Mar 1 2012

Skull Corpsing Tutorial

Posted by Chris

Corpsed Skulls

Corpsing is a technique for transforming a skeleton or skull prop into a corpse by adding tissue, ligaments, veins, or other anatomical details. This tutorial will cover some of the basic techniques we used when corpsing several skulls for one of our projects.

Concept Design:

First you need to decide what style of corpsed prop you want to create. This usually depends on cause of death, timeline, and environmental conditions. A skull that has been soaking in a swamp for 3 months will look quite a bit different than one that has been mummifying in a desert for 20 years. Once you have picked a basic style you can determine color pallet, textures and materials.


Gathering the Materials:

The materials you will need depend on the style of the prop you will be creating. This example will cover a basic skull in the mid-to-late stages of decomposition, with teeth and a single eye.

Materials list:

  • Model skull – The skulls used in this tutorial are the Lindberg pirate skull model
  • Acrylic denture teeth
  • Glass or plastic taxidermy eye – optional
  • Cotton balls – the type that can be unwrapped
  • Cyanoacrylate glue – AKA Super glue, Zap-a-Gap, etc.
  • Tissue paper / Paper towels
  • Liquid latex
  • Acrylic paints
  • Chip brushes
  • Detail brushes
  • Sculpting tool, pallet knife, or popsicle stick.
  • Foam makeup sponges
  • Sandpaper
  • Hand-held rotary tool- Dremel tool
  • 2 part “5 minute” epoxy – I suggest a brand that dries clear
  • Safety glasses


Step 1: Prepping the model

The preparation phase will differ from model to model. This example is based on the Lindberg pirate skull model, which comes in several pieces.

Much like anatomical skull models that are used for education, the Lindberg skull comes with a removable top and detailed cranial cavity. Because we are building an intact skull, we will need to glue the top portion of the skull down. Cyanoacrylate glue is ideal for this task. Lightly coat both surfaces and clamp them together for 5-10 minutes. If you do not have proper clamps for this step, you can manually press the two parts together for a few minutes.

While the top portion of the skull sets, you can glue the nasal bone in place.

When the Lindberg model is cast, a number of seam lines are formed on the surface. These lines run along the zygomatic bone (cheek bone) and along the outer edges of the jaw. Take a medium grit sandpaper or file and remove these lines, as well as any seam lines that are visible where the top of the skull was attached.


Step 2: Prepping the teeth

To insert the acrylic denture teeth, you will need to take a hand-held rotary tool and drill out sockets for each tooth. Even if you plan on leaving a few teeth out, drill out each socket so the jaw will appear more natural.  Make sure you wear proper eye protection while using a rotary tool.

Before gluing the teeth in place, roughen the base of each tooth with sandpaper. This will help ensure a strong bond.

You can use a cyanoacrylate glue to attach the teeth, but for this step I prefer a 5-minute epoxy. As the epoxy cures, you can adjust the alignment of the teeth to create what ever effect you desire. You may want an accurate/natural bite pattern where each tooth lines up properly, or you may want to have some teeth missing or at odd angles.

Before the epoxy fully cures you can texture the surface of any exposed epoxy by blotting it with a paper towel. This will create a more organic look by roughening the surface and embedding small fibers.

Once the epoxy has cured, you can use a grinding tool to chip and wear away the teeth for the appearance of an aged skull.  You can also drill into the teeth to create cavities. 


Step 3: Adding some anatomy

If you wish to have an eye in either socket, fill that socket with cotton that has been saturated with liquid latex. This will create a flexible backing for the eye, allowing you to adjust the angle and depth of the eye by adding or removing material.

Once you have the eye at the desired angle and depth, it is time to construct the eyelids.

Unroll a cotton ball, creating a long strip of cotton. Tear off two sections, each the width of the eye socket. Saturate one strip with liquid latex and apply it to the lower portion of the eye, creating the bottom lid. Using a sculpting tool, pallet knife, or popsicle stick, press each side into the corners of the eye, and sculpt the basic shape of an eyelid. Repeat this process to create the top eyelid. You can perform this step multiple times to thicken the eyelids, or to add more detail.

To create muscles, crumple up strips of tissue paper or paper towel, and saturate them with liquid latex. Place these strips where muscles would normally be located. In this picture the technique was applied to create jaw muscles. The strips were creased, folded, and sculpted with a pallet knife to create the appearance of fibrous muscle tissue. To help with this process, search the internet for anatomical charts that show muscle dimensions and locations.

A hairdryer can come in handy for any of the steps involving liquid latex, to accelerate the drying process.


Step 4: Adding the skin

To apply the latex skin, you can use a triangular cosmetic sponge.  Rip off the corners and edges on the side of the sponge you will use for application. This produces a rough pattern that will not leave behind any hard edges as you apply the latex.

To create decayed skin, stipple liquid latex over the entire skull. Once the latex is dry, rub holes in the latex with your fingers. As the edges roll up the latex will stick to its self creating thick clumps and strands. You can repeat this process multiple times to build up layers of decayed flesh.


Step 5: Adding more texture

You can add more texture by saturating irregularly shaped pieces of tissue paper and applying them to the skull.

In the example to the right, red acrylic paint was added to the latex that was used to saturate the tissue paper. This serves to break up the skull texture and color at the same time.

Placing these patches randomly around the skull helps create a more organic look, and helps break up symmetry.

To create the withered bits of flesh seen in the eye and nose cavities, stipple some liquid latex onto a large smooth surface (like a plate, sheet of glass, etc). Once it dries, rub it with your finger to create clumps and strands that you can then peel up and attach to the skull with more liquid latex.


Step 6: Adding some color

When working with washes (in this case acrylic paint and water), start with lighter colors. For this skull I started with yellows and greens to stain the base layer.

To prevent colors from blending together, allow each wash time to dry before applying the next layer.  It also helps to lightly dab the paint on, avoiding scrubbing motions.

Next, use warmer flesh tones on the muscles, eye lids, gums, and the strands of tissue inside the eye and nose cavities.

Finish with dark browns, reds, and black, allowing the washes to settle into the wrinkles and crevasses.  When applying dark washes, you can lightly dab off the surface with a paper towel, removing paint and revealing the high points.  This helps bring out the texture, and makes finer details pop.



Finishing touches

To break up the surface color even further, you can take a 1″ paint brush (chip brush) and trim the bristles down to about 1/4″. This creates short stiff bristles that can be used to splatter paint over the surface of the prop. Dip the bristles in paint, and run your finger towards yourself (away from the prop) over the bristles. This will flick small specks of paint all over the prop. If the speckles create too much contrast, you can lightly blot them out with a paper towel to blend them in.

Next, take finer brushes and start painting in the details. Stain the teeth and add color to cavities, paint in subtle veining, add shadows and highlights, etc.

To give surfaces like the teeth, eyes, or wounds the appearance of moisture you can lightly brush on a clear 2 part epoxy or clear acrylic nail polish.


Create any style you like!

This example shows a skull in later stages of decomposition, with very little solid tissue. With the same basic techniques you can create a wide variety of corpsed skulls, individual body parts, or entire bodies.

I hope this tutorial helps with your prop building,and please post any questions or comments below.

I look forward to seeing what you create!

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