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!

 

Template drawings for furniture model-making

At last I’ve had the chance to clean up and improve some of the furniture drawings I’ve always used for model-making workshops, and so I’ve gathered them together as Template drawings for furniture model-making in the Methods section. The page includes this mid-18th C ‘rococo’ armchair which has always been popular .. though a bit challenging to make at 1:25! I’ve drawn most of the plans and reproduced them at 1:10 scale for greater accuracy though some simpler ones, such as those for ‘folded’ furniture using stencil card, are 1:25 scale.

1:10 scale rococo armchair drawing

I think I’ve sorted out the problem that has been occurring of ‘thumbnail’ images not responding i.e. normally a better quality image can be opened by clicking on the images here, but I’ve only just found out that it hasn’t been happening for recent posts. So hopefully if you ‘click and save’ any of the drawings you’ll get the size they’re supposed to be. I’ve given the source resolution so that you can compare it and I’ve also listed key measurements in the text so that you can check accuracy in the printout.

Template for making 1:25 scale folded chair in stencil card

 

 

Why not just Google?

A while ago I thought it might be useful to put together a list of websites most valuable for visual research, either those I’ve used and favorited in the past or some recommended by others, and I posted in Facebook groups such as the Society of British Theatre Designers (SBTD) asking for suggestions. Many thanks for the comments I received! .. I’m still working on the actual list and I will put it in a new folder Visual research in the Methods section very shortly.

For the time being I wanted first to provide a sketchy illustration as to why one shouldn’t confine one’s visual research to Google .. at least, not to the extent I’m accustomed to seeing from my undergraduate teaching. Don’t get me wrong! .. I don’t believe that Google Images can be .. or should be .. ignored! It all depends on how one uses the tool. For example, it is often my first port of call if I first want to define exactly what I’m looking for or to locate sites which are likely to give me better images and more information.

As an illustration, if I’ve really no idea what a ‘duchesse brisee’ is I can type it in and Google will very likely correct me if I’ve got the spelling wrong. That’s a great help in itself! Most of the images then displayed will give me a clear and immediate indication of what it is but also give me a wide choice of period interpretations. It may help at this point to change the search size from ‘Any’ to ‘Large’ because this often keeps the more informed sites and cuts down on the Pinterests and Flickrs. Now Google can be .. and should be .. left behind to refine one’s choice; checking the period and country of origin, and generally acquiring the kind of supporting information that sensible designers need to have! Here for example is the one I might have chosen  ..

Louis XV period duchesse brisee

The website it’s from.. Antiques.com ..tells me that it’s Louis XV period or mid 18th century, carved in walnut and even that it’s attributed to the maker Pierre Nogaret. A quick Google of ‘Pierre Nogaret’ shows me many other pieces of furniture of the same feel and period. Unusually Antiques.com doesn’t provide measurements in this particular case, but many other antiques or restoration sites do for similar pieces. Here Google repeatedly offers an invaluable ‘means’ ..but not the ‘end’.

Or to take another example, if I want specific information on what a tenement dwelling in New York looked like in the 1890s I might also try Google first just for fun. In this case, because typing ‘1890 New York tenement’ could bring up too many irrelevant results it may be better to choose the ‘Advanced’ search option and type one’s search words in the ‘all words’ box. When I did this I was presented with this image from someone’s Flickr page, which looks pretty authentic and is entitled ‘New York tenement 1890’, but as often with Flickr or Pinterest there’s no other information and no indication of source so that I can verify that it’s authentic! For the serious designer this is a rather ‘blind alley’ and therefore a waste of time.

photo from Jacob Riis 'How the Other Half Lives' first published 1890

What one needs to do is either scroll down to see whether the image appears again from a more ‘official’ source in which case there is likely to be more information about it or, failing that, click on the thumbnail and use the ‘Search by image’ option in the window that appears to find other sources. Luckily this image appears on a number of reliable sites such as the Smithsonian, Britannica.com or Wikipedia and further clicking on any of these will reveal the fact that the photo comes from a priceless social document How the Other Half Lives published in 1890 by the American journalist Jacob A Riis (although initially the photos were reproduced either as line drawings or halftone and wouldn’t have had the impact they have today).

photo from Jacob Riis 'How the Other Half Lives' published 1890

The point I am making is that someone intent on the ‘fast-food’ method might not even discover that, or the wealth of other relevant photos from Jacob A Riis that might not fall within the search terms used. Sure .. Google, Flickr or Pinterest will deliver instant results which can be effortlessly collected. It’s so easy to ‘click and save’ that even the thought of having to halt one’s happy gathering in order to check and document weighs curiously heavy!

The way we used to work as theatre designers before the establishment of the Internet could be admittedly arduous at times .. we had to go to libraries! We had to first search through catalogues arranged by subject or browse the shelves to locate books that might be helpful. If we found images we wanted to ‘keep’ we would have to take them down to the photocopier .. often just black&white, if there even was one and if it was working! But that meant that we had to become very focused and selective in our responses to images and the choice of them! We had to make conscious notes of where we found things, rather than trusting a computer to save that info ..which meant we were accustomed to reading and digesting it first! The books we found the images in would usually tell us all we needed to know about them and suggest yet other sources in their bibliographies. More often than not, writers were both circumspect and thorough when it came to the printed word! All this could be time-consuming, but on the other hand we could assess the quality and relevance of a book in mere seconds, just by flicking through it .. try doing that with a website!

Jacob A Riss understood not only the value but the necessity of ‘hard graft’ .. as a humanitarian, a pioneering journalist and a documentary photographer he was essentially optimistic, driven and persistent! Any serious designer, especially for theatre/film/television, has to operate in much the same way as an investigative journalist like Riss .. leaving few stones unturned. The problem with the Internet is that there are far too many pebbles!

Technical Drawing for theatre designers

This is a new course which I plan to run for the first time in July 2015 at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) and has been developed with the help of my old friend Gary Thorne, who is Head of Design there. As far as I know it’s the only course of its kind focusing on theatre design, and one of very few short courses dealing with technical drawing at all.

Here is my extended version of the course description for the ‘Courses’ section above, the original of which can be found on the booking page of the RADA website:

https://www.rada.ac.uk/courses/summer-courses/production-design/technical-drawing/course-overview

An intensive, practical, week-long course for those practicing or interested in theatre set design July 13-17 2015 Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Gower St, London WC1E 6ED

Technical drawing is a graphic ‘language’ which enables the clear and completely measurable description of three-dimensional structures in flat, printed form. Good, clear technical drawings are essential in the theatre design process. Not only are they necessary for the practical development of the design even in the early stages, and useful for costing at the ‘sketch’ model stage, but the workshops require them at the final stage for clarification of the model and proper realisation of the set. Good technical drawings are an asset within any designer’s portfolio and the practice of drawing stimulates and refines one’s ability to solve problems.

Technical drawing is much like driving a car .. fundamentally it involves more knowledge than skill, though it can be taken to skilful levels. It needs practise, but it can all be learnt! However, there are those who drive well and those who do it badly! Technical drawing is not difficult to do well .. you just have to know how and to continue practising it. The course is a thorough introduction to ‘how’, and we start with an understanding of the fundamentals including:

.. thinking and working in scale; planning and laying-out a drawing; the principles behind ‘orthographic projection’ i.e. choosing multiple viewpoints; using a drawing board and other tools

In the process we look at many of the details of good practice including:

.. labelling or annotating elements in the drawing; styles of lettering, writing measurements; what to include on ground-plans and sections; using recognized symbols and types of line; how to indicate moving parts; tips on easy geometry etc.

The course is aimed at those who come as novices and need a ‘jump start’ in the journey of learning or those already ‘en route’ but in need of a refresher. The week is intensive ..10.00 to 5.00 each day .. involving a lot of concentration, but each day balances the receiving of knowledge through prepared examples and demonstrations, with more hands-on practical exercises. Particular advantage is taken of the fact that RADA has three working theatre spaces to look at and compare with their technical ground-plans and sections. We also make use of RADA’s stock of student models to draw from, illustrating the close collaboration of drawing and model-making within the process.

Another special feature of the course is that you will practise using plain drawing boards and T-squares as opposed to parallel-motion boards. There are a number of good reasons for this: it gives a more effective training in the manual dexterity and mental organization required; it involves less ‘hardware’ maintenance; drawings are easier to keep clean; and finally, once managed, the drawing process can often become easier and more fluid.

All equipment and tools are provided by RADA, but participants are asked to bring their own 0.5mm mechanical pencils (HB and 3H) and a means of taking notes.

‘quick view’ comparisons of casting materials

I’ve done quite a bit of work on my ‘quick view’ comparisons of casting materials in the casting section of the Materials menu. This is just text, and focuses on the essential technical information needed .. especially if in doubt as to which material to go for. It’s a lot of text! .. I’m working on posts with less text, and some nice pictures, which will be coming very soon, I promise! To be honest, my main reason for reproducing the whole thing here rather than just writing ‘go and look at it if you want’ is so that I can tag it properly for internet searches which one can’t do with ‘pages’ on the wordpress.com version.

The following is a combination of the easy-reference tech info sheets we provide for our Modelling, mouldmaking and casting course and for the mouldmaking/casting day on the Model-making Techniques course with a lot more added .. because there’s more space on digital paper! The ‘pros and cons’ for each material are generalised and, because there are many different brands with differing properties, they may not apply equally to all of them. The ‘featured materials’ are mainly those we either use or refer to on the courses. Example prices for the materials are from April 2014 and they are adjusted to include VAT. Full addresses for the suppliers can be found in the Suppliers section. Mixing ratios and properties are based on current use, but always check info supplied with product when bought in case of changes.

Prices will be updated each year and more information will be added when it’s significant.. for example, when I start using epoxy resin, which I’ve had to omit from this list for the moment.

See lexicon for explanation of special terms if needed (some anticipated ones are written bold). Often you will see reference made to curing rather than setting, ‘becoming hard’ or ‘drying’ in normal language. This is the proper term for describing the setting and hardening process when two or more parts of a material are mixed together and undergo a chemical change. ‘Drying’ is what water-based materials do when they just harden by the slow evaporation of water in them. ‘Setting’ is what jelly does when the long molecules start to connect, turning it from a liquid to a solid. With ‘curing’ .. usually once a material has cured the change can’t be reversed.

Manufacturer’s ‘use by’ dates just need to be taken with a big pinch-of .. ‘under advisement’! I wouldn’t say they can be ignored, but they are really just an indication of the general time period during which a material will behave as it’s supposed to. I regularly use materials twice, three times or even more than their recommended shelf life with no major problems. Often all that happens is that mixing/working time .. the pot life .. or setting/curing times are different. If in doubt or if the job is important always test some of the material first. Always date a material visibly on the packaging as soon as you buy it together with a note of the recommended shelf life, just so that you can anticipate if there will be changes.

Polyurethane resin

Advantages very fast-working (average 3-4mins pot-life and 30mins demould). Choice of unfilled or pre-filled brands (i.e. already with a certain amount of inert filler material). Stronger than plaster especially for delicate or hollow castings, safer than polyester for indoor work. Less brittle than polyester, good tooling .. i.e. sanding, cutting afterwards whether by hand or with machine tools. Opaque when set .. usually ranging from white to light-beige. Easy 1:1 mixing (can be by volume in some cases, but usually should be by weight). Low odour. Low viscosity (i.e. most types thinner than liquid plaster or polyester) making ideal for filling intricate moulds. Very good detail reproduction. Variety of types ( i.e. very low viscosity for detailed work, slow-set for ‘slush’ casting, semi-flexible versions etc). Useful longer ‘green stage’ before complete setting for trimming and bending. Some resins can be heated after curing for heat-bending, but usually only thinner sections. Fewer contamination issues (less tackiness). Good mixing with a variety of inert fillers if needed e.g. Fillite, marble dust, metal powders etc. Takes powder pigment well though colour is muted on curing. Clean-up uncured PU resins with meths or acetone. Higher temperatures (including deliberately warmed moulds) can speed up curing, lower temperatures will slow down.

Many polyurethane resins start transparent but turn opaque on setting. This has an advantage because trapped air bubbles can be spotted and dealt with in a shallow mould before the resin turns.

Mix using disposable plastic ‘party’ cups and hold the cup palming the bottom. Mix thoroughly but quickly and stop to pour as soon as there’s a hint of warmth from the cup. Small amounts should not need much more than about 10secs thorough mixing.

Not so good Very short working time and sudden cure .. practise needed in timing for mixing and pouring. Not cheap (av £15 per kg and not usually available in bulk amounts, except from Tomps .. although it does seem that more firms are offering larger amounts these days). Always necessary to thoroughly shake-up containers before use. Transparent versions exist but not really an option for home-work due to toxicity! Discolours in time (no UV blocker available). Cannot be made thixotropic (except through addition of fillers). Some resins have difficulty curing in very small amounts or cast in very thin sections. Cans or bottles supplied in are not suitable for pouring small amounts from! .. decant amounts of both parts into plastic cups first. Cans for parts ‘A’ and ‘B’ are usually identical except for labelling and with identical lids .. mark these ‘A’ and ‘B’ to avoid getting mixed up. Uncured resin is not regular domestic waste and has to be taken to recycling!

Using too much of the hardener part (this is most often part ‘B’, the thinner of the two liquids. With EasyFlo it’s part ‘A’ though) can lead to persistent greasiness on the surface of the cast. Always try to dose accurately 1:1 by weight unless the product directions state otherwise. The greasiness can go in time or the cast needs to be scrubbed in lukewarm water and detergent.

Featured materials

Fast Cast polyurethane resin £9.59 per 500g kit, £25.18 per 2kg, £97.08 per 10kg (tomps.com) Extra-fast and extra-thin PU resin (Tomps claim that the viscosity is as low as 40cps but it’s actually a little over 50 .. still very thin though!), pot-life 3-4mins, demould after 30 mins. Slower version pot-life 7-8mins, demould after 1 hour (this is unusual, patience is needed before demoulding). Cured colour pale beige. Has a low viscosity because it comes unfilled. Shore D 72 when fully cured. Manufacturer’s recommended shelf life 6 months. Read MSDS supplied on Tomps website .. Part ‘A’ classed Xi Irritant, Part ‘B’ classed Xn Harmful.

EasyFlo 60/120 £28.80 per 1.9kg (4D), £24.62 per 1.9kg/£96.53 per 10kg(mouldlife.net). Made by Polytek. The numbers in the names of the different types denote their viscosity in cps. EasyFlo 60 has a very short 2min working time and just 15min demould. EasyFlo 120, the thicker one, is specially designed for ‘slush’ or rotational hollow casting, 2min working time, 15-30min demould. Cured colour opaque white. SG when mixed 1.03. EasyFlo is noticeably more ‘plastic’ i.e. a little more flexible when cured than other polyurethane resins. The big difference to note with EasyFlo is that it can be mixed 1:1 by volume and if by weight needs to be mixed in the ratio of 100A:90B! Shore D 65. The manufacturer recommends meths as a cleanup agent and shelf life of 6 months. Read MSDS supplied on Mouldlife website .. Part ‘B’ classed Xi Irritant, Part ‘A’ classed Xn Harmful.

SIKA Biresin G26 £38.27 2kg (Tiranti) I’ve used this on-and-off for a long time and it has always been reliable .. keeps well, flows well for fine detail .. though it is not the cheapest or the thinnest. Unfilled, viscosity 70cps. Normally 3-4min working time and 30min demould but can be sooner especially if taking advantage of ‘green stage’ when resin is still partly flexible but can be demoulded. I’ve found that G26 has a longer green stage than other resins tried. Cured colour light beige, Shore D 70, SG mixed 1.1. Manufacturer’s recommended shelf life 12 months. Read MSDS supplied on Tiranti website .. Part ‘A’ classed Xi Irritant, Part ‘B’ classed Xn Harmful and ‘dangerous’ with some evidence of a carcinogenic effect .. hmm, this I keep forgetting!

Fillite with PU resin £4.56 1kg, £14.10 5kg (tomps.com); £43.20 25kg (specialplasters.co.uk) An expanded ash material, a popular filler for resins. Resin will generally accept up to 4x its volume of Fillite without affecting setting process but the mixture starts to become too thick to pour easily after about 2x. If using any filler with resin, care should be taken to keep the filler completely dry i.e. always in sealed containers, away from atmospheric moisture, otherwise it can cause the resin to foam. Fillers are commonly used with resins for various reasons .. to economise; to make the casts either lighter or heavier; to make resin harder or softer; to impart a colour or appearance; to thicken for making hollow shell casts, etc .. Normally the filler is mixed thoroughly into one part of the resin, part ‘A’, before the measured amount of part ‘B’ is added. If you are adding filler to achieve a specific thickness and want more control over that, measure out both resin parts and mix filler into both before putting them together. Mixing filled resin parts needs more thoroughness to properly distribute them!

Polyester resin

Advantages Inexpensive (esp 5kg upwards, as little as £6 per kg). Available (many suppliers), and good literature/info on the web. Versatile (different types e.g. general-purpose, gelcoat and clear casting) and can be made thixotropic. Very strong (esp. with glassfibre reinforcement .. its most familiar use). UV blocker available to combat discolouration. Longer pot-life (compared to polyurethane resin) gives more time for mould-filling or coating (excellent choice for PU foam coating). Takes powder pigment and small amounts of standard artist’s oil paint well for colouring without affecting cure. Choice of catalyst addition (standard 1% but more can be added when mixing small volumes to ensure curing). Some ‘GP’ versions are modified for less styrene emission. Best choice, because transparent, for colouring or filling with metal powder for ‘cold metal’ casting.

Not so good  Work should only be carried out when indoors under proper extractor fan conditions (never at home) and using respirator masks. Strong exothermic reaction may cause cracking in larger volumes (add less catalyst). Some types more prone to surface tackiness (oxidisation). Tends to be brittle on its own compared to polyurethane resin. Vaseline should not be used as barrier, and polyesters are affected by contact with moisture/water.

Featured materials

Tiranti’s polyester resins multi-purpose £9.26 per kg; general purpose £9.25 per kg; gel coat £11.39 per kg; clear casting AM £13.63 per kg (Tiranti). Gelcoat can be catalysed adding 2% whereas MP, GP and clear should use just 1% for large solid castings (but up to 4% can be used to accelerate small castings). Pot-life c. 20mins. At 2% catalyst MP can be safely demoulded in less than 2 hrs but allow 72hrs-1week for full setting.  If barrier/ release is needed (not normally necessary with silicone or vinyl) use polyvinyl alcohol or rape seed oil.

Cold metal casting metal powder c.£10-£12 per 500g average (tomps.com, Tiranti) Up to 4:1 metal powder to resin (by weight) can be mixed to make surfacing layer with either MP or clear casting resin, catalysed 2% (always add catalyst to resin in this case before mixing in metal. If proper gelcoat resin is used less metal can be added, c.2-3 parts metal by weight. Less than 2:1 is ineffective. Wait until rubber-hard, then fill rest with normal resin catalysed 2% for small forms (1% for larger). This can either be unfilled or if preferred, dark pigmented. Wait at least 72 hrs before ‘cutting back’ and buffing (cutting back is abrading the surface i.e. with steel wool to expose the metal particles properly). Note: Tiranti’s ‘rule of thumb’ is same volume of metal powder to resin plus ‘a little more’ metal powder, and they advise that if measuring by weight the content of metal powder to 1 part resin is; Aluminium 1.25, bronze 6-7, brass 5-6, copper 4-5, iron 6-7

Fibreglassing

Chopped strand mat standard 300gsm £1.62 sq metre (specialplasters.co.uk) £2.94 sq metre (Tiranti). Matting used in conjunction with MP or GP polyester resin (do not use clear casting resin) for fibreglass lamination.

Just 1 soaked layer of 300gsm matting may be more than strong enough for a small form i.e. up to 20cm; over that 2 layers up to 40cm, and larger than that 3 layers. This is a rough estimation and it depends of course on whether the object will be load-bearing or not.

Plaster

Advantages Cheap (i.e. even a high quality plaster may be as little as c. £20 for 25kg from the right suppliers). Suitable for solid pouring of medium to large-size forms. Available (many suppliers), and good literature/info in print and on the web (established material with very long tradition). Reliable i.e. not easily contaminated and long shelf-life if properly stored. Easy to mix (with some care and practise). Health&safety friendly. Extensive range of brands with varying properties and uses (differences in fineness, hardness, setting time etc). Choice of fine, dense, hard ‘alpha’ plasters or softer, more porous ‘beta’ plasters. Best to use fine casting plaster (with recommended ratio 2.5-3parts plaster to 1part water, i.e ‘alpha’ plaster, for most work, i.e. not just casting but mouldmaking, except when doing absorption castings.

Not so good Surface air bubbles and water drainage lines on casts are often an issue (moulds can be sprayed with a surfactant to combat these). Not as ‘free-flowing’ as resins and certainly not as tough for casting small, slender forms. Not as easy to patch or repair. Weighing scales needed if following recommended ratios by weight. Small amounts sold in craft or hobby shops are vastly overpriced usually with no supporting information re. type (whether ‘alpha’ or ‘beta’) or optimum mix ratio etc.

Featured materials

Prestia Expression casting plaster £20.08 per 25kg (specialplasters.co.uk). Fine, hard ‘alpha’ plaster. Mix by eye (but recommended optimum mix 2.5-2.6kg per litre water). Water volume will constitute approx ½ final volume. Working time 8-10 mins. Can be demoulded after c. 30mins, or after top water has been reabsorbed.

Crystacal R casting plaster £24.49 per 25kg (specialplasters.co.uk). Similar to above but even harder and stronger. Recommended mix for maximum strength is 2.86kg per litre water, but this mix does not pour well (2.2-2.5 makes more pourable mix). Pot life 10+mins, setting 15-20mins, demould 30+mins. Slightly longer working time makes this a good plaster for building up mould jackets using its intermediate ‘cream cheese’ state, but one has to work fast.

Basic Alpha £8.29 per 5kg, £21.26 per 25k (Tiranti) Good quality casting plaster, fine and hard. Working time approx. 12mins, set hard in 25mins. Recommended mix 2.8kg per litre water.

Colouring of plaster For calculating beforehand how much pigment can be safely used, at max 10% by weight .. If 100ml of final mix is needed, this will require roughly 100ml of plaster and 50ml of water. Plaster has a generalized SG of 1.2 so the weight of the mixture will be 170g. So up to 17g of pigment can be added in theory before affecting setting. No special pigment needed .. standard powder pigment will do.

Polymer-modified plaster

Advantages A good ‘alpha’ plaster can be mixed with acrylic polymer liquid in place of (or occasionally in addition to) water which makes casts much stronger and even ‘weatherproof’ for outside sculpture. The resulting mix can also be used in place of resin with glassfibre matting or other reinforcement to build or cast very durable shells. The mix generally has a longer working time than plaster/water (i.e. can be 20-30mins as opposed to 10-15mins) and it can enable finer, more detailed castings. ‘Jesmonite’ is one popular brand, usually sold as a system, but acrylic polymer liquid can also be bought on its own, i.e. from Tiranti, for use with any alpha plaster.

Not so good More expensive than using the plaster on it’s own (i.e. Jesmonite ‘kit’ comprising 3kg plaster plus 1kg liquid is c. £25). Mixing needs to be very thorough (power-assisted mixing recommended for large amounts). Mix much more prone to air bubbles (leave to stand a little).

Featured materials

Plaster/polymer mix polymer liquid £9.25 per 1kg, £35.34 per 5kg (Tiranti) Only with ‘alpha’ plasters, generally 3:1 plaster:polymer by weight.  Up to 10% more polymer or water can be added to thin the mix.

Jesmonite £25.60 per 4kg kit (4D), £60.00 per 20kg kit (canonbury arts). Mix 2.5-3parts powder to 1part liquid. Different Jesmonite types e.g. AC100 (general-purpose)

Latex

Advantages As a flexible casting material in special cases but normally only when applied in thin layers and better using an absorbent mould such as plaster (latex is an ideal material for the absorption casting method). Also ideal for creating flexible ‘skin’ surface casts. Good detail reproduction. Relatively inexpensive (c £10 per litre). Can be used as it comes, no mixing needed. Durable and long-lasting, with a surprisingly high tear strength. Can be thickened (special additives available). Latex is readily available (many suppliers, inc. hobby and art shops). No serious health&safety issues. Can be coloured (using small amounts) with any water-based paint.

Not so good Cannot be poured as a ‘mass’ into a non-absorbent mould (such as silicone) because it sets by evaporation of water content .. it will never dry! Can only be applied in layers, each of which needs to dry first before applying the next. Drying is slow unless mould is absorbent. Will shrink up to 10%! Surface painting of dried latex poses some problems (best methods are either to mix acrylic paint with Prosaide or use Humbrol enamel paints). Latex casts need a good dusting of talc to stop them sticking together. Latex is not compatible with petroleum jelly i.e. Vaseline, so this cannot be used as barrier/release agent.

Featured materials

£11.30 per kg (Tiranti), £11.00 per kg (Canonbury Arts)

Prosthetic silicone

Advantages Very soft, ultra-flexible silicones (with a low Shore A value) such as Platsil Gel 10 or 00 can be cast to make prosthetic forms or bendable animation puppets. These silicones are usually translucent and will accept small amounts of acrylic or oil paint as colourant. Can be made even softer with addition of special ingredient i.e. ‘Smith’s Deadener’ for Platsil range. Usually addition cure (1:1 mix) and much faster curing. Usually high tear strength. No noticeable shrinkage.

Not so good These are generally more expensive than other silicones. Fairly viscous, may not be pourable (more likely ‘spreadable’). Not compatible with ..sulphur-based plasticines, latex, condensation cure silicones, set addition cure silicones, some resins .. i.e. fairly long list of known inhibitors, including garlic! If additional surface painting is required this is either not easy, or requires specially marketed sfx paints which are quite expensive.

Featured materials

Platsil Gel 10 £58.10 per 2kg (4D) also available from mouldlife.net. Mix parts 1:1 by weight or volume, approx. 6min working time, brushed into mould (too viscous to pour easily), 30min demould. Can be coloured with small amount of acrylic or oil paint mixed in (unbelievably, oil paint doesn’t affect it).

Polyurethane foam

Polyurethane foam is available to buy in the form of two liquids which when mixed together start to foam, expand and solidify to fill a space a number of times larger than their initial volume. There are so-called ‘self-skinning’ foams which develop a less porous outer skin, and there is also the choice of rigid, brittle-setting foam or flexible types similar to cushion foam. If the right amount is mixed quickly and poured into a mould which is then securely closed the foam will expand to produce a cast of the form. This works well for fairly simple shapes but not for constricted ones and there is a limit to how much surface detail is reproduced.

Featured materials

Self Skinning Flexible Polyurethane Foam £38.88 per 3kg (Tiranti) Mix Parts ‘A’ and ‘B’ in ratio 2:1 by weight. Expands 5-6 times volume. 5mins to rise, 15-20mins demould. Cures white. Special H&S care needed against breathing in Part B ‘harmful by inhalation and contact with eyes’.

Basic architectural models in ‘Kraft board’

I am about to do some sessions in basic model-making for 3rd year architecture students at London South Bank University. What follows is a version of the session notes together with photos of the practical examples, and some step-by-step demonstrations of how to work with the material. This is intended as a point of reference for the students afterwards and it may repeat information given elsewhere on this site.

Models are by default ‘looked down upon’ because of their size! They can provide an instant overview, with the precision of a groundplan in three dimensions .. they flatter us with a ‘god’s eye view’, and one needs to be reminded that this viewpoint is an artificial one. For example in theatre design this is can lead to design problems .. at normal table height the designer working on the model has an Upper Circle view of the stage most of the time. But in architecture one could argue that viewpoint is less of a consideration anyway, because in this context models are never meant to be realistic simulations and it would in any case require an impossibly huge model to reproduce anything like a pedestrian’s experience of the building. For reproducing these impressions, and to preview and rehearse the organization of interiors, digital simulation may be far better suited. But even though our relationship with the card model is very removed from the one we would have with the real building, it’s also very direct .. because of its real physicality. It’s made of material .. just as we are. It needs to be handled with care because it’s vulnerable. It responds to changes of light through the window or to the shadows cast by people moving around it. It’s physicality can even be enhanced by imperfections, to a certain degree, because we’ve come to expect them in physical things.

For the first session I’ve chosen to focus on working almost entirely with ‘Kraft board’, which I feel is a very honest, unpretentious and direct material. As I’ve implied my emphasis is also on small-scale ‘massing’ models, concentrating on essential form rather than detail, serving as preliminary or idea-development models within the process. These models are more than private sketches .. they are meant to present the status of ideas so far, to communicate them to others in a clear, controlled and deliberate way. The keyword here is deliberate! Although the work may still be in progress and not yet finalised, the statements made by the model should look valued, cared for, sufficiently thought about .. in other words, deliberated. On the other hand, there should still be a feeling of ‘sketch’ .. using a fine material for this would impose a false sense of finality. So the object is to achieve a model which looks presentable and reasonably sure of itself, but also still open to discussion and without having cost a lot of time, money or effort. ‘Kraft board’ lends itself very well in this respect, because although it is structurally very strong and easy to cut cleanly, surfaces and edges retain a typically raw and recycled look. Cut edges cannot be made to look 100% smooth and detail is difficult beyond a certain level .. both of which can actually support the general aim.

architectural model

I’m assuming you probably don’t know what I mean by ‘Kraft board’. It’s unlikely that you do, because it’s the name given by the one supplier I know, Seawhite of Brighton, to a very thin form of brown, recycled cardboard which is made up of thin layers and corrugated on the inside. The outside is smooth and firm, but matt and untreated (different from the usual, thicker form of corrugated cardboard used universally, which has a very slight sheen). In the packaging industry card which is composed of one corrugated layer enclosed within a surface layer on both sides is known as single wall board and one of the thinnest is made to a 1/16th of an inch. I’m guessing this is the ‘Kraft board’ that’s available from Seawhite because this is, as close as I can measure, a little under 2mm. I had thought that the name was just a quaint variation on ‘craft’ implying that the board was for general-purpose creative uses, but it turns out that the ‘Kraft process’ is the name of an established method of wood-pulping which produces a particularly tough paper and ‘Kraft’, given by the German inventor of the process, denotes ‘strength’.

Kraft board

The main characteristics of ‘Kraft board’

In the first place it is one of the cheapest forms of card I’ve found. At University of the Arts London shops it costs £1.15 for an A1 sheet. Seawhite only normally supplies wholesale but they have a selling website www.artesaver.co.uk where a box of 25 A1 sheets will cost £24.80. Seawhite also supplies Cass Arts in London so it’s possible that it can also be found at those stores.

As I’ve said, the surface is typical for recycled card .. very matt, even slightly dusty in look, and grainy, with the odd larger speck here and there. The overall colour, a light coffee-brown, is very uniform (not mottled or patchy) and consistent from one sheet to another. There is no visible distinction between ‘front’ and ‘back’ of a sheet. Against the light the surface shows a slight roughness, like ‘sugar paper’, but surprisingly the internal corrugations aren’t visible even under glancing light. The surface picks up grease from the fingers quickly and visibly, because it’s unsealed and very absorbent. It may be a matter of opinion as to whether this matters, but if you want to keep the material as clean-looking as possible while working you’ll need to wear cotton gloves.

No exact thickness is provided by the supplier, but 10 pieces tightly pressed together come to 18.5mm thick, so for structural and scale purposes one can take the thickness to be c.1.85mm. Being hollow it is easy to cut through cleanly, though as one would expect cutting is much easier and smoother along the direction of the corrugations. Contrary to what one would expect though, the card seems to stay just as rigid in both directions so one doesn’t necessarily have to choose to cut in a particular direction for stability. It’s also very firmly bonded internally, so for example even very thin strips stay straight and intact. In fact, for something that’s basically just a hollow construction of heavy paper, ‘Kraft board’ maintains both its rigidity and coherence incredibly well!

kraft board

How to work with it

Because the surface is speckled it can be easy to lose pencil marks made for cutting, so I would recommend circling them lightly, as shown below. After cutting, these can be removed with a soft eraser.

marking out for cutting

Despite appearing soft and easy to cut with a scalpel, ‘Kraft board’ is deceptive. The paper itself is very tough and needs a sharp point to cut it cleanly. The hard fibres in it will also blunt the tip of the blade very quickly. It would be senseless, and expensive, to replace the blade that often .. but sharpening just the tip on a piece of 800-1,000 grit wet/dry paper as shown will help.

sharpening a scalpel

I always recommend patient cutting, i.e. starting with gentle passes and not trying to cut through in one go, but this is particularly important with ‘Kraft board’ otherwise the edge will compress or parts of the paper might tear. For more advice on marking out and cutting generally, see ‘Main construction’ in Methods /- Making realistic models.

The following sequence of photos shows the steps, techniques and additional tools recommended for making a simple ‘box’ form, i.e. a building block comprising roof and walls. Although this is the simplest possible exercise, it illustrates many of the basics of effective construction with this material. The first advice is that, since the model is mostly viewed from above, roofs assume more significance so the overall look will be cleaner if these are complete and without seams (i.e. walls stuck underneath them rather than around). I’ve found that generally the cleaner way to build this type of model is the opposite of real construction .. building from the top downwards.

simple blocks

I’d also recommend that the walls should be cut with the corrugation running from top to bottom, so that the corner seams are less obtrusive. The distinctive ‘zigzag’ patterned edge that occurs when cutting in the other direction cannot be completely avoided in the model .. and can sometimes be used to good effect! .. but it can at least be controlled with a little thought.

In the photo below, the top piece has been cut together with a much longer piece for the sides, long enough for all four. This ensures that all four walls will be exactly the same height and that the box will stand well when reversed. The next ‘trick’ is to measure from the cut roof and divide up the strip only as-and-when each piece is needed, rather than measuring/cutting all pieces out beforehand. This avoids many of the slight discrepancies that are bound to occur.

longer strip for sides

I use solid metal blocks as supports for gluing. These ensure that the wall, shown below, can be positioned correctly on the edge and maintains a right-angle. Steel blocks like these are not available in D.I.Y stores but can be bought online at, for example, www.metalmaniauk.com The best glue to use when working with any card is Pva wood-glue because it’s strong, clean and allows for some repositioning. But better still are good quality wood-glues from Evo-Stik or Loctite rather than the weaker ‘school’ Pva. These make the work easier because they grab and set more quickly.

DSC06724_sm

measuring insert

Above, I’ve glued the two parallel walls first and waited a little for them to become firmer. Then I’m marking the length of wall which needs to be cut and inserted between them. Usually this results in the best fit. Below, the glue needs to be applied to this piece rather than the insert so that the glue isn’t squeezed out onto the surface when it’s pushed into place. Pva glue need only be used very sparingly with this type of card.

applying wood glue

Below, once the piece is inserted the work can be turned around and a flat surface used to level the wall into position. A good Pva glue will hold absorbent cardboard firmly enough for handling after a few minutes though it will take longer for the glue to fully harden.

using work surface

Essential and recommended tools

I’ve written more about these tools in other articles such as ‘Main construction’ which can be found in the Methods /- Making realistic models section, but I’ll repeat the main points here.

Scale ruler There are two types in common use for metric measurements .. flat, 2-sided and triangular, 3-sided. The flat ones may look more elegant and sophisticated, but my preference is for the triangular because they are often clearer, with bolder calibration. They are also a little harder to lose amongst the clutter of a work table. The one shown in the foreground below is actually more for interior or theatre design, the smallest scale included being 1:125. Architects’ scale rulers have a greater range, usually down to 1:2500. Because of this the scales are paired on each of the six edges i.e. 1:1250 with 1:2500 etc. If you want to read more on working with scale rulers see the article ‘Working in scale’ in the Methods section.

scale rulers

Mechanical pencil It is essential to use one of these, shown in the photos above, to make a consistent, fine line when marking up for cutting etc. But this doesn’t need to be an expensive one .. the cut-price ones from any supermarket will do almost as well. I personally prefer to use a special type though which takes a 0.3mm ‘H’ lead, finer and harder than the usual ones, which gives better accuracy.

Scalpel or fine cutting knife I prefer a surgical scalpel, far left below, because it cuts better, is easier to control, and the blades can be more easily re-sharpened. These are made by Swann-Morton, the best handle size is No.3 and the best general-purpose blades to use are ’10A’. The more common type of fine cutting knife to the far right has a round barrel which is more difficult to keep steady and the blade wobbles more because it is less supported. There is one drawback in choosing the scalpel type, and this has started happening only in recent years. For some reason, perhaps because of cheaper manufacture, blades are almost impossible to slide onto new scalpel handles without the help of pliers. One should be able to do this comfortably by hand, but the fit is just too tight.

fine cutting knives

Small try square The one in machined steel shown below is more properly termed an ‘engineer’s try square’ but other, usually 25-30cm ones can be found for general D.I.Y or woodwork. It’s possible to survive without one, but being able to check and mark out right-angles, especially repeated ones, like this can safe a vast amount of time.

try square

Cutting mat The size depends on the size of models you are likely to make but usually an A2 cutting mat is more than enough. It’s best to opt for the cheapest deal you can find if you need to save money because the ‘quality’ doesn’t really make any difference. What matters more is that it’s kept clean .. put aside while painting or especially supergluing because these will quickly make the surface less effective. Whichever brand or source, I would recommend one with a prominent centimetre grid as shown below, because this can help a lot when cutting parallels.

masking tape on metal ruler

Flat metal ruler A metal straight-edge is essential for cutting against and in my experience the best for this purpose are the cheaper, flat steel ones. These are normally available in four lengths .. 15cm, 30cm, 60cm and 1 metre. As with the cutting mat it may be difficult to determine which size will be needed most, but I would recommend that if you opt for a 60cm you really have to get an additional 15cm because it’s a pain having to manoeuvre the long ruler around for small cutting. A strip of masking tape on the back of the ruler, shown above, is essential to make it grip better.

The advantages of making ‘slotted’ forms

The special rigidity of ‘Kraft board’ makes it an ideal material for trying slotted, interlocking forms. This was how I put together the structure shown in the first photo and below, also in close-up.

slotted construction

slotted form close-up

It is just a series of identical floor shapes and identical upright supports with slots cut so that they can interlock, and dependent on the stability this might not even need to be glued. It is by far the easiest way of achieving multiple storeys and uprights which are all reasonably aligned and straight! To achieve identical cut-outs I made Pvc templates first, around which each form is traced in pencil on the cardboard. I had to make the slots on the template a little wider to compensate for the extra width of the pencil line.

slotted storeys with template

This might be a little clearer from the following photos showing a similar, earlier construction.

components for hexagonal building

hexagonal building

It is common practice to indicate slopes or variations of the terrain in layers corresponding to the height levels on a contour map, as shown in some of the photos above. Once again this is easier from the top downwards, cutting out the smallest shapes first and using these as templates for the larger. I prefer to fix these together using evenly spaced pieces of strong double-sided tape, but Pva glue can also be used. This should be applied in small, fairly widely spaced spots (spreading too much glue will cause the cardboard to warp) and ideally the layers should be weighted down while gluing. UHU can also be used for this in a similar way but this needs to be done quickly before any of the glue spots dry out too much.

While working on these landscape layers I looked at another interesting way of creating a smooth gradient by constructing the building blocks first, cutting holes in the card and positioning this around them at an angle, as shown in the photos below. With a relatively simple model this would be a lot easier than sloping the bases of the buildings.

buildings inserted

angled for slope

‘Model-making Basics’ – painting

This is the final of five outline accounts dealing with what I consider to be the five defining areas of model-making work; main construction, fine construction, modelling/shaping, creating surfaces and painting. I’ve written these overviews in preparation for teaching sessions at RADA ( Royal Academy of Dramatic Art ) in London. So they’re tuned towards the specialities of theatre design model work, but most of the points will be relevant in general terms to model work in other disciplines. I’ve started with the general ‘themes’ or requirements of the subject, followed by more specific and practical guidance on the materials and methods which can be used.

I always start by thinking, at least for a brief moment, that there’s not much that I can say about painting! I think this is because I feel that painting is a highly personal thing .. everyone will have their own ways of going about it, and whatever one says about it each person will learn best from their own experiences. I think another reason is that although I’ve done a lot of painting, of various kinds over many years, I still feel like an outsider. Painting is still very much a ‘trial and error’ experience for me. Maybe that’s exactly what it should be .. in order to keep the experience alive and to stay alert!

painting materials for model-making

In fact there’s an awful lot that can be said about painting in this context, if only when one considers the variety of materials one can use as paints .. a wide range of acrylics (‘heavy body’, ‘light body’, liquid or ink-like), gouache, watercolour, tempera or ‘poster’ paint, inks and stains, polishes, enamel paints, artists’ oil paints, spraypaints (DIY, graphic art or graffiti sprays), coloured pencils and pastels, wax-based rubbing paints .. and so on!

I like the term ‘model friendly’! I picked it up from somewhere along the way and it’s usually the first thing that comes to mind when I have to focus on the subject of painting models. So what is ‘model friendly’ painting? An ideal paint for model-making needs to be opaque enough to cover properly without streaking, but at the same time thin enough to do it without clogging fine detail; it needs to mix well, be easily thinned and easily removable from brushes; it should be inexpensive and readily available in a good range of colours; it needs to dry quickly and it helps if it’s self-sealing (so that it can be quickly worked over once touch-dry without dissolving); it also needs to be adhesive enough to stay on a variety of materials, including if possible plastic and metal, and strong enough once dry for light handling. My preference is also for a paint which is matt by default (if a glossy surface is needed this can be better achieved by varnishing a matt surface rather than having to use a separate gloss paint. This gives more control over the results). It also helps a lot if additives are available to extend its properties further i.e. to dilute it heavily without affecting its adhesion so that it can be used as a transparent glaze, or to slow the drying time so that it can be pushed around or wiped off, as oil paint can.

If such a single paint existed it would inspire feelings of much more than ‘friendship’ towards it .. unfortunately it doesn’t exist! But one can get all these things from using a combination of just a few. Acrylic paint comes close, but there are shortcomings and it depends a lot on the type, as I will explain later. The same applies to oil-based enamel paint (more properly called ‘cold enamel’, familiar as the small tinlets from Humbrol or Revell) .. this is an extremely ‘model friendly’ paint in many respects, but lacks versatility. What is not so often considered though is combining the two .. I don’t mean literally mixing, because they won’t, but using them over each other. Coloured pencil, pastel crayon, shoe polish, metallic waxes etc. can also be applied over either of these paints to modify the effect. Many of these combinations would not be open to a serious artist concerned with permanence, but are nevertheless sufficiently durable and lightfast in the shorter term.

GENERAL APPROACH

Observation and visual research

I won’t repeat what I’ve already said about the importance of starting with the right visual information and the need for interrogating the true ‘look’ of something before representing it .. just see the previous post on this subject.

One shouldn’t have to argue that it’s the duty of all who are involved in the creation of images of the world to have a good understanding of its true colours, regardless of how these might then be manipulated to support an idea. One should be fully aware for example that light skin is not simply ‘pink’; that concrete is not really ‘grey’, and that tree trunks are very rarely ‘brown’! Our sensitivity to these things is really not helped by our common language! Quite apart from such brutal distortions as describing people in terms of ‘white’ or ‘black’, we don’t have much of a vocabulary when it comes to the rest of the colour spectrum .. red, yellow, blue, green, orange, pink, brown and grey, that’s often about it for most people! I think this may be one of the reasons why children invariably start by painting tree-trunks brown and often continue to do so in later life .. when the child asks what colour they are, ‘brown’ is just the closest from a limited range of words to describe it.

Most often reaching an understanding of true colour is not simply a case of identifying just one but discovering the interplay of many. A brick wall for example, even the blandest of modern ones, is a subtle pattern of many related colours .. and the trick is to reflect this in a balanced and economical way. In the previous post on Creating surfaces I talk about identifying the essentials of a look or a natural pattern .. seeing the visual recipe .. and conveying that in the model. At such a small scale it’s usually not possible to include everything that the real-life surface contains and it shouldn’t anyway because it is after all an artifice! The small scale forces the designer to concentrate on the few most relevant essentials and the model is the best vehicle for testing what will work.

Planning for painting

Don’t leave painting to the last! This may seem like a funny thing to say, because one would assume that the other processes involved in the making of something all have to come first! Of course they do, when we’re talking about individual elements, but a theatre design model may be composed of hundreds of different elements nearing completion at different times. It may seem logical, even sensible, to complete all the preceding steps on all of these until there’s nothing left but to concentrate on the painting .. but I think this could be a big mistake! There’s an advantage to finishing some of these elements ahead of time just to give yourself an idea of the final look .. whether that turns out how you thought, or whether it prompts a rethink. Also, unless final painting is mundanely straightforward, it is difficult to predict how long it will take to get the desired effect so the sooner one can start investigating the better. A set design is a composition which is no less visually involved or precisely balanced than a painting! I don’t know of any painter who would construct all the elements of a painting in precise detail as a complete drawing and then leave all the colouring-in to last! One needs to preview a great deal as one goes along, for example how colours and surface qualities change forms and react with each other. Often starting the painting process sooner alleviates stress .. for example when discovering that the material chosen for surfacing actually needs very little painting or that the surface texture created does most of the painting work on its own when it’s dry-brushed.

keeping separate for painting

While elements of the model are being made it’s necessary to keep a constant question going in one’s mind as to how they’re going to be surfaced .. whether they’ll be given just a flat colour which can be easily applied once assembled, or whether the different treatment of parts means that it’s better to keep them separate till the last, as above.

However, even if you try hard to paint as you go, it’s often a ‘sod’s law’ inevitability that much of the final painting is done in a rush, because most of the preceding stages take longer than planned, and this is often made worse by not even ‘kitting out’ for painting properly beforehand. By this I mean a number of common sense things .. making sure that reference images are organized and visible; making sure that you have all the paints, additives, brushes and other tools you are likely to need including any specials such as stains or metallics; having scraps of the materials you have used to make tests on; uncluttering the workspace, making sure that it is clean and comfortable; making sure that there is a continuity of reliable, neutral light well into the night!

The composition of paint

It’s very worthwhile knowing at least a little about what goes into a paint! This not only helps with how to use them but also how to change or extend them. Basically paint is composed of .. a mineral or chemical pigment which provides the colour and is usually very finely ground; a solvent such as water, acetone or turpentine which carries the pigment particles and which, upon evaporating, causes the paint to dry; and a binder, in other words a glue, which makes the paint stick to a surface and then hardens to make it durable.

The pigment is not ‘dissolved’ in the solvent but suspended in the form of fine particles and these will differ in shape according to the different minerals or chemicals used. The opacity of a paint, i.e. how well it will cover without lighter streaks showing through, is as much dependent on the shape of those pigment particles as anything else. For example jagged particles are likely to clump together whereas smoother particles will stay apart. For this reason certain colours will usually cover more evenly than others, regardless of the type of paint. Earth colours for example always cover well, whereas some reds or blues are invariably streaky. To compensate for this and to even out the differences a fourth ingredient is commonly present in paints .. a filler. This is also a finely ground powder, but one which is itself colourless and chemically inert. Chalk is commonly used as a filler in gouache, alumina hydrate is another often added to acrylics, and others include marble dust, kaolin, silica and talc. Some more modern, synthesized pigments such as pthalocyanine are so intense that fillers are essential to tone them down and make them ‘palatable’. Gouache is a form of watercolour with a high proportion of filler added to make it especially opaque. But on the other hand fillers are most often added just to extend the paint volume and make it cheaper to produce. It stands to reason that cheaper paints will have an excess of cheap filler, resulting in colours that are rather dulled. This may not be so obvious at first judging by the colour squeezed out from the tube, but it may not keep that colour on drying and the lack of pigment intensity can become very apparent when mixing two of these colours together!

In many paints the solvent which carries the pigment is the same as the solvent in the binder .. for example in most regular, brush-on acrylics it is water. The paint dries and hardens as both evaporate. So why does the pigment need to be ‘wetted’ with the solvent separately? .. can’t it just be added to the binder in one go? If you’ve ever tried to mix your own paint, for example by adding Pva glue to powder pigment, you’ll know that it’s much easier to integrate the dry pigment with the glue if the pigment is made into a wet paste first. The water serves as a bridge between the two and helps prevent pigment particles from clumping together.

The binder, which is essential to provide both adhesion, sealing and eventual hardening, is what principally differentiates paints from each other. The binder in most regular acrylic paints is an acrylic polymer (it doesn’t mater so much here what is meant by that, but if you want to know find the entry in my Lexicon above). In artist’s oil paints the binder is commonly linseed oil; in gouache and some watercolours it is traditionally a very small amount of gum arabic, and traditional tempera paints were commonly made using egg yolk, sometimes animal glue or honey. It is mainly the binder .. or rather the extent to which the binder is modified .. which determines whether a paint will dry matt, silky or ‘eggshell’, or glossy. But it can also depend on the granular size of the solid ingredients, since even minutely rougher surfaces will appear more matt because the light reflected from them is broken up in various directions. Less finely ground pigments may make the paint more matt or a higher proportion of filler in a paint will ‘absorb’ much of the shine in this way (though at the same time diminishing the colour intensity). Sometimes a small proportion of wax is added to paints as a matting agent.

Knowing these things means that you might, to a certain extent, be able to change the paints you have .. perhaps by adding more glue to make the paint stick better or dry harder, or adding more filler i.e. chalk dust or talc, to make it more opaque or matt. Some additions may react with certain ingredients of the paint and make it unusable i.e. making it too thick or preventing it from hardening .. but it’s worth a try and you might even improve it!

Colours

Whatever paints you use, it’s important to be able to get any colour you might want .. its vibrancy, hue, lightness or shade .. as easily as possible. Control over colour begins with having at least a good basic collection of essential colours plus white .. and let’s also include black for the moment for convenience .. and I deal with choosing colours later in this section. But it also depends on being familiar with other individual properties of the paints you have. For example there will be quite a variation in the properties of different colours within the same range from the same manufacturer .. some will be more opaque than others; some will thin more evenly; the pigment in some will be more concentrated and dominant than others; some (especially in the case of acrylic) will dry glossier than others! So getting the green you want is not necessarily just a case of mixing the right yellow with the right blue for example. I only started doing the following once I’d amassed too many paints to choose from at a glance, but I wish I’d started much earlier .. making paint swatches!  I originally started making them purely because one only gets a generalised idea of the colour from its packaging, but then found that this could tell me a lot more besides about the behaviour of each paint compared to another.

paint swatches

I’ve made this kind of test, shown above, with every paint and every colour I have .. brushing each in its strongest undiluted form for about a third of the way down but then thinning it carefully to get a fade to almost nothing. It’s important not to labour getting an even fade but to go with what the paint does naturally so that if the paint is, for example, difficult to graduate the swatch will reflect this. I’ve used pieces of oil-painting paper to paint on, because this type of primed surface is a good ‘average’ .. neither too absorbent, nor too resistant .. and it’s very pleasant to paint on, whether in oil-based, spirit-based or water-based paints. These give me an instant visual record of how well the paint covers, how the consistency changes when diluted and how matt it will dry. Some colours will even change in hue when thinned and this is important to know before using them. For example there are rich reds which appear fairly neutral when seen at their full strength but which reveal a strong bluish bias when thinned or mixed with white (more on colour undertones later). Or there are even colours composed of more than one pigment where these start to separate when thinned such as the chocolate brown below. This contained some strong pthalo green which is appearing towards the bottom of the sample.

pigment separation

Nothing replaces having to experiment with colour mixes on-the-spot i.e. when you need them, but looking through these swatches has always helped me to define the colour I want and make better choices as to how to achieve it. But it’s also a fact that having to mix colours from scratch each time one comes to painting is tedious! .. and we all have favourites that we use time after time. I mix up large amounts of favourite colours when I’m in that kind of mood and (since I prefer using acrylics which are more liquid) fill flip-top dropper bottles of the type shown below. This is the most convenient and economical way to dose out paint, in very small amounts if need be. Often I’ll re-use the old bottles from bought paint but £shops also sell ‘travelling bags’ containing bottles of shampoo, shower gel etc .. the cheapest paint bottles around at 4-5 for £1!

best dispensers for paint

We’re probably all familiar with the basic theory .. that one should be able to get any colour hue one wants using just the three primaries, red, yellow and blue, with the addition of white to lighten the tint (hue by the way means colour, tint means the colour mixed with white and shade is the colour mixed with black). You may also have picked up the advice that one shouldn’t need a black .. that a sufficiently ‘black looking’ colour can be made from a combination of the three primaries. Anyone who’s tried to find those three magically pure, neutral and equally strong primaries amongst the range of existent paints will know .. it just doesn’t work like that in practice! There are vibrant reds that feel closer to orange, while others will feel closer to purple. The same is true of blues .. either they’re too dark to judge in the shop, or they feel closer to either purple on the one side or green on the other. I think a lot of people think that they’re at least on safe and neutral ground in choosing a strong yellow .. but even here there’s likely to be a subtle bias towards either orange or green.

You might ask .. do these subtle biases matter that much? If we’re going to mix colours together, can’t we eliminate the biases anyway? The fact is .. no we can’t, if we’ve just got those three paint colours to work with. Imagine for example that you’ve chosen a red which was the most vibrant you could find, but it’s just a tiny bit on the purple side .. in other words towards blue. You want more of a pillar-box red but just as vibrant, so you add some yellow to it. The resulting colour is duller than you expected it to be. At that point you might remember another piece of the theory .. that complementary colours (those opposite each other on the virtual colour wheel, see below) actually cancel each other out, producing a form of grey. This is what has happened between your yellow and the trace of blue in your red .. and there’s nothing you can do about it! Actually the opposite of blue is, strictly speaking, orange but a warm yellow can be close enough to it. It doesn’t even help if the yellow you’ve got is one that tends towards green instead .. in this case the green and the red being opposites will also dull each other! It’s not usually possible to make colours brighter (i.e. not just lighter but stronger in chroma, to use another accepted term) by mixing them and most often it’s the opposite. If for example you want to make the brightest possible green from blue and yellow you have to combine a blue which already has a green bias with a yellow which also has a green bias. If you then want to lighten it without losing colour brightness or ‘chroma’ you add more yellow, or if you want to lighten it and tone down the brightness you add white.

colour wheel

Then there’s the theory that a good black can be obtained from a combination of primaries. If you choose those three primaries according to their visible brightness then this probably isn’t going to happen .. you may get a form of dark grey at the most! To obtain a convincing black you need quite darkly biased versions of those primaries .. a rich Prussian blue and a dark magenta for example.

The simple answer seems to be .. if you’re not so concerned about vibrancy of colour, and 100% control in achieving every nuance of colour possible, then you could well be satisfied with the three closest possible primaries, plus white .. and yes, why not, including a black just to make life easier! Many paint manufacturer’s websites contain advice on the best three colours to choose if you have to, such as the following from Winsor & Newton:

http://www.winsornewton.com/resource-centre/hints-tips-and-techniques/colour-mixing/practical-applications-of-colour-theory/

Here the company recommends for example using it’s ‘lemon yellow’, ‘Winsor blue’ and ‘Permanent rose’ when working with its Galeria acrylic range because these it says are closest to the printing process colours .. yellow, cyan and magenta.

If on the other hand you’d like more control over colour, you will need at least two versions of each primary, plus a few others besides according to personal preferences. My own personal preferences are as follows:

Red cadmium red medium (yellow bias) and quinacridone red or permanent alizarin crimson (blue bias)

Blue pthalo blue (green bias) and ultramarine (red bias)

Yellow cadmium yellow medium (red bias) and Hansa yellow or lemon yellow (green bias)

I also rely fairly heavily on having others which may not be strictly necessary but which I’ve got used to using anyway .. pthalo green (a very strong, vibrant green with a blue tinge), yellow ochre (an essential basis for naturalism), raw umber (a rich dirt colour), red oxide (or a rich terracotta i.e. a convincing brick-red), Prussian blue (mainly for making black or for darkening greens).

Here I’ve tried to use just universal or accepted colour names in this list .. rather than others like the ‘Winsor blue’ for example because the chances are that they will be fairly similar amongst different manufacturers. But unfortunately there’s no 100% guarantee, even when the standardised pigment identification CII (Colour Index International) number is the same! What all this boils down to really is how I began this section .. for the most reliable control over colour you need to make swatches of the colours you have, identify which are strong pigments and which are weak, practise mixing and build on your own personal experience.

Using ‘natural’ accident

It’s very difficult to create a natural, convincingly random effect by deliberate means! Strictly speaking it’s impossible! .. and in any case one could argue that when the eye of the designer is involved it’s not going to be truly random anyway because there will be a fairly strong element of selection and personal preference, and the urge towards aesthetic balance that true nature doesn’t always care about. However, it’s often necessary to create the semblance of randomness, and for this it’s usually better to discard the brush, using other things such as crumpled tissues or natural sponges to dab paint on .. anything in fact which defies complete control. Making textures do the painting .. i.e. stippling polyfilla to make a rough surface and either dry-brushing or thin-washing over it to bring that texture out .. is good in this respect because there are always some surprises, elements that weren’t planned. I like creating paint effects by spraying though something else such as scattered granules or torn netting (see Creative spraying further on) because it increases the element of chance.

Waiting for paint to dry

I’ve included this as a ‘general’ point because I think there’s a lot of confusion about how long different paints need to dry and harden thoroughly. Many paints become touch-dry very quickly but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are ready for anything! For example a very thin coat of acrylic paint may be dry enough to over-paint safely in under a minute but the complete hardening of the paint to attain its full strength and adhesion to the surface will take days! In fact, acrylic paint can be particularly misleading because thicker coats will quickly develop a skin (especially annoying when they are still on the mixing palette) while underneath the paint can remain soft and damageable for weeks! The same goes for the matt enamel paints featured later .. they can also be dry to the touch in a matter of minutes but will remain very susceptible to handling until they’ve had a full 24 hours to dry completely. These enamels dry differently from acrylics .. they dry from within and do not form a skin, hence the fact that although initial touch-drying can take longer, complete drying is generally quicker.

PRACTICAL GUIDANCE

Priming surfaces

We’ve looked at the importance of this as a safeguard against warping in the previous post on Creating surfaces. But that’s not the only reason why priming (i.e. painting or spraying an undercoat) is important. Acrylic paint is often favoured because it will take to a variety of surfaces and dry properly on them without those surfaces needing any special preparation. This is generally true .. but there are times when even acrylic needs some assistance with covering evenly. Some acrylics (if they have a strong binder) don’t necessarily need an absorbent surface and will even stay on plastic, but most often the smoother and less absorbent the surface the ‘streakier’ the brushstrokes will be. The paint covers but it’s almost impossible to get it to cover evenly. This is partly down to the individual properties of the paint .. there are pigments which are more opaque than others and there are paints which are designed to be more opaque, as I’ve said. But even coverage is also dependant on the structure of the surface being painted. A good example is provided by canvas which, even today, is still largely unquestioned as the best possible painting surface. It’s texture traps paint and the regular weave tends to portion it evenly. In painterly terms this is often referred to as the tooth of the surface, and the oil-painting paper I use for colour swatches has a regularised tooth. Gesso which is for priming canvas or underpainting in white has a slightly rough tooth, though much less visible, which helps to anchor the paint more evenly.

Although paint will take better to absorbent surfaces it also sometimes makes sense to make those surfaces somewhat less absorbent, another reason for priming. This means that paint can be more easily moved around or sometimes even fully removed rather than immediately soaking into the surface (see later Staining, tinting and varnishing and the use of semi-absorbent oil paper). Some oil-based paints fail to dry properly if the ground is too absorbent because it soaks up the oil too quickly, leaving the pigment as a powder on the surface.

Working with acrylic paints

Acrylic paints seem to be the ‘default’ choice of theatre designers for their models .. tube acrylic paints, that is .. particularly amongst students or beginners. When I go to teach 1st-year theatre design students I see boxes of them everywhere and, understandably, these are often the ‘discount’ or cheaper kind. I’m afraid to say that I personally don’t get on very well with tube acrylic paints and from the look of many of the results .. neither do they! I find it much too thick, and difficult to thin down evenly; I’m happy for it to dry fairly quickly on the piece I’m painting but annoyed that it does the same on the mixing palette .. but more annoying is the silkiness or even glossiness that remains after drying which is usually inappropriate to what I’m painting!

Some types of acrylic paint are much more ‘model friendly’ than others. For example I like painting with the bottle acrylics found in many craft/hobby shops because these are generally thinner, more opaque, more matt, longer lasting and much easier to dose out. The ‘Americana’ or the ‘Crafters’ range from DecoArt, below, are the best I’ve found in these respects. They must have a good binder, because generally I’ve found they will fix well onto most things, even foamed Pvc if it’s lightly sanded, and when dry they are sufficiently hard-wearing.

DecoArt bottle acrylics

Apart from their good performance, I like their handy, tight-sealing, flip-top style which keeps them remarkably well and allows me to dose single droplets if needed! This is a big plus in terms of comfort! On the downside, the colour range is certainly not as good as most other ‘artist’s’ acrylics and the shops which sell them don’t tend to stock the full range or keep it stocked anyway. I wouldn’t use them if I wanted complete colour freedom or vibrancy .. but I often rely on them for my usual ‘naturalism’ palette. They’re not expensive .. the common price for a while now seems to be £1.99 for 60ml.

There are other acrylic brands in similar bottles, and some of these work just as well but some do not. The ‘Inscribe’ range is good, as is the ‘Folkart’ and ‘Anita’s’ .. I haven’t tried them all! The £shop-like chain ‘The Works’ stocks some useful things from the ‘Royal & Langnickel’ brand including their bottled acrylic paints. Some of these may be usable, but the darker colours I’ve tried were very streaky (i.e. too transparent) and they dried almost gloss!

An excellent form of acrylic paint in just about all the respects I’ve mentioned is the SuperSaturated scenic paint from Rosco. This is concentrated, and pigment strengths are fairly well-balanced. 1 litre bought will make 2 litres of strong, opaque paint and it mixes readily with water. It contains a very strong binder and it’s claimed that this is strong enough to stay put on plastics and metals (though in practice these surfaces need to be roughened at least). Good coverage can be achieved thinly and it dries very nicely matt! Unfortunately it’s anything but cheap! It’s normally only available in the 1 litre pots and these can cost between £12 and £25 each. There’s a tester box available which is very useful, shown below but this costs around £50. However, if you’re on friendly terms with a scenic workshop that uses these paints you won’t regret filling some sample bottles!

Rosco SuperSaturated range

Acrylic owes a lot of its popularity to the fact that it dries so quickly, meaning that relatively little time is wasted between coats. But this also means that acrylic can’t be manipulated, especially blended, with the same ease as oil paint which remains workable for a great deal longer. It also means that it’s difficult to use textured applicators such as sponges to distribute the paint before it dries on them. For these reasons manufacturers of artists’ acrylics sell what they call retarders which can be added to the paint to slow the drying time. The retarder medium also becomes a perfect vehicle for making the paint more transparent, as a form of glaze, if enough of it is used. I use the retarder for acrylics from Winsor & Newton, which seems to work with all types of acrylic I’ve tried. Below I’ve mixed quite a high proportion of retarder to paint  and used natural sponges, crumpled tissue, newspaper or rags to distribute it over paper. It remained workable .. i.e. movable or removable .. for about 15 mins.

using a paint retarder

Working with gouache

I see almost as many boxes labelled ‘gouache’ in theatre design studios. Gouache is basically a modified form of watercolour, with a filler such as chalk or talc added to make it more opaque (hence it covers evenly) and usually a little glycerine to help it brush or ‘flow’ better. Like watercolour it contains only the minimal amount of binder needed to hold it together because after all, it’s meant to be used on a properly absorbent surface such as paper and it’s not meant to be touched afterwards. It can’t be over-painted easily without re-dissolving what’s underneath .. but this does mean that some nice blending is possible. It’s also agreeably matt! Another difference to acrylic is that whereas light gouache dries a little darker, dark will dry a little lighter.

mixing Pva glue with gouache

Because it has very little binder in it, it is neither sticky nor durable. So if for example you paint a modelled figure with it, it may have just enough cohesion to stay on the surface and dry there but it will fairly readily come off. However, gouache can be very easily modified just by adding a little water-based glue. I usually mix in roughly the same amount of Pva wood glue to gouache on the palette. I’ve had good results with this .. even taking on, and staying on, plastic. If you’re careful with the proportion of Pva used it shouldn’t change the matt quality of the paint too much, but it will change the covering properties i.e. it will make it more transparent and therefore a little streaky.

Working with enamel paints

The term ‘enamel’, when applied generally to a paint, is supposed to denote that it will be particularly hard-wearing, but it should not be confused with the ‘enamel’ finish given to metalware which is much harder because it is fused on using heat. ‘Cold enamel’ paints are commonly available in gloss finish but can also be found in ‘satin’ finish or matt. They are also commonly oil or spirit-based rather than water-based. Generally the matt versions are suitable for painting straight onto absorbent surfaces such as regular paper or card and will dry properly there (unlike oil paint). The added advantage is that the paint will not warp even the thinnest paper, unlike any water-based paint.

Humbrol enamel paints

The enamel paints sold in modelshops (mainly for painting plastic kits) are good examples. Both brands, Humbrol and Revell, use otherwise identical tins and a similar range of colours. The Revell enamels tend to be a little thicker .. there are strong devotees of one or the other. The same distinction between ‘tough dry’ and ‘properly dry’ applies to these enamel paints. Matt Humbrol paints will be touch dry almost as quickly as acrylic, sometimes within 15mins, but it will be a further 24hrs at least before the paint is durable. Humbrol enamel paints cover exceptionally well (with much less streaking than acrylic) and dry very thinly so fine detail does not get clogged. The oil in them will rise to the surface in the tin if they are left for a long time and this means that they can have a very long shelf-life if the tin is properly closed. As a disadvantage it means that they need to be thoroughly stirred if left for a long time as the pigment and filler has separated to the bottom. They also have, like regular oil paint, a very pervasive smell, and although there are no serious health risks with good ventilation I have experienced occasional headaches and smarting eyes after working with them for more than a few hours!

The tins may look small but what they contain goes a very long way because often full, opaque coverage can be achieved with a very thin layer and the paint can be eked out with the brush to cover a very large surface without losing opacity. I would guess that a 14ml tinlet has easily the same covering reach as a 60ml bottle of acrylic for example. Both Humbrol and Revell tinlets are widely available in shops (those selling artists’ materials, hobby or craft shops, or those dealing with scale model building) and are relatively inexpensive though prices vary from one shop to another. For example the best deals are online at www.wonderlandmodels.com with tins around £1.36 including VAT whereas in shops they range from £1.50 to £1.80.

Although I’ve always been a devotee of these paints for whatever purpose, mainly because of their extraordinary adhesion and toughness, there are definite drawbacks apart from the smell! They’re designed for simple, flat coverage rather than ‘painterly’ painting i.e. there’s little blending possible and no additives such as retarders or glaze mediums available. On the other hand they adhere strongly even if heavily thinned with white spirit and can make very effective wood stains. There’s quite a good range of colours, though this is far better weighted in favour of earth colours or natural greens than strong primaries.

Tempera

The type of ‘tempera’ familiar to most people from school days comes in two forms; large plastic bottles and hard, round ‘cakes’. Both are relatively cheap, and certainly not the best pigment quality, but they can still be very useful! At around £2.00 on average for a 500ml bottle of Reeves Redimix Tempera there are at least some colours within the limited range which could serve as excellent basecoats especially for large areas. This type of tempera is also soft compared to most acrylics so it is ideal for the topcoat paint layer which has to separate easily when using craquelure medium for special paint effects. Whereas the liquid tempera appears to have a reasonable amount of binder the ‘cake’ version doesn’t so it behaves more like a cheap, solid gouache which can be wetted ‘on the cake’ where none is wasted. In UK art shops cake tempera is not a common sight apart from the children’s’ painting kits but in some other countries they have a more prominent place in art shops and there is a much more serious colour range.

The most useful brushes to have

You’ll notice from the photographs in this article that there aren’t any fine and expensive sables here! Painting brushes aren’t designed to be rubbed against scratchy surfaces or poked into tight corners, let alone used like a plunger for stippling! So there’s no point in buying expensive brushes! Synthetic brushes such as the one shown on the far right below (usually white or tan-coloured nylon or ‘Prolene’) are the most hard-wearing for this kind of work and they keep their shape well. They are not usually expensive and it’s worth having a few different types i.e. a couple of extra-fine detail brushes (’00’ or smaller), a couple of larger round ones and a few flat. The flat ones are the best to use for streak-free painting of larger areas but they are also good for dry-brushing.

brushes for model-making

It’s also useful to have some general-purpose hogshair brushes (such as the one on the left above) for thicker, textural painting especially stippling. These brushes are also better for forcing paint into tight detail such as the mortar lines inscribed in Kapa-line foam when making brickwork. A third useful type is the full, soft kind shown in the centre (in this case a calligraphy brush) because these are the best for loading when applying washes of watery paint.

Caring for brushes properly is almost as important as having them in the first place i.e. obviously they should never be left for long after painting before cleaning them. Even then, cleaning is not just a matter of rinsing them out thoroughly in the water used while painting. This will get rid of most of the obvious paint but (especially with acrylics) there will always be some which has crept up to the metal sheath (the ferrule) which is harder to remove. This will continue to collect after each use, the hairs will gradually be pushed apart and the brush will never close neatly when loaded with paint like it used to. The solution is to wash it more thoroughly in warm, soapy water after each use, using a stronger bristle brush or even a wire brush carefully to infiltrate the tight bundle of hairs at its base. It’s also worth periodically reviving brushes by doing the same using a stronger brush cleaner or more forceful soap such as ‘The Master’s’ Artist’s Hand Soap.

After brushes, the next most important piece of equipment for painting is a mixing palette or at least some kind of non-absorbent surface on which paint can be mixed and which is easy to clean afterwards. I mostly use flat, white kitchen tiles because these can be left and the paint scraped away once dry without damaging them. Occasionally a flat surface is not suitable if more than just a little paint needs to be mixed up to cover a larger area, especially if this needs to be kept for a while. Of course things like yoghurt pots will serve but I’ve found there’s more need for smaller vessels. The customised mixing palette below is a sheet of 5mm foamed Pvc plastic, light but stable, and makes use of plastic milk-bottle tops glued to the surface to hold larger amounts of paint. I’ve also included a pad of washable plastazote foam to wipe brushes on.

customised mixing palette

Basecoating and working ‘light to dark’ or ‘dark to light’

If an element of the model has been made from more than one material but will be given the same surface treatment it makes sense to paint on a unifying coat first. Dependent on the effect one wants one can start from a pale or white base and paint conventionally from light to dark, or alternatively the basecoat can be dark with further colours applied, especially if dry-brushing, from dark to lighter.

Paint can be applied to a white, or light foundation in various ways. If the paint has a fairly strong, quick-drying and ‘self-sealing’ binder (meaning that once dry the paint layer will not be dissolved by further paint applied over it) it is usually possible to apply the paint as it comes to achieve a solid and even colour. This is true of most acrylic or wall emulsion paints for example. But these paints can often be thinned down considerably and applied as washes, which should still seal themselves, so that other or darker colour washes can be applied on top with the initial colours still showing through. This is sometimes referred to as a type of glazing. By this means it is usual to build up effects gradually from light to dark. Watercolour paint and gouache are non-sealing because they contain the minimum of binder and are normally only used for painting on a suitably absorbent surface, such as paper, which goes some way in fixing them. They can be used in the same way (as above) for building up rich colours on suitably primed surfaces but preceding colours will always mix through and the contrast may be limited. Watercolour is transparent, because it generally doesn’t contain fillers, whereas gouache is opaque because it does. Acrylic is the best in terms of giving the versatility of working in very thin coats but gradually increasing colour richness, depth and contrast. With acrylic it is difficult to go back to white though i.e. to start again and repaint areas without it being noticeable or mudding the look.  

An alternative is laying down a dark colour first (or starting earlier with a dark priming coat) and applying progressively lighter colours on top of it .. working from dark to light. This doesn’t work very well with transparent paints or glazes; it is most effective using opaque acrylic, gouache or matt enamel. This is especially when there is an under-lying texture which will automatically pick up most of the colour on its raised parts, revealing the structure more (as in brass rubbing). This technique is known as dry brushing. This involves putting only a small amount of paint on the brush (similar to blusher on a makeup brush), so it is not literally ‘dry’ but certainly minimal, and lightly skimming the surface. It can be used to subtly alter or enhance colour on a light ground but it is usually much more effective when applying lighter opaque tones over a dark ground. It’s also easier to paint over mistakes with more of the basecoat colour and start again without betraying the fact. Dry-brushing tends to give an enhanced, more dramatic look because of the increased contrasts .. as if glancing light is casting stronger shadows.

wet skimming with paint

For example, above, I am skimming over the relatively prominent brick structure on this piece of black foamboard using a partially loaded brush and thin but opaque acrylic. The main object is that the mortar lines and other indentations remain darker. For the more subtle floor surface being painted below a ‘drier’ application of paint is needed to give full effect to the minute variations in the texture.

dry brushing

An even more delicate ‘dusting’ of paint was needed to bring out the raised pattern on the piece of kitchen tissue used to simulate this quilt and to suggest wear on the old leather Chesterfield.

dry brushing on model furniture

Naturalistic painting can be likened to a performance by a highly skilled actor. It can be so convincing that it feels somehow effortless and spontaneously generated .. belying the layers of thought and preparation that have gone into it!

painting brickwork_basecoat

For this wall piece using Kapa-line foam (a teaching example, hence left unfinished) I have base-coated in a sandy mortar colour instead of a dark one, so that this will remain visible in the inscribed lines. I used thinned acrylic and worked it into the surface with a hogshair brush. This was followed by randomised touches of two more colours shown below. It already looks fairly convincing as brick, but more like brick which has been sand-blasted .. too clean and evenly coloured.

painting brickwork_overlaying colours

So the final touch was using a wash of thinner, darker colour, concentrating on where the bricks are more deeply worn away, where grime would mostly collect. If this wall were in a proper model setting there would be more of this at the bottom, dirtying the meeting between wall and ground.

painting brickwork_final wash

Staining, tinting and varnishing

I’ve briefly touched upon the use of wood stains in the previous post on creating surfaces. Wood stains of various shades simulating various types of wood can be found in stores such as B&Q, and on the whole the spirit-based type are best because they infiltrate the wood fibres better giving a richer effect. But these can be expensive especially if only a little is needed and good stains or tints can also be made by mixing a little pencil or pastel pigment with white spirit, or thinning down enamel paint as also suggested. Liquid shoe polishes are also cheap and are effective either for staining wood or glazing other surfaces. The pieces of stencil card below were given a grain using sandpaper and then stained variously with transparent acrylic, bought wood stain, pastel/white spirit or liquid shoe polish.

stencil card wood-effect samples

Below are texture samples made with Polycell ‘Fine Surface’ Polyfilla which have been rubbed lightly at one end with coloured pencils, then wetted with a little white spirit. The pencil pigment blooms into life and can then be pushed around a little, blended or rubbed off before drying. It is a way of achieving subtle dirtying or colour-tinting and can even be rubbed away with an eraser after drying. Regular paint such as acrylic would be too brutal, difficult to control and would fix itself too quickly even if a very thin wash is used. Most colour pencils, pastel sticks and wax crayons can be dissolved in this way. If the surfaces are going to be handled the effect can be preserved by spraying with either fixative or hairspray.

stains using white spirit and pigment

Below, if the same technique is used on oil-painting paper or board it is possible to work up very even blends or graduations of colour. As I mentioned before re. the colour swatches I make, oil-painting paper works best for this because the surface has just enough absorbency to ‘key’ what’s put on it but much of this will remain sitting on the surface and can be worked around for a while. This will work in a similar way on plastic (i.e. foamed Pvc) which has been sanded, surfaces primed with the fine polyfilla above, and also some fine-surfaced or coated papers. Here I’ve rubbed with the flat of the pencil at one end of the paper to deposit some pigment (this is easier if the surface has some texture), put a little white spirit on a small wad of tissue or cotton-wool, and started rubbing it around to dissolve it and then even it out. The colour will lessen as one moves towards the centre and if one’s careful one can get a very even fade, even blending two different colours in the middle.

pencil wash on oil-painting paper

The test piece in the centre was to see how much of the colour can be removed with a wetted brush or with an eraser once dry. Sometimes one can get back to almost white again! This technique of ‘removal’ is almost a whole method of painting in itself .. I call it ‘painting off’ .. and doesn’t just work with pigment/white spirit. For example, if watercolour is applied as a dark wash and left to dry on a surface which is only partially absorbent (i.e. as I’ve said, absorbent enough to anchor the paint evenly but not letting the paint soak in) the paint can be removed again using water. This can be done in a very general way, using a wetted sponge or rag, but it can also be done in a very specific and controlled way using a fine, wet brush. One of the best surfaces to try this method on is oil-painting paper but suitable surfaces can be created on any base form by priming either with acrylic gesso or the polyfilla as mentioned. Apart from having to have this only partially absorbent ground what is also important here obviously is that the paint used will dry but not seal itself so that it can be re-dissolved. Both watercolour and gouache are just as suitable for this as the pigment/white spirit combination.

Metallic and gloss finishes

One conclusion that I’ve reached over the years is that it’s almost impossible to simulate the look of clean, polished metal using a paint .. as impossible as it would be to paint-on a perfectly reflective mirror surface. In place of a pigment, metal-look paints contain finely ground metallic particles which reflect light back. Often these particles are not even real metal but ground minerals such as mica which are coated and transparent dyes are added to produce a colour range from silver through to copper. The effect when applied to a large smooth surface is usually rather dull and uninteresting! Usually I recommend using a foil-covered paper or card instead. There are some that have an almost mirror-like surface and a little ink or pure pigment can be added to varnish to change silver into gold or copper or darken the surface further to look like steel or lead.

On the other hand it’s relatively easy to suggest tarnished, dulled or dirtied metal surfaces for smaller elements. It’s an interesting example of the assumptions our minds tend to make against the evidence of our eyes, that many real metal surfaces are not in fact shiny, reflective or even lustrous when viewed objectively. I’m often asked what special materials or paints should be used to simulate manhole covers, when in fact no more than normal paint is needed because on the whole there’s very little that remains truly reflective on a dirtied manhole cover. However, because we know it’s metal we picture it differently. If objects nevertheless need something special to make them look convincingly ‘metallic’ it usually needs very little! The small architectural elements below, cast in polyurethane resin and meant to look like buffed iron or pewter, were base-coated in matt black enamel. This was given more than a day to harden properly before being dry-brushed or ‘dusted’ with a special wax gilt called ‘Treasure Silver’. This is like a polish filled with fine metallic particles and is most effective if used very sparingly so that much of the dark under-painting is still visible as contrast. ‘Treasure Gold’ is commonly used and often applied to larger forms such as picture frames with the finger, although for smaller forms one can achieve more subtlety with a brush. As the polish is worked over the form the metallic particles are made to lie flatter giving a more reflective surface than paint. This can be enhanced if need be afterwards by gentle buffing with a fine polishing cloth. There is a special sealer available to protect the surface from handling.

using wax gilt

Cracked or peeling paint

I’m asked many times how best to achieve the look of cracked or peeling paint in a scale model. The best way is to use a special medium often called either a ‘craquelure’, ‘crackle’ or ‘cracking’ medium .. but the technique is not simple, and it is impossible to totally control the results especially in terms of scale. Usually the first requirement is that the surface to be treated is painted with a dark base, of whatever colour you want the cracks to be. This has to be thoroughly dry, then a coat of the cracking medium is applied over it. This also must be allowed to touch-dry before applying a top-coat of a contrasting colour. It is important that this top-coat is applied quickly, evenly and in as few brush-strokes as possible .. because too much disturbance of the layer of cracking medium can lessen the effect. This means that a soft, wide brush is usually best. Also, the best results are obtained with an opaque, but relatively liquid and weakly-adhesive paint .. in other words wall emulsion or poster-paint as opposed to tube acrylic. The cracking effect starts to appear almost as soon as the paint is applied, in other words while it is still liquid. What is happening is that the cracking medium, a form of glycerine, is stopping the contracting layer of paint from finding anchorage on the surface, so it starts separating.

using cracking medium

The size or scale of the cracking will partly depend on the thickness of top-coat applied. Here above, I managed to get a fairly fine scale of cracking by applying DecoArt liquid acrylics as thinly as possible.

Creative spraying

Being able to spray paint, as opposed to using a brush, has a number of advantages for certain tasks. Its much quicker and easier than brush painting when one has to paint a large area .. when turning a white foamboard model-box black for example. Spraying will also deposit a much thinner and more even coat than is possible with the brush and it will be touch-dry almost immediately. It’s very convenient, but there are drawbacks .. special conditions are needed for spraying because a lot of solvent vapour and paint is released into the air and much of the paint settles as a fine dust; spraypainting is therefore wasteful and some brands can be expensive; surroundings, and areas not meant to be painted, need to be carefully masked. If standard (polystyrene filled) foamboard is being used the solvents in most spraypaints will eat away at any exposed foam surfaces such as the foamboard edges. The best way to combat this is to seal those edges first by painting them with acrylic or Pva glue, then spraying once these are fully dry (i.e. ideally waiting more than a day).

There are many different spraypaints to choose from, and these vary not only in terms of the paint properties but the way they can be sprayed. Some, like the 150ml cans from Humbrol or the 300ml ‘Buntlack’ cans from Marabu, are very opaque, well-covering paints which adhere to a variety of surfaces, including plastic and metal, and which are surprisingly durable when fully dry. These release the paint at a fairly high pressure, so they are ideal for full, fast and even coverage but not suitable if you want to lightly ‘mist’ or tint with them. Humbrol offer a range of specially matt sprays but the Marabu Buntlack collection is satin-matt. The cans of car touch-up sprays found in petrol stations or outlets like Halfords are usually under much lower pressure (presumably because this makes it easier to blend coverage over a repair) so they are better for light misting. They are however more transparent .. and of course they dry glossy, unless used on a very absorbent surface such as paper.

The effects below were obtained using car sprays, depressing the spray-cap only minimally and holding the can at more distance (over 30cm). I first sprinkled granules over the paper to act as a mask .. to the left using sugar, to the right using larger granules of vermiculite. With each of these I did a light spray through them first, brushed the material off, sprinkled again, then re-sprayed with a different colour. A high-pressure spray would simply blast the granules away! Depressing the spray-cap only slightly also means that the paint droplets are a mixture of sizes, some large, which gives a more interesting effect akin to ‘toothbrush splatter’.

spray patterns

Although I’ve tried many different types of spraypaint in the past my preference now is for graffiti sprays such as the Montana Gold or MTN 94 ranges. I’ve found that these combine most of the best qualities of all the other types. They’re commonly very opaque, matt, quick-drying and sufficiently durable .. available in a very good range of strong or muted colours. In particular the MTN 94 range has especially ‘low pressure’ making it suitable not only for controlled blending but focused spraying of small elements. These specialist sprays are also amongst the cheapest .. rather surprisingly! Currently the 400ml cans of Montana Gold cost £3.80 and 400ml MTN 94 £3.60, including VAT at Chrome & Black in London www.chromeandblack.com Buying from a specialist shop such as this also means that they will have a variety of replacement spray-caps to vary how the paint can be sprayed.

I do most of my spraying work outside, but for small work I use an improvised cardboard spray ‘box’ for working inside which doesn’t eliminate the smell but stops the spray-dust from travelling. I’ve cut widows in this to let in light and covered them with clear acetate.

improvised spray-booth

I’ve already recommended the use of Simoniz brand spray primer in the previous post, shown on the left below. This also comes in a neutral grey and a brick-red, both of which make very good basecoat colours in themselves. Simoniz doesn’t make a matt black primer specifically, but their regular matt black spray can be used for this and it is one of the strongest and cheapest matt black sprays I’ve found so far.

paint primers

‘Model-making Basics’ – creating surfaces

Please note before you start reading this older post that I have long since included a version in the Methods section, under Making realistic models, which can be accessed above. That version may have been updated or expanded since.

This is the fourth of five outline accounts dealing with what I consider to be the five defining areas of model-making work; main construction, fine construction, modelling/shaping, creating surfaces and painting. I’ve written these overviews in preparation for teaching sessions at RADA ( Royal Academy of Dramatic Art ) in London. So they’re tuned towards the specialities of theatre design model work, but most of the points will be relevant in general terms to model work in other disciplines. I’ve started with the general ‘themes’ or requirements of the subject, followed by more specific and practical guidance on the materials and methods which can be used.

Surfaces in the model can be created by a much wider variety of means than most people realize. Although theatre design models are expected to survive the distance of their short run through the production process, they are not oppressed by the need to last forever, which opens up a much wider choice of materials than a sculptor would normally trust. There’s a huge choice therefore .. but people generally narrow it down by developing their own preferences. I think the choice is also quite personally directed from the beginning .. are you a ‘breaking down’ or a ‘building up’ kind of person, or do you prefer to let ready-made surfaces do most of the work?

If one can speak of ‘grammatical rules’ in the language of model-making, the subject of surfacing/painting taken as a whole has some of its own ones. For example, whereas structures require quite a strict attention to scale, the rules can be bent when it comes to the representation of surfaces. This is for a number of reasons .. firstly it may not be possible to represent the subtle intricacies of a surface at that scale; secondly, even if one could manage it, those intricacies might not be readable anyway, and the last, probably most important reason, has to do with the artifice of theatre itself and this needs a bit of explanation.

Theatre is artificial, but like most other art-forms one of its aims is to convey what’s ‘real’ to us in a different way to how we usually receive it. Theatre employs its own characteristic means of balancing what we recognise as real with what we are meant to distinguish as artificial. So for example when an actor moves to the front of the stage to deliver a soulful monologue we are not meant to assume that his character has just happened to notice the audience or that everyone else on the stage can hear him. These are his private thoughts but they have to be spoken, otherwise we wouldn’t get them. The monologue is a device, a theatrical convention that we are meant to accept but not take literally.

The representation of a location on stage is equally artificial and equally a balance of real and unreal. We may be presented with a fairly detailed ‘slice of life’ on stage but we accept that we can see the cut edges of this, in the same way we accept that a living-room may be missing a wall just to give us a good view. If we take what we see too literally (and sometimes, if it is depicted too literally) it may not make sense. It may break the suspension of disbelief that it is trying to maintain. A classic example of this is when live animals are used on stage. A live goat is the real thing .. what could be a more convincing goat than that? .. but it’s also curiously out of place there, and we devote too much of our attention to wondering whether it’s going to behave!

The same things apply to the representation of surfaces which are meant to signify sometime real but which we know are fake. The objective for the designer is not to fool anyone into thinking that a real wall has been transplanted onto the stage but to make such a good job of conveying the essentials that the audience can happily forget about the distinction. It may even help if it looks a little stylized, or obviously artificial, so that it sits comfortably with the rest of the artifice and so that we are not as distracted as we were by the live goat. In this context realism is achieved by design rather than exact copying, and relies as much on the power of suggestion as truthful depiction. If an impression of realism is intended the designer needs to understand all the ingredients that go together to make the look .. whether it’s a whole bar-room scene or a single brick wall .. and distill that recipe down to a more concentrated form.

Do you see how the model can help with this? .. having to make a small-scale model is an integral part of this process of concentration. It’s not possible to include every detail .. the model becomes the filter!

keeping separate for painting

I’m starting with, as I said, some general ‘themes’ behind the subject of creating surfaces .. ways of thinking, rather than ways of doing .. but then I have selected specific materials or methods which represent the different ways of approaching surfaces .. breaking down, building up, covering with ‘ready-mades’, sprinkling into glue and digital prints.

Many of the better photos used here are from my book Model-making: Materials and Methods and were taken by Astrid Baerndal.

GENERAL APPROACH

The importance of visual research and observation

This will always be one of the foundation stones of this work, at whichever stage of the process. In one of the previous posts in this series I asked whether anyone of a right or responsible mind would try to make a believable Louis XV chair without looking at visual references. Similarly nobody would try to recreate the walls of Versailles without researching, yet we all feel a bit differently when it comes to creating a simple brick or plastered wall. The fact is that although these may not have as many specifics as the walls of Versailles, they still have some which can’t be just imagined! The way things ‘weather’, decay, or even just get a little used have specific visual characteristics according to location and these must be investigated as far as possible if one wants to keep them convincing. As I’ve already said, this doesn’t mean that ‘the look’ won’t be simplified or condensed in the end .. but only after one has a clearer idea of the true ingredients!

photo of weathered plaster

However, whereas one can usually trust that a photo which is captioned ‘Palace of Versailles’ comes from a very specific location (if not of period), one has to be more critical when looking for information on more general surfaces. Doing a Google search using the terms ‘old plaster wall’ or ‘decayed wall’ etc. will bring up a whole variety of images, some of which might well be very helpful in refining your perception of what looks convincing, but many of which could be misleading! For example the photo above comes from the (by far largest and best) free database of texture and surface photos www.cgtextures.com and can be found under ‘Plaster’ in the sub-section ‘Leaking’. There is no other information provided, such as where the photo was taken, what sort of building it was or whether this is an interior or exterior wall. We have to take it on trust that this is actually ‘plaster’! We can all make certain reasonable guesses that it must be exterior and that it has a lot to do with the action of water, based on clues in the photo combined with what we might have seen before, but without more specifics we’re still guessing, making assumptions .. and the result is a stereotype! Are you happy to work within and reinforce that realm of assumptions and stereotypes, or would you rather get closer to the truth, at least in terms of how things really look?

Apart from specific visual references which may be collected as-and-when needed, a theatre designer also needs to build up a certain amount of general knowledge on the subject of common surfaces. Things like the standard size of bricks and their common patterns or bonds, usual widths for floorboards or how wood panelling is usually arranged. For example mistakes are often made when representing brickwork not only in getting the size wrong but also by not knowing the basics of the different brick patterns and the reasons for them. I explain these and provide template guides for marking out in my article brickwork patterns in the Methods section.

Making tests and keeping samples

It’s not easy to predict what a surface texture will look like until it’s sampled, and it’s harder to predict how paint will behave on it! Even using just one material to create a surface may involve a number of operations or stages, each of which could be done in a number of different ways. So it’s important to experiment .. to rehearse how to achieve the look you want and explore the variables, before you commit to doing something irrevocable to a piece of model you’ve just made. Because painting is even more unpredictable you should also paint at least a part of your surface sample before going further .. it’s best not to cover all of it so that you have the comparison of painted and unpainted for future reference. Although I try to separate ‘creating surfaces’ and painting up time-wise, as subjects for teaching, and because they involve their own materials and methods to an extent, in practice they are inseparable! Some materials chosen as surfaces need no ‘painting’ as such, just a little changing; some textures dictate how they should be painted and do most of the work for the brush i.e. when dry-brushing; sometimes it’s worth mixing colour into a texturing medium to texture and paint at the same time .. all this brings the painting stage forward in time, at least in terms of testing, which I recommend in the next post as a very good move!

Since you are spending some time on these test swatches it would be silly not to capitalise on that by collecting them in a purposed sample book. Personally, even if your memory is better than mine, I would recommend labelling each sample with basic info outlining the process i.e. which type and brand of material used, which tools used etc.

surface samples

Dealing with the problem of warping

You may have noticed from previous posts that I rarely use the word ‘problem’ preferring words like ‘challenge’ instead. This is teacher training! But I draw the line before ever looking at warping in a positive light! It is always annoying, but sometimes it can be rather devastating! So quickly .. the ways of dealing with it!

First one has to understand that all absorbent surfaces (such as paper, cardboard, wood, even foam) will warp when exposed to water, even if it’s in the minimal form of moisture, as they dry out. Surfaces which are largely non-absorbent in comparison (such as plastic or metal) will not. The second thing is that those absorbent surfaces will not warp when exposed in the same ways to a solvent other than water, such as white spirit or acetone. Why this is exactly I really don’t know, but there must be reasons. Armed with this knowledge, there are a number of things you can do. You can make your absorbent surfaces more non-absorbent by sealing them .. by spraying them with a thin coat of spray primer such as Simoniz acrylic primer, for example, or trying anything such as fixative or even hair-spray to seal the surface, as long as it dries properly, accepts texture medium or paint over it and doesn’t contain water as a solvent.

paint primers

I would recommend the Simoniz brand of spray primer above. .. it’s the best I’ve tried. A light spray will be enough to seal the surface and although it touch-dries very quickly it’s best to leave it a few hours before painting. I’ve found that if it is properly dry it will take even thin washes of acrylic without resisting them (unlike the Plasti-kote brand next to it which, true to its name, behaves more like a coating of plastic).

Another way is to spraymount surfaces onto card instead of applying polyfilla or paint to it directly. We’ll be looking at some of the options for ready-made surfaces later, but what I really mean here is that you could paint or apply texture medium on thin paper first, letting it warp freely as it dries out, then spraymount it flat onto your constructed pieces.

PRACTICAL GUIDANCE

Scoring, breaking down or impressing foam sheet

The principle type of ‘impressionable’ foam sheet I use is the foam from the inside of Kapa-line foamboard, but there are other types almost as suitable such as the foam in various types of black foamboard, Depron sheet and Styrofoam. But Kapa-line foam is the best for this in my opinion .. softer, more yielding; takes any form of paint well, and is not affected by the solvents in spraypaints or glues. Most of the points made here and some more can be found in my article Creating surfaces with Kapa-line foamboard in the Materials /- surfacing section.

painted brickwork surface

The foam from Kapa-line foamboard is particularly suitable for brickwork at this scale. A pencil point (mechanical type) stroked along it will give a clean, fine impression .. a light, even stroke for newer, modern brickwork or pressing harder to create a more jagged line suitable for older, damaged brick. This older, more crumbled look can be further emphasized by breaking the foam surface up with a wire brush or pushing whole bricks in with a piece of wood. It’s important to get the scale just right and bricks look smaller at this 1:25 scale than one imagines, so I always use a brickwork template I’ve drawn up to transfer measurements and spacings to the foam surface.

scoring brickwork lines in foam

But foam can be used for so much more than just brickwork. Anything can be used to create an interesting pattern suggesting architectural decoration, including oddly shaped dental tools or items of jewellery as shown below.

embossing architectural decoration

As another example .. I was given a box of hard plastic cake decoration moulds and I think they’re meant to be used for moulding soft icing. I didn’t fancy using them as they were but when sawn up into small parts they make interesting impression tools. I had to hot-glue these portions onto sticks so that they could be used properly for pressing.

customised impression tools

The foam in Kapa-line foamboard (and this goes for any of these ‘soft but rigid’ foams) can only be pressed in so far before it will start to tear. I found that I could get a much better and deeper impression using these wider tools if I pressed into separate strips, allowing the foam more opportunity to move.

heavily decorated wall

This wall becomes more of a three-dimensional structure than just a surface and one could argue that it belongs more to the previous post on Modelling and shaping but I wanted to deal with these methods within the context of ‘elaborating on a plane’ and surfaces which are ‘collaged’ together.

shaping a curved edge

Kapa-line foam is one of the easiest materials to use for creating curved-profile strips, to build up wall cornices or similarly heavy wall mouldings for example. I mean, if those shapes have to be more than a few millimetres in size, because ready-made strips of styrene plastic (half or even quarter-circle in section) can be bought for the finer ones. The best way to make these is to prepare an edge of the foamboard i.e. making sure that it is clean, straight and perpendicular, and carefully cut through the top paper (trying not to cut too deeply for the moment into the foam underneath) in order to peel away a strip which is the width you want your shaped strip to be. It stands to reason that it’s going to be a lot easier to shape your strip while it’s still supported, still part of the board. I’ve found that the best sandpaper to use for easy and smooth shaping of the Kapa-line foam is a medium grit i.e. 120 and this must be backed i.e. stuck down on a small board in order to control it. It’s easy to sand the foam and it’s easy to do it smoothly and evenly with a bit of practise .. the main danger is the tendency to apply a little more pressure at either end of the piece making these more flattened.

It’s just as easy to make a strip with a concave shape, such as the curve of a cornice wall moulding between wall and ceiling, by fixing sandpaper tightly against a piece of wooden dowel and running this along the foam edge. I prepared this edge as before by first removing a strip of the paper, but then I took a long slice off the corner first to give the sander something to start on.

shaping a curved edge_2

Returning to the use of tools to break up or make impressions in the surface, two of my favourites are the small wire brush and the ‘fixative pipe’ shown below. Just pressing the wire brush into the foam will create a pitted surface ideal for weathered concrete, paving stones or tarmac, and the hollow tubes of the fixative pipe make a perfect cobblestone pattern.

texturing Kapa-line foamboard foam

Below is a convincing simulation of weathered tarmac made by a student at Rose Bruford College.

weathered tarmac effect

Even more specialised ‘impressing’ tools can be made quite easily out of Super Sculpey. I modelled the one below to create a particular kind of cobblestone and baked it for the maximum time in the oven (rather than using a hot-air gun) to ensure that it was as hard as possible. For more on this and the best ways to do it see the post Making relief patterning tools using Sculpey from January 2013.

using a modelled pressing tool

Armelle Ramage, while a 1st yr student of Design for Screen at Wimbledon College of Art, made good use of this technique to create the distinctive wall symbols for this model of an Egyptian tomb, although my quick work-in-progress photo doesn’t do it full justice.

patterns pressed in foam

Kapa-line foam compresses very well i.e. it stays put and doesn’t fill out again when it’s painted. Below, I’m using this to create the suggestion of layers of rock in this piece of foam, mainly by pressing down with a small ruler. I’ve used a sharp dental tool to slash the surface beforehand.

rock surface

Another specialised use for Kapa-line foam is the creation of curtains because, as below, it can be sanded to represent the folds of fabric. If a pattern is needed the easiest way is to print this on tissue-paper and paste it onto the surface. Printing on tissue paper is possible if this is fed through the printer attached to a regular sheet of paper (there will be more about this later).

curtains with foam and tissue paper

In his model for Paradise Lost the designer Ben Stones carved this theatre curtain in styrofoam rather than trying to make real fabric behave in a scale-friendly way. It would be difficult to arrange such purposeful folds even using a very thin fabric. curtains carved in foam

The advantages of being able to create the surfaces you want in black foamboard (as opposed to the special Kapa-line) are that it’s cheaper and obtainable almost everywhere. Another advantage is that there may be less painting involved (at least less base-coating perhaps) because the foam is dark grey to begin with. Not all black foamboard brands enable easy peeling of the paper though, so one needs to test if one can before buying. The polystyrene foam is not as fine and impressionable as the polyurethane foam in Kapa-line foamboard but it’s good for things like the brickwork below, using the same tools and paints used on the Kapa-line foam. However, being polystyrene the foam in black foamboard will be dissolved by spraypaints and solvent glues (such as UHU and superglue) so I wouldn’t advise spraying a brickwork surface you’ve spent some time on. Spraypaint doesn’t dissolve it completely though and for some things you may find it an interesting surface in itself!

using black foamboard for brickwork

In one respect the black foam gives a better result than Kapa-line foam, when a wire brush is pressed/dragged along it to suggest heavily weathered wood! I’ve written a short article Using standard black foamboard and this can be found in the Materials /- surfacing section.

old wood with wire brush

As indicated in the previous post, styrofoam can also be broken down to create a texture, though it is not quite as yielding when making impressions. The rocky surface below was made by first slashing with the back of a scalpel blade, beating with a wire brush and then scratching away with the scalpel. I’ve used thin, matt acrylic to paint this.

texturing styrofoam

painted styrofoam

Although foams like the ones featured are the most yielding materials in this context, there are some others that can be ‘broken down’ in a similar way. ‘Palight’ foamed Pvc is soft enough to make quite an impression when scraping sandpaper along the surface. For the samples below I used a coarse (60 grit) sandpaper mounted on a sanding block and dragged firmly but repeatedly in fairly straight lines to achieve the effect of wood grain. In some places I used the edge of the block to press in a deeper groove. It has to be practised to get an idea of the pressure needed, what movement works best and the range of what’s possible. A bonus is that because the plastic is sanded it will accept paint, even in thin washes, a lot better. After a number of experiments I found that the most convincing results came from undercoating first in a light wood colour (thinned System3 yellow ochre acrylic worked well) and once this dried washing over again with a much thinner, darker colour. This was because when I tried a darker wash first, the white of the Pvc was too visible in the highlights.

Pvc wood effect samples

To make the piece of panelled wall here I prepared an A4 size sheet of Palight first with the wood grain effect so that this could then be cut up into pieces and applied. I wanted rounded borders inside the panels and around the doorframe, for which I used bought strips of styrene plastic. These also had to be lightly sanded otherwise the paint treatment would not take in the same way.

panelling in Pvc before painting

One of the most important requirements of wood panelling, in terms of the right ‘look’ and whatever material is used to create it, is that it looks ‘composited’ of separate, joined pieces even if it is not. For this example I did actually do that, piecing together lots of separate bits but for example the main framework around the inset panels could be made as just two pieces here .. as long as the surface is grained in the right directions! In real panelling, whether on walls or single doors, the grain of the wood will almost always go in the direction of the longest side of the rectangle. For the painting in this case I just used a light wash of System3 yellow ochre without a second colour.

panelling in Pvc

close-up of panelling

Stencil card (also known in the UK as ‘oiled manilla’) can also take on the appearance of wood if it’s scraped with sandpaper, although for a finer scale it’s better to use a less coarse sandpaper such as 120 grit. Once it is ‘grained’ in this way it will take stain, polish or washes of acrylic well, even acrylic rubbed over using a cloth, and the colour will emphasize the surface structure. If acrylic is used it should be one with some transparency. For the various samples below I tried woodstains, liquid shoe polishes and System3 acrylics.

stencil card wood-effect samples

An advantage of using stencil card to simulate wood panelling is that, because it is relatively thin, layers can be built up without appearing too ‘heavy’. The standard thickness is 375 microns (about a 1/3 of a millimetre).

panelling in stencil card

Sealing or strengthening foam surfaces

Most foam surfaces can be just painted with acrylic and they will survive if handled carefully. They can also, of course, be undercoated with normal acrylic gesso first if you want to start from a white base. But if you’re worried about durability or want to make the surface more resilient for handling, there are a number of further options. The simplest is to coat the foam before painting with one or more layers of Pva wood glue. If you’re using a type which is easily brushable, such as one of the cheaper ‘school glue’ types this can be used as it is. The more professional wood glues such as Evo Stik Wood may need just a touch of water to help brushing them on more easily. Since Pva contracts a lot when drying there’s little danger of losing the surface detail .. but you will notice a very slight difference. An even tougher surface can be achieved using a special medium called Paverpol which is made in the US but available here. It is marketed as a medium for painting on or soaking fabric to make it tough, rigid and permanent, for example to drape it on a figure sculpture. It won’t make the surface of Kapa-line foam or styrofoam as strong as that but it makes them much stronger than painting alone. Paverpol comes in a few different base colours but includes a transparent one which accepts acrylic or powder pigment well, so one can mix up one’s own base colour. One important thing to bear in mind, as I’ve mentioned before, is that the styrene foams i.e. expanded polystyrene, styrofoam or Depron are attacked by solvents such as acetone, present in many spraypaints, or other spirit-based paints and glues. On the other hand the polyurethane foam in Kapa-line foamboard is resistant. It can even be coated with polyester resin, which gives it an even more durable surface.

Using polyfilla or other texturing media

I’ve tried various options over the years but none is more reliable, versatile and durable than this specific brand .. the ‘Fine Surface’ Polyfilla from Polycell. This is a standard type, found in most warehouses and DIY shops and it is not particularly more expensive but it is far superior to any others for this type of work because of certain special properties. It comes ready-mixed in tubs and has an almost solid, gel-like consistency but this will turn to a smooth ‘cream’ once you stir it thoroughly. I’d recommend you don’t try to do this with the whole tub but transfer a smaller portion to a mixing pot first.

textures using fine surface polyfilla

It is very sticky ..much stickier than others I’ve tried .. meaning that this polyfilla will stay on plastic and even metal if the surfaces are properly clean. It will keep much of its adhesive property even if thinned down with water. It is very fine-grained, almost like thick acrylic paint, meaning that it can be spread very smoothly without breaking up and can be sanded if need be to a glass-like smoothness. It hardly shrinks at all unless applied very thickly and this means it doesn’t usually crack. Added to this, it dries fairly quickly and remains slightly flexible. Here are some samples showing the effects of applying the polyfilla in different ways i.e. stippling with a brush, spreading with a palette-knife or wooden fork, pressing with a rag etc. I’ve given these a wash of thin acrylic and then sanded down a little to make the structure more visible.

polyfilla textures

Below, polyfilla can also be used in combination with Kapa-line foam, to sharpen the surface detail or give even more depth.

old plaster wall effect

combination foam and polyfilla

The distinctive, stone-like texture below was made by spreading on a thin layer then pressing in a sponge while still wet to imprint the pattern. The sponge needs to be damp to prevent the polyfilla from sticking too much.

imprinting texture from sponge

Covering with ‘ready-made’ papers

One of my favourites is vinyl-textured wallpaper, which I’m concentrating on here, but there are so many others including marbled writing-paper, sandpaper sheets, or special decorative papers.

First, a few general words about spraymounting since this is the most convenient method of gluing down any piece of paper over a certain size. The most reliable brand to use is 3M (this seems to be the most commonly available anyway) but there are different types from 3M. I use the word ‘spraymount’ like most people do as a blanket term for all of them but strictly speaking ‘Spraymount’ is the name 3M gives to its lower-tack, repositionable spray-glue and this is not the best for sticking securely down straight away. Better for this purpose are either ‘Photomount’ which is stronger and permanent; ‘Displaymount’, even stronger for heavier materials, or lastly ‘Craftmount’ which is the strongest of all. With all of these a fairly light spray will suffice. The surface needs to feel tacky to the touch, but if so much is sprayed on that the paper slides around a little when sticking it down you can be sure that it’s too much. It will stick firmly eventually, but it’s more a question of economy since these sprays are expensive! 3M’s lower-tack ‘Spraymount’ can be used though if you want the option of repositioning. If sprayed on one surface it will remain temporary for about 12 hours whereas if both surfaces are sprayed this will be reduced to 2 hours.

One of the perks of using vinyl-textured wallpaper is that small amounts can be had for free! For example B&Q usually includes an opened roll of each type on their shelves for people to take samples home. ‘Vinyl’ doesn’t sound like the kind of material which will welcome paint, but it paints up very well with acrylic. More interestingly, because the vinyl relief pattern doesn’t cover the whole surface but leaves much of the soft backing paper exposed, washing with very thin acrylic will create a varied pattern as shown below.

vinyl wallpapers

Here below, I have used strips of vinyl wallpaper to create a rough stone effect for the 1:6 scale fireplace model mentioned in the previous post.

fireplace model

There are many interesting relief patterns or textures to choose from in paintable white .. but there are usually just as many coloured ones and these often have a finer-scale surface.

vinyl wallpaper samples

Other options for ‘ready-made’ papers include using the marbled writing paper shown below to simulate marble. Covering with transparent film is often the easiest way to achieve a polished look. The other papers below are a selection from the firm E. Becker who make decorative papers used in packaging or bookbinding. Paperchase and Shepherds in London (see Suppliers) stock a number of these.

decorative paper samples

Hobby or craft shops often sell sheets of ‘velour’ paper, especially in their card-making section, and these can serve well as carpet. Almost equally convincing as carpet is painted sandpaper.

velours and sandpaper

Creating patterns and printing surfaces

Circumstances have changed a great deal since I was a student of theatre design in the mid 1980s! If we wanted to create something like scaled wallpaper in a theatre design model we would normally seek out a pattern in a book and, if we managed to find a suitable one which had been reproduced flat-on, it needed to be reduced on the photocopier and carefully pieced together on the model. Because colour copies had a shiny surface and were often unreliable in terms of colour anyway, it was often necessary to photocopy in black&white and hand-colour afterwards!

Now the method of printing out as much as one wants, in exactly the right scale and in perfect colour on suitably matt paper, couldn’t be much simpler .. and all at home! I have described the whole process of creating scaled wallpaper using digital images in my post Using digital images in ‘realspace’ models – Part 1 from January 2013. Part 2 was going to look at whether photos of surfaces could be used in the model in place of texture medium and paint, but as this hasn’t appeared yet I’ll preview it here. I was always schooled in the idea that texture intended for the set design needs to be at least approximated with a real texture in the model for at least two reasons .. firstly so that light will behave in a similar way in the model and secondly to make it clear to the scenic artists that a real texture is intended. Both are good reasons but I also feel that as even the way that full-size theatre sets are created is changing through new technologies it should open up new methods of representation in the model .. at least that’s part of my argument for it.

persian carpet

For the first example I’m showing here I used a digital representation of a carpet pattern, scaled to size and printed on matt-coated inkjet paper. I chose a patterned carpet as a subject because it’s one of the most difficult things to reproduce in a scale model. I spraymounted the print onto thin plastic to give it some strength and keep it flat .. then attacked it with a wire brush. Careful ‘scumbling’ (pressing down and rocking around) with the brush gradually makes the paper surface fuzzy .. not as much as velour but it definitely gives it a texture. Some of the definition of the pattern is lost, but not much if careful .. it’s probably more suited for conveying the look of an old, worn carpet though.

printed carpet

I’ve only tested the technique using one type of matt paper, shown below, and there may be even better ones but I’d recommend this from WHSmith because it’s also fairly cheap at around £7 for 50 sheets.

matt photo paper

For the second example here I’ve used the high-resolution photo of ‘leaking plaster’ shown earlier .. which, whatever the specific source, is such a rich surface! I’ve used it as a general source of pattern and colour and collaged it on the wall construction shown below (the pieces of this model are also shown at the beginning of this article).

photo of weathered plaster

covering surface

The technique of roughening the photo is very effective for simulating these peeling walls! The wire brush will break up the surface just enough to catch the light in places, taking us away from just the sense of a flat photo but keeping all the photorealistic nuances that would be difficult to achieve with a brush.

distressing surface

Textures can also be applied on top, reasserting the three-dimensionality. Here I’m building up fungus or moss with a mix of acrylic paint, Pva and sand.

modified photo

wall sample with moss

I feel it’s worth showing the following examples of printing on very thin tissue paper even though I’ve only ‘dabbled’ with the method so far and am not sure about its usefulness. It’s certainly effective for applying a pattern to curtain folds created in Kapa-line foam shown earlier. There’s more about this, and how to print on tissue paper, at the end of Using digital images on ‘realspace’ models – Part1 from January 2013.

prints on tissue paper

‘Gluing and scattering’

I haven’t been able to find a cleaner phrase yet for the technique of brushing on a layer of glue and scattering something granular into it to create a surface. I tend to use it a great deal for representing plant foliage, but otherwise only very occasionally when the right ‘look’ can’t be achieved by any other means. For example, I can’t imagine there’s a more effective way of achieving the surface of a sloping pebble beach than hunting down the right colour and size of mini-gravel (from a shop selling scenic model materials or a pet shop selling aquarium supplies) and using that to cover a surface you’ve carefully shaped. Those are the challenges .. the terrain shape has to be created first by another means, one can’t mound this stuff into shape and expect it to stay there; secondly success in achieving the look that you want is so dependant on managing to find the ‘right stuff’. For example, back in 1999 when I was working on part of the presentation model for one of the Millennium Dome exhibition spaces I managed, after days of looking, to find an aquarium gravel that was so perfect in every way to recreate the shingle of Brighton beach in 1:25 scale .. shortly afterwards the shop closed down and I’ve never found anything remotely like it again! Below is the only photo I have of that part of the ‘Living Island’ model.

Living Island

Below is a piece of hedge, shaped from a piece of open-celled foam, covered with poppy seeds to create the effect of small leaves. The other materials featured include granulated cork, railway modeller’s ‘ballast’ and crushed eggshell.

surfaces made by scattering on glue

Textures can be created by ‘gluing and scattering’ and then painted to give a different appearance. Below are fine sand, sugar and ‘ballast’ compared to their painted versions underneath. Sugar can be sprinkled onto a thin layer of glue without dissolving too much but I’ve painted it with a spirit-based undercoat.

scatter texture samples

Using thin wood for panelling and floorboards

If wood is an important part of the setting you are designing, more often the case at least with the floor and the doors, it’s natural to think of using real wood in the model to convey this, although as I’ve shown the effect can be simulated with other materials. If a tight-grained, evenly coloured wood such as obeche, bass or balsa is used it just looks so right, in spite of the fact these are strictly speaking out of scale. These woods will also accept staining or varnishing in a ‘true to life’ way. As a material wood evokes a lot of sympathy .. we’re all very familiar with it, it’s sustained and supported us for many thousands of years, we’re grateful towards it .. hopefully! .. and I do think that plays a part when people say that they just like using wood in the model for whatever purpose. However, even if the wood is thin so that we don’t have to use saws to cut it, it is not as easy to work with as cardboard or plastic. When I say ‘thin wood’ I’m referring to the small sheets most commonly found in model shops measuring 100x915mm, the thinnest (and best choice) being 0.8mm thick. I’m not speaking about either wood veneer, which is most often thinner, or fine-scale modeller’s plywood. As for veneer, I found the ones I tried in the past expensive, difficult to flatten and brittle while even the thinnest modeller’s plywood was tougher to cut with a scalpel.

panelled walls and wood floors

Below is a page from one of my sample books showing swatches of (from top to bottom) walnut, the next two of obeche, followed by the paler bass, then spruce and finally modeller’s plywood. The darker walnut may be a good option to start with if you want to create dark wood panelling or a contrasting tone as in the floor above, but it costs a bit more and can be rather brittle. My favourite is obeche because it’s the most pliable, but bass is also easy to work with. Walnut, obeche and bass all have a ‘scale-

wood samples

friendly’ appearance but spruce is different and it would be a mistake to use this for fine panelling in a 1:25 scale model.

prominent resin pattern

I set up the photo below to illustrate the main stages of building up panelling, whether for doors or walls .. the base-layer, the framework and then the edging details. Since the base layer is mainly there to show what’s in the panels it’s important that the grain of the wood should run in the right direction. It’s a characteristic of almost every panelled surface that the grain of the wood follows whichever is the longer side of the rectangle. It’s also structurally ‘unsound’ (speaking of the real-life construction) if the grain of the wood goes in any other direction than the length. So the framework which I have shown on the middle example below has to be pieced together from separate strips. Unfortunately there’s no shortcut (i.e. cutting windows out of a continuous piece) because this just wouldn’t look right!

stages in making a door

Another feature of real-life construction which the model has to copy if it is to look convincing is the mitred join, that is, when two pieces connect at a 45degree angle as shown below. This is especially common on door or window frames, often because the profiled strips (i.e. having a particular, stepped shape) can only be joined this way. I describe the best methods for doing this in the post Making walls – Part 3 from February 2013 and this applies to working in wood even though there I’m using plastic.

stages in panelling_1

In the example shown here I’m gluing thin obeche wood onto Pvc plastic. Superglue has to be used for this, and it’s important to realize how little is necessary! In the first place it’s best to put the superglue on the plastic rather than the wood because it will soak in too quickly and may even infiltrate to the other side. Secondly only miniscule spots of glue are needed to secure the wood pieces to the plastic firmly .. certainly the opposite of smearing glue all over! Think of it more like using tiny nails .. only a few are needed, at the ends or corners and perhaps in the middle.

stages in panelling_2

For this piece I’m using small portions of cocktail stick inserted between the pieces of sheet wood to create rounded profiles. An important final touch, before staining or varnishing, is to take a piece of very fine sandpaper and ‘clean’ the hard edges a bit. It wipes away any loose fibres or splinters and generally softens the look a little, making it look more ‘in scale’.

stages in panelling_3

If for any reason you prefer to make up lengths of profiled strips separately, rather than building them up bit-by-bit as above, it makes more sense to assemble these together using the edge of a sheet. Below I’m making a profile strip composed of three separate pieces but gluing the top two on the edge of the sheet first before I cut the larger bottom one. This just makes the strips easier to handle.

making profile strips_1

I’m also using the clean side of a sanding block as a guide to glue up against.

making profile strips_2

More about stains and varnishes will be included in the next post on Painting. It’s important however to be aware beforehand how certain woods will react to staining and it may affect the choice of wood you use. As an example, the lighter strips of bass wood included below have become much darker than the others when stained.

floorboards in the model

Below is a different method of creating the look of elegant wood panelling using plastic or thin card and adding thin, round brass rod. Normally it’s difficult to glue metal securely in place but it works if the rod is rubbed with fine sandpaper or Emery paper, fixed in place with Pva glue and, once this has set, given another coat of Pva glue on top to seal it in.

using brass rod for panelling

Earth, grass, plants and tree foliage

This is why the article has become so long! .. there are so many different surfaces to be catered for, let alone the variety of materials and methods that can be utilized to represent them! For example, earth alone takes so many different forms .. dry, cracked, dusty, loose, moist, chunky, caked, muddy .. and research is important because it is likely to have a special appearance according to each geographical region. Moreover, whatever physical form it takes it is rarely one material of one colour, but composed of a number of things like the sample to the right below for which I added finely crushed eggshell, crushed brick and coarse sand to the mixture. In other words earth is predominantly granular, so just mixing a lot of colour into polyfilla and spreading it onto a baseboard will just look like Nutella!

earth effects

I usually have to create a mixture of Polycell ‘Fine Surface’ Polyfilla, with a little water to thin it; something granular such as sand, used t-bag tea, granulated cork, coarse sawdust or those mentioned above; and enough paint .. either strong acrylic, water-based paint toner, tempera or wetted powder pigment .. to turn it the right colour. This can then be spread onto the surface and left to dry. The addition of the granular fillers also means that the mixture can be applied, even shaped, quite thickly, and it will still dry within a reasonable amount of time. Moreover if the fillers used are partly absorbent, such as t-bag tea, cork or sawdust, they will speed up the drying time more and cause a similar pattern of cracks to real earth when it dries. If I’ve used coloured fillers such as the crushed brick and want to expose the colour of these more I brush the surface carefully with water to remove some of the acrylic before the mixture has fully dried.

used tea

Above, the contents of used t-bags can make a fairly convincing soil on its own, if Pva glue is added as a binder and with some water-based stain or colourant if it needs to be darker.

There are almost as many different ways of simulating grass in the model, though it’s much more difficult to achieve a convincing appearance or a particular type of grass than earth. Below is a photo of real grass. You’ll see that it’s really very different from a Wimbledon lawn or AstroTurf .. there’s much more soil visible and it often includes many other leaf shapes.

real grass

I developed a method which I felt reflected this more, principally using dyed sisal. Sisal is a natural plant fibre, like hemp, and a convenient source can be found in garden stores. Loosely compacted sisal is used to make the liners for hanging plant baskets and luckily the sisal is usually dyed green already! I make up a soil mixture using polyfilla, colourant etc. as previously described and press clumps of this sisal into it. When the polyfilla has completely set (it’s best to wait a day or so) most of the sisal has stuck firmly but can be teased up for long grass or cut down for shorter grass. I’ve added some dyed sawdust to the pieces below to give some variety.

model grass samples

Below is a close-up, followed by a fuller looking version for which I clumped the sisal more tightly together and then enhanced the green a little using some spraypaint.

model grass detail

thick model grass

Other materials which can be used to simulate vegetation include various types of the open-celled foam already mentioned. The proper name for this is reticulated foam and it is manufactured as an industrial filter material. Green-coloured versions can often be found in model supply shops, such as the hedge strip on top of the pile below.

reticulated foams for scenic models

This makes a very useful ‘scatter material’ when pulled apart into little bits.

shredded foam mix

Below I have shaped a surface using a sheet of reticulated foam (pulling bits out or snipping with scissors), dabbed this with Pva glue, sprinkled on a mixture of poppy seeds and coarse-ground black pepper, then painted this with thinned acrylic. The advantage of using the reticulated foam as a base is that it doesn’t look too solid .. there’s some ‘see through’, some depth seen underneath .. and the mixture of granules stops the coverage from looking too regular.

painted scatter on foam

I often use reticulated foam to build up some mass on model trees (see the previous post in this series on Modelling and shaping) and another favourite for suggesting the appearance of leaves is crushed eggshell.

tree foliage

painted eggshell foliage

Making latex ‘skins’

Methods borrowed from the domain of mouldmaking&casting tend to creep in everywhere in these articles but the following one is not solely due to my special interest in it .. I was shown this a long time ago when I was studying to be a theatre designer. Liquid latex will dry as a thin and durable skin, so if it’s applied in a suitable mould, structured surfaces can easily be cast. On its own latex will dry out to a translucent pale-amber colour but because it is water-based it will accept small amounts of acrylic, tempera or powder pigment mixed in to give it a base colour. Below is the representation of a flint wall surface and the ‘skin’ casts I’ve used to piece this together. I modelled the original for this (I usually use the word ‘prototype’) as a flat rectangle in plasticine, then made the negative .. the mould .. from it using plaster.

cast latex flint surface

Once the plaster is dry the mould can be covered with latex but this is difficult using a brush (as the latex congeals very quickly on it) so it needs to be poured in, rocked around to cover the surface and then any excess drained away. This is important because latex must be allowed to dry out in thin layers, otherwise this can take a very long time. Plaster is ideal for making the mould because a good one (i.e. a fine, quick-setting, durable casting plaster) will reproduce every detail of the prototype and the plaster mould will quickly absorb much of the water from the latex, speeding up the drying process.

making latex skins

As another example .. for an animation project I needed to create the effect of a large mound of coiled chain in the model, but using that amount of fine-scale chain would have cost far too much so I decided to try faking it using latex. It was a little more involved than I’d anticipated because I had to start by making impressions of real chain in plasticine but making a plaster mould from this would just give me negative impressions again in the latex.

making fake chain surface_1

So I had to make another ‘cast’ on top of this using silicone rubber .. all the stages are shown above .. which could then be covered in plaster to make the correct mould. I wouldn’t have been able to simply cover the original plasticine with latex because it doesn’t dry on it. I then cut the latex skins up into jagged strips, which was necessary to confuse the joins, and stick them onto the base I’d made for the mound form. The only type of glue which works properly for this is a rubber contact adhesive such as Evo Stik Impact or Dunlop Thixofix.

making fake chain surface_2

Below is the finished result which I had to select just a detail from because of copyright. There are only a few strands of real chain used here .. the rest I’ve dry-brushed with enamel paint and ‘Treasure Silver’ which is a wax-based, metallic paste applied with the finger or a cloth. Latex is not easy to paint fully, which is why it’s always better to mix in colour first. Enamel paints (the small tins from Humbrol or Revell which I’ll say more about in the final post on Painting) grab onto latex very well, but standard acrylic may not stay. There is a special medium called Prosaide, used as a glue for sticking latex prosthetics to the skin, which can be mixed with standard acrylic to make it paintable on latex.

making fake chain surface_3

There is a much quicker and simpler method you can try if you’re not planning on using the mould a lot. I made the sample skins below using moulds made by directly pressing tools into Kapa-line foam.

latex 'skin' samples

These moulds are shown below, and I’ve made impressions in the foam using the ends of paintbrushes, a small metal ruler and the rounded end of a jigsaw blade. There’s little difference between this and the foam texturing described earlier .. except that this is working ‘in negative’. It’s difficult to predict exactly how the latex ‘skin’ casts will look .. but sometimes the results are very .. positive! The most important practical part to remember is that the foam surface needs to be sealed properly before latex can be applied, otherwise it will stick. Here I’ve used a grey wall emulsion paint but cheap tempera, gesso or any water-based undercoat should work. I also dusted the moulds with talc before using them.

casting latex surfaces in Kapa-line foam

‘Model-making Basics’ – modelling and shaping

Please note before you start reading this older post that I have long since included a version in the Methods section, under Making realistic models, which can be accessed above. That version may have been updated or expanded since.

This is the third of five outline accounts dealing with what I consider to be the five defining areas of model-making work; main construction, fine construction, modelling/shaping, creating surfaces and painting. I’ve written these overviews in preparation for teaching sessions at RADA ( Royal Academy of Dramatic Art ) in London. So they’re tuned towards the specialities of theatre design model work, but most of the points will be relevant in general terms to model work in other disciplines. I’ve started with the general ‘themes’ or requirements of the subject .. in other words the ‘ways of thinking’ behind the practical work .. and this is followed by a selection of ‘ways of doing’ giving more specific and practical guidance on the materials and methods used.

As I see it, ‘modelling and shaping’ encompasses the making of any element in the model that cannot be achieved by methods of construction. That is, if a form or part of a form cannot be achieved by cutting sheets or strips of bought material and assembling the pieces, it means that it has to be either shaped or modelled. So for example this would include model figures and trees; forms of relief decoration which are more than just cut outs; the making of specialized forms such as globes, domes, bowls, niches; soft furniture such as armchairs, sofas .. I’m sure you get the idea! Some of these things can be bought, including figures or trees, but usually the likelihood that these are ‘just the thing’ is slim. It’s very easy to persuade oneself that it’s a good move if it will save hours or even days of time, so one should guard against ‘cheating’ oneself by compromising on what one really wants. Nevertheless it is worth knowing what the options are for a number of difficult forms, such as transparent globes or domes for example, because believe me unless you are a highly experienced maker there’s no easy way of making such things oneself. 1:25 scale figures can be bought and are often used, but again I’ve seen too many examples of their careless use in theatre design models to want to recommend this solution.

It’s expecting rather a lot of a theatre designer to be a good sculptor too, especially a good sculptor of miniatures! .. and modelling is traditionally the province of the sculptor. For this reason ways have to be found of keeping within one’s ‘comfort zone’ in terms of knowledge and skills. You can’t know and be able to do everything! There’s no such thing as ‘cheating’ here (except in the case of cheating yourself, as above). What counts is that you’ve done what you can to make the model look as you want it to look, and it conveys your design intentions, regardless of the means you’ve employed. Most ‘serious’ sculptors have tricks which they don’t like admitting to for whatever reason and a number of those are included here. But any method of getting the job done which you imagine a serious sculptor may frown on .. is in this context probably worth a try!

GENERAL APPROACH

The difference between ‘modelling’ and ‘shaping’

The main thing is .. ‘organic’ shapes with little geometric regularity such as human figures or trees are more easily modelled, whereas more streamlined forms such as domes or niches are more easily achieved by controlled shaping. Modelling is generally additive, usually starting with a support then adding an amount of soft material, then adding more, etc. .. modelling is ‘pushing a soft material around’ until it’s where you want it to be. Shaping, at least the kind I do with the materials I’ve chosen, is generally subtractive .. the form usually starting as a block which then has successive parts taken away from it until the intended form is all that’s left. One major consequence of this difference is that modelling can usually be back-tracked if a mistake is made whereas shaping usually cannot. If too much modelling material is added or if it ends up in the wrong place it can be removed or moved, whereas if too much is taken away when shaping wood or foam it can’t be put back. For this reason modelling feels more free, there’s room for improvisation and chance, and there’s room for taking risks and making mistakes because these can be smoothed away if they don’t work. In fact modelling has to progress in this manner. Shaping on the other hand needs a different ‘mindset’ .. it needs to be more anticipated and must be quite tightly planned, leaving little room for chance or experiment.

Choices of modelling material

Of all the materials for modelling available now, natural clay remains the most reliable and versatile, in addition to being the cheapest by far. In its fresh state it is one of the softest, smoothest, and can be made more ‘liquid’ very easily, so it can be almost ‘smeared’ on when fresh, and successive layers fuse with each other readily. As it loses water it firms up, allowing more detailed modelling, and even fine carving at the so-called ‘leather hard’ stage. But as it dries it also shrinks and cracks, small forms are very fragile when dry if left un-fired, and larger forms are heavy .. so unfortunately it’s not suitable for model-making. But a number of different modelling materials have been developed which either remain in a soft, workable state for much longer or harden by themselves.These have a range of different properties, but they can basically be grouped into three categories (though some overlap more than one). Incidentally, I’m just going to say ‘clay’ from now on in place of ‘modelling material’ as a general term.

There are the plasticine clays which remain soft and workable almost indefinitely, even after long exposure to the air. Most of them cannot be made hard and durable. Their basis is usually an oil or wax (at least something other than water) and a filler, such as finely powdered natural clay or talc. Examples modelling wax, plasticine, Chavant, plastilene, etc. Polymer clays such as Super Sculpey can be hardened and more properly belong to the third group, but if they’re not baked they will remain workable for as long, at least as long as plasticine. In my experience modelling wax is the leader of this group .. at room temp firm but softens quickly, does not stick to fingers, can be smoothed with hot tools. Many waxes can be melted to a liquid state in order to be poured into a shape (only some ‘plasticines’ can, such as the American Van Arken brand). Here in the UK the ‘Newplast’ type of plasticine in long blocks is probably the easiest clay to obtain, and relatively cheap at an average of £1.80 for 500g. It is easy to model with, although when very soft I find it too sticky .. it gunges up finger-tips and is not ideal when impressing with texturing tools etc. Importantly though, plasticine will accept coats of Pva wood glue, which toughen the surface and allow it to be painted. Pva wood glue contracts a great deal as it dries so there is usually no danger of losing detail in the modelling, even after more than one coat.

Modelling waxes

Modelling waxes, plasticines and polymer clays all come in different hardnesses .. at least, certain brands do. Above are two types of modelling wax, the brown one very soft like natural clay and the white one much firmer. For more on working with these see Modelling wax in the Materials /- modelling section.

There is a significant, but subtle, difference between modelling waxes and plasticines in terms of their surface behaviour when being modelled, which some may find fairly crucial but others may not. It’s a bit difficult to describe, but on the whole modelling waxes have less elasticity meaning for example that if you impress a cocktail stick against the surface you will get an exact groove with quite hard edges. If you do the same with plasticine (and particularly Super Sculpey, which is even more elastic) you will also get an exact groove but the edges will be more rounded because the material there has been pulled down a bit. In other words, plasticines and polymer clays are a little more rubbery, and this can save time if you’re going for smoothness. But on the other hand it means that these materials have a significant ‘push-back’, a little resistance to being pushed around, which can make very fine and sharp detail a bit more difficult. Generally the softer modelling waxes are similar to natural clay in having really no ‘push-back’ at all.

To get back to the three basic types of clay .. the second category is the air-drying materials which all share having water, in the place of oil, as a carrier and these will harden as the water evaporates. Since some of their content is lost in this way they will shrink .. and some of them will shrink and crack badly!  Examples  natural clay, Paperclay, Newclay, Claydium, Das, etc. Many have a fibrous texture which helps in holding them together but often makes fine detail difficult. Some are light, some are quite heavy. Pricewise they are very good; after natural clay some are the cheapest clays around! I usually only use the air-drying, pulp-based clays if I want to built up a rough core modelling shape easily and cheaply, but only if I’m not bothered about cracking or the time it will then take to dry.

The final category includes those clays which will set or ‘cure’ as the result of a chemical reaction, brought about either by two reactive parts being mixed together or by heating. Examples Milliput (2-part epoxy putty), Green Stuff, polymer clays. My firm preferences from this group are two, Super Sculpey and Milliput. They are very different materials to model with and I use them for very different purposes.

Super Sculpey (that’s the full brand name for this type unfortunately, not just me being enthusiastic!) is almost as soft and ‘pushable’ to model with as a soft modelling wax and just as non-sticky ‘finger friendly’. It doesn’t stick to itself as readily as soft modelling wax or natural clay but it will with just a little extra coaxing. I prefer it for modelling medium-sized forms which need a combination of surface detail and smoothness .. a puppet head with sculpted hair for example .. because I find smooth contours much easier to achieve with it than wax, but at the same time very detailed textures can be achieved by imprinting with texturing tools. Super Sculpey can be easily modelled up in layers, heated in between. More on this is included later when discussing model figures. The only characteristic of Super Sculpey that I don’t like is it’s very slight translucency which sometimes makes it difficult to judge surface detail. There is more on Sculpey in the summary page I’ve included in the Materials /- modelling section. Below is an example of a small fish form I had to make in Sculpey which needed to be baked and fitted into a curve, so I had to rig up a curved cardboard support for modelling it on. Small forms don’t take so long to bake so in this case the cardboard survived the hot-air gun.

modelling a stylised fish in Sculpey

Milliput’s main distinction is it’s hardness once fully cured, much harder than a polymer clay. I use it for small or delicate forms which I really want to last .. small, because Milliput is more expensive than Super Sculpey. It is much more difficult to model freely with, having far too much ‘push-back’. The two component parts of Milliput need to be mixed together in equal amounts and the window for modelling before Milliput becomes too hard is 1 – 1.5 hours. For more information on Milliput, there is quite a long entry in the alphabetical Lexicon.

Just for the heck of it, out of interest and for those of you who are really price-conscious here is a comparison I put together earlier this year. I have taken prices from the sculptor’s shop Tiranti in London, which I know are fairly average or ‘reasonable’ .. not the cheapest but certainly not the highest! I have compared the price per kilo even if the materials are not normally packaged in this amount and where there is a price range it reflects the cheaper price for larger amounts:

Natural clay £0.47-£1.27 per kg £11.88 per 25kg, £6.37 per 5kg

Newclay £1.19-£1.96 per kg £15.08 per 12.6kg, £8.83 per 4.5kg

Newplast £3.56 per kg £1.78 per 500g 10% off 20

Claydium £3.94 per kg £1.97 per 500g.

Plastilin (Flints) £5.10 per kg

Modelling wax Terracotta Wax or Scopas White Modelling Wax £9.29-£12.72 per kg £46.45 per 5kg, £6.36 per 500g

Chavant £10.45 per kg £9.48 per 907g

Milliput Standard £20.10 per kg £2.28 per 113.4g

Super Sculpey £20.64 per kg £9.37 per 454g

Milliput Fine White £44.62 per kg £5.06 per 113.4g

Green Stuff £156.33-£240.50 per kg £4.81 per 20g, £9.38 per 90cm

The principle of ‘controlled limitation’

This is not an ‘official’ phrase but one I have assembled myself to help me to think about it. It is a principle behind all successful making but applies particularly to modelling and shaping. It makes me think of ‘damage limitation’ and conjures up a film scene of soldiers building a strong barrier around a bomb to contain the blast. Perhaps ‘containment’ would express it just as well.

I remember always being very impressed, and equally relieved, hearing about the ways sculptors make their lives easier! For example making a block of wood firstly into a rough profile shape of the whole head, to define the limits .. or rather to remove what one was certain one didn’t want first .. before going further. Working in the other direction (i.e. building up rather than removing), I was impressed when I saw the method of sticking long nails into an emerging clay head to set the positions of key points on the eventual surface.

But put sculptors aside for the moment .. without doubt, craftspeople are better at coming up with ingenious ways of making their lives easier! The photo below illustrates a delightful technique called sledging which is still known to some traditional plasterers, used to create profile shapes particularly for wall cornices. After some basic volume has been roughed in using coarse plaster, a layer of finer plaster is shaped by dragging a cut metal profile along it which collects and removes the excess.

sledging a shape

Another example for a more complex form is provided by the schoolmaster/model-maker Thomas Bayley in his truly precious book The Craft of Model Making, last published in the 1970s. Here he shows how to tackle interior alcoves and domes by first making a positive shape from which a shell cast can be taken. He recommends making the main shape of the positive by means of, what he terms, ‘running with a template’.

Thomas Bayley 'The Craft of Model Making'

These methods may offer a manageable solution if one has time and patience, but they are by no means simple to achieve, even the first example! One does also need quite a bit of skill and practise. I include them here because they are more important as examples of the type of thinking that one should do .. thinking in terms of templates which control the material and limit the ‘damage’, but also ‘thinking in negative’ which there will be more about later.

These methods of control all apply to making larger-scale forms and are designed for precision .. whether of line, smoothness or detail. When it comes to modelling on a smaller scale a lot less precision is needed .. one can often get away with good ‘suggestion’ rather than realistic depiction. This, together with the fact that things like weight and structural integrity are not such issues at a smaller scale, means that the solutions for modelling forms or creating shapes can be more free and varied, that is .. not tied to conventional sculptural methods.

For example below I am modelling a figure directly onto a drawing, without using an armature. The idea with this is that the complete front half is modelled, the material is then hardened, after which the back half can be continued directly onto it. The big advantage here is that the drawing imposes clear limits i.e. it is almost impossible not to get the general proportions and shape of the figure right if one keeps to the drawing.

modelling on a template _1

I’m using Super Sculpey here, a flesh-coloured polymer clay which, as I’ve said, is one of the softest and most malleable. It hardens with heat, which means that the usual way is to bake it in a normal oven (130 degrees centigrade, c.15 mins for each 6mm of thickness used), but it can also be hardened quite well using a hot-air gun, which is better for the task here. One needs to be careful though, when heating the figure up, that the paper template doesn’t start buckling too much with the heat. Normally I’d suggest having the paper glued down to a board, but it’s better if the paper is not because then it’s easier to peel away from the baked first half without damaging it.

The disadvantage of this method of ‘modelling flat on a template’ is that obviously it works better for forms which keep mainly to one plane, as with this figure ‘standing to attention’. It helps a lot to have copies of the drawing close to the modelling, as below, and it’s pretty essential to work out a clear side-view to be able to check the thickness being built up. As I mentioned, a conventional sculptor would not work this way, arguing that one can’t get the same sense of the overall three-dimensionality and poise of the figure while working. But for the purposes of suggesting figures in a model, whether they’re there as characters in the drama or features of the architecture, I think the benefits of being able to keep to a template outweigh the shortcomings.

modelling on a template_2

I’m not suggesting that all model figure work can be done this way. Normally a sculptor builds up a modelled figure on an armature, which is a skeletal support for the figure usually out of wire, and it makes sense to do that even at this small scale. Getting the armature right is more than half of the task, at least in terms of importance. A good armature is not only there for structural support, it should also be as far as possible a guide as to where to put the clay .. it should impose some control. The small figure armatures below are ones I’ve featured in my book, but I describe a quicker method later when we look more closely at figures. The ones below are made of soldered brass and they include double thicknesses of brass on the legs and arms but broken at the joints so that these can be bent at the correct points. They also include flat plates (in brass shim) representing torso and pelvis, which although not strictly necessary for support, are invaluable for keeping the sense of the shape of torso and pelvis while modelling.

small figure armatures

Below is a fuller sequence of photos which illustrate the use of ‘controls’ when shaping soft foam and the usefulness sometimes of having a harder ‘core’ shape to model on. For this task I had to make a 1:6 scale model of an ornamented fireplace, including two large fish sculptures either side. This was for a film still in production, so unfortunately copyright prevents me from showing the completed fish forms until the film comes out, but I can show enough to illustrate the modelling process. Because the fish needed to be symmetrical I decided to make the same basis shape for both out of styrofoam, cutting a template shape first out of Pvc for one and using it flipped over for the other. Below, I have secured the template shape to a block of styrofoam using double-sided tape, which holds it firmly while shaping but which can be easily detached afterwards.

fish base form_1

Knives and wood rasping tools can be used to get close to the edge of the template shape ..

fish base form_2

.. but I prefer to use a sanding block and more ‘control’ to reach the line. I’ve made a round sanding block from a cut piece of thick cardboard tube (the kind used for rolls of carpet or upholstery fabric) with 60-grit coarse sandpaper attached.

fish base form_3

The sides of the sanding block are at a right-angle, so if both the form and the sander are kept against the work surface while sanding, at least the basis blocks for each shape will come out the same.

fish base form_4

I then sanded (or rasped) these freehand, but both at the same time .. i.e. a little off one, then the same off the other .. until I reached the right shape below. Unfortunately I didn’t take a photo in between the two here in this case, but the best next step would be to shape down the top surface on each block first before doing anything else, because this slope can be easily compared. After mostly using a coarse wood-file, I finished off the form below using a small piece of coarse sandpaper. I’ve begun to press the first layer of clay (in this case I’m using Super Sculpey) onto the styrofoam. Because Sculpey really doesn’t want to stick to styrofoam, it was important to work it in thinly at first to ensure a stable coating before adding more.

fish base form_5

Below, I have built up a good, even layer ready for the modelling of the surface details. Making a block styrofoam core-shape like this has a number of advantages .. it means that the modelled shape has a more controlled basis as I’ve said, just like the wire armatures; it gives a firm basis for pushing against, particularly if surface details are achieved by pressing or imprinting, without the fear of pushing the overall form out of shape; it economises on modelling material (some, like Sculpey or Milliput, are expensive compared to natural clay); and it reduces weight, without making the form itself much weaker.

fish base form_6

A note of caution though! .. I modelled these fish in Super Sculpey and didn’t need to harden them because I was making moulds and casts from these prototypes. Heating a very thin layer of Super Sculpey on styrofoam (using a hot-air gun) can distort the styrofoam shape if it gets too hot. If you’re using this method for a one-off where you need a permanently hard surface a thicker Sculpey layer (i.e. c. 5-6mm) would most probably be ok, because the styrofoam would be partially insulated. Otherwise you have to use Milliput or another self-hardening clay.

In the section ‘Making curved shapes in styrofoam’ later on I demonstrate another method of controlling a shape using specially shaped sanders. These are not things one can buy but they can be easily made. I found that only a thin strip of sandpaper was necessary to sand styrofoam (or the polyurethane foam from Kapa-line foamboard you will see later). If this strip is supported on a shape it means that the area of foam sanded will gradually take that shape and this will work for convex as well as concave shapes.

sanding shapers for foam

Developing the ‘scanner eye’

Some people are good at looking at a subject, whether it’s standing before them or recorded in a photo, then looking at the copy they’re making and recognizing how the two differ .. i.e. what exactly needs to be added to or subtracted from their copy and where. Usually it’s something they’ve acquired and developed through a lot of practise at looking at things, so it’s a skill that theatre designers in particular should have already and be particularly disposed to developing. It’s a fundamental of being able to model a likeness! I believe that simply improving your ability to look at and compare things objectively is the most important step towards acquiring skill in sculpting. For example, next time you’re on a train compare the shapes of the heads you see around you. Try to estimate how big people’s foreheads are in relation to their heads as a whole. Are hands bigger than faces, is the length of a nose roughly the same as the distance from it to the bottom of the face, is the space between the eyes the same as the length of an eye? These are simple things to try, you can devise your own questions, and this type of conscious looking won’t fail to improve your abilities if you practise it whenever you have a spare moment.

‘Thinking in negative’ or approaching the form as a void to be filled

Up to now I haven’t included the methods of mouldmaking and casting within this series because they’re more specialised, a whole other subject in itself, and I’ve already written a general summary of it Beginner’s Basics – Mouldmaking and casting explained which can be found under Methods /- Mouldmaking and casting. But I’m including this brief example here because it illustrates a different approach to making a form. It is a method of form-making which goes back a long way and is now an integral part of our technology. I’m sure most people are aware of the principles of it, but almost exclusively in the context of ‘making many copies of something’, which somehow prevents the recognition of it as a solution to making single forms.

The challenge of making a model of a bath is a very good example of what I’m talking about! Most often we only need one, and we know that ideally it should be as thin as possible, so our thinking is automatically channelled in the direction of trying to construct the shape in a thin but bendable material. This would be fine if the curves and slopes of the shape were that simple. If however we think of the essential shape as a solid one first, so that we start with a three-dimensional form template in other words, a lot more is achievable.

making a bath shape

These two photos are enough to illustrate the method. I’ve made the ‘prototype’ bath shape using the foam from Kapa-line foamboard (which I’ll say more about later) but styrofoam would also have done. For the fish shape previously I used one shape template to guide the sanding block, whereas this needs two to establish the limits of the top and bottom of the shape. These just need to be fixed in the right positions either side of a rough block of foam and the excess foam is then sanded away down to the edges of both templates. Finding the right positions for the templates, either side of a block, is not that simple though! The best way is to fix the larger template to the foam first and sand down to that using a right-angled sanding block (just like the fish). This will give a much clearer indication of where the smaller template should be positioned on the other side. The sanding can then be completed.

making bath shape in foam

I coated the foam shape with polyfilla and sanded it smooth, then made a plaster mould from it. In this case I made the hollow bath shape using a fairly simple process known as absorption casting. The principle behind this is that the plaster mould will absorb water from a liquid material filling it, meaning that the material gradually forms a tougher skin next to the plaster. The remaining still-liquid material can be poured out of the mould leaving a thin shell which is left to dry. This contracts a little as it does so it can be taken out easily. It’s the method used, on an industrial scale, for casting crockery using clay slip. I’ve used a special form of liquid papier-mache called Liquache which is not so available in the UK (but I’ve included one source in my Suppliers list). An alternative would be to use the more familiar method .. the beloved ‘balloon pasting’ one .. of papering the inside of the mould with small pieces of newspaper and glue. The mould surface would need to be Vaselined first though. In actual fact, if the thin shell is built up this way there’s no need to make the negative mould at all .. it could be built up on the prototype form, as long as it’s strong enough.

PRACTICAL GUIDANCE

Making model figures

Let’s just assume for the moment that making three-dimensional scale figures to inhabit a three-dimensional scale model is a good thing, before arguing the pros and cons of having to do them! The first thing that’s needed is information. We need to know what the human figure looks like and, just as importantly, what it looks like at 1:25 scale. When I’m modelling in 1:25 scale I work from visual cue sheets such as these ones. For these I’ve taking the trouble, not only to find the clearest, most authentic looking and most general models for the proportions and details of the human figure but I’ve also adjusted them all in size to fit the 1:25 scale. It doesn’t mean that every bit of visual reference I have needs to be in scale as long as I’ve got this basis.

female figure reference sheet

For these I’ve looked at various sources .. anatomy books for artists, figure reference websites, medical books .. but the visual references I’ve found most helpful have come from reliable digital artists such as www.selwy.com One can usually tell at a glance whether the artist really understands figures, and the neutral grey or brown surface of a digital sculpt is much easier to read than even the best real-figure photos.

male figure reference sheet

Before one can begin modelling though, an armature is needed. As explained above the armature supports the material but it should also serve as a modelling guide. In my post from March 2013 Modelling small-scale figures I provide a step-by-step account of making the simple armature out of twisted garden wire below.

1:25 scale twisted wire armature

The template which is useful as a size guide during the process is also included in the post. The twisted surface of the wire has an added usefulness in that it gives more ‘tooth’ for the clay to attach itself to.

making wire armature

In my opinion it’s much easier to model a figure at this scale when it’s ‘spreadeagle’ i.e. laid out flat like a five-pointed star, keeping the joint areas free almost until the last. This way it’s easier to portion out and balance body and limb masses, getting a symmetry first. Super Sculpey lends itself in particular to this because very small amounts can be applied first of all just to put some mass on the skeleton, and these can be quickly fixed with the hot-air gun before putting another layer on top. It doesn’t matter how many times the same portion of figure is subjected to the hot-air gun for successive layers as long as it’s not too close (i.e. not nearer than about 5cm) or dwelling too long on one point. Either the figure or the heat gun needs to be kept moving .. but slowly, not agitated.

building up the form

Milliput is the next best alternative material to use, and some might prefer it. I’ve used it on part of the figure above right and for the whole of the middle stage below. Milliput is a 2-part epoxy putty, and the parts need to be mixed in equal amounts before use. After thorough mixing one has between 1-1.5 hours to work with it before it becomes too tough to model. An advantage over Sculpey is that it’s much stronger, especially when making very slender forms and it’s much stickier. But for this reason I don’t like it as much as it sticks to the fingers and makes detail modelling sometimes difficult. It has much more ‘push back’ than Sculpey, especially so after just half an hour. It also makes the process of building up in stages quite a lengthy one because a few hours are needed before it’s safe to model the next layer.

stages of modelling

Modelling tools

For modelling figures at this scale the question of tools is hardly important .. in fact I often just use a cocktail stick and a Starbucks coffee stirrer! Basically it’s enough just to have something finely pointed and something flattish.

modelling in Sculpey

But if you find that you are doing a fair amount in the way of modelling, and larger things, here is a selection of the most useful bought tools. The four on the left are standard ones for clay modelling and one can get them in plastic or wood. In the centre are two made from walnut strip wood and to the right of these is an embossing tool. This is useful because it has two rounded points of different gauge. The metal dental modelling tool to the right of it is an example of a range of fine-modelling tools one can pick up quite cheaply (even in £shops sometimes). To make modelling easier it can be quite important to have at least one of the ‘loop’ tools shown next to it. These make it possible to remove material rather than just displacing it.

modelling tools selection

But just as much can be achieved using tools which are not meant for modelling, especially when it comes to surfacing effects. Below is the fire part for the fireplace mentioned earlier, modelled in Super Sculpey. A plastic bristle brush and a hogshair painting brush were perfect for giving the burnt wood and coals a suitable surface texture.

texturing Sculpey

Other useful texturing tools can be made either from natural forms such as this portion of nectarine stone or modelled and baked in Sculpey itself. The form to the right, which was designed to imprint a tree-bark pattern was modelled on a cutting-knife blade so that it could be fitted into the handle.

special texturing tools

Soft furniture

Rather than modelling the form of an armchair or a sofa out of clay .. this is possible, especially for broken down old things which are any shape except ‘streamlined’,  but they can end up rather heavy .. I use soft sheet foam to make them. Take this old leather Chesterfield as an example of perhaps the most ambitious, alongside something simpler. Kapa-line foamboard has a polyurethane foam inside which is quite dense and fine compared to the polystyrene foam in regular foamboard and the covering paper can be quite easily peeled away without damaging the foam surface. The foam can therefore be used as a versatile sheet material in its own right.

soft funiture using sheet foam

peeling paper from Kapa-line foamboard

Unfortunately I don’t have ‘making of’ photos for these ones, but the process is simply one of cutting the constituent pieces (seat, back and arm shapes) as flat foam cut-out shapes first, then shaping parts of them either before or after they’re all put together. To give a better idea here is the drawing I use as a scale guide for making the small armchair

armchair drawing

Both pieces of furniture were made entirely out of foam except for the legs. Apart from the advantage that Kapa-line foam sands easily and smoothly, it bonds very well with superglue and because of its porous surface accepts any type of paint very well .. including even ink or watercolour! If painted with these or very thin acrylic the surface will look matt, even velvety, with a slight tooth to it like upholstery fabric. But it’s easy to make it smoother, as I’ve done with the leather Chesterfield, by giving it more than one basecoat of acrylic and finishing off with some liquid shoe polish.

styrene chairs

Here again are the chairs made from styrene strip plastic from the previous article on  Fine construction. The chair cushions are Kapa-line foam and I’ve incised very slight lines with a pencil.

styrene chairs painted

Below are foam cut-outs glued to Pvc furniture pieces ready to be sanded down into more rounded upholstery shapes (it’s easier to sand them after they’re fixed down).

using foam for upholstery

For the characteristic ‘quilting’ effect on the Chesterfield, more properly referred to as buttoning I think, I just marked out the pattern before gluing the pieces together and made the indentations by pressing in the corner of a small metal ruler. For the larger- scale pieces below I marked out the pattern, carved into it partly with a scalpel and rounded with a sanding board.

chair cushion buttoning_1

chair cushion buttoning_2

If the surface is coated with thinned Pva glue tissue paper or even soft kitchen roll can be laid on top and pushed into the pattern for more of a fabric effect.

chair cushion buttoning_3

Making curved shapes in styrofoam

I normally use the most common blue form of styrofoam which comes in sheets 2.5cm thick (although thicker sheets can also be found). There are also other types of styrofoam, differentiated by colour. The pink one here is finer and the green one is coarser.

types of styrofoam

I’ve chosen one of the simplest examples first to underline the basic principle of using template cut-outs to control the shaping of the foam. This is just a little step up from the previous example of the fish shape, and it’s much the same as the example of the bath shape, but I think it will help to make the more involved example of the ‘dome’ shape which follows a little clearer.

This sequence is taken from another article Shaping styrofoam in the Methods section. In it I describe the making of simple ‘half-column’ shapes as part of a composite structure, and below is one of the end results.

finished half-column

The first step in making this was to cut a piece of Pvc representing the base dimensions of the half-column (I use Pvc out of habit but cardboard can also be used as long as it’s more resilient than the styrofoam when it’s sanded). I’ve fixed the base templates firmly to the foam with double-sided tape, but they can be easily detached. Next I sanded down to the template using the right-angle sanding block shown above.

small blocks

After this I attached a Pvc semicircle either end, again with double-sided tape. Most of the part that needs to go can be sliced down with a knife if one’s careful, but then it’s straightforward using the sanding block to sand down to the curve, provided it’s longer than the piece itself so that it’s ‘stopped’ by the two semicircles.

setup for sanding curved surface

The principle behind making a regular dome in foam is similar in that it involves setting up template shapes, but this time they remain inside the form rather than attached temporarily outside. The method is suitable for any number of form variations. The faint lines of the plastic inserts are just about noticeable under the surface of the finished dome below.

dome shape

The following photo sequence shows a form with a slight variation on the regular dome shape but will serve to illustrate. The first step is to cut the Pvc shapes which will provide the ‘control edges’ or limits of the form. As I’ve said, these parts will stay within the form.

making a dome shape_1

This particular shape needed to be more ‘pill’ like i.e. a little longer than a sphere, so I had to make a flat section in the middle first, shown below. For this I used some layers of Kapa-line foam sandwiched between the two plastic templates (made in much the same way as the bath shape earlier on except that the two template shapes are the same).

centrepiece of dome shape

Each quadrant of the form is then built up in layers of styrofoam, fixed down with double-sided tape.

making a dome shape_3

I’d advise building in layers rather than a thicker block because a Pvc template can be included on the top of each layer, to further control the shaping as shown below. Here I’ve started to remove the excess with a coarse wood file, judging by eye. But I made a

making a dome shape_4

couple of curved sanders (shown in the last photo), to the same curve as the principle semicircle, in order to sand the foam down to the template ‘stops’ smoothly. As I said at the beginning, shaping certainly needs to be thought about beforehand and thoroughly planned. The thinking may be involved but the doing of it is relatively easy, and once

making a dome shape_5

one’s practised a little it opens up many form-making possibilities.

making a dome shape_6

Perfect ‘bowl’ or concave shapes are much easier, again making use of the fact that a thin strip of coarse sandpaper suffices to sand through styrofoam. The photo below is also taken from the article Shaping styrofoam in the Methods section, and shows the shape near completion. I first inscribed the size of the circle needed as a guide while sanding. I made the sanding tool to the same diameter, with a c.6mm strip of coarse black sandpaper attached. When the tool is pressed against the foam and revolved it will make a rough depression at first but this will get smoother as it continues. For more on this and how to make a round-topped alcove shape as an extension of this method see the article mentioned.

sanding a smooth concave

Liquid modelling

Again this is my term of convenience for the technique of ‘piping’ a liquid material onto a surface, as one might do when decorating a cake, to create the effect of relief decoration without the effort that more conventional modelling or carving would involve.

relief decoration

Here I am using a relief medium I have prepared myself .. Polycell ‘Fine Surface’ Polyfilla .. with a little water added to make it just a little more liquid. It should be mixed as-and-when needed because the consistency is perfect for piping evenly when fresh but after a while (i.e. after a few days) it starts to become a little lumpy.

relief decoration_2

The main trick is getting it into a suitable, squeezable, small plastic bottle with a fine nozzle. It isn’t difficult to find these. The one above was from a £shop and contained glitter-glue and so were the pen-like ones below. I’ve had to mix the polyfilla thoroughly with a little water first in a small container, then fill a plastic syringe and use this to transfer it into the bottles. If not applied too thickly the polyfilla takes 1-2 hours on average to dry. I prefer using this polyfilla mix because it shrinks the least of the various materials I’ve tried. It also dries the quickest and if deeper relief is needed a second layer can be applied, as I’ve done with the portion of picture frame in the top photo.

mixing up polyfilla

Idenden Brush-coat, which is a texturing compound commonly used in the theatre here, also works very well. An advantage of this is that it can be used as it comes without dilution and will consequently keep its consistency much longer. But unless you have access to a friendly scenic workshop, Idenden will be expensive because it only comes in 10litre buckets.

Other possibilities are offered by various fabric relief paints or glass-painting relief outliner shown below. The Pebeo ‘Touch’ relief paints are more like a liquid plastic, so one can ‘draw’ with them very evenly, and there are various colours including good metallic such as gold or pewter. It is a little disappointing that they shrink quite significantly, so they don’t manage something like the picture frame, but are perfect for the suggestion of a relief surface. The Pebeo ‘Cerne Relief’ glass-painting outliner is a thicker medium and the small tube comes with a much finer nozzle, so very detailed effects are possible.

relief modelling media

Working with wire mesh

I usually categorise my use of metal mesh as a method of shaping .. if not modelling even, because it’s also ‘pushing a soft material around’ in a way. I work mainly with ‘welded wire mesh’ which is welded firmly at each intersection, so that different forms can be produced according to where the mesh is snipped and how the free pieces are bent. It’s ideal for small tree forms, for example.

wire mesh trees

snipping wire mesh

I’m sure many other structures can be made in this way .. but that’s something for another day ..

‘Model-making Basics’ – fine construction

Please note before you start reading this older post that I have long since included a version in the Methods section, under Making realistic models, which can be accessed above. That version may have been updated or expanded since.

This is the second of five instalments, looking in turn at what I consider the five defining areas within model-making; main construction, fine construction, modelling/shaping, creating surfaces and painting. The only difference between ‘fine’ and ‘main’ construction is relative size. The structures involve the same methods but they are smaller, more delicate and therefore much more ‘fiddly’ to achieve. Being able to cut, shape and assemble the appropriate materials with accuracy becomes much more of an issue at this smaller size. I’m referring to such elements as window structures, stair banisters and railings, or period furniture .. including chandeliers!

A very slight difference in overall measurement may not be noticeable on a long wall but it does make a difference to the appearance of, for example, a fine window strut! However on the other hand, whereas the principle structures in a model can’t be just ‘suggested’, some aspects of the finer details can be, without losing their realism. My aim in this article is not only to suggest ways of achieving intricacy, but also to consider ways of simulating it. This article also illustrates how the choice of material can be 90% of the solution .. my own choices of ‘Palight’ foamed Pvc and stencil card tend to dominate here!

I’ve written these overviews in preparation for teaching sessions at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) in London. So they’re tuned towards the specialities of theatre design model work, but most of the points will be relevant in general terms to model work in other disciplines.

As with the previous post I’ve divided the content into general ‘themes’ or requirements of the subject, followed by more specific and practical guidance and ending with a couple of more closely observed examples.

fine construction

GENERAL APPROACH

The importance of details

One has to accept the fact that these smaller things often take much longer to achieve than the elements of main construction (at least in relation to their size). Although one would never have to say this to a practiced model-maker, it’s important to reassure beginners that these will ‘take as long as they take’ and that one shouldn’t feel they’re less important just because they seem like small details of the visual concept. In fact it’s usually quite the opposite!  For example in a theatre design concept the ‘details’ in terms of furniture style and small elements of decoration may constitute most of ‘the design’ if the budget is minimal or if a minimalist approach has been chosen. Moreover, even if a setting is lavish or architecturally bold, when the play’s action is underway and the lighting settles to focus on the actors, it is the furniture and other elements of detail that stay within that small area of focus rather than the set as a whole. These details of the setting, especially furniture, have a more intimate and ‘telling’ relationship with actors and their characters in the way that they’re used. For example broader playing areas, entrance and exit points, and different levels don’t necessarily need to be understood in terms of real architecture but furniture usually demands more. It’s rare that furniture can be rendered ‘abstract’.

Often the defining elements of a ‘look’, or a period style, or a social status, are contained as much in the details as in the more general proportions, materials and colours of the set. In particular historical periods furniture and interior decoration styles develop their distinctiveness side-by-side .. they are designed to fit .. and one can see the same decorative motifs, basic shapes or general proportions in both. When working through a design in the model, spending what may seem like a very disproportionate amount of time on a single chair (it could easily take the best part of a day) can be a very important step in discovering and defining that ‘look’. It took me a while to appreciate what was meant when as theatre design students we were often advised to start with one well chosen and closely observed chair, but I think now that this was part of it.

The demands of scale

I think the underlying point of this whole area of model-making (and of this article) which I’ve termed ‘fine construction’ is.. ‘What are the best materials and methods to help with the challenge of achieving a reasonable and convincing scale with delicate structures at this small-size level and in the time available?’ It should be clear that getting the scale right is of fundamental importance, but of course it gets harder the smaller you go .. as I have said, a fraction of a millimetre out can make a big difference! But I’ve underlined ‘reasonable’ because there’s a limit to how fine one can and should work; compromises need to be made, and one of the most interesting and creative journeys a designer will make in terms of their model-making throughout their career is developing a sense for the right ones. Models in this context should always be convincing that is, they should keep us thinking about the real thing rather than the model itself, but there’s a big difference between this and fooling the eye. There’s a lot that we can forgive, and forget, when looking at a model as long as enough essentials are there to ‘suspend our disbelief’.

It’s not just size than determines delicacy .. i.e. it’s not that the thinnest will automatically give the most delicate or elegant look .. it’s also what happens on the surface, how the light falling on it is manipulated or broken up. This is the reason why, traditionally, wall mouldings and window frames are composed of ‘stepped’ or shaped strips of wood, not flat and block-like, so that the light forms shadows that are soft or varied.

I think this is illustrated, coincidentally, by the photo below which I took just to show stages in building up a window structure. Each of the successive stages has the same underlying basis cut from stencil card and shown on the far left, so each has the same ‘silhouette’ but the ones progressing to the right look finer and somehow thinner (despite the addition of white!). It is because the flat planes are broken up, the edges are softened, and the shadows give more contrast.

windows

Continued practise with cutting always improves one’s ability, even if the improvements take a while and are too small to appreciate .. as long as one perseveres, and as long as one has understood and accepted the value of it! But if cutting material to make a structure of the required scale intricacy proves too arduous, it’s good to know that one can fall back on the ‘shadow principle’ and that, if need be, this can be faked i.e. by carefully drawing or penning lines on the surface instead of having to apply yet more intricate strips.

The value of proper visual research

I must have encountered this hundreds of times as a teacher .. when someone is having difficulties at the model-making stage, which are easy to attribute to the challenges of model-making in general, but are actually because they haven’t got a clear enough picture of what they’re trying to do. I don’t imagine that anyone would try to make a convincing model version of a Louis XV chair without finding visual reference first (at least I would hope not), but I know that a lot of people might assume they can get by without checking on the concept of ‘a simple, basic, nondescript chair’. The fact is there’s no such thing, and although it sounds like a paradox one first has to choose what particular type of ‘nondescript chair’! Unless you’re an expert on the history of furniture, you’ll have to look at chairs to get some help. At the very least you need to have, preferably already absorbed, certain facts about the standard dimensions of chairs, such as the average seat height and size, or the common height for chair backs etc.

Nowadays there’s really no excuse for not knowing even the detailed particulars of real objects or settings because so much can be accessed quickly over the internet. For example, there are countless antique dealer websites and the good ones offer all-round views of pieces of furniture including close-ups on details and lists of principle measurements. Even the less specialist, more style-led outlets can be quite informative, as below. For more on this, including suggestions for the best sources, see my article Common sizes of things in the Methods section.

chair measurements

So here below is a Louis XV chair! You would need to look at a lot of pictures of Louis XV chairs to decide whether this is an average or representative one. In the days before the internet it could take a long time for designers and artists to acquire a true sense of what was common or representative. These expert notions needed to be culled from books, or the work of other designers, or visits to museums, or by browsing in antique shops. Now it’s easy to get an instant and fairly reliable notion of what’s average, or representative, or popular, by examining the results of an image search.

But it’s also fair and balanced to say that the regular internet won’t provide the full picture .. for a start there’s a vast amount in the form of specialist image databases that the search engines can’t penetrate. You won’t get much like the following on the internet .. not only the Louis XV chair but a full measured drawing!

Louis XV armchair

armchair drawing

These can be found in a book by Verna Cook Salomonsky entitled Masterpieces of Furniture published in 1931. It was re-published by Dover in 1953, even so it is not so easy to find. It’s an ironic counterpoint that, although books (and especially older ones) will often provide more specific, detailed and reliable information than the internet, with many of the older books which have been archived the most efficient way of accessing their information is .. on the internet!

My point in all this is that the internet can often provide you with all the information you can carry, and somewhere within that mass may be all the information that you need .. but it puts the responsibility on you of becoming the expert. You have to search thoroughly and responsibly, you have to filter and organize (i.e. rather like an academic might in recording sources, questioning and checking information).

Where can compromises be made?

It’s clear that compromises do need to be made in the model, because the time the designer has for making it is not unlimited. It’s mainly about available time, so if ways are found to speed up the making process, to make it easier or less involved, without altering the resultant appearance of the model … this is not compromise, this is advancement! Getting into the habit of thinking in this way, of continually keeping an eye open for possible improvements to the process, is beneficial in more than just practical ways. It exercises inventive or creative thinking!

But if those ways of saving time cannot not found, however hard one tries, what simplifications in appearance are acceptable? This is a difficult question to answer, because it .. just depends! I’ve mentioned one possibility already, with the case of drawing in highlights or shadow lines on window struts to make them appear finer. I would say this is on the whole perfectly acceptable, because the fine additions that are being feigned are not going to cause anyone to misunderstand the real appearance, structure or space intended. It’s not altering the most significant proportions of the whole. To illustrate another example I was drawn to thinking about the craft of paper-cuts which was developed to quite a ‘high art’ in the Victorian era. This one below is from the 1840s, courtesy of the Columbus Museum in Ohio, US.

Victorian era paper-cut

What’s so significant about this and many others like it is that it’s so convincing .. in spite of being so artificial! What I mean is that although we’re very familiar with shadows, or seeing silhouettes of real things when lit from behind, as a real occurrence in daily life (and this certainly helps with our acceptance of this form) .. there’s really nothing more unreal than forms reduced to 2 dimensions with no hint of colour or volume. Yet I for one feel totally drawn into accepting this as the representation of a real moment .. I’m transported to the place in my imagination where I’m more conscious of what is being represented than how it is represented.

How is this accomplished .. when the only means used to convince me is the simplest line? It is achieved through a very exact understanding of overall and believable proportions, together with a clever choice of which details will count!

PRACTICAL GUIDANCE

Building up on ‘cut-outs’

When I was training as a theatre designer and had to tackle making model chairs I can’t remember specifics of the guidance we were given but I think it was assumed, like most people do, that one approaches it much as a carpenter would except 25-times too small to do proper joints. That is, that one starts with cutting very thin strips of wood which are cut to specific lengths and glued together to make the construction. I’m sure we were encouraged to make scale drawings first so that we at least had guides for placing these minute pieces while gluing and I’m sure it was also common to make the whole of the back of the chair including the legs as a flat piece against the drawing. It was incredibly fiddly, virtually impossible not to glue these pieces firmly to the drawing instead and difficult to coax these tiny components into lying straight and level. Even if one could get a reasonable result, it would remain very fragile. Also, one of the main reasons for using wood was that it would convey the ‘real’ material, with a pleasing suggestion of grain which could be stained to any shade. But any vestige of glue visible around the joints would not stain, and given the size this was impossible to avoid so often much of the painstaking effort could be negated by ugly patches.

After a while I gave up on this and looked around for other methods. About the same time a friend introduced me to a soft sheet plastic called foamed Pvc which came in thicknesses of 1mm upwards. It offered the possibility of cutting small and intricate shapes easily with a scalpel. Although soft to cut the material is resilient, retains its straightness and is easy to paint especially if primed. The brand I use is Palight which seems to be softer than the others.

making model chairs

Foamed Pvc can be drawn on with a pencil but I usually prefer to spraymount a printed drawing and cut through that, because it saves time if I need more. It’s also much easier to draw up the original at a larger scale such as 1:10 (shown below) and reduce to 1:25 (40%). I use a very minimal amount of repositionable spraymount (3M blue can) so that in the end the paper can be peeled off the plastic. The photo above shows the three chair parts .. back, seat and front legs .. being cut out. It is worthwhile to note that I am cutting the inside parts of the form out first i.e. working from the centre outwards. Keeping the form in the sheet until the last cut means that you always have more to hold onto while cutting. One drawback perhaps is that Pvc can only be glued with superglue, which is not everyone’s favourite and doesn’t allow much repositioning.

The chair assembled above may serve quite well as a good mock-up, after all the overall dimensions and proportions are exact, and it can look much more convincing if properly painted. I left the paper drawing on for this photo but normally I would peel it off before gluing the parts together. Palight foamed Pvc can even be scraped with coarse sandpaper to create a fake ‘grain’ which looks very like real wood when washed with colour (this will be illustrated in the later post on ‘Painting’). But it’s certainly lacking in the proper visual weight because parts of it, particularly the legs, don’t have a believable thickness if left at 1mm (which is 2.5cm, or 1 inch at 1:25 scale). What I usually do is

model chairs with drawing

apply further strips to these cut-outs, sanding the joins as flush as possible, before gluing the chair pieces together. These strips can either be more Pvc  or thin wood such as obeche. For these chairs, enlarged below for more detail, I’ve applied 0.8mm sheet obeche strips to the chair-back surround, the legs and the whole of the seat. The grain is visible, even though the whole chair needs to be painted to unify wood with plastic. The joins between the layers are just about visible in the photo, but I think this hardly matters.

chairs detail

I’ve also tried this ‘add on’ or layer method just using stencil card. The chairs below are actually pretty strong, even though only a thin card is being used. A double layer of stencil card would itself be quite tough to cut through, so I’ve made these by cutting out pieces in one layer, gluing those down on another piece (as shown in the bottom left corner), and then cutting out again around them. For more on these methods look at my article Working with stencil card in the Materials section.

stencil card chairs

Gluing on paper templates

Another method, particularly if you prefer to use real wood, is to build up structures by purposely gluing down to the drawn paper template. I thought of this because of the difficulty of separating glued work from the drawn guide in the past .. why not glue it all down to the paper? This can work for furniture, but it can be especially ideal for building up window frames because in this case the back surface is not usually seen.

building windows on drawn template

Here thin obeche wood (0.8mm thickness) has been glued completely to the paper using Pva wood glue, with further strips built up on the outer frame. After gluing is finished the structure should ideally be left for a couple of hours for the glue to strengthen and paper to dry. Then using a sharp blade-point the paper can be cut away, leaving just the wood form visible at the front but still backed with a thin layer of glued paper. This makes it surprisingly stable. The technique is most suited to working with wood and Pva glue, because the glue can be thinly applied and leaves little residue (Pva glue contracts to almost nothing around the edges).

windows

Some general tips for cutting

See the section on cutting in the previous post ‘Main construction’ because all of that applies equally here .. especially the choice of knife and general approach to cutting .. but there are some additional tips to remember when it comes to working at a finer level.

Small curves may be the trickiest to manage, even with a fine blade and a relatively soft material such as foamed Pvc. Something which makes this a lot easier is making a rough-cut around the shape very close to the intended line before starting to cut it. The reason this helps is that as the intended line is cut the friction on the blade is lessened because the surplus material (often referred to as the waste ) now has somewhere to move to, as illustrated below. One can make it even easier sometimes by ‘shaving down’ to the line in small stages, more like carving than cutting. Although this is of more help when cutting a pliable material such as plastic, the difference is noticeable when cutting cardboard or even thin wood.

rough cutting technique

But extra care needs to be taken when cutting fine pieces out of wood for two main reasons. Firstly the wood may be a little brittle, meaning that it has a tendency to split along the grain when the scalpel blade is forced too firmly into it. Secondly the grain will often divert the scalpel blade, particularly when trying to cut straight lines along its direction. In each case cutting needs to proceed in gentle, successive strokes. But there are other precautions that can be taken. Although not shown in the next-but-one photo, I have covered the underside of a piece of wood with masking tape before cutting a circular table-top. This will help in preventing the wood from splitting.

working with obeche wood

As for cutting the line, I have traced it carefully with the scalpel first to establish a more definite guiding line but then (as in the previous example in plastic) I am shaving down to the line first. When close to the line the rest can be smoothed off using a sanding block (cardboard nail-files, shown above, can also be useful for very small work).

cutting a circle in wood

It is very easy when cutting a grid of window struts to accidently cut through them. Often this is a momentary lack of concentration .. the work is repetitive and can feel pretty mindless, so one goes into ‘coasting mode’. But it isn’t helped by the fact that whereas we can always see where to begin a line, it’s more difficult to see where to end because the scalpel blade is in the way. The method of avoiding this is to cut each line only so far, stopping purposely near to but not quite to the end, turn the work around and complete the line from the other direction. I always cut lines like these in groups, for example, cutting all the lines along the same edge for each square first, then completing all of them, then doing the same for the next edge etc.

cutting a window

Lastly, I always find I can be more accurate if I keep to the same orientation of drawn line, guiding ruler and scalpel each time. This is a bit difficult to describe, but what I mean by the ‘same orientation’ is, for example .. always cutting against the far side of the ruler, always placing the ruler over the part that’s going to be kept (as opposed to the ‘waste’), etc. This means that my physical relationship to the line I’m trying to get  is, as far as possible, always the same and that helps greatly in terms of control!

Setting up for gluing

As I’ve said, the methods for ‘main construction’ and making the finer constructions here are pretty much the same, so it is worth referring back to the examples looked at in the previous post. Even though small, it is still sometimes necessary to construct a special support structure to glue them together. Below is one that I made quickly to help gluing a small park bench together.

construction jig

The leg units are meant to appear free-standing without an obvious connecting structure. In full-size reality there would be a metal connecting structure underneath the wooden planks and these would be bolted to the wrought-iron units. The problem here was just setting up the three leg units so that they were already in the right position and perpendicular (90degrees upright) and this cardboard ‘construction jig’ was the most reliable way I could think of for doing that. Above I’ve secured the legs (cut from 1mm foamed Pvc) to cardboard uprights with thin strips of masking tape. I decided to paint after assembly in this case so that nothing would interfere with the glue. The planks can then be glued in place on top individually and again, I decided to stain these after assembly (not yet done in the photo below).

As I said, this was my preferred method but one of the RADA students suggested that it could work just by drawing groundplan positions on a piece of paper and propping the leg units into position using Blu tack (or possibly plasticine) which I think is also a good solution. My method would perhaps be preferable if one had to assemble a number of benches rather than just one.

park bench

It’s worth saying a few things about superglue at this point, because it can be fairly indispensable, even if you’re not working with plastic. The first thing is of course that one usually needs very little at a time ( meaning, per making session) but superglue starts to set in the tube or bottle as soon as it is opened for the first time. The moisture in the air acts as a catalyst. So buying a ‘large’ bottle is senseless unless you’re working with it 24/7 for a number of days in a row! What remains in the bottle, even if you seal it tightly, may only last for another few weeks before thickening and setting solid. Partly for this reason I prefer to use the small tubes, because any wastage doesn’t matter so much. I’ve found that the small tubes or bottles from Poundland work better than many other more expensive brands I’ve tried i.e. some superglues tend to work well with certain materials and not so well with others, and the Poundland brand works very well with foamed Pvc, stencil card, obeche wood or Super Sculpey (as examples of the main materials I want it to work on).

superglue

One of the challenges that people have with superglue is being able to dose it, or apply it delicately without squeezing out too much .. which can often result in a mess and glued fingers, as most people who’ve tried will know! I often squeeze out a little puddle of superglue onto a piece of plastic and apply it using the end of a cocktail stick. The puddle will remain fluid for quite a while before it starts gelling. Incidentally, I work almost totally with thin superglue rather than the gel type, because I usually rely a lot on being able to introduce superglue into a joint ‘from the outside’ where it can travel into the joint and set. This can’t be done with the gel type. An alternative to help with controlled dosing is attaching an even finer tube to the nozzle supplied. Poundland sell packs of superglue bottles in which a few tapered tubes are included. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous or dedicated (and if you have a hot-air gun), you can make your own fine-dosing tubes by finding some transparent ‘shrink-wrap’ tubing in Maplin or another electronics outlet. This is tubing that shrinks when heated to fit tightly around wires. The end of this needs to be heated and pulled to create a minute nozzle, similar to those above.

I’ve said that atmospheric moisture causes superglue to set. This also means that it is more effective if the materials being glued together also have a bit of that atmospheric moisture, and one of the reasons incidentally why fingers glue so well! There may be occasions when superglue appears not to take, and one remedy is to brush surfaces with the fingers beforehand or even breathe on them, to introduce a bit more moisture. There are also accelerator liquids available for superglue to make it set even faster (so called ‘zip-kicker’ and a sure way of gluing two parts together instantly is to put superglue on one part as one normally would but apply not glue but accelerator to the other before bringing them together.

One last tip here is that if you’re using the thin type of superglue but you want to make it both more gap-filling and quick setting, the joint can be sprinkled with common baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) either before or after applying the glue. This solidifies on contact and forms a very strong bond. I’ve demonstrated the uses of this in my post Modelling small-scale figures from March 2013.

Is it worth knowing how to solder?

I’d like to say yes, because the work and the results can be very satisfying when all is going well and proper scale can be achieved with thin brass wire as opposed to some other options, but to be honest I prefer to avoid it unless it’s the only practical solution. Consider this challenge, for example. Imagine that you have planned an elegantly curving staircase and that you would like to create a balustrade for it that is suitably delicate in keeping with the style, perhaps just composed of thin uprights joining a simple, curving handrail. Years ago when the world was still largely ‘traditionalist’ and the material options for model-making seemed to begin and end with .. cardboard, wood or metal (with perhaps some plaster, and some organza thrown in) .. those ‘in the know’ would certainly have suggested soldering with thin brass rod. But now consider what you have to do to achieve that! You can’t solder your pieces of brass onto your cardboard construction and you can’t really glue metal to it with any security either. So in order to secure the uprights to the construction you’d have to drill tiny holes in the right place at the edge of every step. Those holes would have to be deep enough to hold the uprights in position and of course they’d all have to be perfectly perpendicular. This may just about be possible if your construction were made of solid wood but doubtful with cardboard. Now there’s the question of how all those uprights, even if one did manage to fix them and they are all exactly the right height, join with the handrail. It would be most logical to make the handrail also out of brass rod so that the uprights could be soldered to it. But this would mean that the piece of rod would firstly need to be bent to exactly the right smooth curve with no allowance for even slight departures from it. I don’t think I need to go on! I’ve seen these marvels of craftsmanship and dedication in the past, but I pale to think how much time they must have taken or what specialist skills they involved. I have very mixed feelings about these things .. for me they’re reminiscences of a different age when craftspeople could dedicate a whole year of their lives to the meticulous decoration of an egg!

Even though I actually love soldering I’m presenting it in this cautionary way because I think the alternatives should perhaps be considered first. For example, I feel the way I’ve chosen to make the scaffolding structure in the previous post is better .. it’s cheaper, quicker, more achievable and, actually, stronger because it’s not labouring under its own weight, as brass of this thickness would do. But on the other hand I don’t think I would be able to get the clean, precise and properly scaled result I wanted for this brass bed frame if I hadn’t taken the trouble to solder it in brass.

brass bed

In particular the curved elements wouldn’t have worked using plastic because only metal keeps that kind of shape. Below are balustrades being made as cut-outs from 1mm Pvc with strips of wood added to give them some dimension. I would think that this is the quickest way if one can cut the Pvc uprights thinly and cleanly enough and if square-section uprights are acceptable. But if round-section and more delicate rods are necessary for the look, brass is perhaps a better option especially if the structure is staying flat.

balustrade in Pvc

stair balustrades in Pvc and wood strip

I would probably have solved the curving balustrade problem we began with here by cutting the whole thing on-the-flat in Pvc (or even stencil card) and then wrapping and gluing it to the curved surface, as in the example of the spiral staircase below and featured in the previous post.

completed stair portion

railings in stencil card

It is certainly not my intention to put you off soldering, and if you want to know more about exactly how its done look at my article A quick guide to soldering in the Methods section.

Shaving legs or modelling legs

This is bound to get me a lot of search engine hits!  But I’m referring to two fairly easy ways of creating a ‘turned’ (i.e. done on a lathe) look which is such a common feature of period furniture, particularly table legs and balusters. This is the kind of thing that strongly defines or greatly enhances the ‘look’ by fairly achievable means.

tables in progress

For the first method thin wooden dowel, wooden skewers or cocktail sticks .. any forms of thin, round, smooth wood .. are most suitable, but it can also be done with round-section styrene strip, as in the close-up below. Divisions are made on the dowel surface by rolling and pressing the scalpel blade to make a significant but small cut. These divisions correspond to the intervals in the decoration intended. Then the scalpel blade is used at a fairly oblique (flat) angle to shave or carve slivers of wood down to the cut keeping the dowel turning between the fingers. Although it needs care and control, the method can be surprisingly quick.

shaving legs

Below are chairs made from styrene strip, ready to be painted.

styrene chairs

The other method of achieving the same shapes involves applying a modelling material over strong metal rod, such as brass, and shaping it by pressing with formers such as a cocktail stick or even a comb. The ideal material to use is Milliput, which is a very fine 2-part epoxy putty. Milliput is very sticky, so it will stay put on the metal while being modelled, and it sets very hard. Once set it can also be shaved or sanded to improve the look without crumbling off as some softer modelling compounds might.

modelling balusters in Milliput

WORKING EXAMPLES

Constructing a chandelier

When making this test subject I was thinking of the heavy brass chandeliers which look as if they’re made from brass piping, full of curves and arabesques. I didn’t have a particular one in mind, just the sense or essence of the type.

chandelier

I felt it was far more important to get the overall symmetry and balance of the shape, together with the sense of fine, tight and flowing curves, rather than worry too much about the sleekness of round brass in the originals. If I’d wanted that I would have to have used brass wire bent into shapes, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to bend wire finely enough to achieve all these matching segments!

The first task was to design it, by drawing up a segment shape that was sufficiently curvaceous and full-looking but also kept as simple as possible beyond that. I could have made it simpler still, but every element of the drawing below is chosen to convey not only the desired look but also something which will stay together structurally when made.

chandelier drawing

I then made a scan of the drawing (which I’d drawn at 1:10 for convenience), reduced the image file to 40% to make it 1:25 scale, and printed out a sheet of copies. Incidentally, it’s generally harder for people to wrap their heads round percentages or conversions than I’d imagined! If you need help on the subject read my post Working in Scale from June 9 2013.

cutting chandelier sections

In this case I used Photo Mount, which is the permanent type of spraymount from 3M, to fix the drawings to stencil card since it would not be necessary to remove the paper from the cut forms. This type of intricate cutting does take practise, and a lot of patience, but if successful it is still a great deal easier than by any other hand-making method.

central support

A central support was needed because this is always a feature of the real chandelier designs and it also helps in spacing the segments evenly. The central rod here is styrene plastic, shaved with the scalpel to suggest a turned element. The cut-outs were glued on with superglue and I used a gold Edding marker pen to paint once assembled. The sequins used as candle saucers were a final touch, also quite effective in introducing a bit more ‘bling’ to the whole thing.

chandelier with cutout pieces

Making ‘ironwork’ arches

This is also something I’ve featured elsewhere, in ‘Working with Palight foamed Pvc’ in the ‘Materials’ section, but I have to appropriate it because it’s so relevant here.

finished piece

Although it’s much easier to draw on foamed Pvc with a pencil (unlike styrene or ABS) I prefer to work out a design on paper and spraymount a copy on the plastic. In the photo below I have started cutting out the ironwork shape through the paper. Curves are much easier with Pvc than cardboard because the composition is much smoother, with no particles or fibres to affect the passage of the blade. Cutting is easier also because it is more porous (foamed) on the inside and will ‘give’ a little under the blade causing much less friction.

starting with a cutout

If the paper cutting template is lightly fixed with spraymount (especially the repositionable type) it can be easily peeled off the form once cut.

removing paper

In this case the Pvc cut-out serves as a firm, cleanly cut basis upon which more detail, profiling or strengthening can be added on top. It’s a constructional principle of ‘building in layers’ which I’ve developed for myself over the years and try to follow most of the time. Below I’m adding a strip of styrene (a harder plastic which can be bought in a wide variety of pre-made strip formats) to make a thicker top rail. The easiest way to glue this on in exactly the right place first time is to position a guide-block (in this case a metal block) against the top, press the cut length of styrene against it and run a little thin superglue (using a plastic gluing brush or cocktail stick if preferred) along the join. The thin type of superglue will travel into the join and set immediately.

assembling against metal block

Below, I am doing similar but this time with a very thin (c. 1mm) cut strip of the same Pvc to give the arches more substance. Pvc is nicely bendable, especially in thin strips. The trick with bonding a strip in an exact curve is to fix the strip with a spot of glue at one end first, then curve and position the rest, spot-gluing at intervals to the other end. I’ve cut the strip a little longer, to be trimmed off when the end is reached.

adding curved detail

The columns were completed by adding half-round styrene strips, which can also be bought in various thicknesses.

ironwork in progress