Project Number Thirteen
Mermaid Diorama (1918)
Completed in March 2011
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
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
, 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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...
Go ahead, steal anything you want from this page,
that's between you and the
vengeful wrath of your personal god...