Portraits in wax

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 August, 2009, 12:00am

Madame Tussauds is famous for preserving historical figures in wax - down to the tiniest detail - and the Young Post recently visited the Hong Kong branch to see how the life-like figures are made.

Wax figure sculptors have to make their creations look as similar to the person they represent as possible. Even minute facial features such as freckles and scars have to be duplicated in detail.

In the first stage, known as 'sitting', sculptors have to make detailed measurements and collect as much information as possible about the appearance of the person they are sculpting.

Sculptors often travel around the world to do sittings with famous faces, taking more than 500 measurements of the head and body. This includes taking many photographs of the model in a process that takes at least two hours, during which the model has to pose without moving.

The next stage is called sculpting, in which the head and body are sculpted in clay according to the measurements recorded in the sitting. The sculptors need to know anatomy to ensure the sculpture looks realistic.

This clay figure is used to form a mould by cutting it into sections - known as walls - and filling them with plaster.

The next stage is casting. Hot wax is poured at a temperature of 74 degrees Celsius into the head mould, which is constructed from the plaster walls. The wax is left to cool for about an hour. The wax should be just a little more than 1cm thick, and the extra wax is poured away to leave a hollow wax head when the plaster mould is removed.

About 5kg of wax is used for a head and around 20kg for the body. Pigments are added to provide a base for the colouring of the skin, which is done with paint.

Next, the eyes, teeth and hair have to be inserted. The colour of the eyeballs, iris and blood vessels need to be carefully duplicated.

Each strand of hair is inserted by hand, one by one, into the wax head using a forked needle.

Lastly, the figure is painted and dressed. Oil paints are used to give a realistic translucency to the skin. Many celebrities donate their own clothes for wax sculptures to wear.

It takes about six months to complete a wax figure after the initial sitting.

Wax figures cannot stand on their own and metal spikes are inserted into their feet so they will not fall over.

Maintaining wax sculptures is an on-going process in the museum as the sculptures have to endure the wear and tear of touching and hugging by visitors.

Every day, before opening and after closing, museum staff check the sculptures to make sure they are in good condition, touching them up with paint to ensure the colour of the sculpture's wax skin is in perfect condition and unblemished in any way.

The clothes the sculptures wear are very important and they are changed from time to time according to what is happening in the model's real life. For example, local pop star Kelly Chen Wai-lam, who recently married, donated her wedding dress to be worn by her wax figure at the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum here.

But dressing a wax sculpture is a difficult task, as their limbs are not flexible. Museum staff had to cut Chen's wedding dress and stitch the pieces back into place on the sculpture.