A ‘jungle temple’ wall in Kapa foam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

old ‘flaking’ paint effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

Landscape studies – ‘grasslands’ July 2020



‘grasslands’ digital study no.1 2020

‘grasslands’ digital study no.2-2 2020

‘grasslands’ digital study no.4 2020



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Making a 1:6 scale ‘working’ fireplace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.




Digital abstracts


Digital abstract, 001, iPad finger painting, 2017

001, 2017


Digital abstract, 002, iPad finger painting, 2017

                                                                002, 2017


Digital abstract, 003, iPad finger painting, 2017

003, 2017


Digital abstract, 004, iPad finger painting, 2007

004, 2017


Digital abstract, 007, iPad finger painting, 2017

007, 2017


Digital abstract, 012, iPad finger painting, 2017

012, 2017


Digital abstract, 017, iPad finger painting, 2017

017, 2017


Digital abstract, 022, iPad finger painting, 2017

022, 2017



I created these painting studies recently using PaintShop Pro and the Procreate painting software for iPad. The forms developed from a combination of two related sources .. impressions received while searching the Thames foreshore, and my collection of used painting palettes.

I feel I might be making some progress in getting more comfortable with working digitally, making the digital manipulation of images actually work for me .. to give me what my mind’s eye wanted .. rather than generating enticing variations which, however interesting, move in other unforeseen and unprepared directions! In traditional image making .. I mean physical painting or drawing, applying real substances onto a physical surface .. there are many limitations in comparison. With continual practise one can extend the range gradually but also become comfortable in working within these limitations, even turning them to advantage. The way one works within limitations defines one’s self .. one’s hand-print, one’s style, one’s visual aesthetic .. with consistency it almost guarantees that what one is doing will be different from another’s. Paradoxically, the infinite range provided by digital image making has led, it seems to me, to a lot of people’s work looking very much the same!

As for the Thames foreshore, I think I’ve written elsewhere that much of the experience is about tuning in to the special ‘otherness’ amongst all the sameness, or looking for the natural or man-made signs of ‘life’ amongst  the stones. But the interesting thing is that while doing that I think I’ve acquired a heightened sympathy for it ALL .. the whole range of same, similar, other or distinctive .. because nothing is identical, and everything however simple has a character of its own! In particular, there are the flints with their strong contrasts of dark and light, and their lifeform-like suggestiveness. I have a theory that it was stones such as these, the very same ones around at the dawn of humankind, which assisted the first inklings of the idea that we could both imitate other things and create shapes of our own.  

The other aspect of my Thames foreshore experience which seems to be soaking into my work more and more is .. trusting the ready-made, accepting the found object or, in other words, having faith in serendipity .. and this leads in to my second source of inspiration. For some years now I’ve been collecting up the painting palettes used in my courses, letting them dry and scanning them before soaking and scraping them clean. Have you ever stood in front of a ‘non-representational’ painting and been almost literally struck by an overwhelming feeling of ‘rightness’, a feeling .. that the balance is so sensibly poised between harmony and conflict, that the colours are so carefully considered, or that it can suggest a number of ideas but doesn’t need to be any of them? The thing is, on a number of occasions I’ve been hit by a very similar feeling while looking at a used painting palette! Is it possible that a few minutes worth of unfocused paint mixing can inspire the same feelings as weeks of painstaking work? Why not? Isn’t a painting palette a perfect example of form and colour for it’s own sake .. because it can’t be anything else? Isn’t it on the one hand pure and untainted by thought and on the other an honest embodiment of natural forces? When a painter composes an evocative abstraction, i.e. one which elicits agreement on an emotional rather than an intellectual level, aren’t they just painstakingly recreating in their own terms those same instances of rhythm and interruption, sameness and otherness, the individual and the whole, determinism and randomness .. the same that occur in a littered street, a stony foreshore or a painting palette?

While working on these studies I have become very interested again in the questions surrounding abstraction and in particular its relationship with music. This relationship is not about painting that strives to be ‘like’ music, to imitate it, certainly not painting that seeks to evoke musical or auditory sensations. It’s painting that attempts to parallel the way music is experienced.

Why is this so terribly hard? The urge to create paintings that could be experienced like music was introduced into the Fine Art forum about 100 years ago, but that means it’s still a fairly recent notion in the timespan of cultural history. Many recently past or contemporary artists may have evidenced how it could be achieved but that remains only one side of the deal that needs to be struck between creators and public perceptions. It may just be impossible; it may even go against the way we perceive things?

For me the fundamental is ‘Can we appreciate something without feeling the need to recognize what it is, where it comes from or what is meant by it?’ Yes, that’s possible with music! Of course if music appeals to us we become curious about where it comes from, and we may begin to formulate other questions, but those and other thoughts hardly affect its appeal while listening to it .. and I’m sure that most people would agree that the question ‘what is meant by it’ is unlikely to be in their minds while enjoying it? It does its job without the need for meaning! To put it another way, music can work on us without the need to reference anything other than itself.

Why can’t we do that with painting? For the moment I’m fairly convinced that we can’t .. but I don’t know why yet. Is it simply because vision is our primary means of reading, interpreting or in other words ‘making sense’ of our world, so we just can’t let go of that basic directive when it comes to processing anything visual? Or is it linked to the very different way we receive the two i.e. music can only ever be one note at a time, as it were, whereas a painting is commonly taken in all at once, then re-examined in detail? So the brain has to process the input in a different way? In a sense, music is never there, it can’t be ‘frozen’, our perception of it is a combination of the memory of what has been and the anticipation of what is to come. Maybe it’s just this disembodiment which is the key to understanding why music can work on us so ‘abstractly’ whereas painting cannot?  


1:10 scale furniture models


David Neat, 1:10 scale furniture models in photoshoot set, July 2017

I was recently asked by The New Craftsmen gallery in London to make a series of 1:10 scale models of a new furniture collection they were producing, conceived by the stylist Sue Skeen. The accurate models were meant to serve as a ‘portable collection’ to help show the range to customers and as publicity objects before the actual pieces were ready. The models were used in a photoshoot for World of Interiors magazine and were to be presented during the London Design Festival.

The image above is one from the photoshoot, for which I was asked to make a large model ‘set’ consisting of three distinct rooms with very bold, oversized decoration but including some realistic accessories such as doors, light switches and ‘retro’ radiators. These included the re-creation of a vintage fireplace as direct homage to the artist/designer Peggy Arnold whose work was one of the inspirations for the collection.

David Neat, 1:10 scale funiture models in photoshoot set

What had to be sorted out first was a reasonable scale in which to show the pieces to best advantage while still keeping them easily portable. At first 1:6 scale seemed reasonable, the size that Vitra use for their chair model collection .. but although that might work well for chairs, some of the new furniture pieces were over 2 metres long .. too bulky at 1:6 to carry many of them around, so we had to go for 1:10 scale.

David Neat, 1:10 scale model of 'Trunk' table with oak top, Inglis Hall and Sue Skeen

One of the next most interesting challenges was deciding how the range of different surfaces would be represented, particularly in terms of the scale. With surfaces it’s acceptable to play with scale up to a point .. in fact many surfaces wouldn’t ‘read’ well enough at a small scale so they need some exaggeration. A natural way of doing that for wooden subjects is just to use the actual wood. For example the table above has an oak top so I’ve used good quality oak veneer laminated onto a Pvc base. Oak veneer is too brittle for wrapping round the curved edge so here I used ash veneer instead. For this collection I had to do quite a lot of careful veneering to give the effect of solid tops or legs, because woods such as oak, ash, sycamore or Douglas fir are not available in ‘model friendly’ thicknesses apart from veneer. 

David Neat, 1:10 scale model, 'Trunk' table with oak top, Inglis Hall and Sue Skeen

David Neat, 1:10 scale models of 'Stick' tables, Inglis Hall and Sue Skeen

Likewise, the specific Formica pattern intended for these tables would have appeared too nondescript at a dutiful 1:10. On the other hand though, using the actual Formica wasn’t an option either .. impossible to work with, and in any case too bold at 1:1 .. so in the end I made my own graphic version of the pattern and printed it at a size I felt was right. I sealed this within acetate ( see later for technique ) which I rubbed with fine abrasive cloth to give the right ‘satin’ surface.  

David Neat, 1:10 models of 'Stick' tables, Inglis Hall and Sue Skeen

Representing a rushwork seat turned out to be simpler than I’d thought. I found that I could get quite a good suggestion by embossing/carving into 5mm foamed Pvc .. the material I turn to for solving just about everything! Once patterned I undercoated in a dark, warm grey acrylic and dry-brushed the lighter rush colours over.

David Neat, 1:10 scale model of bench with rushwork seat, designed by Sue Skeen and The New Craftsmen

David Neat, detail of 1:10 scale model, bench with rushwork seat. Designed by Sue Skeen and The New Craftsmen

For both the marble and the terrazzo tables below I was able to utilize methods I’d tried for the first time in an earlier job this year for The New Craftsmen and Christies. The marble effect here is a photo image printed on inkjet transparency film (also known as OHP film or ‘printable acetate’). The marble intended for the real table was a specific type called ‘Bianca Eclipsia’ and the supplier’s website had a number of usable images, and in this case it made sense to adjust one to the right 1:10 scale. The makers of transparency film recommend waiting 10mins for the ink to dry but in practice I’ve found that it takes much longer, like a few hours, before the ink is properly smudge-secure.

The marble top was to be 30mm thick in reality so I’d cut and shaped a piece of 3mm Palfoam (foamed PVC). After the image had dryed I lightly spraymounted it on the inked side (using the stronger 3M DisplayMount), pasted it firmly on the Palfoam, and carefully trimmed round the edge. It’s difficult to trim the acetate exactly around curves, even with a new scalpel blade, so I usually cut as close as I can and finish off by sanding with P120 sandpaper or finer. Sanding has to be done just in the downward direction (i.e. downward from the top surface) otherwise the acetate film will lift at the edges. With the acetate attached ‘smooth side’ up the image is now perfectly sealed within. That’s all fine now, if you want a glossy, highly polished surface, but most marble has a more tastefully subdued one .. as if frosted. This can be achieved by sanding the acetate either with fine ‘wet and dry’ paper’, decorators’ sanding pad or something else finely abrasive like the rough layer on a kitchen sponge. Now it feels even more that the marble pattern is coming from within the surface .. rather than lying dead on top like paintwork!

If evenly sprayed the acetate will remain secure on the surface, especially if there are no protruding edges left to catch. If in doubt, both the image and the base can be lightly sprayed at the same time for extra adhesion. I realized though that this method wouldn’t work for surfacing the edge .. a 3mm strip of acetate would never hold! I’d done some experiments before where I’d printed images on regular matte coated inkjet paper, sticking them ink side down on PVC, and washing/rubbing the paper part away. I found that the image was left almost completely on the PVC .. preserved in the chalky coating which had remained firmly stuck to it. So I filled in the marble pattern around the edge of the top that way .. printing more of the same on matte coated paper; cutting thin strips of it; pasting those ink side down along the edge; trimming the excess; soaking/rubbing off the paper.

Transferring images 'ink side down' comparing white and black bases

Above is one of the first tests I made of this method, comparing the effect (using a photo of treetops) of transferring onto white and black. What remains of the image after all the paper has been removed is semi-transparent .. but I was surprised at how much of the detail and colour still came out against black. Especially if a strong glue is used e.g. 3M DisplayMount or PhotoMount, the image is very secure .. hardly possible to scratch it off even!

Going back to the inkjet transparency film for a moment .. I had used the one sold at Ryman’s, A4 size and 100microns thick (which I think they all are). Ryman’s seems to be changing their products now, so I’ve put a link here to the same material from PhotoPaperDirect. Wherever they’re from these sheets cost between 50p – £1 each.


David Neat, 1:10 scale model, marble table, designed by Sue Skeen and The New Craftsmen

David Neat, 1:10 scale model of marble table, designed by Sue Skeen and The New Craftsmen

I went into such detail describing the ‘print transfer’ method I used on the marble table edge .. because I then used it to create this ‘terrazzo’ table model below. Like all the table-tops here and many of the other elements, the basic form was made out of Palfoam ( or Palight if it needed to be a bit tougher). The ‘look’ of the table-top and the choice of marbles and granites were fairly well defined by the client, though an actual table was yet to be made at that time. I colour-printed a range of images; chose the best areas and drew the shapes on the unprinted side; pasted each piece in place printed side down; soaked and rubbed off the paper. It’s important to remember that this is likely to work best on a white base and I should note that sometimes definition and colour may be a little subdued because we’re seeing the backside of the ink, as it were, soaked into a minutely thin chalky layer.

After the surface was cleaned up and dried I emphasized the edges of each shape with a slight, embossed line. In the real table these would probably be completely flush, so this is another of those little ‘enhancements’ to realism, and to clarify that it’s more than just a printout.

David Neat, 1:10 scale model, 'terrazzo' table, designed by Sue Skeen and The New Craftsmen

David Neat, 1:10 scale model, 'terrazzo' table, designed by Sue Skeen and The New Craftsmen

My process of veneering

The best sources I found for a wide range of wood veneers were Vale Veneers woodveneeruk.co.uk and Wood Veneer Hub thewoodveneerhub.co.uk. Vale Veneers had the smaller range but a handful of common woods in particularly ‘flexible’ paper-backed form, c. 0.6mm thick. This was the type I was hoping for because it generally lies flatter and can be stuck down evenly without using a lot of pressure. I had imagined paper-backed veneer might be pricey but the cost from Vale Veneers was generally about £3.50 per sq foot. Originally the remit from The New Craftsmen included pieces in the less common sycamore and Douglas fir but these were available from The Wood Veneer Hub for a similar price though not paper-backed.

I made the basis (that is, the underlying material of each piece) of this oak ‘settle’ from Palight foamed Pvc. Each piece would then be clad on both sides with 0.6mm oak veneer. The visible edges would also have to be clad and this slight dimensional difference had to be foreseen and compensated for when cutting out the Palight pieces .. there’s a lot of searching, logical thought going into this but that’s what I most enjoy, even though I might not be the best at it sometimes! Oak is not very pliable even in veneer form so for covering the curving edges I had to use ash veneer .. the difference in tone should not be so noticeable at this size and if it is it can always be tinted to match. The same applied to the birch dowel used for the legs.

David Neat, 1:10 scale model of oak settle, designed by Sue Skeen for The New Craftsmen

The correct order for cladding is .. edges first, and then faces because they’re more visible. It means that any join-lines will be on the edges where they blend in better with the other edge lines. In the event of visible gaps these are much easier to fill and disguise if they occur on the edges. For the edges I cut long strips wider than needed and, surprisingly, in the direction of the grain .. normally this direction is the least flexible but I found that ash veneer could do it and when I’ve tried thin strips against the grain they just didn’t look right. After I’d pulled, glued and pressed the edge strips in place I needed to trim them near with the scalpel and finish off with a sanding plate (i.e. a thin piece of wood or plastic with P120 sandpaper attached). I did the same with the face cladding later.

I used superglue throughout. Both on the edges (applying to the plastic, moving along bit by bit) and on the faces (applying a rapid network of thin-ish lines to the plastic, especially the outline, and pressing all at once).

David Neat, 1:10 scale model of oak settle, designed by Sue Skeen for The New Craftsmen

All the tables were designed with ‘quadrant’ profile legs .. two sides of a square on the inside and a 1/4 circle curve on the outside. This was a very pleasing shape with also a lot of variety to it when seen from different angles. Most of the tables had painted legs and frame, so I shaped a prototype leg, made a few moulds and cast them in resin. However, the table below was to be solid Douglas fir, top and legs, so I had to mould and cast a thinner versions and veneer them .. hoping that I could get the veneer to stay with the curve. As it happens this worked fine mainly thanks to the effectiveness and speed of thin superglue in sticking wood veneer to PU resin, especially since the Oregon pine (the only available version of Douglas fir) fought a bit against bending.

David Neat, 1:10 scale model of Douglas fir (Oregon pine) table, designed by Sue Skeen for The New Craftsmen

Protecting model wood

Much as one might like to in order to preserve its naturalness, there’s no way that a wooden model can be left untreated if it’s going to be handled. It absorbs natural  grease and dirt from the fingers, this is turn attracts and fixes dust, and in no time the wood appears grubby. But the wrong choice of treatment can be just as demoralising!

David Neat - tests for best clear, matte wood varnish or sealant - June 2017

I wanted a coating that would hardly change the appearance of the untreated wood, certainly not make it visibly darker. Also, I couldn’t afford that the treatment would have any permanent warping effect on the veneer as some of the elements were quite thin .. and this can often happen when a water-based medium is used.

I did a number of tests with different clear ‘varnishes’ including oil; spirit-based matte and water-based matte.  In the end there were two very different mediums that did exactly what I’d hoped for .. RustOleum Clear Sealer which is water-based and OsmoColor Dekorwachs which has a wax/oil base (this is the German version from more than 20 years back when I was living there. Names and packaging  may have changed but Osmo products have remained essentially the same).

David Neat, 1:10 scale model of ash bench, designed by Sue Skeen for The New Craftsmen

David Neat, 1:10 scale model of ash bench, designed by Sue Skeen for The New Craftsmen

I painted the RustOleum wood sealer as thinly as possible and undiluted on sample wood swatches. There was a little curving but within a couple of hours these were perfectly flat again. Also, after drying I couldn’t even tell which pieces of sample veneer I’d painted! I knew there wouldn’t be a warping issue with the Osmo wax/oil, but I’d expected significant darkening. The next day after proper drying the change in tone of the wood was only very slight! Because wax/oil penetrates into the wood more than water-based sealer and different woods will react to this in different ways, there could be more darkening with some of them. A solution to this is to add a very little amount of white, preferably using the ‘transparent white’ version of the same medium if there happens to be one.

David Neat, wood treatments compared - RustOleum clear sealer and Osmo wax

Using gloss paints in models

I was never a fan of using the ‘older style’ .. i.e. spirit or oil-based .. gloss paints in models because there were always problems! Here’s the shortlist: – unless the surface to be painted is immaculate, every imperfection becomes very noticeable; unless this surface is evenly primed or suitable for the paint the ‘gloss’ that results after drying can turn out patchy; gloss paints used to be notoriously unstable, needing religiously thorough mixing beforehand and sometimes failing to dry properly even then; during a lengthy drying process the surface is bound to catch some dust particles whatever the precautions.

On a more important level than all that hassle, there was my emerging notion that ‘gloss’ just doesn’t translate in scale anyway! That something a bit more subtle and light-friendly .. like ‘satin’ .. conveys ‘glossiness’ better in the smaller scale?

However, part of my brief was to use the gloss paints that would eventually be used on the real items .. a good idea, yes, but only in terms of colour matching as it turned out. The new breed of acrylic water-based gloss paints may be progressive in some important ways .. but they’re certainly not for painting models! They .. at least, the ones I was given .. are thick, not opaque enough, non-levelling and they congeal so fast when brushed on that it’s difficult to even out the paint layer .. even on small areas! In spite of firming up far too quickly, they also seem to take a long time to ‘dry’ fully! I found this out when I took a handful of painted swatches to a meeting .. they had stuck together, a full week after painting them! I managed to make the surfaces look reasonably clean and streak-free in the end .. but it took a lot of effort. I made each item of painted furniture in Palfoam Pvc which I ‘grained’ very slightly by drawing P120 sandpaper in straight lines across (to suggest painted wood). I had to prime the Pvc first and because the gloss paints had too much transparency I used Humbrol enamels as an undercoat, mixing as near as I could get to the final colour. The adhesion between Pvc/enamel and enamel/acrylic was first-rate!

David Neat, 1:10 scale model of painted settle, designed by Sue Skeen for The New Craftsmen

I had to make two versions of the ‘Peggy’ chair, as it was called .. one plain ash and the other gloss grey. As with the settles the legs are dowel but needed to be 4mm diameter and this doesn’t normally exist! Luckily there was just one online source that did have this size but in ramin wood.

David Neat, 1:10 scale models of 'Peggy' chairs, designed by Sue Skeen for The New Craftsmen

Lastly I wanted to include here a picture of the ‘Peggy Arnold’ fireplace on its own. I was fond of the way this looked! I used an original Peggy Arnold pattern, printed on gloss photo paper in grey tones, for the tiling. The last promising discovery was that Marabu GlasArt glass paints make excellent wood varnishes! Here I have used the ‘Brown’ as it came (they can be thinned with white spirit). One coat brushed then evened out with a tissue will create a good matte cover, but after this first coat has dried for a day a second will give a nice, even silk/gloss.

David Neat, 1:10 scale model of 'Peggy Arnold' fireplace



Two-dimensional luminescent beans

I have rediscovered the excitement of two-dimensional space again! I usually get the urge a couple of times a year and usually as a ‘break’ when the 3D work starts getting too laborious .. which it tends to a bit too often! For these ‘beans’ I manipulated beetle-shell photos in PaintShop Pro and then exported them into Procreate on the iPad to further paint, add layers and refine.







I hope I’ll be writing about the combination of PaintShop Pro and Procreate sometime later, because over the past few years these two have given me everything I could possibly need in terms of image manipulation and ‘physical’ touchscreen painting.

What I’m not yet sure about is whether these finals can actually be the final artwork, either existing only in digital form or suitably printed, or whether they are just detailed prototypes waiting to be resized and copied in real paint. I’m not happy with even the best quality printouts. On the iPad or promoted to a bigger screen (assuming I can correct the colour and contrast changes) they’re luminescent .. literally composed of light .. and surface doesn’t come into it! But even the best print is just a pale imitation of the third dimension it no longer has, and suddenly real surface is there .. but it’s without any character! The magical third ‘dimension’ in 2D work needs to be re-invented and re-introduced by hand. For the moment, for me at least, digitally created has to remain digitally viewed.

Making a panelled door in stencil card

Recently I was asked by a friend to cover for her on the ‘Foundation in Art & Design Diploma’ course at Central Saint Martins. The day was intended to deal with aspects of model-making relevant to a project the students are currently working on. Each is designing an enclosed space with particular emphasis on the doorway leading into it, so we took the opportunity to focus on doors and the different methods of simulating surfaces.There was no budget available for materials so I had to devise a short practical using whatever small leftovers I could spare. The most promising idea seemed to be working with stencil card since I had a lot of small pieces, and stencil card was available at the CSM college shop if the students wished to take it further.

making a panelled door in stencil card

So I spent a bit of time working out the easiest way to make the traditional panelled door above. I’ve already looked at layering stencil card to create the wall panelling effect below and I also discovered some time ago that stencil card could be scraped with sandpaper leaving a fairly convincing ‘woodgrain’ effect, but I hadn’t combined them much. Also, the panelling below was made by carefully marking out and cutting the layers separately, then just as carefully aligning them while gluing. This is quite demanding! .. I wanted to make it more achievable.

using stencil card for wall panelling and windows

The improved method involves four layers (but as yet only dealing with one side) and the only ‘graining’ done is on the top layer and on the bottom layer where the ‘panels’ are seen. Everything is led by the ‘second layer down’ .. the one shown first in the line-up below, on the left. This is the one which needs to be carefully measured, marked out and cut. These doors are 1:25 scale and I’ve rounded off the UK average for a traditional interior door as .. 198cm high by 76cm wide. If you want to be either very specific or if you’re working in feet and inches, it’s properly 6′ 6″ by 2′ 6″! What happens within that outline is more a matter of taste .. there are no similar ‘standards’ for the size or arrangement of the panels. I’ve cut the first piece of card according to what looks right, but also I’ve observed with 4-panel doors that the top pair are usually longer than the bottom and there’s most often a broader strip across the base of the door for strength. The long thin panel in the middle is not meant as a letter box but it could house one, and the handle or doorknob would be positioned roughly halfway up the door which makes it on average a little less than 1 metre up.

stages in making a panelled door in stencil card

The drawing below should print out on A4 at exactly 1:25 scale and if you’re using this design as a template only the first one needs to be traced or pasted, as I’ve said .. the others are just there to illustrate each stage of layering. It goes like this .. after the first is cut out it should be stuck down onto another scrap of stencil card leaving a small margin around it. Spraymount works well, as long as you don’t intend to treat afterwards with a spirit-based medium because this will dissolve the glue .. otherwise superglue applied with care (very thin lines or dots) works perfectly. Pva wood-glue will grip but not bond very well with the stencil card surface. Trim around the outline of the door using the top stencil layer as a guide then judging by eye cut out all the panel areas a little inside the top-piece outline all around making a little ‘step’ .. as illustrated by stages 2-3 above and below. It may take some practise to get an even strip but it’s too slight to measure/mark. I’ve used the smallest division on the 1:25 scale ruler as a visual guide.

stages of making door using stencil card

This piece is then stuck onto another piece of stencil card and the outer edge trimmed again as before .. before doing this the stencil card which comes underneath needs to be ‘grained’ first because this will show. For these examples I’ve used a small piece of 120 grit sandpaper to grain, pressing firmly down and straight along, using the edge of a metal ruler as a guide. Once all three stencil card layers are stuck together and the door outline trimmed around once more (stage 4 in the line-up above), the fourth and final layer comes on top. This one is applied differently though, in separate pieces. It has to be because the grain of each strip must follow its longest edge .. essential for a convincing look! The task becomes a bit like marquetry in wood, but much easier because the stencil card is easier to cut. I grained a much larger piece of stencil card first and cut the strips from it, and I made these a little narrower to form a final ‘step’ around the panel areas.

colouring stencil card door with ProMarkers

There’s almost no end to what one can use to stain or paint stencil card because, in spite of the linseed oil waterproofing, it will accept both water-based, oil or spirit-based media. I’ve detailed a number of these already in my post February 2015 The art of alternative staining where I’m working with wood, but all will work well on stencil card. In fact many will work better because although a fine-grained wood is often the best option for a good ‘wood’ look when it stains well, it can also be difficult to eliminate the scattering of light specks where the polish or stain has failed to penetrate. Generally stencil card accepts stain a lot better and more evenly.

For the two samples above I used Letraset ProMarkers. The alcohol ink in these covers well and dries quickly, though it stains so well that the lighter scratches tend to disappear. These are ideal if you want something subtle. The ProMarker ink itself dries matte but there is a very slight sheen from the stencil card.

staining stencil card with Marabu GlasArt

If you’d like more shine or even brighter colours another option is using Marabu Glasart glass paints above, or ‘vitrail’ as they’re often labelled. These are spirit-based and, in the case of the Marabu, can be diluted or cleaned up with white spirit. One has the choice of either a silky or a glossy finish dependent on how much is applied. Here for example I brushed the vitrail on thinly and also went over with tissue and cotton bud to remove the excess collected in the raised edges .. if I’d just left it the effect would have been more glossy. Vitrail doesn’t work well as successive coats, because like shellac a further coat just starts to dissolve the one underneath and the results could be patchy.

colouring stencil card with shoe polishes and wood-stains

As shown above, if you’re intending a worn or ‘distressed’ effect I would recommend either a liquid shoe polish (which are almost always water-based) or a water-based wood varnish. These will tend to sit more on the surface rather than staining, and with each of these samples I started to rub or gently scrape after only a few minutes, before fully dry .. achieving a properly ‘chipped’ look fairly easily. These are, from left to right, Wickes ‘Quick-dry Woodstain’ mahogany; Cherry Blossom brown shoe polish, Kiwi ‘Wax Rich’ black shoe polish. Stencil card will warp a little with water-based media but not as much as other cardboards and, once dry, it is easier to bend carefully back into shape.

Conventional wood-stains also worked well .. both spirit and water-based. The middle one has a light coat of Colron ‘Georgian Oak’ and to the right I have used a water-based ‘Dark Oak’ wood-stain from Flints in London. The spirit-based stain has remained fairly matte whereas the water-based dried to a slight sheen. Spirit-based stains will also infiltrate quickly to the other side, even when more than one layer .. worth bearing in mind if this will be seen.

colouring stencil card with shoe polishes and wood-stains

Lastly, for the pale sample to the left I tried Osmo Dekowachs ‘Transparent White’. This is a specialist wax-based paint I was using in Germany which I still have some of, though these paints are also available in the UK. Like Humbrol enamels I’ve found that these paints will fix on almost anything. The first coat of Dekowachs is always matte and one has to build up a shine with further coats.

Coating styrofoam with polyurethane resin

These are the latest forms I’ve been making for my .. not-quite-working-title .. Ridiculously Organic Construction Toy. For this I’ve been creating simulations of eroded rock and driftwood cast in resin, twisted Pvc branches covered in fake moss and lichen, corals, leaf clusters and strands of seaweed made from latex etc. But I also wanted to include some play elements which are more obviously scaled down, such as these brickwork ruin pieces. The best way of picturing the whole idea is to think of aquarium or reptile tank accessories and then imagine getting a large collection of these instead of a box of Lego. I’m still working on the question of how exactly the ‘construction’ is achieved .. i.e. how such components will be fixed together when playing .. but as part of the system I’m working on an artificial ‘mud’ which I’m hoping will solve part of it.

ruin fragments in resin-coated styrofoam

The forms above were cut/carved in regular blue styrofoam, textured using a heavy-duty wire brush and then coated in polyurethane resin. There’s a bit more to the ‘painting’ process .. something new I haven’t tried before .. but I’ll come to that. If properly done the method of resin coating makes the forms unbelievably strong! .. perhaps not enough to survive little children, but certainly any adult wear-and-tear.

Making a brickwork arch in styrofoam

These two photos illustrate other forms intended for the collection and the process of making them. I’ve described this method of form-making in more detail in Shaping styrofoam. The arch piece above started with a Pvc template, which I used to help sand a block shape. I found I had to make a separate drawing template (the one at the bottom) just in order to inscribe the brick pattern onto the styrofoam shape. Then I used the special diamond needle files pictured to scratch out the brickwork divisions at the right thickness. I wanted these pieces to be 1:12, i.e. usual dollshouse scale, but I’ll eventually use a mixture of scales.

Making a brickwork niche in styrofoam

To make the ruined ‘niche’ shapes above I also used the method I described in Shaping styrofoam of using a curved sander to create the concaves. I roughed out very deep channels for the mortar lines, because these will become partially filled with coloured resin .. and this is what gives the pieces unusual strength. I found it was better to make all the channels before attacking with the wire brush, because I made the pitted texture mainly by hitting or pressing with the brush. This peppers the foam with deep holes and it may fragment a bit too much if the channels are made afterwards.

diamond needle files

Here is a close-up of the type of file I’ve found to work best for detailing foam. These have a ‘diamond coated’ surface which has more of an effect on relatively soft materials than the other, cheaper, form of needle file which is just ‘toothed’, grooved metal.

wire brushes useful for texturing rigid foam

I usually use the smaller brushes pictured above when working with the more delicate polyurethane foam in Kapa-line foamboard, but styrofoam has a tougher surface .. the heavier wire brush has more effect. Importantly, the action in this case is not a brushing or sweeping one, it’s more hitting downwards and rocking around .. I call it ‘scumbling’.

styrofoam 'ruin' fragments

Now to get to the main point of this article! Of the polyurethane resins I most often use (Sika’s Biresin G26 and Tomps’ Fast Cast) I know that both can be used in the following way, but Tomps Fast Cast is best because it’s a little thinner, powder pigment mixes better into it, and according to Tomps it is designed to cure properly in very small amounts or in very thin layers. This is not the case with all polyurethane resins. I’m basically making a very quick-setting paint with it, and because it’s quick-setting it has to be done a little at a time. To dose both resin parts I use disposable plastic pipettes (which are available from a few places online) and usually work with not more than 2ml of each part at a time. I can normally manage to use up to 4ml before it thickens too much. Because there’s usually no time spare to clean the palette surface before it sets I use a ceramic tile which can be scraped clean afterwards. There’s always just enough time to clean the brush though, and this can be quickly done with acetone.

Coating styrofoam with polyurethane resin and pigment

Here I’ve dosed 1ml of each resin part together on the tile, added a small amount of powder pigment, mixed the whole together with a synthetic-hair paintbrush and used the same brush to paint the foam. Synthetic is best because the hairs will be rigid enough to push the pigmented resin into deep pattern, but full and fine enough to hold a lot of the paint. Powder pigment is the best form of colour to use .. strong colour, inexpensive, available .. and I usually find that it mixes better into resin than it does with water!

The polyurethane resin has no effect on styrofoam (unlike polyester resin), it will cure hard and ‘fused’ to the surface, and it’s done .. that is, it’s touch-hard and ready for further work .. in about 15 minutes! Whereas regular paint such as acrylic will infiltrate more and contract as it dries, polyurethane resin does less of both so there will be a little ‘smoothing over’ of fine surface detail. It will also be a gloss finish! .. which I don’t like, would never choose, and at the moment I’m experimenting with the different  ways of dealing with this. There is no matting additive for polyurethane resin, and regardless of which pigment or filler is mixed with it, the top surface exposed to the air will always be glossy. Obviously painting over with another matte paint, such as a good acrylic, is an option .. but polyurethane needs a lot of preparation if the paint coat is to resist a lot of handling and this is made difficult by such a patterned/textured surface.

One possible solution is to use my own version of cold powder coating. If you google ‘powder coating’ you will find that this refers to an industrial painting process in which fine thermoplastic powder is melted onto metal to create a durable surface. It’s very like the enamelling that you might have done at school, with coloured glass powder on a copper plate, melted in a small oven. My version does not require heat, and it’s perhaps more related to the model-making practice of scattering granules into glue to create a surface .. but it does share some of the surprising durability of these other methods!

crushed brick

Below is a close-up of the styrofoam ‘ruin’ forms after coating. I first gave the bare styrofoam an undercoating of resin mixed with black pigment, and then a second coat without any pigment, covering a small area at a time. While each portion was still wet I sprinkled a mix of finely crushed brick and sand onto the resin. I’m fortunate in that, living close to the Thames beach, I can pick up fragments of any colour of brick, illustrated above. Since these have already been broken down by the elements they are much easier to crush to a powder using mortar and pestle.

detail of brickwork surface done with 'powder coating' method

While working I could see that the particles were readily sinking into the thin coating of resin, and when the excess is shaken off after a few minutes the powdery top layer still adheres strongly. Polyurethane resin is a strong adhesive, especially if the dust or particles are porous and jagged. Having tested the strength of the surface once the resin cured I have little doubt that it is permanent. I still have to do some paint finishing on these pieces, emphasizing contrasts and colours and giving more ‘speckle’, but I have no worries about regular acrylic paint attaching itself on top. The greatest bonus in this particular case is that these pieces have a lot of the look and feel of real brick .. because that’s what it is!