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 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.