A ‘jungle temple’ wall in Kapa foam

After so many years I’m finally coming close to the ‘look’ for this piece that I originally wanted. I made this wall piece mainly for fun around eight years ago, and I’d looked forward to painting it, but when I first attempted it I was disappointed. There wasn’t any of the thrill I’d expected, and it failed to look convincing.

My painting abilities, or more especially my understanding of how to achieve ‘natural’ pattern or weathering, have moved on a bit over the last years. When I originally tried to paint this I didn’t do anything that much different to now .. a darkish basecoat allowed to dry, then other colours dry-brushed (or dry-sponged ) on top with progressively lighter tones. What was fundamentally different though, and why I failed, was because I hadn’t yet acknowledged what I’m calling the ‘chocolate trap’ .. by which I mean, how too much of a good thing nullifies the effect! The first portion I tried was a delight , seen on its own, so I couldn’t stop myself doing the same on every bit! I couldn’t understand why, once I had lavished attention on every portion and took a step back, the expected excitement just wasn’t there.

I’ve had a few more years now in which to start seeing what natural patterning really looks like i.e. how often the pattern is challenged, or broken. Here I’m including as ’natural’ the effects of natural processes on the artificial. We expect a stone, a brick or a cobble to age and wear down in much the same way as its neighbour, when in reality there can be many unplanned differences. More importantly, as humans our minds are conditioned to separate the pattern from the chaos .. it’s something we’ve been particularly good at .. but it does mean we can become blind to disturbances in the pattern especially when it comes to aesthetics. So my being too regular was not entirely my fault! For some while now when I’ve been leading sessions on painting surfaces I’ve been encouraging people to deliberately interrupt, subvert or randomise small parts of their patterns. It’s really interesting how hard that’s been for people to bring themselves to do!

Another improvement to my painting method has been to at least try to record the colours used for future reference, even if I can’t account for how I’ve mixed them. Nowadays I can create a much more convincing ‘algal’ or mossy effect using an olive green as a basis. In fact I’ve found this to be the best basis colour for any type of greenery.

The only conscious reason I had for making this piece at the time was to illustrate the sort of things which could be done with these, above .. foam-impressing tools made from sliced portions of plastic cake decoration moulds. These flat, hard plastic moulds are not meant for pressing, rather they’re for filling, with mouldable icing or marzipan for example. It wouldn’t be possible to make much of an impression with them as they are, even in a soft foam such as Kapa-line. But cutting them into smaller sections and pressing them into narrow strips of foam just about worked because then the foam had somewhere to move.

Another method I used for the first time on this wall was making a specifically shaped strip of foam in order for it to be sliced into individual pieces, lined up at the top. Shaping the small pieces separately would have taken a huge amount of time, not to mention it being much harder to control the shape. See this method illustrated in more detail in my article Pressing decoration into foam, shaping and wire- brushing under Special surfacing methods in the Methods section.

I remember wondering at the time how many other interesting shapes could be produced in this way .. slicing a shaped length into small portions. It reminded me of one of the most remarkable form-making ideas I’d ever seen. When I was living in Germany I saw some examples of simple animal figures carved in wood. There was nothing distinctive about the figures themselves .. just the way they were done, each as a small portion sliced from a lathe-turned ‘wheel’ shape. What was also really surprising was that this ingenious method was confined to a speck on the map, around a small town in south Germany called Seiffen. For many hundreds of years Seiffen had been a focus for wooden toy manufacture, and particularly for Christmas ornaments. The technique of lathe-turning a circular ‘mother’ form, known in German as Reifendrehen (translates as ‘tyre turning’) is thought to have started in Seiffen at the beginning of the 19th century and is still practiced there.

What was at first unclear to me was how the wood turner could possibly know how far to cut, just looking at the outside surface of the ‘tyre’ form, especially with a design as elaborate as the one below?

But a clue is provided in the following photo from the workshop of the museum in Seiffen. A wedge has been cut from the circular block while still on the lathe, and presumably at the beginning of working on it. I’m assuming that the design is drawn or pasted onto one of these interior faces as a guide, but which of course can only be checked once the lathe stops.

old ‘flaking’ paint effect

I don’t think I’ve written about this technique anywhere yet, partly because I haven’t tried it in an actual model .. but I feel that it’s promising! It’s the quickest, least involved way of simulating old flaking paint I’ve experimented with. Incidentally, I think that ‘flaking’ is a better way of describing what happens to paintwork than the ‘peeling’ which is more commonly used.

I’ve used the usual kind of tissue paper sold for crafts or gift wrapping. For both of the sample squares above I cut a piece somewhat larger than the cardboard base, crumpled it into a ball, then opened it out semi-flat again. I lightly spraymounted the card surface and patted the tissue paper down onto it, without flattening too heavily. I waited about a half-hour for the spraymount to become firmer, then took to the surface with the wire brush and/or scalpel blade.

Since the tissue is weightless any spraymount can be used, whether light and repositionable or otherwise. Any ‘spraymount’, that is, which sprays a fine mist .. and some just don’t unfortunately! The only one I can vouch for as reliable is 3M’s SprayMount (in the blue cans) .. also the most expensive. Anyway, after first trying out, the effects can be varied according to how much spraymount is used; the type of tissue paper; the material used as a base; how much or how little the tissue is pressed down; how heavily or lightly the surface is scratched. Also, different colours of tissue paper could be overlaid. My sample pieces are probably a bit flat and restrained, and much more could be done!

Here below for comparison are two examples of distressed paintwork I’ve selected from the truly life-changing, at the least life-enhancing, surfaces reference resource http://www.textures.com As much as I use it though, I still have issues with the lack of any information provided about the types of environments or locations of the photos. The service is still free to use, as long as you sign up, and that allows you a daily quota of a good number of medium resolution images. I found the first amongst a mix of many others like it under a search for ‘crackles’, and the second grouped under ‘PlasterWhiteWorn’.

While experimenting with the tissue paper method, I wanted to compare it with a technique I’ve been using for some time .. printing a basis image on matt coated photo paper; spraymounting this onto a stronger base; dampening with a water spray, and then ‘distressing’ the surface with wire brush and scalpel in much the same way. For the basis I used the ‘crackle’ pattern tile which had come with PaintShop Pro, tiling and scaling it as I thought appropriate, but then increasing the contrast because it was a bit pale ..

For the sample squares I used acrylics to add more colour interest, but also to mask the regularity of the tiled pattern.

‘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

 

Background

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

 

Background

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

 

Background

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.