A ‘jungle temple’ wall in Kapa foam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making relief patterning tools using Sculpey

Here is a quick post describing a technique I’ve been developing for creating pressed patterns in soft foam using specially modelled tools. The advantage of creating a small area of defined pattern which can be repeatedly pressed (in this case a particular type of old street cobble) apart from saving time, is that it gives the patterned area a certain regularity. The direction of the pattern or the pressure used can be varied to prevent any look of obvious repetition but there is a natural unity and a rhythm to it.

Sculpey press-tool

Super Sculpey is the best material I’ve found for creating these press-tools. It allows complete versatility in modelling and is strong enough when properly baked to make a lasting and, if need be, quite deep impression on soft foam. Milliput will set just as hard and durable (if not more so) for repeated use, but I find it too resistant when soft to allow enough control over detail modelling. The polyurethane foam in Kapa-line foamboard is by far the most suitable foam to use because it takes impressions minutely but black foamboard foam, styrofoam or Depron will all yield results in their different ways. 

pressed pattern in Kapa-line foam

Here I’ve mainly used the blunt ends of disposable chopsticks to create the negative cobble-stone shapes in a piece of Sculpey. The walls between, which become the cracks in the positive pattern, need to be carefully pinched up, ideally tapering to sharp ridges. If not they will look too broad or not be deep enough in the positive. Even more important, the modelled pattern area should have a roughly convex shape so that it can be rocked while pressing. Usually if the press-tool is too flat it cannot be pressed firmly enough into the foam without breaking. I’ve also pinched a shape at the back for holding the tool. This block measures about 5x3cm with an average thickness of 1.5cm. The manufacturer’s directions for baking Sculpey recommend that the oven is brought to 130 degrees C and the form left there 15mins for each 6mm of thickness (i.e. average 18mm needing 45mins). This may be sufficient for forms which are not going to be subjected to much strain or when trying to preserve the flesh colour but for a full and even hardness throughout it’s usually better to leave thick forms in for longer. I prefer to leave these in the oven until they’ve darkened almost to a chestnut brown colour, then turn off the heat but allow the forms to cool down in the oven before removing them. The extra baking will not distort or shrink the forms any more than normal, but it will make them much tougher. 

dry-bushed surface

These surface samples represent very basic painting but show the steps, from top left to bottom right, beginning with a dark base color and gradually working from dark to light, dry- brushing successive colours. Dry-brushing is best done with a full-haired but relatively soft brush containing the minimum of paint and using a careful ‘dusting’ action similar to applying blusher. The highlights of the texture are emphasized first, while the depths remain dark. Here I’ve used a particularly opaque, matte acrylic made by Rosco for scenic painting but any opaque, matte acrylic can be used. Gouache also works well because of it’s opacity but adding a little Pva glue to it will make it more durable.

stages in painting