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Face Value

Gorget about the face on the dollar bil: Artists are using scientific research to spruce up the image of George Washington and bring the first president to life

Presidents Day

February 17, 2006|By DENNIS O'BRIEN | DENNIS O'BRIEN,SUN REPORTER

The result is most evident when Washington was 19, when he looked more like a sprinter than a weightlifter.

"He was a pretty skinny guy. Skinny arms, skinny legs," Schwartz said.

Schwartz agrees that the representations may shock some people but contends that what they see will be the best possible depiction of the real Washington.

"I get a chill every time I see them," he said.

To create the wax figures -- a $1 million effort -- Rees and others at Mount Vernon wanted to show the man at crucial times in his life. Visitors who pay the $13 admission ($6 for children) will see separate galleries that house a 19-year-old Washington filled with youthful energy, a weary and frigid field commander astride his horse at Valley Forge and a president being sworn into office, a detached look in his eyes.

"We want people to be able to walk up to these figures and say, `Wow, that's George Washington,'" Rees said.

To create them, StudioEIS hired two British freelance artists with experience creating wax figures for Madame Tussauds in London: sculptor Stuart Williamson and Sue Day, a wig stylist and hair and body colorist.

Williamson has done personal sittings with Bette Midler, Tony Bennett, Shirley MacLaine and Morgan Freeman to sculpt them for Madame Tussauds. But he said one challenge was trying to capture Washington's smile for a separate bronze statue that will greet visitors when they enter the exhibit -- one that shows him in the company of his wife, Martha, and her grandchildren. None of Washington's portraits showed him smiling.

"At the time, it wouldn't be the proper thing to do," Williamson said.

So Williamson put a mirror to his face, thought about his twin 2-year-old sons and used his own smile as a model.

"I just kept thinking about them and all the funny little things they do," said Williamson.

Day selected oil-based paint to give color to the faces and hands. Oil also allows for more subtle, realist shades than other media. And besides, it's washable, she said.

How do you color the lips of a 19-year-old? With cadmium red, cobalt violet and two flesh tones, Day said.

As Washington aged in the other figures, Day has used more flesh tones and paler shades on the lips.

The veins, freckles and tiny, bursting capillaries in Washington's face at Valley Forge, which emphasize the cold, are all hand-painted. The frigid encampment came well after he nearly lost the Continental Army in New York.

Shades of blue give the first-time president the shadows under his eyes.

Washington's blue eyes are an acrylic resin. The sclera -- the white part of the eyes -- become more yellow and red-veined with age. The hand-painted irises, brightened with a coat of varnish, are small because Washington is in outdoor sunlight in all three scenes.

The bodies are made from foam and plaster and the skin is wax. Washington's auburn hair, which grayed with age, is human hair furnished by the same British firm that supplies Madame Tussauds.

Painting the hands -- age spots on the older Washington, dirt under the fingernails of the young surveyor -- takes about seven or eight hours for each figure.

Coloring each face takes another three days. Inserting the hairs one at a time requires another two to three days for each figure.

"It takes patience, but you get used to it," Day said as she brushed up the eyelashes of the 19-year-old.

The result are figures so lifelike they look as if they are ready to start talking. Williamson and Day realize millions of U.S. citizens will view the work and form lasting impressions from it about the father of their country.

"It's pretty cool," Day said.

Williamson and Day see nothing wrong with depicting a commander-in-chief who won independence by defeating their ancestors.

"We're not at war anymore," Williamson said.

dennis.obrien@baltsun.com

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