About david neat

Sculptor, model-maker, teacher and writer

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 ..

https://www.techradar.com/uk/how-to/upload-photos-to-instagram-from-a-pc

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

https://www.instagram.com/davidmeredithneat/?hl=en

 

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.

The Origins of Artistic Expression – Part 1 ‘Things looking like other things’

 

The image above shows the Makapansgat pebble, a small stone of entirely natural origin which was evidently picked up and kept by an early hominin (human-like) ancestor, and the assumption is that this was because it looked like a face. This action would be no big surprise if we were talking about a modern human, but when one considers that this is stone was singled out between 3-2 million years ago and that the finder was an Australopithecus africanus whose brain size and physical attributes were much closer to a modern chimpanzee than to us .. it’s an almost spine-tingling revelation if it’s true!  No disrespect intended to any Australopithecus, but it’s likeable to your little dog ceasing to bark at its own reflection and starting to preen itself in the mirror instead, though admittedly this one’s more to do with the dog’s awareness of ‘self’ than of ‘symbol’.

The hominin’s reaction to the pebble is considered to be evidence of symbolic thought .. the conscious mental ability to let one thing stand in for another in the mind, and which up to now we’ve believed that only we Homo sapiens have been blessed with. It is believed that, once we developed that mental capacity, it opened the doors leading to art, or the expression of the imagination, and the development of language.

The name of the pebble (apparently more properly termed a ‘cobble’ because of its 8cm size) is taken from the cave in the Makapan Valley, South Africa, where it was found in 1925 together with Australopithecus remains. It’s made of jasperite, the nearest source of which is many kilometres from the cave itself, making this the earliest discovered manuport .. a natural object which assumes archaeological significance because it has been moved from one place to another. Tests have confirmed that the features of the cobble are due to natural erosion and that there has been no artificial enhancement by ‘human’ hands. Curiously it has been said that the Makapansgat pebble makes a rather ‘poor face’, as accidental faces go! That may be so .. considering both our ‘finer’ Homo sapien features and our modern, richly-fed visual sensibilities .. but it’s interesting to compare that face with the reconstruction of Australopithecus africanus created  by Elizabeth Daynes.

I have to say at this point that .. great as it would be! .. I’m a little sceptical about the exact provenance of the pebble. Although the dating methods are considered sound, I don’t think it can be adequately ruled out that the stone was collected by a later hominin. I feel that this comes far too early in our developmental timeline, and more than just one lonely piece of evidence is needed. But regardless which of our distant ancestors responded to it, it supports what I have always personally believed .. that the first opening of that door .. the first awakenings of our imagination, and the very first impulses to create our own representations of the world, may have been fuelled in part by such instances of pareidolia.

Pareidolia

In its broadest sense ‘pareidolia’ can be taken to mean ‘something looking (or equally, sounding, smelling or feeling) like something else’ and so for we sapiens with our enormous sensibilities it could apply to so many experiences on different levels .. either pleasurable or unfortunate. It is the term given to the conscious recognition of ‘likeness’ we experience when we, for example, see shapes in clouds or hear tunes in the ‘babbling brook’. In such cases, it can be very positive, inspirational .. a jump-start to the imagination or invention. But it also has another, darker side which feeds on our fears when we’re not so properly conscious, or panders to our assumptions or wishes even when we are .. leading us to mistake, sometimes to mistake disastrously! So at its simplest we might mistake the hat-stand for a lurking figure, a tangle of thread for a spider, or devote hundreds of hours to a ‘face’ on the surface of Mars.

At an early stage in the development of our survival software, our brains were predisposed to spot familiar shapes or patterns .. such as a lion’s face in otherwise random undergrowth .. and our recognition of even the slightest hint of symmetry remains particularly strong. Animals are equipped with similar pattern recognition abilities to us. These have been ‘standard issue’ for so long that nature has even started to play with them, as if to relieve the boredom, by putting eyes on butterfly wings, or giving some flies the appearance of wasps. It should therefore be no surprise that the Australopithecus spotted and was ‘interested’ in the stone, even if only at a subliminal level at first .. but adopting it as a keepsake suggests something much more. It suggests a more conscious recognition of what’s happening .. an ‘owning’ of their own imagination.

The lure of the mimetolith

During my walks on the Thames Foreshore, a landscape which has changed very little in its essentials since the prehistoric beginnings of the river, I probably see the same stones which have been there from those beginnings .. just a little moved around. Stones which look like other things are so common that they even have a name of their own .. mimetoliths .. more commonly associated with massive rocky outcrops bearing uncanny resemblance to fantasy characters or American presidents, but really meaning any size of stone. The flint nodules can be especially evocative of other things .. especially bones, but also all manner of body parts. Even when they’re not pretending to be something specific they might go for a more ‘abstracted’ semblance of the living, such as the one below.

Interestingly enough ‘pareidolia’ has been firmly linked to the search for the origins of artistic expression for some time .. but in two converse ways! One has to do, as I’ve said, with its influence on the minds of our ancestors, but the other concerns its effects on the minds of our contemporary searchers!  Robert G Bednarik one of the most tireless of experts on paleoart (a word adapted from the chronological term Paleolithic, covering basically this whole ‘origins’ period from 2.6 million to 12,000 years ago) has even written a paper illustrating how easily our archaeologists, palaeontologists, anthropologists and paleoanthropologists .. both funded and amateur .. ‘see’ what they most want to see in the most innocent of stones.

One of the most extreme and fantastical cases was that of the Japanese medical doctor turned amateur palaeontologist Chonosuke Okamura who in his 70s became convinced that he’d found fossil evidence of tiny animals including humans only a few millimetres in size, preserved in polished limestone.

Whether the Makapansgat pebble really does signify our conscious ‘owning’ of the imagination at such an early stage, or not .. it’s clear that pareidolia has had a significant influence on us, that it continues to have, and that some even ‘have it bad’! Let’s say you wanted to invent a plausible art history for a fictional species dominated by the double-edged ‘blessing and curse’ of pareidolia, and you wanted to feature something like the Makapansgat pebble as a starting point? Your next step would be to throw in a bucketful of slightly more ‘recent’ manuports from around the globe, just to reinforce the notion. Then you’d want to introduce, not too long afterwards, the first attempts by the species at making their own, starting perhaps by just continuing what nature has started .. by modifying suggestive stones? In our reality, that supportive collection of other manuports hasn’t yet materialised, but evidence of modifying suggestive stones has .. at least, possibly!  Two examples have been discovered so far .. the so-called ‘venuses’ of Berekhat Ram and Tan-Tan. But the question of whose pareidolia is playing the greater part here .. whether these truly show the first awakenings of symbolic thought in our ancestors, or whether they’re more a reflection of our own ‘wishful thinking’ .. envelops them like a cloud.

Tan-Tan and Berekhat Ram

The Tan-Tan ‘figurine’ shown here is the more plausible of the two. It is a quartzite pebble almost 6cm in length, found during excavations on the north bank of the river Draa, near Tan-Tan in Morocco. It has been ascertained that, although the overall shape including the vertical divisions are entirely natural, parts of the horizontal lines have been emphasized by ‘human’ means. These areas are indicated by the bold dotting above. The pebble was embedded between layers of sediment dating from 500,000 to 300,000 years old .. so it’s at least the latter but could be older.

The Berekhat Ram is much smaller, at c.35mm, and made from reddish ‘tuff’ (a natural stone which has been formed from compressed volcanic ash). It was found at Berekhat Ram in the Golan Heights, between Syria and Israel, in 1981. It is also mainly natural but the stone has been worked on to emphasize the ‘head’ form and the arms (although these are difficult to make out in these photos)

It’s considered most likely that the hominids responsible for both of these were Homo erectus, the earliest undisputed precursor to Homo sapiens and the first to make stone tools and use fire. There is at least one other piece of evidence that Homo erectus may have been capable of ‘artistic expression’ and that is an engraved shell excavated at Trinil, Java .. which will be featured later. Here below, again from the reconstructive artist Elizabeth Daynes, is what Homo erectus might have looked like.

If these two ‘figurines’ are what their supporters claim they constitute the oldest ‘sculptural’ objects found; the oldest known attempts at figuration .. in fact the oldest known objects that could justifiably be called ‘works of art’. But even though both have undergone tests which appear to confirm that the stones were modified by ‘human’ means, many experts disagree or contest whether a figure was ever intended.

If you want to read something more convincing, a strong case for the intrinsic importance of pareidolia in the development of later representational art is made by the archaeologists Paul Pettit (University of Durham) and Derek Hodgson (University of York) and a summary of this can be found here

https://www.sapiens.org/archaeology/paleolithic-cave-art-animals/

Speaking of that later representational art, in my previous article on my friend’s exhibition I wrote of my belief that art developed as our attempt to show those we imagined were above us that we could do similar. Art was not only the expression of our ‘imaginative existence’ but became a vital means of communication with the unseen, inextricably linked to the ritualistic voicing of our beliefs. This was part of the reason why a non-functional, an essentially impractical and time-consuming endeavour assumed its level of importance in our existence. Later on I will be looking at one of the earliest and most impressive examples of this, the ‘lion man’ (or woman) .. the Loewenmensch found in Hohlenstein-Stadel cave, Germany. With the Loewenmensch we’d already arrived .. with a full suitcase! Here is the ability to acutely observe and replicate, together with the imagination to invent our own ‘take’ on nature, and to consider it important enough to invest hundreds of hours in the making. We were doing it to impress .. not just ourselves, not just for the satisfaction of our own collective ego .. but to show what we could do to ‘those above’.

But all this would take a very long time yet!

Millions of  years separate the Makapansgat pebble from the Berekhat Ram, and possibly more than 200,000 between those proto-figures and the ‘Loewenmensch’. The initial sparking of our imaginative faculties was the breakthrough step in this long, exclusively ‘human’ and artificial process, but our distant ancestors had to develop other things first. The most fundamental of these, in my view, was the conscious (as opposed to purely instinctive and subliminal) recognition of marks in the natural landscape, eventually followed by the deliberate making of them.

When I started looking into this I didn’t know much to start with, I had my own theories but I’d heard of just a handful of examples, so things were so much clearer to me then than they are now! There were just a few of the ‘earliest’ or the ‘oldest’ to go through, grouped together under Paleolithic or ‘prehistoric’, and invested with a kind of hierarchy of significance according to how much each was written about by others. It seemed logical to look at pareidolia and the oldest attempts at figuration, together with the oldest instances of mark-making. So I finished my ‘Part 1’, twice the length of this and with twice the number of examples .. but something felt wrong! I still feel as before that pareidolia and mark-making have fairly equal footing as the ‘parents’ of artistic expression. Pareidolia, or more broadly speaking ‘an awareness of the likenesses between things’, kick-started our imaginative faculties and kept us inspired .. it also gave us the notion that we could create our own ‘likenesses’. On the other hand mark-making told us we could do something other than copy .. we could invent our own forms; break free from nature; illustrate our independence; be different .. we could ‘make our own mark’!

The two feed into each other to an extent .. but in another way, they just don’t belong together, it’s difficult to appreciate them on the same page. So I’m looking at the development of mark-making separately in the next article, going back to the possible beginnings and moving forward through the timeline of its found examples. My feeling is that this better reflects how these two core directives developed for our ancestors. They progressed in parallel and influenced each other .. but they were also divergent, and with ultimately different ends.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School ‘Generate’ at the Truman Brewery

It’s the last chance today to see Generate, the exhibition of work from the graduating MA Theatre Design, Scenic Art and Costume students from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School .. until 3pm today at the Truman Brewery (Unit 11, Dray Walk, off 91 Brick Lane, E1 6QL London)

I wish I’d been able to go earlier than last night, to impress on anyone interested  .. not only in theatre, or theatre design, but simply the skilful and passionate expression of visual ideas .. how worthwhile it was to see it! This little show was like a ‘survival capsule’ .. a gem preserving the brightest blueprints of the best .. or a restorative potion, meant to remind us of what’s good and true! What I’m saying is that there was real magic there, lots of it .. alongside the well-expressed ideas, the craftsmanship and fine-artistry.

I was so fortunate around this time last year to spend a week with the MA Theatre Designers .. Alana Ashley, Roisin Martindale, Oscar Selfridge and Robin James Davis .. going through some basics of model-making with them. I can’t believe it’s just a year, when I now see .. 99% credit to them .. such confident exploration, such visual enthusiasm, such careful attention to every telling detail, such unbelievable workmanship. Credit must be given here in a ‘pandimensional’ scale .. that is, 99% to them, and another 101% to Angela .. Angela Davies Head of Design at BOVTS .. for always being there to guide them through it.

Each successive year I see this excellence from BOVTS .. and each year I’m rejuvenated by experiencing the best in British theatre art!

 

Astrid Baerndal ‘Source of Life’ at the Blyth Gallery: Part 2

 

The Private View of Astrid’s exhibition Source of Life at the Blyth Gallery (Level 5, Sherfield Building, Imperial College London) took place yesterday, and I managed to take some photos, along with contributing to the short introduction. I’ve included my introductory speech here, with a few added comments.

Homage to Ernst Haeckel 2005

detail

Starfish and Sea Urchin 2009

Paper Insects 2007-18

When you look more closely at the work Astrid has chosen to exhibit here you can, dependent on what it is you normally look for in art, appreciate it first of all in terms of its aesthetics. You can admire the quality of the making; you can focus on the variety of materials experimented with; you can engage in the attraction of the forms presented as objects in themselves. Then .. or instead, especially if you’re the kind of person who perhaps goes through life a bit like a detective and so, when you go to an exhibition, you’re more interested in why an artist does what they do and what the implications are in the ‘bigger picture’ .. you may focus on how the forms are presented, what contexts are implied. Are some of them being catalogued; are some being cultured .. are others being manipulated?

Growth 2005

Brood Place 2005

When an artist does this kind of work, how can it not be a comment on a bigger picture .. in this case the total and relentless manipulation of nature, in other words everything ‘us’ and everything that we do. Sometimes I ask myself if we are even capable of just looking at nature, and appreciating it just for what it is, without ‘making something of it’, manipulating it in some way .. whether physically or mentally?

Although I’m no different, I like to think that I can find enough satisfaction in the forms themselves regardless of what they might represent in a bigger ‘conceptual’ picture. I could say that it’s my duty as an ‘abstracted’ .. or better said ‘abstractional’ .. artist to encourage my own kind to appreciate form for itself for just a little while longer before setting about making something of it!

detail from Paper Insects 2007-18

Chrysalis in Cocoon 2009

What appeals to me most about Astrid’s forms is how undoubtedly ‘world of nature’ or ‘realm of organisms’ they are compared to, say, more traditional wildlife studies, and this aspect remains strong however simply represented or ‘abstracted’ they are. What also appeals to me is the difference between this form of ‘biomorphic abstraction’ and what I would call ‘architectural abstraction’ .. straight lines and structures, defined angles .. which, to my mind, is so exclusively human and artificial. Everything here is a homage to the fundamental formal blueprint of the ‘natural’.. and a celebration of how wonderfully varied that can be, even within a fairly strict recipe!

1001 Mutations 2005

detail

A big part of that is the ‘homage to symmetry’. In case you’re not sure, symmetry is a completely natural ‘directive’ or necessity of cellular life .. not a human invention. Nature is so committed to symmetry that it has curiously never managed the ‘bug fix’ needed to prevent the symmetrical pattern of a moth’s wings being detected when camouflaged against tree bark. In our own aesthetics we seem to share the same inability to control it. Most often in ‘Fine Art’ either it’s not used too obviously for fear of being labelled decorative, or it’s overdone .. too florid!

But Astrid not only presents it as a life principal, but also takes advantage of the fact that symmetry is embedded within our most ancient perceptions. Our species has grown up with it .. part of the package of ‘pattern recognition software’ in here. It’s the reason why our ancestors could make out the face of a lion in the undergrowth; the reason why we can see so many different possibilities in an ink-blot, and the reason why in Astrid’s work an insect can so readily be modified to become a face, or a fish, or even a snowflake.

Filigree Insects 2006-7

Mandala 2005-6

Then there’s the making .. the evident care taken to achieve a desired look; the variety of practical skills demonstrated with the different materials. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that this craft .. this ‘creation’ .. is also something that can be appreciated as a ‘thing’ in itself .. simply our way of mimicking both the sheer craftiness and the discipline of nature itself. In my view art originated from our attempt to ‘prove ourselves’ to those that we imagined were above us, and what better or more flattering way to do that than mimicking, or making our own versions of, their creations?

In Astrid’s work I can quite comfortably and naturally move from the ‘what’ to the ‘why, or what for’ without having to ‘put on other glasses’ as it were. I mean, in the first place any celebration of obviously natural form nowadays carries with it a message of sorrow for its likely extinction, so I would argue that’s reason and meaning enough.

Paper Insects 2007-18

But more than that .. Astrid’s creative process is often one of taking a simple natural form such as a fruit or vegetable, subjecting it to successive mutations (using both ‘hand’ methods and digital) until it becomes a different organism. That’s not only commenting on evolution (how such variety / diversity has come about) .. it’s also a closer comment on what we’re doing, what we’re capable of and where we might be going.

So I think Astrid’s work strikes a good balance between the ‘what’ (the designs; the forms we’re seeing; the materials and their own physicality; the craftsmanship shown) and the ‘So what?’ (the bigger evolutionary picture, and the big questions all of us should be asking now).

Source of Life continues at the Blyth Gallery / Level 5, Sherfield Building, Imperial College, South Kensington, London (just off Exhibition Road) until Thursday 6th June. Open everyday from 9am – 9pm, admission free.

Astrid Baerndal ‘Source of Life’ at the Blyth Gallery, Imperial College London

I have been invited by my friend Astrid Baerndal to say some words at the Private View of her exhibition Source of Life taking place at the Blyth Gallery, on the Imperial College campus from 29th May – 6th June.

Brood Place 2005

Astrid creates finely crafted objects, most often in series, in a variety of materials, and almost always heavily suggestive of variations in natural form. For many the common source may be a simple fruit or vegetable image, which she then manipulates according to a set method, generating an abundance of likenesses to other things .. often insects, sometimes faces, or occasionally snowflakes. In some ways Astrid’s work is a homage to symmetry, the design principle that is so characteristic of what we recognise as ‘living’, and which even now remains at the heart of our collective aesthetic. Also the manipulative technique itself is like a testament to the wondrous ingenuity of humankind .. how we can take some simple raw material and transform it into something different. But that’s not all that the work has to say. Maybe we are right to be proud of certain aspects of our ability to manipulate nature .. but is there anyone alive who still believes in a happy ending?

Little Fish 2009

Mutation Modules 2005

The exhibition is open to the public 29th May – 6th June, from 9am – 9pm each day. The Private View is from 6-9pm on 31st May, and if you’d like to come to that please download an invitation from http://www.baerndal.eu where you can see more of Astrid’s work. The full location is Blyth Gallery, Level 5, Sherfield Building, Imperial College Campus, South Kensington.

Metamorphosis 2009

from 1001 Mutations 2005

Clear and reliable advice for working with silicone rubber

I’m sorry to say that the purpose of this short posting is not to ‘give it’ .. at least not yet .. rather, I’m turning the tables just for once and ‘asking for it’!

For example, if anyone can recommend sources of information they’ve relied upon in their practice I’d be interested, particularly in those that go into a little bit more detail or even those that are a bit more exploratory. I try to provide clear guidance here, but I haven’t really organized it all into one place yet, and I’m trying to get my facts ‘straighter’, and maybe pick up some more tips from others, before I do. The information provided by manufacturers should always be the first ‘ports of call’, and some suppliers do have some reliable ‘how to’s on their websites .. but maybe there are some I’ve missed along the way.

David Neat, mouldmaking and casting, Lukasil 429 and catalyst

I’d also be interested in what you have experienced regarding ‘shelf life’ i.e. how long you’ve continued using the components before the mix behaves differently to when you first got it? How did that compare to the supplier’s advice? Were you given a clear statement of shelf life in the first place, or did you have to hunt/gather to find it? Worst of all .. did you only find it written on the product once you’d got it? You see, it’s basically evident that suppliers or manufacturers show rather dubious behaviour when it comes to owning up to shelf life. Also, have you ever tried the ‘unthinkable’ i.e. tried a silicone rubber with a catalyst not intended for it? I’ve never had any catalyst going spare, and you probably haven’t either .. but if anyone has done, I’d be very interested in what happened?

David Neat, mouldmaking and casting, making a silicone mould in coloured layers

I recently did some tests which confirmed what I’d always suspected (or maybe read at some point in the past, because I see it is mentioned very occasionally) .. that however old the silicone ‘body’ might be, as long as it moves when you tip it, you can make it work by getting some new catalyst. I tested remainders of silicone which had been shoved in a corner waiting to be taken to the Recycling Centre, some going back more than 7 years .. and they all worked! Yes, they were different .. they were much more viscous than they should have been; the working time was much shorter, and they cured in no time at all! .. but still good for some things!

David Neat, mouldmaking and casting, making a skin mould on shaped styrofoam

When you’ve bought a silicone has it come with the essential facts i.e. not just the ratio of the two parts to mix, but the following: .. its weight in grams per cubic centimetre (good to know if you want to work out how much you’re buying in volume); its viscosity (useful when making a choice, because thinner ones could flow into detail better and leave fewer air bubbles); recommended cure time, etc. Has your supplier even said .. most importantly .. whether it is an ‘addition cure’ (platinum) or a ‘condensation cure’ (tin) silicone? This is important because whereas condensation cure silicones nowadays are fairly unaffected by anything, ‘addition cure’ silicones are a different matter. Or .. are they really? At times I’ve treated addition cure silicones really carelessly in the past without any problems. Again, any personal experiences would be welcome!

You see what I’ve done here? In asking the questions I’ve given information at the same time .. think of it as a standard teaching technique, though reversed in this case. Nevertheless .. I really do need other people’s help on this subject, so any facts you can contribute would be much appreciated!