Mermaid diorama

Completed in March 2011.
Primarily paper and clay.
1/35th scale.

For my next project, I'm going to blend the historical with the mythical to show a mermaid appearing to a sailor in peril. This diorama will have four elements (all subject to change).
1) A rock.
2) A mermaid on that rock.
3) The ship's wreckage.
4) A sailor on that wreckage.

First I need some historical background. I guess I could just make any old ship and any old mermaid, but that's not how I operate. So, after some time on google, I landed in January of 1918 with the ill-fated HMS Racoon, a British destroyer who got caught in a storm north of Ireland and was smashed against the rocky shore. Normally a ship that runs aground has some survivors, but the Racoon's entire crew of 96 men perished, which struck me as odd. Almost like mermaids finished them off...

I say that because throughout history, mermaids have been just as likely to kill and eat you as save you and nurse you back to health. They are often portrayed as savages of the sea, luring men to their deaths with their unearthly beauty. But, just as often the stories tell of their kindness and love, it just matters who writes the tales.

So, on to the project. Materials will be the usual, with paper and such for the boat, Sculpey clay for the figures, and caulk for the water. The only new material will be the rock, which I'm still thinking about.

Here are some representative paintings of mermaids and sailors (the mermaid is commonly known as a "Merrow" in the old Irish tongue)...

Let's begin, shall we? Last night at work I purchased some supplies, using the 30 dollars my mom gave me (ha! Told you not to...). The first thing I bought was a pretty basic 5x7 black photo frame (just 97 cents!). I went with a smaller frame than my usual 8x10 because I wanted this one to be more intimate, and sometimes extra space is hard to fill up (so to speak). The other things I bought were two aquarium rocks, the type for use in fish tanks. They were $8.94 each, which will definitely be the biggest expense on this project. I'll have to strip off the plants and hacksaw/file them down, but they should work well. They are course-grained plaster, so painting/gluing them will be much easier than with real rocks.

I stripped the plants off the rocks and broke them up into smaller pieces with a hacksaw, plus a hammer and a flat-head screwdriver as a chisel (plastic is hard stuff!). I then fit the pieces together into a rock- like pattern with a lot of superglue, ending up with a large uplifted mass tapering off to one end. This will be a cluster of off-shore rocks, standing about 12 to 15 feet out of the water (on a calm day). I can see right away that my rock formation needs some filler, so I molded some lumps of Sculpey clay into the areas I needed them. I can sand, dimple, and smooth them into the rocks and once painted, it should create a much more uniform structure. I also made a bit of a rock "shelf", as I need a fairly flat spot for the mermaid to sit later.

Time to paint the rock. An hour on google produced a couple dozen good photos of various sea rocks, from which I learned that no two rocks look alike :). I went with a base coat of dark grays, to add to the gloominess of the work, and then blended in some watered-down washes of black, which settled into the cracks and crevices nicely. Then I dry brushed in some dark greens and blues along the waterline. I then tried to paint on some indications of lichens or moss, or whatever grows on seashore rocks in Ireland (found a few photos online). All in all, not a bad end result.

Ok, with the rock done for now (still probably will go back and tweak the colors a bit), I can think about the HMS Racoon's wreckage. It wasn't a big ship, just a small torpedo boat type, and was easily sunk when smashed against the rocks in the storm (real history, remember). In my mind, the Racoon slammed sideways into the rocks, tossed there by the waves, and sank quickly. What is above water at this moment is just the tops of the forward funnel (smoke stack) and a deck ventilator, plus a broken off section of the foremast (maybe).

First the funnel, which will be based around a thick cardboard tube I found at work, cut down at an angle to represent the ship stern-down in the water. I covered it in paper to smooth it out, put a couple of paper bands around it for braces, and added four small metal eyehooks for later. The eyehooks will hold guy wires eventually. I then whipped up a steam pipe from a lollipop stick and two brackets from cardstock and attached it to the "front" of the funnel (which is off-angle on purpose). It is on the lower bracket that I plan on having my human sailor perched.

I then added the top part of a simple metal rung ladder made out of toothpicks. This was used to allow crew access to the top of the steam pipe and the funnel top for maintenance and cleaning. Since it's on the "downward" side, the side that's currently sinking, my poor sailor has no use for it. And lastly, after finding a better quality photo of this type of ship's funnel, I added an interior vent pipe, which would have vented smoke and gasses from the ship's galley, through a pipe that went into the funnel from below decks and then out the top. I also added a paper edging to the top rim of the funnel, just for effect. Paints for the funnel are standard wartime Royal Navy medium gray, with some weathering and rusting around areas hard to reach. The inside of the funnel itself is sooty flat black. A silver colored pencil gave me some nice rubbing effects on the ladder rungs and a black colored pencil made dots for the bolts holding the steam pipe brackets. And with that, the funnel is done, just need to add the guy wires once it's set in place.

The much smaller deck ventilator will be made the standard way, cardstock rolled around a dowel rod and glued, then the top cut off and spun around to make a 90 degree turn. It's only going to be an inch tall, I just want the bare indication of the vent, just something poking up out of the water to add to the illusion that an entire warship is right there just under the waves. Painted gray with a black interior, with just a hit of weathering. And now I can place the rock and the two ship elements in the 5x7 frame to see how it looks. Pretty good and tight, I'd say.

Ok, in past projects I had water, but always as a fairly flat surface. Here, the seas are stormy and brisk, so just smearing on a layer of caulk isn't going to cut it. To give the frame a bit of a stormy look, I used a generous amount of my Sculpey clay to form a rolling wave cutting across the surface, and more clay blended into that roll and splashing up against the rocks. Over this clay layer I'll use caulk for that "water look", so let's hope this works. Once all the glue was dry I can paint the bottom color. Where before I used lighter blues, here I want to show more of a stormy sea, so I'll use more grays and blacks and darker blues. I'll also use other shades of paint to show a hint of the ship's bulk beneath the waves, but not a lot. The waves splashing up against the rocks are a bit lighter, ending in some nearly white tips. Of course, once the caulk layer sets, I can spruce all these colors up with dry brushes and washes.

And now it's time for the caulk. I'll be using my standard transparent silicon caulk, applied carefully with a variety of tools (plastic spoon, q-tip, and finger). I want a few small ripple splashes on the seaward side of the funnel and the vent, which is hard to do without making it look too overdone.

Once the caulk has dried, I can touch up the paint job, which mostly consisted of muting down too-bright areas. With the water surface set, I can glue down the elements (the rock, the funnel, and the vent). I strung the four guy wires off the funnel, using thin copper wire hammered straight, though only the landward side ones are taut (the damage caused by the sinking). I once again went back and touched up some of the caulk and paint work, trying to make everything blend together well. Not too bad, I'd say.

Ok, now I'm down to just the two figures, the sailor and the mermaid. First up will be the human. Endeavoring to make this as historically accurate as possible, I looked up the Racoon's crew roster and found Charles Harris, a 33-year old Stoker 1st Class from Shottenden in Kent, England. Here is his actual RN service photo...

One would assume that as a stoker (one who stokes the coal-burning boilers down in the bowels of the ship), Charles would have very little chance of survival if the accident happened suddenly. If, however, he was above decks at the time, or if the Racoon's demise was slow enough to allow for some sort of abandonment, perhaps then Charles would have indeed survived the sinking. In our world, the other 95 men of the crew either died in the floundering or later in the freezing cold and punishing storm surge. Charles found a perch on the ship's funnel, still above water. Looking out through the mist and the rain to the rocky outcropping that the ship was tossed against, Charles was amazed to see a mermaid reaching out to him...

I'll make Charles the usual way, Sculpey clay over a wire skeleton. I made him in three stages; legs and waist first, then torso and arms, and lastly head, hands, and boots. For dress I assume standard Royal Navy winter gear of heavy brown canvas pants, blue cotton shirt and heavy dark blue hooded oilskin overcoat. If he had a hat or a cap, it's long ago lost to the wind and waves. I've modeled him hanging onto the side of the funnel, right arm flat against the surface, right hand grasping the lip of the funnel, right foot wedged precariously on the bracket holding the steam pipe, left leg stretched out, and left hand reaching plaintively up towards the mermaid on the rocks above.

And lastly we have our mermaid, who, for lack of a better name, I'll call Maris (Latin for "from the sea"). Mermaids come in an amazing variety of shapes and sizes, colors and moods, all depending on what culture is telling the story in what time period. The Irish "merrows" are what we have here, though, and generally speaking they are human-sized females with greenish forked tails, long reddish hair, and bare chests. I'm choosing to make Maris about 20% larger than Charles, both for the dramatic effect of the longer tail, and a little homage to the odd Irish legend of the merrow of extraordinary size that roamed the coasts and lochs. Here is a rough picture of what I'm trying to model (minus the hat)...

I'll make her the normal way, wire skeleton and clay. Her tail will curve a bit up at the end and look a bit like a whale's flukes. Her long hair is a problem in clay, but I'll do the best I can. Colors will be a variety of greens and blues for her tail, dark red for her hair, and a lighter flesh tone for her skin. In the end, she looks about as horrible as I expected, but for a first shot at a female figure, I guess it could have been worse...

Final touches, some painting of odds and ends. And with that, I think she's done, just need to put it in the mail.

Final costs for his project were...
2 aquarium rocks for $17.88
1 5x7 photo frame for 97cents
1 bottle of green paint for $2.17
1 bottle of blue paint for $2.17
For a total of $23.19. Not bad!

Here are the final pictures of the mermaid diorama...

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