‘Model-making Techniques Course’ live and online

I will be posting the second part of my previous post ‘So you think you’d like to be a model-maker?’ very soon. Apparently a number of people have found this useful so far, but the second part will be more so! In the meantime, and in between, I wanted to post the changes I’ve had to make in my Courses section, particularly the fact that I’m preparing my ‘Model-making Techniques Course’ to be delivered in real-time, online from January 2021 and thereafter probably once every month. In line with that shift, and also because I’m much better with Skype or Zoom than I was before, I also wanted to mention the Special ‘consultation’ sessions info I’ve attached to both the model-making and the mouldmaking/casting course pages. This is for the benefit of people who want to learn, but perhaps want something more specific, and don’t need to commit to a week-long course. It’s also for the benefit of people who have a particular technical problem which can’t be dealt with in ‘just a few’ words. I get so many technical enquiries, and I’m afraid it’s come to the point where it’s either this solution, or very regretfully deleting them.

So here’s my provisional account of the online course ..

Due to the continuing situation I’ve had to postpone all my studio courses until the future becomes more ‘foreseeable’. I’ve consulted what the other larger course providers in London (such as University of the Arts and City Lit) are guaranteeing in terms of safety and, the fact is, I can’t provide the same .. my studio room is not big enough for ‘1metre+’ distancing for example, whatever other precautions are taken. In short, it’s still too risky!

So I’m currently preparing a version of my ‘Model-making Techniques’ course to be delivered online. Yes, it’s a different experience from spending a week with others in a dedicated workspace, but I will be doing my best to make it feel as if you are!

For example it will all be real-time ..everything will be live, no recordings! The week will be the same 5-day block starting on the Monday at 10.00 am as it usually does, and each of the five days will end around 5.00 pm. It’s important to retain that kind of focus! The most important part is that I will be sending each confirmed participant a ‘Materials and Resources’ parcel containing almost all of the materials you’ll need for the week’s work (you’ll just have to get a few easy ones). You’ll need to have your own basic tools but I’ll be including in the parcel the special ones (such as specially made sanding tools) for you to keep, and they’ll be included in the price. The pack will also include all the worksheets and info handouts I’ve provided in the past. I’m very conscious of the fact that computer screens can become too cluttered if things like this are sent as files. My aim is to keep your visual connection with the group as clear as possible, especially at times when we can discuss things, and I will be consciously enabling those times throughout each of the days.

My teaching method will not have to change very much at all. We will be talking together, when I am introducing a subject or explaining an activity; at other times I will be demonstrating what to do using a ‘document camera’, which provides a very clear, well-lit and undistorted view (similar to the photo above). The third resource is screensharing photos of prepared examples and other visual references. The rest of the time .. the majority of it ..you will be working. I’ve still to explore how clearly or quickly I’ll be able to ‘look at’ what everybody’s doing all the time to offer feedback, but I’m sure this important aspect can be worked out for the best.

The course will cost less than the £330 it has been up to now .. I’m just not sure yet how much less!  I’m assuming I can make it less because I can take a few more people than the 6 I’ve been limited to in my studio .. but on the other hand a ‘crowd’ no longer feels a ‘group’, so I’m guessing not more than 10. If you have the kind of internet connection which has usually given you a clear image and sound when using things like Zoom or Skype, then I’m assuming there’s no problem from your side. If you have your own second camera so that you can switch from yourself to your cutting mat .. that’s brilliant! (you can get them starting around £15 but a good one I’ve tried is the ‘Wansview 1080P Webcam with microphone’ currently £25 from Amazon).. but having one may not be essential. I’m not sure yet.

If anyone has concerns about the ‘technical’ aspects, I think it’s essential to organize some form of ‘rehearsal’ meet-up where everyone is present online, a week or so before the course is due to start, just for about half an hour .. both for your reassurance and mine.

I’m working on a new course description to send out, detailing what we will be doing throughout the week and finalising the cost, and the technical requirements etc. If you have any questions in the meantime, or would like me to send you the description directly once I have it, you’re welcome to email davneat@aol.com

If you’re familiar with how the course was, i.e. if you’d asked me to send you the course description, here are the most significant changes I’ve had to make:

…. there will still be mouldmaking because I will be sending you the silicone rubber, but not casting because resin cannot be sent by regular post. I will however be talking about and demonstrating this clearly.

…. I’m still hoping there will be time for a proper demonstration of soldering, but I can’t judge yet how long things will generally take under the new circumstances. I’m hoping that some things could take less time, but I also have to allow for new levels of the ‘unforeseen’.

…. the ‘painting’ part will depend on what paints etc you have yourself. I will demonstrate different techniques, and you could choose to try them ‘then-and-there’ or later in your own time. I will give more guidance on this, including a ‘shopping list’ if you’d like it.

…. for ‘scenics’ i.e. plants, trees etc. I will just be outlining the possibilities, showing examples and demonstrating

But some things will actually be better!

I thought of this from the beginning, way back in January. Here was the chance to combine the best of good YouTube .. I have to emphasize ‘good’ .. with the opportunity to interact, to ask questions. I’ve always been conscious of the problems of teaching model-making even to a small group, when perhaps not everyone is able to see the examples really close-up at the right moments. Added to this, there’s the serious option of everyone receiving a full recording afterwards, perhaps of the entire week! I have to check on the technicalities of this, but I don’t see why it shouldn’t be possible?

Then you have to consider the money you will be saving, as well as the time saved from not having to travel each day. Accommodation in London is expensive and there’s always the risk you might end up somewhere you’re not comfortable with. Although it’s an ‘experience’, staying somewhere else always consumes a lot of extra time and money, just to ensure you’re eating the things you want to, for example.

I always encourage people to make their own records of what they’re doing, mainly to take process photos recording successive stages. This aspect will be easier and less intrusive under the ‘new’ conditions. You’ll be able to rehearse and control your own lighting, backgrounds and where you photograph from, for example.

I have albums of step-by-step photos but, as useful as they are, it’s often a hassle to show them properly in a workshop situation, even if there’s a large monitor standing by. By switching instantly to a ‘screensharing’ mode I can flip through them without any time wasted. If anyone has prior experience of this during an online meeting .. don’t worry, I will not be using PowerPoint!

I’ll add to this list when I discover more!

‘So you think you’d like to be a model-maker?’ – Part 1

Above Work by Philippa Spring, as part of her degree show presented at ‘New Blades’, the model-makers annual recruitment fair, 2018, organized by 4D modelshop

I receive regular emails asking whether I have any advice on ‘becoming’ a model-maker. From people asking me, for example, whether I have any good first steps to suggest in terms of developing skills; what sort of work is usually available; what evidence should be shown, or what skills and qualities would I consider to be most important in terms of a person getting work, holding on to the work, and getting more; how the jobs are found, or where does one have to put oneself to be ‘found out about’ .. most often these kind of questions. So I thought it was about time that I tried to consolidate what advice I’m able to offer here. In many cases these questions come from people who perhaps didn’t consider it a career from the outset but have come back to it as a possibility, because their own involvement with it has always felt more rewarding than other things they’ve done. They’re wondering whether they might have what it takes to be a professional ‘maker’, they’re also wondering what the ‘profession’ looks like, and whether it has what it takes to support them.

Above One of the forestry dioramas at the Fisher Museum, Massachusetts, made in the 1930s by Theodore Pitman and Samuel Guernsey

So firstly, what does it take to get the most out of being a model-maker? What I mean here is, what does it take not only to do the job properly, not even to do it exceptionally well, but in order to keep enjoying it, to remain motivated, to keep being inspired, even in the fallow times when there may be little going on? I think this is a much more important question to answer than ‘How do I start?’. It’s a cliché in this business, yes, but the first is patience. Physical patience when manipulating materials is the one most often meant, including the calmness of the fingers, but there are other forms of patience. Model-making is on the whole a very time-consuming job, quite often loaded with very repetitive tasks, so it can help a lot if you’re the kind of person who can as it were ‘feed’ on those times for therapeutic purposes, someone who can even look forward to them. I know I do, and I welcome those stretches when I can ease the tension with something purely ‘mechanical’ without having to think that much. There are other instances of a different kind of patience needed when dealing with things other than materials .. for example while waiting for the right information, or dealing with the lack of it; while explaining how certain things take a long time and can’t be hurried if they are to be done properly, and showing the same patience with yourself if it’s just ‘one of those days’ when nothing is going right!

Next on the list is ingenuity, and there’s much more of that involved than people imagine I’m sure. I’d say it’s a ‘must’ that you’re the kind of person who really enjoys solving the trickiest of problems, who almost has to have them, otherwise every job will be a nightmare. It’s fair to assume that every single job you undertake will include a number of things, some of them like Alice’s ‘impossible things’, which you’ve never done or even thought of before. It’s also best to assume you’ll most often be alone in coming up with solutions, rather than imagining there’ll always be someone more knowledgeable around to ask. Even if you are working in some kind of team, to a certain extent each will have responsibility for tackling their own challenges. Ingenuity takes over where mere creativity is left whimpering.. there’s creativity in all of us, but ingenuity in not so many!

Above Exhibited model from Wes Anderson’s 2018 film ‘Isle of Dogs’, photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Knowledge of materials is something that won’t come ‘just like that’ but is built up over years, so it’s good to start actively collecting that knowledge from the outset. Being able to choose wisely from a number of material options for a task can make a world of difference, especially if there are time or money constraints. On the other hand, there are  some materials which can, once the time is taken to really get to know them, be used effectively for almost anything. For a person who values such knowledge and enjoys collecting it, an otherwise mundane trip to the supermarket, to Poundland or to a DIY warehouse can be like a day at the seaside.

The next is more difficult to mark with a tidy word or short encapsulating phrase but it involves the thrill of, a passion for, or at least an abiding interest in the art of simulation. One of the most important aspects of models, given their usually small size, is the fact that you’ve got to be very clever about which elements of the ‘visual truth’ you select to give a convincing result .. you can’t include them all. You have to capture the essence of ‘why and how’ something looks the way it does. As a model-maker you’re doing no less than a designer does .. artfully selecting. But artful simulation is not just a case of selecting the essential elements and reproducing them faithfully, more often it involves blending them in some way, and blurring or simplifying others to the point of mere suggestion. This works better for the model because the small-scale surface can’t hold too much detail, if it does it will look too ‘micro’, it could be disturbing. You can experience this if you’ve ever managed to make an incredibly fine and minute print copy .. it jars, the contrast is too harsh at small scale, it needs to be softened. It takes a lot to learn how to simulate artfully, some have ‘the eye’ while others could struggle .. and, yes, it is basically just about learning to ‘see’ things properly, being able to separate the backgrounds and nuances from the more obvious elements.

Above Scale model furniture by Ang Rui-Wei, part of her degree show work presented at ‘New Blades’, the model-makers annual recruitment fair, 2018, organized by 4D modelshop

A good byword for the next important thing to have is foresight. This is about anticipating, it’s about being good at visualising, and it’s about being able to plan properly. It can partly depend on what sort of model-making you’re doing but on the whole model-making doesn’t involve so much ‘free-style’ sculpting with a soft material .. if anything it’s much more about cutting out parts and assembling them. For that you need to have a clear plan, a clear ‘mind’s eye’ as to which element is made first, which can then be attached to it and where .. and so on. Foresight is important for the whole process, important all the time, but actually the best example of when this special ‘sight’ is especially needed comes from slightly outside the practical work .. i.e. if you have to predict beforehand how much it’s all going to cost!  Really, in order to do that with any worth to it you don’t just need a very organised mind, you need a highly imaginative one! You practically need to see yourself, doing the whole thing, a bit like a film in fast motion .. reminding yourself of what you know, and discovering what you don’t yet. Whenever I think of tasks such as this I’m reminded of the claims made by Nikola Tesla that he could construct machines in his mind’s-eye, then imagine himself switching them on .. to see if they worked!

Above 1:200 scale residential development model made by Scale Models Weston, Essex

Let’s say that you’ve done enough already so far to know that you really like making models; you’re proud of what you’ve done and you’ve received very flattering comments from those around you .. but you’re wondering how, or what, to develop to increase your chances of ‘earning’ from it, and you’re thinking about how you should present your work so it already looks more ‘professional’ and accessible to others ?

Building up your own ‘portfolio of evidence’ recording what you can do, what you can show people clearly, is the most important next step. The quality of your photos is fundamental here, along with very clear .. but short! .. title information, cluttered with very little other text. Here I should clarify that I’m talking about a sendable PDF (or if I’m wrong, whatever document type is guaranteed to be secure from alteration and effortlessly opened by all). Your CV should be a separate document, by the way, just consisting of ‘facts’ in text and I don’t think the two .. image portfolio and CV .. should ever be mixed. Don’t even think about writing a third, containing a prose ‘statement’ of what you’re about; who you admire, or what your favourite films are!

A PDF comes first, because these days it’s getting more and more unlikely that you’ll ever have to carry around an always-surprisingly-heavy, leather-imitation case filled with glossy pockets and arranged ‘photographs’. We can all be grateful for this and not least because compiling a digital document is so much easier and cheaper. I’d said that the photos must be good! .. but this doesn’t mean, especially nowadays, that only an experienced photographer could do them. Now smartphones can take sufficiently detailed, white-balanced and light-enhanced photos, and it’s these things that matter more than being able to play with special lighting or depth-of-field, unless your model has special requirements. What’s more important is that you take the time beforehand to rehearse viewpoints or compositions, really thinking about what the most informative shots might be. It helps a lot, and takes the pressure off your photo-shoot, if you have a photo-processing programme such as Photoshop or PaintShop Pro with which you can crop, ‘clean’ or brighten the image, or enliven the colours or contrasts if needed. Photos cannot capture the richness and spatial dynamism that our binocular vision gives us, so some ‘enhancements’ are needed to replace that. You need to be careful not to go overboard with any of these though because the effect needs to remain ‘natural’, especially the colour. If you do any of this, it’s best to set the display brightness of your screen to an average, like 50% perhaps, to better judge what others might see on their screens.

Above 1:43 scale model showing the construction of the Metropolitan Railway in the 1860’s, made in 1993 by Valhalla Models (London Transport Museum Collection)

In Part 2 I will be continuing with advice on what to develop if you’re a beginner, including some practical options if you’re stuck for ideas. Then I’ll be answering the question  Who needs models? .. not like it might sound, but rather ‘where models are wanted’, i.e. the disciplines in which models are commonly called for. This is followed by a selection of the most useful companies to look at who are working within those areas.

‘throw-sculpture’ May 2020


‘throw-sculpture’ n15, May 2020


‘throw-sculpture’ n28, May 2020


‘throw-sculpture’ n21, May 2020


‘throw-sculpture’ n23, May 2020


‘throw-sculpture’ n18, May 2020



I’ve written about this small object collection in the previous post, where I explained that creating ‘components’ which could be put together into bigger ensembles, different arrangements or loosely determined piles used to be one of my main ‘things’. I also referred to not being so keen on ‘deliberate arrangements’ nowadays, and that’s the basic idea behind these ‘throw-sculptures’, so I wanted to expand upon that idea now.

‘Nature isn’t always pretty’  Of course it’s not! So to re-phrase this, and because it’s not only about prettiness but more in this case about things being in the ‘right’ place .. ‘Nature isn’t always the thorough designer we’d like it to be’. For example, a beautifully balanced view of a lake seen through a framing of trees, fringed on the far side with forest and distant mountains beyond that, might have a Giant Hogweed sprouting up in centre view. Although it’s placement there would offend most people’s aesthetic, the Hogweed is probably much more ‘true to nature’ than the rest.

We’ve spent the ‘lifetime’ of our species rearranging nature according to our needs so we’re not only thoroughly conditioned by this approach to nature, it may even be in our genes by now, either way we may not be able to help ourselves. Is ‘love of nature’ or more importantly the respect needed to leave it be, no more than a continually resurfacing crumb of counter-culture?

When I’m teaching model-making and we come as a group to the painting of surfaces, one of the things I most enjoy advising (because it’s most often forgotten) is to include a little ‘mess’. Especially when creating a natural pattern, there’s the tendency to make it too regular. Anything other than an industrially produced pattern will have ‘messed up’ areas or slight distortions which we can easily spot if we scrutinise, but which do not corrupt the overall effect. In fact these aberrations are what makes a surface convincing .. they make it live .. because the eye takes them in as natural even if we are not directly aware of them.

So the arrangements above are just as they fell, and there were certainly ‘rogue’ elements I wanted to tweak but had to leave alone. It’s not just about allowing small disturbances though, it can also include seeing the value of a complete contravention, such as the Hogweed .. dissonance in music, an opposing notion .. except that there weren’t any of these here because of the way I’d shaped the pieces.

‘there’s no such thing as random’  Or again, rather .. there’s no such thing as ‘completely’ random, though some would argue there’s no such thing as anything being random at all. Although I conceived the piece to be dropped as a pile and these featured versions have been left as they landed without any adjustments, I did as I’ve said consciously create forms that were likely to settle in certain ways, to reflect the fact that ‘natural’ is always a combination of two types of occurrence ..  those which are already determined by previous actions and those which can’t be. So for example the forms are all straight, and smooth, and of the same basic shape .. they’re aesthetically determined anyway, so however oddly they fall they’ll be united. But in addition their shape determines how they will behave physically. So when I pick them up with both hands to drop them they can’t help but align, like a clutch of pencils. When dropped they slide over each other, one of them can’t balance easily on another, and there’s no way that any of them can land upright. After that, or rather after a whole list of other things like that, it’s anybody’s guess exactly how they’ll fall.

‘the artist shouldn’t decide everything’  In prepared ‘statements’ of artistic intention I think I used to put that I was not happy with the ‘Final Word’ presented in a gallery, unchangeable from that point on. I didn’t really think about the notion that each person will ‘change’ what they’re seeing anyway, regardless of what the artist does, according to their own internal version of the world. I didn’t consider either that what many artists do throughout their careers is basically reiterate the same sculpture or the same painting, so none can be construed as a ‘final word’ just the latest inflection of the same one. So Art can’t afford to be as pompous as I once thought it was, and that’s come as a relief .. and a release! However, that remains part of my explanation of why I’m interested in creating things which can be changed; played with; repurposed; individually customised etc.

Is this form of work accepted?  This was back in the 1990s, and in Germany, when I first tried these things .. and some people wanted them! But what I wasn’t prepared for was when people said, in honesty, that they’d prefer if I’d make my own arrangement, which they would then leave be! It defeated the object, or some of it .. and I was too, a bit. But so far I haven’t gathered much of an answer to the question. Should we assume that artists have a fuller understanding of their own work than others? Perhaps. Should we assume that artists are somehow better educated, stronger willed, or better at thinking than others? I don’t think so! Does the final artwork represent just one of many ways it could have gone and perhaps not necessarily the best? Hell yes!

Making ‘throw-sculptures’ and ‘smallhenges’ in wood and PVC, May-June 2020


David Neat 'throw-sculpture' sculptural object group 2020

‘throw-sculpture’ group1 2020


David Neat, 'men looking at stones', sculptural object group 2020

‘men looking at stones’ 2020


David Neat, 'pinehenge', sculptural object collection, 2020

‘woodhenge’ group 2020


David Neat, 'pinedolmens', sculptural object group, 2020

‘woodhenge with dolmens’ group 2020


David Neat 'polyvinylhenge', sculptural object group, 2020

‘polyvinylhenge’ group 2020



Almost as soon as we went into ‘hibernation’ here in the UK, I had the urge to work in wood. It seemed the natural thing to do in the situation! Perhaps it’s not surprising .. whittling wood can be very relaxing, especially if you’ve no firm objectives for the outcomes. I wanted something which could be progressed quite safely while listening to music, or audiobooks, or glancing at the TV, because I needed those distractions .. sometimes I needed to escape far away with them .. but the thought of achieving something constructive while escaping was pretty cool! I also had quite a bit of wood .. pine and ramin lengths, and birch from dismantled IKEA furniture .. which I thought I should get rid of, so it was also the positive thought of making something from nothing.

The ‘throw-sculpture’ group was the first, made from odd leftovers of ramin. This is a tough wood, not so tough for sensible mallet/chisel carving or using power tools, but tough enough when whittling with a scalpel which is what I’d insisted on using. The concept behind this artwork .. and the photo you’re seeing is just as much the ‘artwork’ as the group of wooden forms itself .. is one I’ve experimented with a number of times in different materials. Especially when I was living off my exhibited work for a certain time in Hamburg in the 1990’s I worked on collections of small forms which could be arranged differently each time, or thrown down part-randomly, or played with by the gallery audience. I tried to define them with various titles like ‘Variable Sculpture System’ or ‘Interactive Sculpture Kit’ but I wasn’t comfortable with any of them. At the time I didn’t know of any others who were doing, or had done, a similar thing, and that was probably just as well, because I’m impressionable like a chameleon, and if I’d had more contact with fellow artists I probably wouldn’t have been able to ‘see’ myself so clearly. The photo documents a ‘placed handsful’, meaning the 12 pieces of the group taken up with both hands and placed with not too much deliberation on a specially made mat of Douglas fir, with no alteration to the way they fall. This last condition was the most important part, because I’ve become very tired of ‘deliberate arrangements’. The pieces are shaped so that they will ‘organise’ themselves to a certain extent when dropped, but not quite according to our part-conditioned human aesthetic sense. In other words .. nature decides, to some extent.

‘men looking at stones’ developed as an offshoot from the ‘woodhenge’ work and the subject flowed naturally from that. It just ‘happened’ one day, because I cut the tip off a split end of wood and when placed on its feet it just seemed to say ‘Man’ very clearly! Nothing but filled trousers, if you like! So I made a number of them and this is the first ‘trial-photo composition’ featuring a pile of boulders I’d very painfully whittled from an old, hard and resinous length of pine, or maybe spruce. I’ve made a group of women now too, so there’ll be a series coming.

‘woodhenge’ was a bigger undertaking, or rather just much more of it, of which this test photo is just a fraction. Better photos will have to follow. I really regret not having kept an earlier version entitled ‘foamhenge’ which featured a number of standing ‘sarsens’ and a handful of ‘bluestones’ in untreated blue styrofoam. It just seemed very apt, including the stark ‘juxtapose’ of styrofoam being so fragile, ephemeral, synthetic and negatively ‘modern’. But the sanded, smoothed blue was also so beautiful in its own way. It’s almost gone now, the blue, because of EU regulations .. it was not benign apparently! So ‘woodhenge’ is more sustainable, and my purpose in whittling and smoothing quite a large collection of shapes and sizes, apart from justifying a huge load of television time, was an earlier idea I’d had for naturally-shaped building blocks. A more nature-inclined, less anthropocentric construction toy, so to speak!  No, with these you can’t build ambitious towers without them toppling fairly quickly! No, you can’t construct a tight, impervious wall, or a solid triumphal arch! What you can do with them though is appreciate how certain things balance in spite of their differences. What you can see is how even the smallest, most irregular element becomes a crucial part of the whole! There you go!

But you’ve noticed with ‘polyvinylhenge’ that my allegiances are muddled! I’ve been working with foamed PVC for so long, exploring and nurturing all that it’s capable of, that I’ve come to think of it as ‘mine’! It’s a plastic, which should not be considered lightly, but it’s such a wonderful, versatile plastic to work with! This was just a quickly thrown-together photo, and as I’ve said better are meant to follow, but the polyvinyl ‘stones’ are doing more or less what I wanted them to. It may be just visible that I’ve ‘grained’ the surfaces of the blocks by running sandpaper firmly along to give them a wood-like quality but I’m also looking at further subtle ‘pitting’ with blunt tools. The coloured PVC (this one is the grey, which is actually a very attractive one) is limited in thicknesses so for most of these forms I had to bond up to 6 cut-outs together before sanding.

Landscape studies – ‘grasslands’ July 2020



‘grasslands’ digital study no.1 2020

‘grasslands’ digital study no.2-2 2020

‘grasslands’ digital study no.4 2020



I created these landscape studies entirely on Procreate for iPad. At the moment my ‘normal’ when working in 2D is either to make a ‘real-space’ .. I mean physical, actual .. colour sketch on paper first so that I know roughly where I want to go, or to make an actual pen drawing which I then scan and convert into a transparent ‘layer’ as a basis for developing further in Procreate or PaintShop Pro. But in the case of these landscapes I didn’t have a defined composition in mind, rather a recipe to follow involving particular shapes and actions, which could produce a number of different outcomes. This is very similar to how I’ve always worked with actual materials in 3D .. with an initial purpose or ‘theme’ in mind, but creating forms in response to what the material suggests or allows, those forms becoming a ‘group’ or a collection which can be arranged or displayed in different ways.

So in this case my purpose was ‘flat landscape’ and I wanted to see what the criss-crossing or ‘shredding’ of a soft-cornered rectangle might look like. There always has to be something that’s fixed .. something which anchors or contains whatever else develops in a single composition but just as importantly establishes a shared identity if it becomes a series. If ‘recipe’ is a fair analogy .. I could think of this shape as the cake tin. I see the rectangle (or a square) with rounded corners as very ‘contemporary’, not only because it associates with tablets and smartphones but also because the rounded corners are currently favoured for logos and .. more significantly perhaps .. for the icons on your desktop. The geometric perfection of this shape .. combining right-angles, straight parallel sides and circles .. is not easily achievable on an iPad (at least, not on mine), but in any case I wanted to ‘feel’ those angles, those parallels and those curves, rather than just generating them. So I constructed a fine outline with hard pencil on A4 paper; scanned it; converted that into a transparent PNG, and used this as a template for filling the shape in Procreate. I like having at least some fusion of old and new methods.

Now, to cope with the impossible number of possibles presented when working digitally (and rather too late to repair my conflicted attitude towards working in this way) I make a point of choosing a limited number of ingredients .. or ‘actions’ as I’ve called them .. to work with. Limitation strengthens focus! For me this brings digital work more into accord with how I’d work physically. If I were trying to achieve these compositions with paint on paper I wouldn’t have a room full of brushes to choose from .. just a few well-chosen ones at most. Neither would my actions with these brushes be unlimited, but dictated by all sorts of physical boundaries ranging from the consistency of the paint to the dexterity of my fingers .. but also including things like certain pleasurable actions or elements not being repeated ‘ad nauseum’, because everything in the physical realm takes effort, and this is on a meter. I believe it’s these physical parameters, together with years of relating to them, that makes physical artwork truly personal, and it is the discipline of taking considered risks and  ‘coping with limitations’ that brings about artwork which is truly thought about!  So maybe you can see where this is going .. I think these are some of the reasons why so much digital art remains quite honestly impersonal, trite, undisciplined and unconvincing .. in spite of everything!

But, to get back to my purposely limited range of actions, for the ‘grasslands’ I wanted to ‘shred’ the basis shape in one or more places and build groupings of thin and thick, mainly slanting, lines; I wanted these to superimpose, sometimes opaque sometimes transparent; I wanted the darker lines on top to be more defining and tapered; I wanted to break up certain areas with quick, freehand, gestural hatching; I wanted to create layered effects as much by erasing away as painting on; lastly I wanted all the lines that were supposed to be straight absolutely straight and sharp. I wanted these things mainly because I knew they could be achieved, from past digital work, so its fair to say that here the ‘material’ was dictating the work in, what I feel is, a natural way. Most of it was possible (very simple to do, in fact) because of Procreate’s ‘Quickline’ action, which allows drawing a rough straight line with the finger and holding fingertip in place until the line straightens. If this is done after modifying the brush setting to the longest possible ‘Start Taper’ the result is a good-looking needle shape.

When I make things out of wood I’m guided by what I can hold comfortably while shaping, and since my wooden ‘objects’ or collections of forms are meant to be played with this is appropriate. Sometimes I’ll find an offcut which doesn’t have to be altered much, and even though working with wood can be dozingly satisfying for long periods, there’s always a ‘buzz’ from saving a bit of effort! Most often the thicknesses of my wooden forms are dictated by the thicknesses the timber comes in. Over the course of time I’ve tuned my aesthetic, even my objectives, to these physical conditions. When I’m making things out of clay there may be fewer physical limitations, but in another sense clay is even more physically determined because it’s so impressionable. Unless you’re abiding by strict naturalism in making, say, a portrait bust (sometimes even if) your fingers will move, at least partly, the way they want to, a way that’s natural to you and different in others. So especially if you’ve thrown in your hat with ‘non-representational’ form your anatomy could play a big part in determining and styling what you do!

In digital many things are simple to do, many actions are very quick, but it’s a mistake to think that digital work is quicker in every respect. It’s only quick up to a point, and often that point is the one when you feel that there’s something that could be better, but you don’t quite know what that is, so you start changing things .. and from there it might go on for a long time, mainly because of all the choices!

On the other hand, and there certainly is a big one .. if I’d been physically painting, I would never have had the time and patience to test and erase all the stages that even these three simple-looking examples had to go through before I was honestly pleased with them. I originally started the digital work, a few years back, because that was mainly what I wanted .. a means of making good, precise colour sketches which I could work on, alter, juggle with, all relatively risk-free until the point came when they could be ‘signed off’ with satisfaction. The intention then was always to reproduce them in paint, but in truth I’ve hardly ever done that so far, partly because the scale can’t be changed ‘just like that’; partly because reproducing them would be a lot of work, for relatively little ‘surprise’ (and that really is a tough one), and lastly because I’m quite happy just looking at the digital ones as they are.


Making a 1:6 scale ‘working’ fireplace

The cosy library set featured in the previous post included a fully ‘working’ fireplace. Any ‘flames’ needed were to be added in post-production using CGI so I didn’t have to worry about those. But my brief was to make the physical prop work .. that is ‘light up’ .. to an extent, at least incorporating a suggestion of glowing embers. At the time of making it was not yet clear whether the ‘coals and logs’ part would be seen in different states i.e. from fully stocked to nearly spent, so my thinking was that this part needed to be made as a separate and interchangeable shell .. a translucent one .. independent from the source of light. In any case, I didn’t want to mess with integrated electrics since they’re almost always a bit cursed, in my experience. So I decided to make the fireplace setup open at the back so that it could be lit from behind as simply as possible. Below is the only photo I managed at the time of the fire lit up, a quick test in daylight before the surfaces were fully painted and accessorized ..

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, working fireplace effect, painting unfinished

I designed the ‘coals and logs’ unit to sit within an ornamented grate which hid its edges and also masked spillage from the light source behind. This meant that it would be easy and quick to substitute different stages of the fire modelled on the same base-shape.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, Sculpey modelling of fireplace

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, Sculpey modelling of fireplace

I chose to make the base shape in Kapa-line foam, probably because this was easiest .. but Super Sculpey doesn’t readily stick to much, especially foam, and to have any control over the modelling a firm base layer is essential. So I started by massaging small portions of Sculpey to become almost paste-like and working them into the surface. Once this was covered the resistant, wax-like qualities of Sculpey could be fully exploited .. I much prefer to model by pushing/impressing, kneading and displacing, hardly ever cutting or scooping out, and a whole variety of weird impression tools will often do much of the job for me. I had a bag of strange, impossibly hard and oversized ‘croutons’ I’d found in a Chinese supermarket and I didn’t have to do much with these to create an interesting textural starting point. When it came to the ‘logs’ or chunks of coal I used a custom impression tool I’d made for tree-bark .. Sculpey modelled and baked over an old scalpel handle .. using it in a partly random way, just to create some spontaneous interest.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, Sculpey modelling of fireplace

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, Sculpey modelling of fireplace

But the whole looked dull, deliberate and lifeless, until I attacked the surface with brushes! The most successful was the black plastic one, like a large and sinister toothbrush, which accompanies wire brushes usually in packs of three .. I’d never found a good use for these plastic ones before, and none other since really! Once the Sculpey work was finished I made a standard mould from it comprising a silicone ‘skin’ part supported by a plaster jacket. This is common practice, even though it takes a little longer to complete than just pouring a block of silicone, because it cuts the amount of silicone rubber used to easily under a quarter.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, Sculpey model and silicone mould

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, casting clear resin fireplace

I had two options for casting the hollow, translucent shell .. using either clear epoxy or polyester resin. But epoxy resin can only be made thixotropic (converted from a liquid to a spreadable gel or paste) by adding a filler powder such as fumed silica. Dependant on the amount of powder needed, the epoxy resin could lose much of its transparency, whereas clear polyester resin can be thickened using a specially thickened  gelcoat  additive which is almost as clear. I needed to mix the clear polyester, gelcoat and shared catalyst together first before tipping the mixture into the mould. I had to wait about 15mins before the mix firmed up enough to be ‘shaped’ into a relatively even shell, using a chopstick as a spatula, but the window closed fairly quickly after that.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, casting clear resin fireplace

I’ve said ‘clear polyester’ but in actual fact it was the ‘general purpose’ or GP polyester resin from Tiranti, not the ‘Clear Casting’. I’ve always used Tiranti polyesters (whether general purpose, ‘multi purpose’, ‘clear casting’, gelcoat or thixotropic paste) partly because I’ve never had any major problems with any of them. They’ve also lasted far longer than any others I’ve bought .. for example, I used the same can of GP polyester on-and-off for over five years! Tiranti’s GP cures a warm grey/beige which can be seen from the following photos, but this was fine for my purpose, and the cloudiness (compared to Clear Casting) was also something which I’d hoped would diffuse the light for a better effect.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, resin and Palight fireplace unit unpainted

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, resin and Palight fireplace unit unpainted

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, resin and Palight fireplace parts unpainted

I removed the cured polyester shell from the mould the next day, and designed/made the ‘stool grate’ (that’s the proper term) around it using Palight foamed PVC. The photo below shows this primed in Humbrol matt black enamel (not yet given its metallic gilding), set up against the fireback and the hole cut to let the light through. There were restrictions to the depth that the fireplace unit could be, and I could have solved this with much more blackening or shading around the stool grate .. a shame, but there was no time left. What did work nicely were the strips of vinyl wallpaper I used to suggest the fireback stonework, washed and sponged with acrylic. 

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, painted fireplace parts

David Neat, prop and set making for stop-motion animation, working fireplace effect

To give the rich ember colour when lit, I had thought of coating the underside of the polyester shell with red/orange/yellow glass paints (i.e. Marabu GlasART or Pebeo Vitrail) which I know work very well. But it the end I felt it would be more adaptable if the colour came from the light source, or through gels fixed behind the cut hole. Since I’d spent some time on the modelling (especially on getting the texture interesting) the painting was fairly simple .. an overall skim in black first with a large ragged brush, followed by less of a skim in mid-grey and then even less in light grey. Again I used Humbrol enamel for this, just to be sure the paintwork stayed on the polyester surface if the piece was going to be handled.

David Neat, props and set making for stop-motion animation, fire effect

I used a thicker Palight for the fire surround and mantel shelf below, and the small ‘designs’ were cut/carved using the thinnest .. 1mm. Palight of whichever thickness can be carved and sanded with surprising ease .. it’s a lot like carving a soft wood, but without having to cope with grain direction, and the exposed ‘grain’ hardly looks any different to the rest. Here in the UK it’s available in white up to 10mm thickness from Bay Plastics at http://www.plasticstockist.co.uk  though from 2mm onwards it’s actually ‘Palfoam’, which is an even softer variant.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, fireplace carving in Palight foamed PVC

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, painted fireplace surround

For creating a controllable ‘speckle’ with a slight sheen to it I base-coated first in a lighter tone then mixed darker acrylic with some acrylic retarder gel, to stipple it over. This allows a decent amount of working time in which to even out the effect and it makes the paint into more of a glaze. Most of the tube acrylic paint companies offer their own brand, though one will work with another, however the ‘gel’ type has become less common. Now it’s usually a thickish, glycerine-like liquid but it should work in the same way.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, fireplace setup nearing completion

Thanks again to Astrid Baerndal for the only photo I have of the fireplace installation properly assembled, under natural light with no atmosphere unfortunately, in the hurry to ship the whole model off. The large fish were modelled in Super Sculpey over Styrofoam base-shapes; hollow-cast in polyurethane resin; basecoated in Humbrol matt black enamel, then ‘dusted’ with Treasure Silver Wax Gilt finish like much of the rest. More about the making of the fish can be found about a third of the way down my general article Modelling and shaping, one of the group Making realistic models which is first on the menu in the Methods section.

Casting prop books and making ‘specials’

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, cast and painted books c 1:6 scale

Continuing with the subject of prop-making for stop-motion animation, back in 2011 I had to make a small library full of books for one particular film. I made both the sets and props, including furniture, and the heads of the puppets for this one. The setting was broadly based on Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill so the books had to look ‘antique’ but with a little more freedom in the choice of colours. Most of the books on the shelves needed only simple surface treatment, and could be faked because they weren’t going to be taken out or touched, so for the most part it was sufficient to create ‘blocks’ of convincing frontage with some suggestions of depth at the sides and tops. But there also needed to be many piles of loose books on the floor and on tables, plus a proportion of loose books in the shelves, and a few of these actually needed to be opened! Below is a close-up of part of the shelf-book frontage with singles interspersed. Many thanks to Astrid Baerndal http://www.baerndal.eu for this and countless other excellent photos in the past!

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, cast and painted books in shelves, c 1:6 scale

Since all of the books .. whether faked blocks, simple or more involved singles .. were made in polyurethane resin, the painting method was basically the same. The castings have to be left for a few days to fully cure; then they need to be lightly scrubbed in warmish water and detergent; then primed using a plastic primer such as Simoniz or Rust-Oleum; after which they can be painted with regular acrylic using whatever preferred methods. I used a mixture of my usual acrylics .. DecoArt ‘Crafter’s’ or ‘Americana’ also Rosco Supersaturated and in addition Vallejo Model Color for fine details and transparent glazing. Given the prominent ribbing and other textures the ‘worn’ look was easily achieved with a combination of careful sanding with a sponge-backed sanding pad and some dry-brushing. The film-makers agreed that any attempt even to suggest writing on the books would have been too overwhelming in effect .. quite apart from the effort, since there were many hundreds of them!

Library at Strawberry Hill, watercolour original by John Carter 1784

Above is the original watercolour by John Carter showing the library at Strawberry Hill, published by Walpole in 1784. Below is a photo I took of part of the 1:6 scale set in progress, under natural light without the full decoration, just to rehearse how the first try-outs of the shelf books were going to look. In addition to the blocks of 4-5 books at a time I included a number of individual books which could lean against them and impart, I’d hoped, a less regimental, more informal and certainly less tightly packed look than most of the other ‘old library’ references I’d seen. The other reason was that there would be scenes where some of the books fell from the shelves and started flying around the room!

David Neat, set for stop-motion animation (in progress, unfinished) c 1:6 scale

To look more closely at the ‘singles’ first .. my plan for the more detailed individual books was to prototype a collection of different covers and ‘spines’ in various matching sizes, and assemble these around a Kapa-line foam core. This was because the books had to be as light as possible and it was also because I had a good technique for scraping the foam with rough sandpaper to look just like blocks of old paper. I had some sample swatches of embossed paper from the firm E.Becker and these, together with some vinyl wallpaper patterns, were just the thing for creating some variety in the book cover surfaces. I cut and sanded shapes in 2mm Palight foamed-PVC and spraymounted the patterned paper on. I sanded/impressed the ribbed spine parts in Kapa-line foam.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, book parts ready for mouldmaking, c 1:6 scale

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, moulds and casts of book parts, c 1:6 scale

I think I must have run out of my usual Lukasil 429 silicone rubber to make all of the moulds so for the spines I used some leftover paste-form silicone which involved completing the mould block with a plaster ‘jacket’. The casts above are made from Tomps Fast Cast Polyurethane. Below is a collection of individual books ready for painting.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, cast books unpainted, c 1:6 scale

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, various 1:6 scale model books

Above is a selection of the individually finished books showing the range of sizes and different treatments. There are touches of gold, which I preferred to be very sparing with. Thanks again to Astrid Baerndal http://www.baerndal.eu for the beautiful photo!

The bulk of the shelf books needed also needed to be as light as possible. Because of the size of the model and the number of shelves to be filled I think I’d calculated that it would involve about 5 metres worth of miniature frontage!. For these ‘blocks’ I shaped individual fronts (only about 2cm deep) varying the heights and thicknesses, stuck them together and made moulds from them. These Kapa-line prototypes below are already simply painted because I wanted to test whether the detailing would be sufficient when dry-brushed to look worn.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, casting runs of books, c 1:6 scale

David Neat, prototype and mould for 'book blocks'

Shown above is one of the block moulds together with, this time, the painted resin cast. What is visible at the bottom of this is actually the top .. I’d realised I would have to detail at least the first centimetre or so at the top because this might be seen. Below shows the making of these complete blocks in progress, involving a short line of ‘frontage’ with a ‘complete’ book attached either side. This was necessary because the full depth would be seen when the loose individual books in between fell or flew out.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, 'blocks' of shelf books being made

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, book moulds being filled with resin and foam

The parts of these book-blocks were cast in a resin/Fillite mixture (Fillite is a very light, grey ash filler commonly used in resin casting, especially where reduced weight is needed). As a further reduction to the weight I inserted blocks of Kapa-line foam while casting.

I’d made the range of individual, more detailed books first so I could make moulds of some of these to cast the larger end-books for the blocks, because for these it didn’t matter that one side would be blank.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, completed books ready to be moulded for re-casting

As I’ve said, there were a few special books that either needed to be opened and read in the course of the action or others which would flap like birds around the room. Luckily for me, I didn’t need to introduce tight hinges to animate this ‘flapping’, so I choice to make the practical books using cut portions of cheap notebooks, choosing only those in which the pages were firmly glued to a cloth spine which I could also attach to the cast covers. I could seal most of these pages shut, leaving a few free at the place of opening. These I covered with copies of minutely scaled-down text on especially thin cream coloured paper.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, making a 'working' book, c 1:6 scale

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, c 1:6 scale practical books

I had a particular challenge coming up with a method of achieving the elaborate, raised cobweb design on the main book above. I wanted it to be as fine and sharp as possible so this ruled out drawing it on with a relief medium, even one of the relatively fine relief outliners used in glass painting. In any case, this might not have survived much handling! Luckily I had been thinking for a while about possible methods of ‘working in negative’ .. that is, casting into voids or depressions made to achieve certain effects instead of working ‘positive’ .. so I made use of the ease with which Palight foamed-PVC can be finely incised (a little like lino-cutting) as a mould for casting this very detailed form.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, carving a 'negative' for raised decoration on a 1:6 scale book


Small props for stop-motion animation

Back in 2011 I was making settings and props for stop-motion animation, and one particular scene I’d been asked to work on involved the eating of an apple down to its core. The film called for a kind of poetic realism .. I mean that its world was ‘ours’ to an extent, the puppets were recognisably human though stylised, furniture and props needed to be fairly accurate and believable, even though the action was often dreamlike. This was one of those moments in dream when reality is tugged a little more into focus, so although a loose approximation of an apple getting smaller in bite-shaped chunks could have sufficed I wanted to make the moment properly convincing.

So I modelled the whole apple first in Super Sculpey .. in two sizes because one would be needed for close-ups and the smaller for scene shots. I made silicone moulds from these, and then enough casts for about ten successive bites of the apple. My intention was to carve away each bite in the sequence, so I cast in thin Fast Cast polyurethane resin mixed with a third of Fillite (a light ash filler) which would make the material nicely carvable especially if using a Dremel.

I guess I knew from the beginning, or at least pretty soon after, that I would have to manually copy the ‘bites’ on each successive one down the sequence, but I didn’t want to make more than one mould for each apple size. I made the stalks individually out of white styrene rod, slightly carved and sanded (and the ends ‘crunched’ with something heavy). I used Vallejo acrylics to build up a nice glowing red in layers, and kept the surface detailing to a minimum since each stage would have to be exactly copied.

I made a very simple mould for both using my usual Lukasil 429 (from specialplasters.co.uk, a silicone rubber I’ve been using for years which has always been easy and reliable). For small and basic shapes such as these it was enough to tack them with a little more Sculpey to a baseboard, build a containment wall around them and pour silicone as a one-piece block around them. Once cured the silicone needs only to be lightly split with a scalpel to take the prototypes out and make the casts. This is what I often call a split-block mould. This is the easiest form of 3D casting, each cast needing just a little bit of clean-up work around the pouring hole.

Advice on making props etc. for stop-motion animation

This was an example of a special prop serving a visual sequence which had been properly thought through. In this case the way the prop would be used was very clear. This is not always so, partly because room has to be left for on-site decisions during animation and partly because it’s rarely possible to think of everything anyway, especially if props are commissioned at an early stage, long before animation begins.

In this situation it’s always good practice to allow for possible changes, and include these contingencies straight away at the making stage as long as they don’t lengthen the making time too much. One very good move, where there’s a choice, is to pick materials which are relatively easy to alter. Foamed PVC for example is very easy to cut and can be re-glued instantly using superglue. Another prudent habit is to keep parts which ‘may’ have to move separate until the last. As an example, even if something like a school-desk isn’t likely to be opened (according to the script .. and there should always be a script!)  it may be wise to keep the desk-top separate, and give the underside and the desk interior the same colour treatment as the rest just in case. On the other hand I would never go to the trouble of making working hinges for this kind of ‘what if’ because it’s often easier to animate a movable part like that just with a concoction of Blu Tack and bent wire.

If you’re asked to make props or furniture for someone else’s stop-motion animation you can only work as efficiently as the information you’re given .. or, more truthfully .. the information you’ve had the sense to ask for! I’ve never worked on anything where I didn’t have to tease out important facts by asking a lot of searching questions. You will of course want the principle design directives first .. the scale or dimensions, and the full visual appearance of each article. Then, just as importantly, you will need to know details of how each is used if at all, or whether they are just background dressing. These are the main questions, but there are many others that one may not think to ask at first, so here are just some of them.

If a prop is going to be used in the action, do we see the puppet holding it? If so, how easily can the puppet do this? For example, does the prop need to be specially light? Do holes need to be drilled in the prop to attach fixing wires, or if something like Blu Tack or ‘sticky wax’ needs to be used is the paintwork suitably resistant? In the case of pieces of furniture, do they need to be secured to the baseboard (partly to keep their position, but especially if sat in or leant against)? If so, legs usually need to be fitted with strong wires or bolts at the bottom.

Has the question of ‘relative size’ been properly considered when deciding upon the scale of a prop? To put it simply, just like dolls or cartoon characters puppets often have larger heads and hands in relation to their bodies and their overall height. If, for example, a retro style desk telephone is needed and this is scaled faithfully according to overall puppet height, it may look reasonable enough in the background but if ‘used’ the speaker/receiver part may look ridiculously small against the puppet’s hand or ear! The solution might have to be that two differently scaled versions are made, or just one slightly larger speaker/receiver part.

If you’re proud of your own work, if you’ve taken good photos and want to publicize what you can do, will anyone object if you do this before the film itself has become public? It’s important as a courtesy to reach an agreement, even if it’s not something dealt with in your contract .. or even if there isn’t a contract! You should consider the fact that an independent stop-motion film may be many years in the making and this is a long time, either to not be able to promote your own work or to feel a bit secretive or guilty when you do. Often this can be resolved, as I’ve done in this article, just by not mentioning the film by name.




Finally getting the hang of Instagram


I’ve been thinking about tackling Instagram for a while .. because I desperately needed more opportunity not to have to write that much .. if you can believe it!  But because I process photos quite ‘seriously’ on my PC before letting them loose, and because I have a Windows phone which I’m determined to keep until the bitter end .. there just didn’t seem much hope! But recently I did yet another search for alternative ways of uploading to Instagram, and finally I’ve found a way that works .. like a dream! It simply involves installing the free browser Vivaldi on the PC (no need to make it the default browser) and accessing Instagram through that! The extra piece of software doesn’t weigh the computer down like some other methods I’ve tried and failed with. The only drawback is that it only allows me to upload one photo at a time rather than grouped .. but this could change, and personally I prefer that anyway. Here’s the link where I found out about it ..


I’ll be posting on Instagram more regularly than here, I would imagine. WordPress will remain my serious ‘writing’ place, and I’ll be able to elaborate here especially regarding ‘instructional’ content but .. you might have noticed .. I seem to have less and less time to do that these days. Here are some images from the couple of posts I’ve put on Instagram so far .. and if you’re interested, have a look at



Above .. works in progress. Green styrofoam ‘beasts’ shaped in two halves, ready to be sealed to make moulds and casts from, and polyurethane resin cast ‘Arpish Dancers’ which I’m testing on a mock-lacquer sushi plate.

Below .. I recently ‘re-vamped’ some pen drawings from the Thames Foreshore made a few years ago, converting them into transparent ‘layers’, colouring them in Procreate and finishing them in PaintShop Pro. This is ‘Base#1-1’ and below is an enlarged detail from ‘Base#2-1’

Below .. resin cast ‘eggs’ and foamed-PVC ‘twigs’ collection. I’ve given the PVC my usual treatment of ‘graining’ with sandpaper and staining with Spectrum Noir alcohol ink pens, to resemble bone or wood. I’ve surfaced the mat underneath with a laminated digital sketch .. part of my experimentation with different presentations, or ‘contexts’ as I call them, for the ensembles of small sculptural forms.


The Origins of Artistic Expression – Part 2 ‘The making of marks’


Imagine, if you can, that you’re one of our pre-human ancestors long before the emergence of our ‘modern’ species, Homo sapiens, which might have occurred as much as 300,000 years ago. So it’s before that .. let’s say it’s half a million years ago, and you and your kind are what later humans will refer to as Homo erectus. I’d like the Czech painter Zdenek Burian to help a little in setting the scene. One of my most treasured books as a child was a big one .. Prehistoric Man .. published in 1960, which Burian illustrated accompanied by a text from Josef Augusta. But a lot more has been discovered about Homo erectus since 1960, so the way you’re represented here needs some updating. You need to lose more of the hair, your face is further on the way to looking ‘like us’, and the same applies to your general body proportions especially the arms. I’m still fond of this painting though, and it will at least give a general idea of ‘locale’.

So imagine yourself into this scene, but don’t start downsizing your mental abilities too soon because you’ll need to read on. At this stage in your development your brain is about three-quarters the size of what it is now, but that’s more than twice the size of your Australopithecus forebears. You’re bigger than them too, not least because you stand, walk and run fully erect just like us, hence the name given to you. In fact that name is just a convenience ‘blanket’ over a long period of human development and there were many physical variations that still need to be understood. There were even variations within the same population sometimes.

You live on what’s now the island of Java in Indonesia but back then it was connected to the mainland and your kind has already had more than a million years to spread through many ancient continents. You are the longest surviving human species ever .. and right now it’s like, you’re everywhere! The climate is warm where you are, and if you could see yourself in the plentiful water while drinking, you’ll see someone about the same size as you, more muscular but not stocky .. ‘athletic’ if you like. That, along with the reduction in body hair, allowed you to use your adapted legs to run freely in the open for longer without getting too hot. This has enabled your kind to start actively hunting, transforming your previous reliance on more passive gathering and scavenging other kills. You’re now a member of a proper hunter-gatherer group. Your life is very active, working ‘as a team’, almost certainly lots of ‘communicating’ .. and so many other new things to think about! In a way it could be said that your kind has become ‘restless’. Larger brains need more to feed them .. not only literally, but also in terms of the stimulation they demand. I doubt whether the spread of your species is purely down to population growth or migrating herds. Your group is learning to control this awesome entity which we’ll later call fire, and eating is somehow more ‘enjoyable’ because of it. Your hands have become just as mobile, flexible and precise as ours. Partly as a result, the stone tools which your kind have always used to dig, chop, crush and cut with are also changing, they’re not just roughly chipped rocks anymore.  Those who make them are spending much more time on them, sitting there ‘knapping’ away with ever more delicacy .. they’re making much more regular, more ‘pleasing’ shapes. Life used to be just about surviving .. but now there are many ‘other things’ to it that are not merely instinctive or practical.

Returning to the ‘here and now’, but still thinking about the everyday existence of Homo erectus .. I concluded Part 1 by saying that this next one would be looking at ‘the making of marks’. Before marks could be made, Homo erectus had to first recognise that there were such things being made. What sort of marks might our distant ancestors have seen, and what could these marks have meant to them?

Above are a few examples of marks made by animals clawing or gnawing trees, and below are some examples of animal tracks. Important to note for later is the fact that there are certain definite ‘regularities’ to these different marks. Claw lines are generally evenly spaced and parallel, and small paws repeat the same general ‘motif’. Prints made by paws or feet are similarly parallel and evenly spaced, also reproducing the same basic ‘motif’. It should also be noted that ‘low-lying’ animals don’t just mark the terrain with their feet but with other parts of their bodies, often producing a very regular and unexpected pattern.

Marks in the natural landscape

Marks made ‘naturally’, without particular intention, could of course include just as many made by ourselves .. such as our own footprints; marks made by muddy hands on clean rock; bruise or pressure marks on the skin; marks made by blood from a killed animal; teeth-marks in fruit or vegetables. Later in the timeline, especially as early ‘technology’ augmented our lives .. scratches made on shellfish when trying to get them open; soot marks from a fire; the marks of a sharp tool on animal skin ; cut-marks on the remaining bones. A common factor of all these different marks is that they would often have been witnessed ‘being made’, no mystery or doubt as to their origin, with the clear recognition, at least in the instances where we are involved, that it is ‘we who are making them’. Originally these marks were ‘by-products’ of little importance, with no significance in their own right. But they weren’t just occasional occurrences which could be missed .. they were constantly being made, and must have been abundant.

Eventually marks must have held an extremely important place in our early consciousness if we relied upon them when hunting and gathering, or for avoiding danger, and perhaps even for gathering information on rival groups. If we were consistently looking out for these we must have developed a sense of distinguishing the various types of marks .. perhaps even according to a kind of grouping, or separation .. those made by natural forces (rain, wind, heat, erosion); those made by animals; and those made by other humans.

So early humans may have thought ‘If marks can tell us useful things .. what are our marks saying about ourselves? Can we say other things by deliberately making them? Empowering ourselves by making our own, in a premeditated way, may not have been such a big step. Marks are elevated to ‘signs’ as soon as the intention is to communicate even the slightest thing. As such they may have been the first ‘We are here’ or ‘I am here’, not so far removed from the scenting of animals, but soon to become so much more when the maker is conscious that they ‘signify’ … something which we believe is unique to humankind! The conscious ego implied by that ‘I am here’ .. subsequently  to develop into ‘Look at me. I can do this’ .. has remained largely unchanged, let’s be honest, as the prime motivation for artistic expression to this day.

The beginnings of ‘pre-meditative, symbolic intervention’

When an animal scents a location to signify its presence you could call this an ‘intervention’ .. there has been a deliberate addition, an alteration to the environment or to a natural object. As a message to other animals it is also in the truest sense symbolic .. the scent is received, the ‘scenter’ thought of. But we have no evidence that the animal contemplates the act, let alone that it is at all conscious of ‘being symbolic’! There is nothing to suggest that it is more than instinctively motivated behaviour. Although many of us would like to think otherwise, it’s a similar case when the little dog runs to the front door on seeing its owner grasp the lead .. the association of the lead with ‘going out’ has merely been stored somewhere.

When a beaver builds a dam, when birds construct a nest, or when a humanoid clears a path through undergrowth .. all are done with a practical purpose in mind, and all are interventions which alter the appearance of the natural landscape. But they are just what they are, purely functional necessities .. they cannot be called ‘symbolic’ on top of that.

But what about this ‘intervention’? You’ll have to look closely!

The hominid who cut these deliberate but non-functional lines into the surface of a freshwater mussel shell approximately half a million years ago (dated to between 540,000 and 430,000 years old from the sediment preserved on it) took great care to follow exact parallels and join the ‘zigs’ and the ‘zags’ up precisely. It is the act of ‘taking a line for a walk’ but in a very careful, controlled and premeditated way. The hominid responsible was you .. at the beginning of this article when you  were Homo erectus, the earliest undisputed precursor to Homo sapiens .. and this to date is the earliest known example of mark-making for its own sake. It was found at an archaeological site in Trinil, eastern Java. This simple form of figuration may not be as obviously ‘artistic’ or as outwardly symbolic as what was to come, but it is a momentous step nevertheless. It suggests a capability for visual abstraction similar to our own. Here below is that updated version of what Homo erectus might have looked like, shown in Part 1, from the reconstructive artist Elizabeth Daynes.

What can we say about the ‘zigzag’ as a choice, compared to either just simple scratches or something more elaborate? This is where it gets most interesting. To start with the practical .. straight lines are the easiest option given the hardness of the shell material. In fact, it’s thought that a shark’s tooth might well have been used to do it .. thin and blade-like .. so anything other than straight lines would be very difficult.  A controlled zigzag would be one of the simplest intentional patterns that could be made with straight lines, and more importantly, readily distinguishable from natural scratches. I don’t just mean distinguishable by later archaeologists .. I mean recognisable by other hominids at the time!

Such straight lines are not a common feature of the natural landscape here on planet Earth. True, there are plenty of things which suggest straight lines, but the straight line in the form which we’ve come to use it is an ‘adaptation’ from nature .. we could call it a human invention! One could also say that this zigzag, with its sharp connectedness and regularity, is even less common. If we need to search about for natural sources not many spring to mind, apart from ‘teeth’ perhaps, or maybe the movement of a snake. But if it bears any relationship to these, this version is significantly ‘artificial’. If this is representative of the kind of intentional mark-making done at the time rather than a ‘one-off’ occurrence, it is as if the early hominids were ‘distinguishing’ themselves from the natural environment .. as if they were saying ‘This is us. This is what we can invent. We are special’. As I said in Part 1, they were ‘making their own mark’.

Later evidence suggests that this wasn’t just a one-off from the ‘Da Vinci’ of its time and species. For some years now the Canadian paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger has been cataloguing the earliest known cave wall markings, those which accompany the more impressive and identifiable animals, and for which reason are comparatively neglected. The oldest of these are around the 40,000 year old mark. She has for example found that the number of different ‘signs’ is not extensive, as we would expect if they were made without much thought or purpose to communicate, but are actually limited to 32. There is also a fairly even distribution of them around the globe, as you will see from the map below (click for larger version). Included amongst those 32 is the zig-zag, which occurs in eight of the fifteen geographical areas surveyed.

Amongst the most common of these early ‘signs’ apart from the zigzag are a cross, a cross-hatch or ‘hashtag’, and what I’m calling a ‘fence’ (a number of short vertical lines bounded by horizontals top and bottom). They all share the same characteristics .. they’re all the easiest marks to make with straight lines; they’re arrangements which are not common or obvious in nature; and they’re all marks easily distinguishable from scratches made by accident, or scratches made by claws (note that there are instances of vertical lines on their own, but not as frequent).

But we’re jumping way ahead, just for an indication of what was to follow, and we have to go back to where we left you making this extraordinary ‘statement’ on a freshwater mussel shell in Java around half a million years ago. The problem is that there’s a big gap! Evidence connecting the Trinil zigzag to what developed hundreds of thousands of years later has yet to be found. You’d think that if there’s any truth to the new claims about the capabilities of Homo erectus .. or later Neanderthal for that matter .. there would be many more pieces of evidence like the Trinil shell or the ‘figurines’ featured in Part 1, especially considering how far Homo erectus spread. The problem with such ‘globe embracing’ archaeology is funding, and the willing participation of countries. So one has to remember that this whole ‘story’ is fabricated according to what has been found so far  .. not forgetting therefore that assumptions about, for example, a sudden, massive and ‘exclusive’ artistic flourishing beginning around 40,000 years ago and concentrated in Europe, are only reflections of what that story looks like for the moment. Yes, it has been accepted that Africa was the ‘cradle of mankind’, but the absence there of cave art to rival France or Spain, or objects comparable to the figurines found in Germany or the Czech Republic, used to suggest to many that ‘modern human behaviour’ really only dawned after the move out of Africa around 60,000 years ago.

But that long-held view is increasingly challenged now, and for part of that re-assessment we pick up the timeline again at around 100,000 years ago. After enduring for 1.5 Million years Homo erectus has sadly disappeared, but Homo sapiens is fully established. We humans have always been fundamentally obsessed with ourselves so every activity we engage in, every area of knowledge we pursue, is all about benefitting our ‘here and now’, whether ‘we’ means an individual or the collective. Amongst paleoanthropologists the biggest questions are ‘When did WE begin?’, ‘How much like US were our ancestors?’, ‘What defines US as ‘modern’?’

So when, fairly recently, a number of archaeological sites outside Europe yielded small shells dating back possibly 100,000 years, which had been intentionally pierced in order to be worn as body decoration .. there was a lot of interest, not least because many of us ‘moderns’ are still doing it! Shells of the same type were discovered from five archaeological sites in Algeria, Israel, Morocco and South Africa. The evidence from two of them .. Blombos Cave in South Africa and Grotte des Pigeons in Morocco .. is as far as I know fairly uncontested.

The photo above displays three of the shells found in Morocco ( courtesy Smithsonian Institution: James Di Loreto, Donald H Hurlbert ). It has been demonstrated that the holes in many of these shells have been ‘made’ rather than naturally occurring and that the insides of the perforations are worn down in a way consistent with their being threaded onto a ‘string’ of some type. The most important aspect of these shells is that here we have widespread evidence .. not just a one-off, isolated case .. of humankind making and attributing meaning to things which don’t have another function. The purpose and meaning is the ‘look’ .. or rather, the purpose of the thing is not what it did physically for those who made it, like a tool, but rather what it represented, what it symbolized for them. So from our ‘modern’ perspective we could imagine that the wearing of shells represented ‘self’ or ‘self expression’ even individuality; or, if everybody was wearing them, ‘group’ or even conformity; or, if only some did, then ‘status’ within the group.

It would be misleading to label this oldest jewellery or body adornment the first visual ‘Art’ but it is clearly ‘artistic expression’.. and why should this be any less significant or important? In a sense it’s more so! What most of us have come to think of as ‘Art’ is really just one specialised branch from a deeper and more fundamental stem which anthropologists define with terms such as ‘symbolic thought’ or ‘symbolically motivated behaviour’ .. and which underpins most of what we ‘moderns’ do all day!

For the next significant example in our timeline we don’t have to move very far, because this piece of engraved ochre was also found in Blombos Cave on the coast of South Africa, and it takes the position suggested by the Trinil shell almost systematically a little further .. except that we’re jumping not only more than 400,000 yrs but also to another species; the final one, our own! This piece of ochre found there, dated a little more than 70,000 years old, is engraved with a strong ‘cross-hatching’ pattern .. overlapping zigzags one could say? In any event it is, similar to the zigzag, the simplest form of pattern to make with straight lines, and once again this is not something often ‘seen’ in the natural environment but rather something invented, imagined … ‘abstracted’ if you like.

I can’t resist including this photo here, even though it may seem to confuse my argument a little. Blombos Cave is just 100metres from the Indian Ocean, so I’m assuming the people who left their artifacts in the cave had an intimate relationship with fish-skin. As you see here, when fish-scales are pigmented like this they can strongly suggest a very similar pattern to the engraved ochre. So maybe I was too quick to see ‘complete artifice’ or invention in the cross-hatch pattern, but it doesn’t contradict the view that the earliest marks were ‘adapting’ nature. It’s also, anyway, a very engrossing and perhaps unanswerable question! Is it more ‘advanced’ to be able to copy nature skilfully and faithfully; or to be able to invent one’s own version of it; or to be able to make visible that which nature can’t?

What the Trinil shell and Blombos ochre block also have in common is that the deliberate mark-making is likely to have developed out of natural use. Shells would have been scratched while prising them open, pieces of ochre would have acquired criss-cross furrows while being ground to make paint. Underneath the very definite patterning it can be seen that the surface has already been scratched and furrowed with use. The pattern is a deliberate extension of something already suggested by chance mark-making. Almost as if to make this deliberation clear and permanent, the area of controlled patterning is contained at the top and the bottom by feint boundary lines .. giving it a strong connection, I think, with the ‘fence’ signs which were to come.

Again, I have to interrupt briefly! In the last paragraph I mentioned rather matter-of-factly that the Blombos ochre had been ground to make paint! Yes, Blombos Cave has yielded evidence of ochre paint-making dating back more than 100,000 years! The problem is that it can only be guessed what the ochre was used for that early on. But it’s a whole new chapter .. the role that ochre was about to play; the significance of ‘the cave’; the arrival of ‘hands’ .. to follow.

Last of all, ‘but not least’ as they say .. once again we have a relatively short jump to a kind of ‘summing up’ .. roughly 420km around the southern tip of South Africa and a mere 10,000 years ahead to the Diepkloof Rock Shelter in the Western Cape. During successive excavations which began in 1973, altogether 270 small pieces of engraved ostrich egg were found in layers spanning 5,000 years of occupation, from around 60,000 to 55,000 years ago (the so-called Howiesons Poort culture).

Many have questioned whether the Trinil shell, or even the Blombos engraved ochre have any meaning at all, partly since they’re isolated examples. But with the Diepkloof ostrich shell fragments there can be little doubt .. because of their number, and because their timespan indicates not just one individual but an unimaginably long, established tradition!  Here above are just a few of them.

There’s a touch of irony in that the shell fragments appear to have attractive ‘Easter’ colours which also make the engraved lines easier to see. These colours are .. unfortunately .. a complete coincidence, a result of the egg fragments having been subjected to various fires throughout their long internment in the shelter. There is no evidence of the originally cream-white ostrich eggs having been deliberately coloured. The patterns made are mostly ladder-like .. or like the ‘fence’! .. involving horizontal lines which it’s thought would have encircled the eggs and shorter repeated lines between the two. With our modern sensibilities we might feel there’s not much variation for 5,000 years  worth of development, but that might indicate that something other than personal expression was important. It’s thought likely that the eggs were utilised as water-carriers, as functional objects (since this was the practice later, up until fairly recently) so it’s believed that the decoration may not have been purely ‘aesthetic’ but could have indicated different owners, or different groups. I’m wondering whether, even within the stricture of just having ‘fences’ to play with, there’s a lot of room for recognisable differences? The small selection above suggests this, showing narrow fences; broad fences; fences close together or further apart .. different spacing between the verticals, or perhaps even ‘italic’ ones.

Of the various simple ‘signs’ which would come later, the ‘fence’ is arguably the more ‘advanced’. The simpler ones, i.e. the zigzag, the cross, or the ‘hashtag’ are like ‘taking short lines for a sprint’ they can be done quickly, without that much control. But the ‘fence’ involves more planning .. horizontals first, then verticals carefully between them. Looking at them now I’m thinking .. a very early form of barcoding! Now I’m thinking too much like US! But I think it’s forgivable considering how much like us these people are starting to look. Here is an illustration from the ‘reconstruction twins’ Kennis & Kennis

I’ve already said what’s coming next .. mainly the arrival of ‘painting’ in the form of hands. It was proper ‘painting’ too, as you will see, not just the accidental ‘muddy hands on clean rock’ that I began this article with.