holes, and adding thin spray blushes of color. The leaves are translucent just like the originals and produce a stunning effect backlit in the diorama.

The problem with Morrill’s wax/paper leaves is that over time, they sag under their own weight (see the photo below). Nicole and I removed some of the old leaves and experimented with restoring them with gentle heat. The heat has to be very carefully applied. If it gets too close, the wax melts destroying the overall pristine look of the leaf.  I think our plan A will be to keep many of the old leaves by restoring them and then add new (non-drooping) epoxy leaves, especially on the lower layer so over time, even if the older leaves sag again, the lower layer will still  look fresh. It’s possible that restoring the old leaves may prove too difficult because they are also very fragile. Next week we will try to remove one of the large branches. We will see if this plan is really feasible. Stay tuned!



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Leafmaking method finalized (I think!)

I keep saying I have got something to take on the road and then I find problems. Today, I finally produced leaves that are very close to what I thought I could get from this process. They are very accurate in form, they are the right color, and they have all the graphic detail of the actual leaf I collected. I am testing my leaf making process on a series of Red Osier leaves that I will eventually add to the iconic Shoreline diorama produced by James Perry Wilson and Ralph Morrill here at the Peabody Museum.

Materials Needed:


Epson Inkjet printer

Jacquard Inkjet printing fabric (Classic Poly Taffeta and Cotton Sheeting)

5 minute epoxy plaster for moldmaking

Computer with photoshop

The first step was to collect the leaves. Since I knew I was going to incorporate these into the Shoreline diorama, I had to collect them at the same time depicted in the diorama. James Perry Wilson was very specific about the dates depicted in his dioramas and the Shoreline is set at 11 am. on June 15th.

Red Osier growing in situ.

Red Osier growing in situ.

Red Osier June 16 b

I take many photos on site to be used as references for my fabricated leaves and to make the branches accurate. The next photographs are taken back at the museum of the leaves, both front and back. Each leaf is given a number such as BL1, (B series, Large leaf, and #1) and these numbers are photographed with the leaves. These identifying numbers are kept with the photos when all the leaves are bundled into a photographic file. The numbers are eventually put on the molds as well.

Without stopping to take a breath, the mold making is begun so the leaves don’t dry or distort. Thin plaster is brushed onto the back of each leaf (I brush on some photo flo or thinned dish soap first so the plaster doesn’t bead up on the leaf surface). Thin plaster is used to minimize deformation of the three dimensionality of the leaves. Once the first layer of plaster is set, another layer is painted over it. As the second layer sets, a third is added and so on until a rigid cast of the underside of each leaf is made. I add fiberglass to a middle layer for strength.

First half of mold with leaf

First half of mold with leaf and identifying number

Once the first part of the mold is completed, turn over the leaf and start the second part of the mold. First, I vaseline all plaster surfaces as a release and try to keep vaseline off the leaf. For the second half it is possible to make the plaster thicker. I cover the leaf and plaster with approximately 3/16″ of plaster. I add a layer of fiberglass and cover with another 3/16″ of plaster. Once this is set up, the two halves are split apart and the leaf can be removed and discarded.

Now, there is a numbered photograph and a corresponding numbered mold for each leaf. The photographs are then cut and pasted together in photoshop. Orient the leaves so the vein side will face down into the mold. The upper print will be flipped in orientation to the vein side.

Photoshopped leaves printed on fabric

Photoshopped leaves printed on fabric. Note the two different colored sides. Also the veins are enhanced so they will show up better.

To print, I use Jacquard inkjet fabric that can be printed in an Epson Inkjet printer. The Epson inks are archival for 100 years. I use a Classic Polyester Taffeta fabric for the vein side and Cotton Sheeting for the front. I use one heavier weight fabric and a thinner one so the printed colors and images don’t merge together when cast. With this technique, I can print a leaf with two different colored sides. To cast, a pair of prints are chosen, cut out of the sheet, and the fabric removed off the paper. The vein side is cut with a bit more white fabric surrounding it. This is so the two halves can be registered.

Pair of leaves cut out

IMG_4060 IMG_4061

Using a light box align veins

Using a light box align veins

IMG_4064   Now, on to the casting…I mix enough clear five minute epoxy to cover both halves of the mold. (Vaseline is used as a separator on the plaster mold. On the plaster mold of the leaf itself, the vaseline is applied thinly-enough to make the leaf surface shine, but not enough to show up as a texture in the cast.) I cover the vein side of the mold with epoxy first and quickly put the printed fabric (vein side down) into it. As the fabric wets down, the veins of the mold can be seen through the fabric and it is possible to match the printed veins to the veins in the mold. Once the veins are matched, I place the second print over the first matching the registration marks. I quickly cover the second half of the mold with epoxy and carefully lay it on top of the fabric and other mold half. I clamp with spring clamps and, or c-clamps. This step is a bit fussy because it is possible that the fabric will slide away from alignment as the second half of the mold is clamped. I have found that practice helps, but if done with care, the cast will usually be aligned correctly.

Spring Clamps or C Clamps or a combination of the two work well

Spring Clamps or C Clamps or a combination of the two work well

I give the epoxy about 15 minutes to set up well enough to pull out of the mold. Since the epoxy is still rubbery, I can use a scissors to cut away the flashing of fabric and epoxy. I lay the cast leaf back into the vein side of the mold and let it harden into its correct shape.

The finished leaf hardening in the mold.

The finished leaf hardening in the mold.

Final product!

Final product!

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More Success

leaf front leaf back

There are a lot of things still wrong with this leaf. The veins don’t match the creases in the 3D leaf, the veins need to taper off from thick to thin, the green leaf color is off, BUT this is the first time I have been able to get a transparent leaf with two sides with different colors and with the graphic detail showing through enough. What I think I have found is the method, now I just have to get the photo to match the mold and get the right color.

The key to getting this kind of two-toned cast is to use a thicker fabric such as Cotton Sheeting from Jacquard. Print the front side on the Cotton Sheeting, which because of the thicker material, keeps the ink from going all the way through. This inserts a white barrier between the front print and the back, so what is printed on the front doesn’t overpower the back. The back side was printed on Polyester Tafetta, but it may work to print both sides on the Cotton Sheeting.

I need to learn Photoshop so I can make the prints how I want them and not keep pestering Sally in Graphics

This was a good day.


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