Monday, June 21, 2010

Preparing the original

I've had a couple of questions lately about what kinds of originals I use when making molds. I thought this project for Meows and Minis would be good for illustrating how resin originals are used in making ceramic molds. The original was sculpted by Becky Turner in clay and then cast in white resin. One of those copies was then sent to me to make the ceramic molds.

I can make molds from clay originals, and have done that with my own pieces before. "Inspire" was done that way last winter. When working with simple medallions or tiles with a two-piece mold (a face and a "lid"), there isn't really a need to make a hard original. That changes, however, when someone needs to mail the original to me. Resin copies are a lot easier to ship.

The only downside is that some things that work in resin don't really work with plaster and clay. That's because resin is typically poured into a flexible rubber mold. I make a rubber master mold, but that's for making the plaster molds. The actual castings come out of those, and they obviously don't bend. Medallions are even more tricky because they don't have any hand-holds. The piece has to pop out clean from a rigid block. That usually requires a bit of "editing" when a medallion wasn't originally designed for ceramic production.

The biggest concern with most medallions are the outside edges. For the piece to come out easily, they need to be bevelled. I learned this the hard way with my first medallion, the Celtic Pony. In the linked post, you can see the first version which has perfectly straight sides. After fussing forever with getting them out of the mold in one piece, I finally redesigned it so the sides (and the inside border) sloped ever so slightly. Life was instantly easier!

In the picture above, the resin copy has been glued to a glazed tile. Where the resin meets the tile, you can see the shadow cast along the bottom edge of the design. It actually slopes slightly inward, which will pin the castings inside the mold. You can see where I've started to add the bevel on the left-hand side. I don't want to add much, because I don't want to change the feel of Becky's design, and I need to be careful to perserve the organic quality of her edges. The trick is to add just enough to make it work.

These are my have-to-have tools for this kind of work. I do all my claying up, including the more elaborate full-body horse molds, with this kind of soft, inexpensive Plastalina clay. I like the brown for when I work with white resin because I can see it. I use a bright robin's egg blue when I work with clay originals, again so I can see it against the original. I use the Goo Gone as a solvent to smooth the Plastalina, though I sometimes use vegetable oil instead. Both seem to work pretty well. The tool in front is my favorite for getting a steady bevel.

This is a close-up of the same tool. One side of the tool is slightly domed (facing the camera) and the other is flat. It's just about the right depth to catch the edge of the medallion. By holding it at a steady angle against that edge, I can get a consistent bevel.

I use these shaped Q-tips soaked in Goo Gone to clean the excess clay from the resin. Here the top and left side have been cleaned of excess clay but the bottom has not.

In this picture bevels have been added to all four sides. I've also taken care of some of the undercuts created by the fur and by the edge of the topmost ear. Undercuts are areas that are hidden behind a part of the design when viewed from the direction that the mold piece pulls. In ceramic molds, undercut areas will either bind the casting into the mold, or tear the casting as it is removed. Slight undercuts like the ones in his fur are sometimes workable in a multi-piece mold because you can jiggle the casting free. In a one-piece mold like a medallion, even a small undercut can make it difficult to free the casting.

To prevent that, I have "flooded" the undercuts, which is just filling them flush with clay. You can see I've done that with two sections of fur, one on each side of the face, and along the edge of the ear. If the undercut is important to the design, I can take the excess back out again when I clean the castings. I will probably so with the ear on this particular design. It actually takes less time to resculpt that area on each casting than to repair (or repour) the damaged castings when they stick. This is a trade-off that happens with full-bodied horses, too. Sometimes it is less work to add details like hoof bottoms to each casting that to work with the undercut.

Finally the last step is adding the keys. Those are the half-circles at the corners of the tile. I need keys so that the second piece of the mold, the lid, will stay in place without shifting. It is much cleaner to sculpt keys in clay than to cut them later into the rubber.

Now the original is all ready to be boxed up so the rubber master mold can be poured. With luck I will have plaster production molds from this drying by the weekend.


Working in pottery (especially doing so without any formal training) has often made me wish that I had a better background in chemistry. But even more so, it has made me glad that I don't suffer from an obsessive compulsive disorder. Ceramics involves enough issues surrounding contamination!

I mentioned in the earlier post that I don't often work with terra cotta slip because it can contaminate other materials. It also leaves stains. I thought a picture of a new plaster mold with its first pour with the slip might be a good illustration. Needless to say, this is a dedicated terra cotta mold. It cannot be used for the ordinary white earthenware slip I usually use, because the residue would stain it. I also have separate mixers, pitchers and tools for working with red clay.

Since my work area is relatively small, I tend to shut down the casting and glazing end of things whenever I work with red (or other colored) clays. I did this over the weekend so I could cast a few more test tiles. I am also using the down time to work on a handful of small jobs that don't involve regular greenware or underglaze. One of those is a mold of a medallion for Meows and Minis, a show hosted by Chris Wallbruch that benefits Cat Guardians. The medallion was sculpted by Becky Turner of Soltice Art Studio. I've long admired Becky's medallions, so I am looking forward to translating them into clay. I also though it might be helpful to show how a medallion is prepped for moldmaking, so I'll be doing that in the next day or so.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Terra cotta trepidations

When Sarah announced the Terra Cotta Tile project as part of the Flying Hearts Fundraiser, I was eager to participate. I am a huge fan of tiles as it is, and the chance to play with one of her stylized horse designs was too tempting.

I have to admit, however, to being intimidated by terra cotta. It's not that I haven't tried it. I was so taken with some of Lynn Fraley's samples during Mayhem a few years ago that I had some terra cotta slip shipped back to Charlotte. I even cast a number of medallions with it, though until yesterday that was as far as I got.

That's because Lynn was also generous enough to send us back with some of her Laf'n Bear test tiles in terra cotta to use for glaze testing.

I am sorry to say that these two guys were among the less ugly things I managed to do to her tiles. I seemed to have a knack for turning terra cotta into a shiny brown blob, no matter what glaze combination I tried.

Terra cotta clay creates red dust which contaminates everything around it, so I put the slip away and told myself I would try again another day. Since Sarah has already started pressing tiles - and since they are all made from terra cotta clay - I realize that the time to face my terra cotta terror is now. Fortunately, I did pour a number of test medallions with the slip before I threw in the towel, so I won't be forced to experiment on the "good" tiles when they arrive!

The sad part is that I have always loved the look of darker clay on tiles. The tile above, made by my friend Melanie Brooks at Earthenwood Studio, is still one of my favorites. It is not terra cotta, but she did the same kind of glaze on a terra cotta colored tile of a wolf that I gave my sister-in-law a few years ago and I've always loved the look. Melanie works in stoneware, though, and I'm trying to find a way to get a similar look without leaving the earthenware clay bare.

Hopefully I won't run out of test pieces before I find something that works!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Flying Hearts Fundraiser

The effort to help Melissa just grew and grew. My friend Sarah said it best in recent post to her blog.

"So what began as Heather Malone-Bogle's plaintive question of what could be done for them has now bloomed into a joyous, enthusiastic snowball of generosity from every corner of the industry. It's times like this that remind us what's important and what unites us, and so this effort has been a true celebration not only of Melly and Herman, but of what it means to be fortunate enough to have them as friends."

And snowball it has! A website with the donations is being managed by Heather Malone-Bogle. You can see the various donations, or just find out how you can help, here:

Flying Hearts Fundraiser

I have already placed the Imp up on the AuctionBarn. His auction will end Tuesday night at 8pm EST. At least, I hope that's how the time I entered translates. I've gotten that part wrong before!

What I haven't yet done is update the website or get Adrenaline photographed. (The only file I could find for him was the one face shot.) I hope to have that done by tomorrow.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Things are moving quickly

Since my post yesterday, things have been moving quite quickly on helping Melissa Gaulding. Apparently I was not alone in thinking about selling a horse or two on her behalf!

Many others had the same idea, and others have offered help with managing the effort. Brian and Shallon over at the AuctionBarn have offered to host the auctions free of charge. Heather Malone-Bogle is in the process of setting up a webpage, and there are a number of other plans in the works. It really is heartening to see so many people come together to help a member of our community.

For my part, I have decided that the first horse will be my Imp, "Butterbean" (pictured above). I haven't offered any publicly yet - mostly because they are a real bear to paint! I also plan to offer a few other horses for direct purchase. One of those will be my Okie, "Adrenaline". He was actually the kiln-mate to Mel's much-loved Okie, "Asheville", so it seems appropriate that he help the cause, too.

The poor guy looks downright alarmed
about being sold off, doesn't he?

Right now I am leaning towards holding "Elvis" until Breakables. I have heard from Maggie that she's planning to include a few lots to benefit the effort at the auction there. I thought it might be a good idea to space out the pieces being offered.

When I have more information, I'll share it here.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Elvis has left the building

Well, he will be leaving it.

Many of you have probably heard by now about the horrible situation with fellow collector Melissa Gaulding and her husband Herman's battle with cancer. Mel recently announced that she was going to have to liquidate her collection in order to pay medical expenses.

As I looked through my collection of bisques today, trying to decide what I could donate for the cause, I realized that I had finished pieces that could be sold now. Some are prototypes, while others have been kept because they were a particularly good example of some technique or another. Others, like Elvis Impersonator (above), are just horses where I just got too attached to part with them.

I know that there aren't enough horses here to keep Mel from having to sell some of her collection, but with luck maybe by selling some of them, I can allow her to keep a few favorites. If there is one thing I know, more horses will come out of the kiln and take the place of the ones that leave!

So I am sorting through what is here and how best to offer them to buyers. When I know which ones and how they will be sold, I'll post it to the mailing list and most likely have a full listing with pictures on the website. In the meantime, I would encourage folks to keep Melissa and Herman in their thoughts and prayers. All financial hardship aside, they have a long road ahead of them and can use whatever support the collectibles community can give.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Unexpected things

You will never guess what I am!

I started getting requests to write a book on horse color shortly after I started writing articles on the subject, but I didn't take the idea really seriously until after I began doing seminars at BreyerFest in 2001. My husband co-authored a physics textbook a few years later, and I began teasing him that surely my obscure interest (horse color) was more marketable than his (optical physics). I am still not sure about that, but his publishing experience did convince me that I was too used to controlling my images and text to work with a publishing company. The growth in self-publishing options, particularly print-on-demand, and the belief that I probably knew the market for this kind of book better than most publishers, decided it for me.

The book I truly wanted to write didn't seem feasible at this point. I needed high-quality color printing, and while the prices have come down a great deal in recent years, they aren't yet down low enough. I thought that producing an in-depth book on color identification at a reasonable price was still a few years off, so I thought perhaps a smaller scale project might be a good way to "learn the ropes" of self-publishing. What I had in mind was a book that expanded on the information provided in my breed color charts. Those charts have always been abbreviated, both in the scope of the breeds and the colors themselves (new colors have not be added over time). They also don't give any background or clarification on the information. That information has always been in my notes - in my rather infamous "color notebooks".

These are just a few of the sheets from a few of the notebooks. After almost twenty years, there are thousands of pages - and still they represent only a fraction of the accumulated information.

I thought I could produce a book with a brief outline of the colors and patterns currently known, and then present each breed with a narrative of what colors were present in the gene pool. I envisioned a handy reference book that could fill in what the charts did not tell. Since it was not designed to explain horse color, but merely to tell the story of horse color in the different breeds, it could be printed in black and white.

So that was the plan - a handy reference book that could be written in time for a June deadline (making the first copies available at BreyerFest 2010). Along the way, a lot of unexpected things came up.

The horses' stories got longer. I'm sure my friends would point out that this is common with the stories I tell! But I am laying some of the blame with technology.

I'm a better-known individual than my pony friend up there, but you might not know what I am either!

When I started work on the book, it was important to me that it be as grounded in fact as possible. I knew that many breed 'purists' weren't going to like some of the information I had, so I wanted to be on solid ground with what I wrote. But more importantly I didn't want to simply repeat what previous volumes said about a given breed. Having read countless horse books, it is rather striking how most simply reword what some other author said on the topic - and sometimes even the rewording is pretty minimal! I thought the least I could do was confirm information with first sources.

This probably wouldn't have changed the scope of the book, except that technology meant that I had access to a lot more information. I already have an impressive amount of information right here in my own library, but in the last few years many registries have gone online with their databases. Most of the American and British databases are restricted to members of the various breed societies, or are only available on a subscription basis. Smaller countries, however, have proven to be a lot more open. This, paired with Google Translate, has allowed me to tell the stories of many obscure breeds more fully.

The other important bit of technology were sites like Google Books and the Internet Archive. Projects like these are scanning older texts and offering them as PDF files for downloading. In the case of Google Books, there is a powerful search engine that sifts through not only titles, but the text of books and periodicals. Fortunately for me, the formative years of selective breeding in horses is the time leading up and the time just following the turn of the last century. It coincides almost perfectly with the books aging out of their copyright protections. Having access to so many contemporary texts from that time (and being able to quickly search them for specific subjects) has allowed me to better understand the earliest times for many of these breeds.

The downside has been that the book has become unexpectedly large, and is taking an unexpectedly long time (not to mention eating up an enormous amount of my attention). This stopped being a "quick reference" long ago, but I am even more enthusiastic about telling the tale. I think that here, nearly a century in to selective breeding of animals, is a good time to record these stories and give some idea of the sweep of history involved. It is my hope that by showing how things really were, perhaps those of us who love horses can see more clearly how to proceed in the future. It just won't be done in time for this year's BreyerFest.

Oh, and the two horses pictured are some of the unexpected things I have discovered while writing. The black pony is - believe it or not - a Haflinger. He wasn't just any Haflinger, either. He belonged to the Emperor of Austria, and was pictured as a "typical example" in a nineteenth century treatise on horse breeds. The grey horse is a Hackney. While I knew the color had once been present in Hackneys, I wasn't aware there were breeders focusing on the color so late into the twentieth century. (It is, as best I can tell, truly lost now.)