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.

An architectural play-model: Part 2

 

David Neat model-maker, architectural model 2018, 1:25 scale

David Neat model-maker, architectural model 2018, 1:25 scale

This follows on from An architectural model: Part 1 posted on January 12 where I outlined the purposes of the model, expanded a little on the use of foamed PVC for the build, and detailed my methods for achieving a convincing polished concrete effect. In this second part I am looking at the rest i.e. the ‘generalized’ treatment of the brick walls; my methods for staining the woodwork features; and lucky solutions re the baseboard and veneer cladding.

 

Staining the woodwork

The natural wood chosen by the architect for this project is oak. In Part 1 I explained that I was hoping to emphasize the model’s own sculptural presence, and it occurred to me at one point that a way of doing that would be to give the model its own material integrity, a ‘truth to materials’ in other words .. i.e. by using real oak, even real glass, and even real brick! But in practical terms this hardly ever accords with the functional remit, important in this case, of keeping to scale! So I couldn’t explore that direction at this time. On the question of real wood, there are only a few woods suited to fine-scale model work and fewer available in thin strips or sheets. Oak, because of its hardness and strong patterning, definitely isn’t one of them. So I’ve taken obeche and stained it to represent oak. I could also have chosen limewood ( ‘basswood’ in model shops ), which is even more precise to cut, but I wanted to take advantage of the slight patterning which shows up when obeche is stained. The woodwork features in the architect’s design were mostly related to the window structures so the following group of photos serves to show both (the windows will be dealt with in Part 3).

David Neat model-maker, using stained obeche and PETG clear plastic

David Neat model-maker, using stained obeche and PETG clear plastic

David Neat model-maker, using stained obeche and PETG clear plastic

David Neat model-maker, using stained obeche and PETG clear plastic

David Neat model-maker, using foamed PVC, polyfilla stipple texture, stained obeche and PETG clear plastic

For this staining task I have used one of my favourite methods (suitable for both large or small work), which is to use a clear wax/oil based wood finish as a carrier, with a controlled amount of spirit-based stain mixed in ( it can’t be anything water-based ). I’ve found this much more successful than just using either a straight stain or a staining varnish partly because the wax/oil medium (along with anything added to it) penetrates the wood fibres more evenly, but also because it gives sufficient drying time to modify i.e. to rub away, or even out any excess. Spirit-based stains on their own can make woods like obeche or basswood too dark, unless they’re heavily thinned with white spirit. But then it’s difficult to control what appears once the wood dries out. I made tests using wax/oil varnish with different amounts of Colron ‘Medium Oak’ and there was little difference between the wet and dried results.

David Neat model-maker, samples using Osmo wax-oil medium plus Colron wood stain on obeche

It was particularly important for me to make test samples here, because to reflect the distinctive tongue-and-groove cladding of the original I had to composit separately cut and sanded strips of obeche, otherwise there wouldn’t have been enough tonal difference between the strips. I was concerned though that staining might emphasize those lines in-between too much, but these turned out fine. On the left above I’ve just tried the wax/oil carrier on its own, and for the other two I added small amounts of Colron ‘Medium Oak’ Wood Dye. For those other two I also experimented with adding a little more colour variation using alcohol markers. I did this before the wax/oil was dry, though I think this could be done at any later stage. It shouldn’t be done before the wax/oil goes on though! .. I tried this with the same markers at the top of the middle sample piece. They came out much darker on the bare wood, whereas on the wax/oil the effect and strength is much easier to control.

Spectrum Noir markers, selection of 'browns' ideal for model wood staining

The markers I used were from Spectrum Noir available as a pack of six ‘browns’. I’ve found that these generally have a much richer ink than Winsor & Newton Promarkers, as well as lasting longer and being cheaper in the first place!

Osmo Wax Wood Finish

The wax/oil medium I’ve used is from Osmo .. the photo above includes the tins I still have after more than 20 years and the wax/oil still works perfectly! I used Osmo products quite a lot when I was living in Germany, they were always available at Bauhaus (equivalent to our B&Q here). I used them not only to protect or colour wood, but also to seal or paint any similarly absorbent surface .. even plaster!  In fact, it was a surprise but the Osmo treatment gave the cast plaster forms I was producing at the time the smoothest, best looking and most durable surface I could hope for! But Osmo ‘Wood Wax Finish’ (as it’s marketed in the UK) is intended for wood and comes either as clear, various whites, as a variety of wood stains, or in a small selection of basic colours.

On plaster as on wood, the first coat is likely to dry to a matt finish and a second coat is needed for a ‘satin’ sheen. Like any oil-based treatment the basic Osmo clear transparent will slightly darken any wood (though this is often not so noticeable with very light woods), and it also imparts a slightly yellow tinge (see further along for more on this). In the UK Osmo products have remained specialist, not stocked by any of the big DIY marts, so the best place to look for them is here

https://www.osmouk.com/retail/product.cfm?product=317

 

Generalizing brickwork

In this case there was every excuse to stylize, or rather generalize the brickwork exterior: it wasn’t an important visual part of the model’s function; I wanted to avoid slavish or fussy detail; and I wanted it to appear playful. There was also the fact that I’d really only had the architect’s plans as a guide in making the model, with just a few on-site photos available, so it was also a case of playing it safe. I wanted to emphasize the ‘warm and friendly’ in brick .. the ‘toy’ version of it, as I’d said, or as I imagined it might look mass-produced. I wanted to get a sense of textural richness and unifying pattern too, but time-wise to be able to get it relatively quickly! Embossing horizontal lines in 1mm foamed-Pvc was the quickest way I could think of to suggest the basic ingredient of a brickwork surface, and I’d done some texture tests with Rust-Oleum texture-spray for a previous project. The two effects just seemed to combine perfectly for what I wanted.

David Neat model-maker, archetectural model 2018, brickwork effect

David Neat model-maker, architectural model 2018, generalised brickwork effect

I used an embossing tool to score the lines in 1mm Palight. These are basically like scribing tools but with a rounded point instead of sharp ( in the UK, Poundland has them in their nail art section ). I had to try a few different orange or rust-red sprays to get an idea of the right direction for the base colour ( using red primers or leftover Montana cans ) before I could settle on the best .. MTN 94 Phoenix Orange. I left the sprayed pieces to fix more than day before going lightly over with Rust-Oleum ‘Pebble’ Stone Textured Finish. These Rust-Oleum sprays spit out tiny gobs and streaks in two colours at once and the effect is often better when subtle, but also I didn’t want to hide the base colour too much.

David Neat model-maker, brickwork effect tests 2018

 

The baseboard

For the baseboard .. which is to be honest usually more hassle than enjoyment .. I was especially lucky that the smallest size of IKEA table-top suited the model perfectly! I’d strongly recommend these table-tops because they’re relatively light but suitably solid, in a variety of rectangular formats and a number of immaculate finishes including satin white, dark blue and beige. They also work out cheaper than ordering good quality MDF or plywood cut to size, plus if you pick up from store you can see what you’re getting. Incidentally, I like the idea of models having a certain size relationship with the human figure, just as pieces of furniture do. I feel that the small table-top format traditionally 4ft x 2ft average, now 1200 x 600, has a similar dimensional presence to a small person.

David Neat model-maker, architectural model 2018, bird's eye view

David Neat model-maker, baseboard from IKEA

As I’d explained in Part 1 of this write-up, the ‘building blocks’ of the model were designed to be removable and I wanted to give them clear ‘footprints’ to lock into. This meant a raised surround with the shapes cut into it, not just a sprayed design on the floor. I was thinking here of the tactile experience of making objects connect, of feeling the joining more, rather than just sliding parts around. I cut the surround shape out of 2mm Palfoam (I’d waited to do this until I’d got all the room structures made, to make sure of a good fit). Instead of making each room as a box with the floor included I made them as open boxes to fit around floor shapes which became part of the base. I thought this was more interesting, as it gave the opportunity of revealing a more convincing ‘ground level plan’ underneath.

David Neat model-maker, architectural model 2018, baseboard with 'polished concrete' floor areas and veneer surround

We’d gone through a few ideas for possible treatments of the surround, including a blotchy watercolourist abstract suggesting tree and shrub shapes seen from above. But from later building site photos it was unclear to me how many trees and shrubs would actually be remaining, and in any case I was running out of time .. so after thinking about a variety of quick surfacing options which would never have survived, I chose oak veneer because it was sympathetic and felt appropriate.

For the least possible hassle I wanted a veneer which was self-adhesive, also the best choice when cladding Palfoam. I’ve used these before and I’d recommend getting them from The Wood Veneer Hub because I think the prices compare well and delivery has always been quick. With veneers there aren’t usually many size options, for the 60cm width I required I had to get 2 metres, total cost around £45. The best way of organizing the sticking in this case was first trimming the veneer to a little over the length; laying it glue-side-up on a flat work surface; peeling off the backing paper; then carefully and slowly lowering the Palfoam surround shape onto it starting from one end. The thorough directions that came with the product recommended using what they call a ‘veneer scraper’ in other words a hard plastic smoothing blade with which to press down on the veneer strongly while sticking. I didn’t have one of these but I cut a rectangle in Palight, sanding the edge a little to prevent it from scratching. The adhesive is very strong but I think it pays to be thorough i.e. just smoothing it down with the hand or a cloth wouldn’t be enough.

Once this was done I could turn it over, place on a large cutting mat and trim the edges with a scalpel. Oak is a hard wood but the veneer is extra thin, so this wasn’t difficult. I’d made sure that I’d kept the backing paper so that I could put some back on the interior leftovers. Since I had trimmed the veneer from its underside, the final task was to smooth down all topside edges (120 grit sandpaper) because otherwise they would catch.

Wood veneer comes unfinished, that is, the wood surface may look beautiful and feel smooth but it will need protection from dust and dirt. Medium-tone woods like oak will quickly show darker finger-marks. So I knew that I would have to seal the wood surface but I really didn’t want it to go any darker. In the end I went a little the other way .. in the photo below I’ve laid a piece of untreated veneer over the final effect for comparison.

David Neat model-maker, architectural model 2018, making veneer surround

Osmo Wax Wood Finish and Rustoleum Clear Sealer

It’s vital to make test samples before using any type of wood treatment because sometimes the results are most unexpected! Here below for example, the first two tests on the left were Rustoleum Clear Sealer a matt water-based sealer I’ve used in the past on lighter woods such as ash or sycamore. On those it worked perfectly, the sealing coat was practically invisible with no change in colour or tone, but for some reason on the oak it couldn’t have been more different! As a second test, I diluted the sealer 1:1 with water, and this was different but still surprising. For the third on the right I tried Rustoleum Furniture Lacquer a matt spirit-based finish which is normally intended as a protective coating for chalk paint. This result was much more as I’d expected.

 

David Neat, samples using different sealers on oak veneer

In the end I went for the Osmo Wood Wax Finish, mixing the clear version I had (No. 3101) with some transparent white (No. 3111). Below from the left is the straight clear, then the transparent white and lastly a 1:1 mix of the two which was the final choice. With any mix like this which contains some pigment it’s important to use a soft flat brush and to keep working the liquid into and over the surface to avoid any pigment pooling.

David Neat, samples using different sealers on oak veneer

David Neat model-maker, architectural model 2018, veneer surround

In the course of working on this base layer I successfully solved a problem which had troubled me for a long time. How can you place a large cut-out shape (such as the one above) into exactly the position you want it (with a nice 1cm margin all round in this case), making any slight adjustments that might be necessary, but then stick it down without moving it from that exact position? Of course I’d thought about pencilled corner guides, even little corner blocks, to fix the position for later when the glue-covered surface is impatiently waiting! That’s the whole problem .. anyone who’s tried to manoeuvre a large, bendy, sticky sheet into exactly the right position before any of it starts sticking anywhere it shouldn’t will know the problem!

Ultratape Rhino Double Sided Carpet Tape

I solved the problem, thanks partly to double-sided carpet tape. This is a good one .. ‘Rhino’ Double Sided Carpet Tape, from Ultratape .. I’ve used it for years and it’s often sold very cheaply for some reason. I knew that this kind of smooth, thin carpet tape would be fine for securing smooth Palfoam to a smooth, manufactured surface (in this case painted MDF). It just doesn’t usually hold that long on porous, dusty or uneven surfaces.

I hoped that I could take full advantage of the fact that the tape could be fully applied, as shown below, and then stripped of its non-stick covering, but in stages. Take note of the little square of tape that I’ve put in the bottom right corner.

David Neat model-maker, using carpet tape to laminate on model baseboard

Once the taping was done I turned the sheet over, positioned it on the baseboard exactly as I wanted it, but then put whatever weights I had near the far three corners leaving that corner with the square of tape free. I could then carefully bend that corner up a little just to get at the tape covering and pull it out with tweezers. Then I could press this corner firmly down. Now it’s stuck at one corner and all the other corners are still fine. Then it was a case of carefully repositioning weights so that enough of the sheet could be flexed to get at the end corners of tape lines, to pull out the covering strips .. progressing in this fashion roughly diagonally from where I started. Incidentally I had to use this photo taken to remind myself where I’d put the pieces of tape because they’re not all easy to see once the sticking starts.

David Neat model-maker, weighting down base cutting while fixing in position

In the final part to come I will be looking at the various options for making the windows in the model.