Friday, January 29, 2010

The book

Much of my attention lately has been taken up with working on my horse color book. It's a project that I've been working on, on and off, for years. I decided last year that it really needed to become a priority, or it was never going to be completed. I set a target of having it ready in time for BreyerFest 2010. It will be the 21st BreyerFest and the 15th annual North American Nationals, and it seems to be shaping as an informal "old timers" reunion. Knowing that my friend Ardith Carlton will be there (with her own book on artist Julie Froelich) has given me a little additional incentive.

The manuscript is still far from finished. Whole passages are rough, and the text is peppered with little side comments about facts that need to be double-checked. (I live in fear that one of them will escape the editors, and the book will be printed with something like "surely this color notation is wrong - check!" somewhere in the text.) It was close enough, however, that I started testing formats and book sizes with the hopes of finding a good fit - and getting a page estimate.

I suspected the book was running a little too long. Unfortunately for me, my suspicions were off. It wasn't running a little too long; it was running way too long. I ended up with an estimate of close to 800 pages, and that was just the text. I was only just starting to work on the illustrations so they were not factored in to the count. Not only is number of people that interested in horse color rather small, there are page limits on perfect binding. So I am mulling over my options. Do I drop the rarer breeds? (Does anyone really care if the Asturcón are sometimes chestnut?) Do I pull out some of the specifics and publish them in a separate appendix? Or do I break the whole project into two or more volumes?

So those are the things I am mulling over, all while I am laughing at myself. This was supposed to be the small book - the "easy" book - that I published before tackling the "real" horse color book. How long could a book on the history of color in the different breeds be? I would write this short one, and then tackle the harder "everything I know about identifying colors and patterns" book later. I should have known that I don't know how to do short and easy projects.

But I have been encouraged by these old printouts I found while going through my old notes. They are from the first horse color seminar I gave. The date in the corner is 2001 - the same year that my youngest son was born. He was five months old when I gave the presentation. Somehow I managed to complete the whole thing, including more than 30 illustrations, in just a few months with a newborn in the house. If I could do that, I should be able to make this book deadline standing on my head. At least, that's what I am telling myself!

And this time around, I have much better tools. I used illustrations when I did the presentation in part out of necessity. It would be too difficult to track down the copyright holders for the photos that I would need to illustrate my points. I also thought that whimsical ink and marker drawings might make the subject matter a little less intimidating. It worked wonderfully.

Except that it was time-consuming. I reused the lineart, as you can see with the stock horse that modeled the pinto patterns, but I had to ink it each time. And the colors were limited. I left out the (then newly discovered) champagne gene because I could not find the right shades of taupe! If only I had known how to make digital images, I could have save myself a lot of effort.

And that is what I am doing with the book. Although it will have photographs, my experience with the presentations taught me that sometimes the most helpful image is a drawing.

For this project, I only have to ink things by hand once. Here is one of the inked line arts that I will be using in the book. There are several different ones that are posed according to what parts I might need to illustrate. This one is for large body pattern illustrations where the face markings are less important. There is one with a dramatic head turn for when I need to show what is going on with the face.

Here the ink drawing has been scanned in and I've started inking it electronically with my fancy new Intuos4 tablet. The original ink lines (now a light gray) are still visible under the darker digital ones. After that has been done, I'll be able to create a template of not only the lines but also the basic shading. That will give me a base that can be used for making multiple illustrations more quickly.

Being such a visual person, and being able to make whatever image I think might clarify the text, probably isn't going to help my page number problem. So I'm setting the book and the drawings aside for a week or two, and returning to the studio. I find that sometimes answers come after I let a problem sit for a bit while I immerse myself in something completely different. Perhaps an inspired solution will come to me while I erase hundreds of little dapples!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The learning curve

One of my tasks this past week was to pour a new Finn mold. Finn was the first horse produced as a Blackberry Lane edition. He was also my first foray into molding a full-body horse. I didn't make him alone; Joan made the rubber master while I watched and tried to absorb the process. I then brought the master home with me (much to the alarm of airport security in San Diego).

The training wheels were off, however, when it came time to make the plaster production molds. That's the first one I made, pictured up there. It is more than a little inelegant.

As I showed with the step-by-steps on the Imp mold, sometimes the master mold isn't a straight-forward representation of the plaster molds. For complex pieces (and we don't seem to make any other kind!), it's often necessary to make some of the interior pieces by hand. In the case of Finn, his ever-so-slightly turned head made it necessary to create a separate piece that covered the right side of his head and neck.

The trick with handmade pieces is that you have to envision how they work with the rest of the mold, and you have to do it on the fly because you are shaping the piece as the plaster dries. (You are also simultaneously trying not to get air pockets on the design surface and not spread too much plaster on the finished areas of the mold.) Needless to say, as the picture above shows, I did not get it quite right the first time. I ended up with an interior piece binding against another, which meant one edge fractured as I took the mold apart. Usually that just means you have some ugly flashing in one area of the casting (which works as a great reminder, every time you cast, of what you learned).

Unfortunately with this particular break, it also meant that when I poured the slip down the belly, it came right out through that little gap in the top. Of course, molds of new releases are never made except on a tight deadline, so it had to work anyway. You can see the staining where I have used blue and sometimes brown plasteline to plug the gap. It works, if more than a little imperfectly.

I made another mold a bit later, and it doesn't leak. But it's hardly much prettier.

It was interesting, then, to return to the master this past week with four years more experience. (Four years and a crash course on molding really difficult horses!) Of course, having a better sense of the word 'undercut' makes a world of difference. But there are little things, too, like not pouring the plaster too soon, or knowing just how much to jiggle the air bubbles out without shifting the rubber legs. As the picture shows, the 2010 mold is much cleaner. It also took a lot less effort.

I have been thinking about this kind of issue a lot lately. Those of us in the model horse community who work in ceramics have seen a marked increase in people wanting to learn various aspects of the medium. There really isn't any getting around the fact that that almost every aspect - molding, casting, glazing - has a really steep learning curve. It's made me think that to some extent, the most useful trait for someone taking up ceramics is just sheer stubborness.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

My gambling problem

My family has had a good time for the last few weeks, teasing me about my "gambling problem". That's because PayPal froze my account on suspicion that I was running an illegal online gambling operation. So my father now refers to me as his "bookie" and asks to "put some money on the ponies". Fortunately I was able to convince the customer service representative at PayPal that what our community refers to as a lottery isn't really a form of gambling. My account was restored, but I was told I would need to remove all references to "games of chance" from my website.

I'm still not sure how this is going to change how I sell my work, but it's clear that whatever is done the website needs to be changed. I'm using the opportunity to reorganize the site and do a few updates. I am not brave enough to do a complete redesign, but I hope to give it a little more logical structure.

With that goal in mind, I have been working on a blog index of sorts. I've had the blog for three years, and have generated hundreds of posts. Some of them are even useful! I've tried several times to get Blogger's tags to work so people can better find the useful ones, but tags continue to allude me. So I am working on a page for the website with links to blog posts by topic. That way those looking for them can find all the posts on moldmaking, or all the posts on horse color, or glazing, or treehouses and catapults.

Friday, January 8, 2010


I knew there was one potential flaw to moving the airbrush station to the garage. The garage had the space, but it wasn't heated. I'd been really optimistic that my high-powered space heater would keep the area useable in the winter. What I hadn't counted on was the unseasonably cold weather we've been having. Even with the heater running, the workspace out there has barely gotten above 40 degrees most days this week.

I decided this was nature's way of telling me that it was time to clean greenware. It's not the most glamorous part of ceramic production, but at least it can be done in my warm studio!

It's probably just as well, since the spray booth has been taken over by the guys and their Pinewood Derby project. It's probably not obvious from the picture, but this year's car is going to be shaped like a giant red Lego block. Thankfully Alan wrapped the booth with newspaper, or I'd be doing the rest of my painting (when it finally gets warm enough again) in a glossy red booth.

We really needed the spray booth a few years ago, when my older son was working on both his Science Fair project and his Pinewood Derby car. His experiment involved finding out if crickets, which are apparently omnivores like people, lived longer on a balanced diet of healthy food or soda and pizza. (For my friends who are parents, you don't really want to know the answer...) Since I am notoriously bug phobic, I insisted that the crickets live in the garage. Brandon and his father built an elaborate plexiglass enclosure for the two groups, and set it up in the corner of the garage. Unfortunately, it was the same garage where we'd later spray paint the Derby car. I can report that while crickets actually do quite well on pizza, they aren't at all compatible with spray paint fumes. Every last one of them was belly-up within the hour! It wasn't a sight to give anyone a lot of confidence about breathing the smelly stuff.

It did make me happy, though, to see that there was almost no smell this time around. I wasn't willing to bring in any test crickets to be sure, but it did seem that the only odor was coming from the paint on the car itself. Surely that must mean the booth is working for me, too.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Wrapping up and moving on

I was able to reach my goal of wrapping up the "Inspire" project before the start of the new (work) year. With luck they might even reach their destination before January 6, which is the twelfth day of Christmas. Each year I cut it closer and closer, which makes me think I need to give in and just say I send Valentine's gifts!

I did learn quite a bit, which is one of the benefits of doing these kids of projects. This was, for instance, the first time I had used a spray gun to apply an art glaze. That was one of the benefits of having the new spray booth. It certainly is faster than using sponges, which was how they were done before. What I didn't count on was the waste involved due to overspray. I had mixed a teal glaze (to the left in the picture above) that I wanted to use for all 25 tiles, only to run out half way through. I didn't want to delay things with a wait for more glaze, so I did the other half in a true green. Next time I'll know to mix a much larger batch for this kind of application.

I still have more plans for "Inspire", including the original purpose as a trading card. But working on those will be more like working on regular horses, since the materials are the same. After weeks of looking at teal and green, I'm ready to return to the world of silver dapple leopards and chestnut roan sabinos.

That meant cleaning up the studio, which had slowly been trashed by each step in the process of making the tiles. It reminded me that I wanted to do a more serious reorganization of my work space later this spring. Ten years of ceramic work is starting to show in the accumulation of mostly-worn molds, not-really-moist-anymore clays and glazes of questionable attractiveness.

I look at these shelves and remember telling Joan, back when I started, that I had no real interest in making my own molds.

These are the other things I've accumulated. The bottle to the right holds all my spent #11 blades. I started tossing them in the glass bottle thinking that it was a good way to dispose of them once it was full. I have no idea how many blades are in there, but it is 2.5 lbs worth of Xactos. Two and a half pounds of scritching! I guess it's safe to say I'm not inclined to developing carpal tunnel.

The second container holds all the used bars from my kiln. Each on represents a separate firing. It stopped being representative of all the firings done in the studio when I added the smaller test kiln, since it uses a Bartlett controller instead of cones. That's the kiln I use for most of my bisque firings, so it gets a lot more use than the big one. Still it's a fun reminder of how much use the kilns have gotten since I set up the ceramic shop. I have always thought that once it was full, I'd hold a guessing jar contest. That might be a ways off, though, since I've only managed to get it 3/4 full in ten years.

But massive studio reorganizations will have to wait until spring. For now I am just happy to have my countertops back.