Making gravel using plaster

This is my method for creating your own gravel using plaster.
I know what you all are thinking. “Why not use real gravel?”
There are several reasons to use plaster over real gravel. One is weight. Cured plaster weighs about half as much as most stone.
Another reason is color control. When designing a habitat display I often will need to use artificial rocks to hide hardware. I personally would rather go all artificial or all natural.
Using plaster will help me is unifying the entire composition by controlling the colors and pigments I use.
The final reason is, I often enjoy the ability to replicate all aspects of nature in a display, this includes the gravel.

So before we jump in this is what you will need.

Molding Plaster
Water (Warm)
An electric drill
A bit for a kitchen mixer. (I get mine at thrift shops)
A few mixing containers
Some netting or wire mesh for sifting the gravel.

Here is the idea.
Plaster normally takes 20 minutes to set, but Heat will speed things along.
So we use warm water, and a fairly dry mix.
The next trick is motion, We wont let the plaster rest and will be mixing throughout the setting process. The friction of the mixer will speed the setting even more.
In five minutes we will have a bucket of gravel!

Lets get started.

Here is my mixer and my drill.
Normally it will fit right in, but sometimes you will need to grind down the tabs on the shaft.

Here is the drill set and ready to go. Remember this wont work without the drill.

For this batch I used a cup of warm water. (More on the hot side of warm)

I added enough plaster to let it mound over the water. (The goal is to form a dough rather then a smooth mix)

And off we go!!!

As we mix we will be adding more plaster. We want it to be dry and to start to clump up.

As we add plaster and keep mixing the “rocks” begin to form.

After about three minutes and a few half cups of plaster this is what we have. (It is actually warm enough you can feel heat coming off of it)

Next I got some netting so I can sift the dust off of the gravel.

I taped the netting to another pail.

I then sifted the gravel over this pail to clear the dust. You can also use several buckets with different sized netting to separate the sizes.

And there we have it. Gravel!!
Let it sit a day or so to dry, then we can paint it.
I normally use acrylics that have been diluted with water. The plaster will absorb the colored water and will look very natural.

Here is a short video that shows the whole process. It really doesn’t take long to do.

A step by step walkthrough for painting a female Pumpkinseed sunfish.

Well Ive gotten many requests from other Taxidermists for this, so rather then showing everyone individually I figured it would make a good tutorial.

Id like to start off by saying, I feel it is important for each artist to learn by observation of reality.
For years Taxidermists who specialize in fish have been competing with each other by copying each others work.
Looking at other artists work is Inspirational, but can lead to the duplication of another artists bad habits, and we all have them.
The trick is to learn when to stop duplicating the techniques of others and when to experiment and fly solo.

So I am presenting this as an explanation of my techniques on this fish. I hope you find it helpful.

Paints
I use artists acrylic tube paint. Brands like Grumbacher or Winsor newton are favorates of mine.they have a smooth texture and fine pigment. Liquatex and createx make some Very nice iridescent and interference colors.
I also have started using a product called Liquid Scales, a very smooth clean metallic color set I highly recommend you try it.

Brushes
Yes Brushes not airbrush. I don’t use airbrushes unless I have to, I will use them when applying solid colors or in some cases when the smooth fuzzy edge is needed, aside from that I use hand brushes.
Sizes 0 and a flat 1/2″ are my two favorites, although you can never have enough brushes.

Technique
I use a combination of tinting and tipping when I paint. I go over the scales adding color as I go, keeping in mind how the colors will change when I add tinting washes over the surface. This adds depth and complexity that draws the eye in.

On to the fish
Here is an animation that shows the steps sped up, but I will go through them step by step.
The fish represented an adult female Pumpkinseed sunfish in breeding colors.
The fish was actually a chunky female bluegill from my collection of molds that I altered to a pumpkinseed shape.
The first two steps I didn’t get photos of, but they are very simple.

1 . I painted the blank with a black base coat.

2. I used very fine steel wool to remove the paint on the surface leaving light highlights, This is called Antiquing.

3. I lightly scrubbed in the bars and darkened the fins with Raw Umber. Then I added the spotting in between the bars with Burnt Sienna. I darkened the gill flap and eye with Mars Black, and added the red spot on the gill with Cadmium Red.

4. A Wash of Yellow Ocher is applied with a heavier wash in the belly area.

5. A wash of a blend of Hookers Green with a bit of Medium Yellow added to brighten it up is added to the back of the fish.

6. The pattern on the head is applied with white (for white I use Liquitex Gesso)
The pattern here seems random , but it follows a few Pumpkinseed specific rules.
A few of these lines are in the same spot on every Pumpkinseed. The line on the top of the gill flap leading toward the cheek, The line on the Bottom of the gill flap leading to the cheek, and the line in front of the eye below the nares.
Studying referance is key here.

7. The pattern on the bars on the top half of the fish are also done in white.

8. The pattern on the lower half of the fish are added, again in white.

9. After this another wash of Yellow Ocher is added. I try to keep in transparent, we are just tinting to add depth.

10. The patterns are again Highlighted in a Pearl (createx) and White blend to add depth.
A wash of Burnt Sienna is added to the fins.

11. The Pearl White blend is added to the scales at the fin butts as well is along the bely and into the fins. Many people miss the subtle scaling on the soft rayed fins, this detail adds a more complex realism.

12. I then added a thin wash of Cerulean Blue over the markings on the body, head and tail. I also applied a thin wash of gloss Medium to again add depth. A faint Interference Blue was added to the gill and cheek.

13. I again added another thin wash of Yellow Ocher as well as a faint Burnt Sienna over the fins. Being Subtle is key now, a little goes a long way.

14. Now the fun part. I added Iridescent tipping to many of the scales. Greens, Oranges, Violets and Blues were all used.
The markings only got tips of Blue and Green. I also added the markings on the fins with a Pearl White blend.

15. Guess what was next! Thats right another Yellow Ocher wash, very thin.

16. For the last stage I added the pelvic and pectoral fins and did any apoxie work and touch up in those spots. I also went over the fins with a Burnt Sienna and Medium Yellow blend to orange them up.

17. Last pictures after the gloss is applied. A bit better light in the last few shots.

I hope this is helpful for some of you.
Like I said before, This is how I do it and how it works best for me. That is the key in any art. What ever you have to do to get the desired effect is the right way.
Had this fish been a male I would have intensified the orange in the belly by adding a bit more red, and would have avoided the Yellow washes on the markings as well as making them a more Intense blue green.

Good Luck and have fun.
Josh