Monday, November 23, 2009

So close...

"Inspire" is almost done. He still has a few bald spots (still trying to decide the best direction for those strands) and I need to add the inner curve to the top right border, but I am so close. I probably won't post again until there are glazed versions. Not that there's much surprised left to him, after so many detailed posts about his creation!

And as many of you who have followed this blog for a while now have already figured out, I am utterly incapable of multi-tasking. It is really difficult for me to put a project down and pick up another. So everything in the studio ground to a halt while I worked on this sculpture.

That meant that I didn't get my claybody custom photographed and loaded up to the Auction Barn before the holidays. I fear I missed my window, since many people find it hard to bid on items close to Christmas. I think I will hold off on the auction for a little while, but I will try to get her pictures up. She's too cool to hide away just because I got distracted.

It wasn't just the studio that has suffered from my obsession. The holiday baking hasn't been started. My family is beginning to wonder if I plan to feed them, or just show them a few more strands of clay horse hair!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A new approach to adding the hair

Like I mentioned in the previous post, I dread manes. It takes a bit of playing around with them to find something that works for the design, but all the adding and removing and editing invariably damages the underlying sculpture. Of course if you sculpted it once, you have the ability to do it again, but I hate the lost time. In the past what I have done is take a design up to the point where I am in the above picture and then cast it. After that I would clean up a casting, fire it, and use it as a base for sculpting the mane. (Like this.)

This means the original goes through two shrinks; one when it is cast and made into the background for the new original, and a second when the final casting were made. What I've learned from shrinking down originals to create smaller versions is that there is a certain amount of distortion that amplifies with multiple castings. I wasn't confident that I could just enlarge my design 12% to account for the two shrinks, and still come up with the required trading card dimensions.

That and my unwillingness to sculpt manes on a soft surface was a limitation I needed to overcome. I needed a new approach.

I decided that part of my problem was trying to design on the fly on the non-hardening clay. I needed to do more of my design work on paper before I approached the clay.

So what I did was take a picture of the hairless design (that's the picture at the top of this post) and print it out in actual size. I also dropped the opacity of the image to 70% so I could better see the lines I would draw. From there I started sketching in the mane. These weren't the general direction lines I had used before, but a blueprint of exactly where the strands would fall.

My goal was to confine my redesigning to erasing pencil lines, rather than removing clay. But even more so, what I wanted to do was more accurately replicate the feel of my linework in my sculptures. My drawings have always had a softer, wispier feel that I had wished was more evident in the manes and tails of my sculpting. The sculpted versions always looked clunky in comparison, at least to my eyes.

I thought that perhaps if I drew something specifically intended to be sculpted from, I might begin to see what was getting lost in the translation.

Using the drawing, I sculpted exactly what I had drawn directly on the printout.

After the basic shapes were in place, I used Goo-Gone and a paintbrush to smooth the surfaces. This was a leap of faith because I had foolishly not thought about the possiblity that the solvent might melt the ink (or the paper) until after I started brushing it on the surface. Surprisingly, Goo-Gone doesn't do anything to ink jet printouts.

Obviously the strands aren't in their final, polished form. All I really wanted was to capture the larger shape and movement. Once I had that, the paper and clay were all placed in the freezer. I had used NSP Soft so that it would blend well (and not take a lot of tool pressure to detail) once it was added to the horse, but that meant the clay was much too soft to maintain its shape without freezing it first.

It worked! It took a while, but a day later the bits of mane were stiff enough to pop off the paper backing. It was a bit like placing little mane stickers on the horse.

Here are the first handful of bits I placed sitting on the rapidly defrosting horse. I eventually put them all in place, but the design was too cold for them to stick. I had to let it thaw a little first, then gently press them down.

The mane still needs a lot of cleaning up and detailing, but it's all in place. The whole design, with all the mane bits, is back in the freezer for the moment. I need everything to firm back up so I can do the final shaping of those mane pieces. After that it's just a bit more detailing of the strands and I'll be ready for the final pre-casting inspection.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Together at last!

I have the horse and the background where I want them, so the two pieces are finally ready to merge together.

My first step will be in getting a truly accurate outline on the recessed area that holds the horse. I'll do that by punching a pin along the outside edge of the horse, much like I did earlier with the text. This will let me trim (or fill) the recess to fit the slightly changed horse.

Once the horse fits properly, I'm going to need to anchor it down a little. I've had trouble with it shifting a bit, which wasn't a problem since I was just checking the design. Now I'll be filling the miter between the two pieces, so I'll need the head to stay in place.

The only places that aren't finished off are the edges near the shoulder, so that's where I'll pinch the clay down. I'll clean this up and bevel the edge to match the rest of the card.

I originally thought I could shape the recess to form the intended outline before the horse was added, but it became clear to me that I'd have more control over the line if I did it with the horse there. I set about adding the outline to the neck since it had the simplest lines.

What I didn't anticipate was that the line wasn't giving me the effect I had in mind. Instead of highlighting the horse and jumping him off the design, I found it was distracting. I tried adding it just to the areas with the textured background (the top of the neck, front of the face and understand of the jaw) while leaving the muzzle flush against the plain background. It still looked distracting.

I think I am going to opt for a gently sloping curve to the areas where I have a line now, but I want to set the design away and sleep on it. Looking at the problem with new eyes is always a good idea. I suspect that one of the ideas I was most attracted to in the beginning may well not work this time around. That's not a good enough reason to include it, though. Knowing when the throw something out is as important as knowing what needs to go in.

Either way, after tomorrow I should be ready for the hair. I should add that I dread hair, and dread adding hair against a background most of all. So this part could get interesting.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Working on the horse

In between sessions with the background, I roughed in the missing throatlatch and shoulder. While the background is permanently attached to the white tile, the horse is worked on a piece of wax paper. I need him loose so I can place him on the background from time to time.

Once the general shapes are all there, I use a photograph to assess the horse. Often flaws that aren't immediately obvious in the clay are quite visible in the photo. In this case, the first thing I noticed is that I have the eye canted at too steep an angle. I'll need to pull the top corner down just a bit. But the bigger problem is that while I was thinking that I'd have the horse's face slightly angled away, so that the nostril is only barely visible, the upper part of the face is too much in profile for that to work properly. I'm not going to get the slightly turned away effect; I'm going to make the muzzle look too small.

This is a problem that's really easy to have with bas relief because the perspective is skewed. Things are not receding in a straight-forward manner. The sculptor manipulates them to emphasize certain things and downplay others. There is more art to getting this right than science. Looking at the photo, though, I could tell that what I had was not going to work unless I brought the muzzle around just a bit.

Although it's hard to see because my default color (lime green) isn't that different from the gray-green of the clay, I've cut and pasted the eye area at a more shallow angle to see if that helps my face. I learned this trick from my friend Carol Williams. Instead of immediately cutting apart her sculptures to make adjustments, she tried the corrections out in PhotoShop first. It is a huge time-saver! If I find I am going down a wrong alley with my proposed solution, at least I haven't mangled my work. And if I'm not worried about "undoing all that work", I can be a lot braver about changes.

I've also added some directional lines to indicate what I might do with his mane. As I've worked more on the background, I've come to realize that I'm going to need some strong visual cues that bring the eye back to the face. That's because the text will naturally draw the eye from the left to the right. I need to pull it back up and to the left, so using movement in the mane is a natural choice.

Here I can take those same lines and use PhotoShop to add them to my design. I think something like this is going to work, but it will mean revising my ideas about border flourishes. For the moment I'm going to leave the simpler border. I'll be better able to assess what needs to happen with that aspect of the design when I'm closer to the end. My suspicion at this point is that any additional ornamentation will be minimal, and will likely go in the top right corner.

But aside from some tweaking here and there, this is probably the general design.

Here is my background again, minus the horse. I've textured the square behind the horse with a grooved loop. (The tool is actually made from an old guitar string.) It's a barely-there texture, but it will be enough to catch some of the glaze and give the area a little bit of interest.

You can also see the blue border has returned. I have to share my secret for getting pristine border edges on medallions. The blue material is "wax wire". It comes in various thicknesses and bevel styles. The border here is a 12 guage half-round. The wax is soft enough to bend into curves, which is what was done at the corners. I filled the miters with NSP Soft, which is why there are green areas.

I also used the time in between working on the horse to get a smooth, uniform bevel along the outside of the card. This doesn't have to be perfect since I'll sand the edges of each casting, but the closer it is the less time I'll have to spend with each casting.

The horse and background at both getting close to done at this point. In this photo the face is done except for some smoothing of the ear, the area behind the eye and the front of the nostril.

The smoothing is done with a soft brush and some Goo-Gone, which works as a solvent for the Chavant clays. I find this part tricky because I gravitate towards a softer, smoother style. I suppose years of painting Maureen Love sculptures has had an effect on me! But I've also learned that heavy-handed smoothing can take away the lifelike quality of a piece.

Here I have the face mostly where I want it. Normally I would not finish out one area to this high level while another (in this case, the shoulder) is still really rough. The chances of damaging the one while I work the other is pretty high. But things that had been eluding me about sculpting faces were beginning to click, and I found myself unwilling to set the face aside. Hopefully I won't do anything clumsy while finishing the shoulders, or else I might find out just how well I learned those things about faces!

I'm also almost caught up with where the sculpture is at in real time, so there might be a day or two between posts. But soon I'll be merging the two - background and horse - together!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Adding the text

One of the most hated rules at the art school I attended was that first-year commercial art students had to hand letter all their assignments. It was thought that by doing this, students would gain a better appreciation for fonts. In actual practice all it seemed to do was make assignments take twice as long as they should have. This was the early 1980s, so granted the available technology (press-on letters!) wasn't much better.

At the time I was really grateful that I had grown up around hand-lettering. My grandfather was a sign painter, and my father learned from him. I remember watching my father letter mailboxes as a child. One of the tricks he used was to draw out his letters on a sheet of butcher paper. He could adjust his spacing and his lines all he wanted, and when the drawing was done he would use a run a pounce wheel around the outlines. He would then lay his pounced pattern over whatever he was going to letter, and dust it with colored chalk. This would leave a dotted outline of his lettering that he could use as a guideline for painting.

To transfer the text to my background, I would use a variation on this idea. Even the smallest pounce wheel wasn't going to work for such small letters, so I had to use a pin to manually punch the holes. My pattern (above) was a standard font ("Spiral Initials") that I had edited in a vector program. Even with the edited version, I knew I was going to adjust the letters somewhat for my design, but I decided not to spend the time doing that on the computer when it was likely I'd be making a lot of adjustments in the clay anyway. If there is one truth to sculpting letters in clay, it's that the process is not very precise!

All I really needed was a guideline for the general shape and spacing of the letters. Once I had that, I was pretty sure I could wing it with the clay. Here was what I had to work with after the pouncing. (I'll explain that blue guideline under the text in a future post, since it's going away for a little while.)

I waffled back and forth for a while, trying to decide if the letters would be cut into the background (making them dark) or raised up from it (making them lighter). Cutting letters in is a fair bit easier, but I thought the design worked better with them light so that meant cutting away the background. Here I've started on the "P I R". I've placed the horse on to background for a moment so I can check the depth against the horse. Once the piece is cast in earthenware and colored with art glaze, the depth of any particular area translates into darkness of color. I don't want to carve so deeply that the background is as dark as the outline around the horse.

In this picture, I am almost finished with the letters. To keep the edges of the letters crisp and the faces uniformly level, I freeze the clay and work while it is still cold. That's why the piece looks wet. (The water works as a pretty good lubricant for the sculpting tools.) I can only work for a little while before the clay becomes too soft and I have to return it to the freezer.

That's another good reason for working the background separate from the horse. From this point forward, I'll be alternating my work between the two. When whichever I am working on thaws, I put it back and retrieve the other from the freezer.

So tomorrow I'll move on to the horse. Obviously he needs some work - not to mention a throatlatch - before I can be completely sure how he will fit in with the background.

Starting the base

When I work on medallions, I like the keep the background and the horse separate until close to the end. That allows me to work on each piece without fear of damaging the other. It also lets me shift the horse around if it looks like I need to adjust the position.

For the base I rolled the plastelline out to an even thickness on a glazed white tile. The tile works as a base when later I need to make the rubber mold. I then trim it to the dimensions of the card. I am sculpting with the idea of casting in earthenware, so these dimensions are actually 6% larger than the desired 2.5" x 3.5", since that's how much the greenware will shrink during firing. The edges have a slight bevel to them, to make it easier to remove the castings. (I learned to do this the hard way with the Celtic Pony medallion.)

Once I have the background in place, I cut a recess for the horse. I do this because I want to minimize the relief on this piece. I want a more uniform thickness, and relatively low relief, so the piece is sturdy for handling - and so I have a better chance of predicting the shrinkage. I need it to shrink a uniform 6% if I am going to end up with exact trading card measurements.

My other reason for cutting this recess is that I want to get this kind of outlining effect. I was very taken with this medallion, which we saw at Brookgreen last month. (I regret that I did not get the title or artist.) When I saw it, I immediately thought about how effective this would be with art glazes, which tend to pool in the recesses of a piece. Since stylized outlining is a common device in Art Nouveau, it will tie in well with my theme.

Here I have set my horse on the background to check for fit. I won't refine the outline of the recess until much closer to the end, since the specific contours of the horse will probably change. But it let me adjust where I think the horse will sit, and what area of the shoulders I will need to add. (You can see I've begun to rough that in so I will know what needs to be added.)

My next task will be the second biggest design element - the text. There is a neat trick for that, which I'll cover in tomorrow's post.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The layout

When I first began thinking about making bas relief Trading Cards, I started a number of horse busts scaled to work in that format. I thought if I had some basic head and neck poses and perspectives, it would help me visualize how each might work. Since I didn't have much time if I wanted to have something for the holidays, I chose the one that was closest to done. The downside with that particular horse was that it was the most problematic in terms of design.

The profile of a horse's head and neck set into a rectangle leaves three areas of dead space; the area in front of the face, the area over the neck and the area under the jaw. Because a horizontal trading card is a fair bit longer than it is tall, I posed the horse's face as if he were stretching out to look at something ahead of him. That would fill as much of the card as possible and minimize the space along the top of the head and neck.

It did, however, leave quite a large area under the jaw. I might be able to artfully arrange the mane and forelock for other spaces, but something else would need to be done with the lower lefthand side. To me it seemed perfect for text, but then again I worked long enough in publications that it's actually hard for me to design without text! The problem is that even if you have passible hand lettering skills (which I do), sculpting text is really, really hard.

I had done it before. A few years ago, I sculpted these lettered tiles to give as Christmas gifts. After three simple letters, I was ready to call it a day! I knew if I was going to use text, I was going to have to come up with a pretty short word.

I spent quite a while trying to think of some kind of holiday word that might work with a horse. I've been down this path before with my Christmas items. Of course most of my colleagues would find it completely natural to have horse-themed Christmas decorations. Our houses are already filled with horse things, so it would fit right in. The same would probably be true of my friends at the barn where I keep Sprinkles.

But the "holy grail" for me has been something that would work for the other half of my world - for family and friends who know me as a classroom volunteer, or a fellow parishoner, or scouting Den Leader. I spent a fair bit of time trying once again to think of some kind of wording and background that might make a horse relevant to the holidays. Maybe a stylized winter scene? Some snowflakes? No matter what I tried, it all seemed forced. I just couldn't imagine that friends outside the equine community were going to do much more than look at their gift and think, "Oh, it's a ... horse." (Again.)

I finally decided that it just wasn't going to work, or at least not in the restrictive format of a Trading Card. I was trying to make one thing answer too many needs. While I longed to give my friends something made with my own hands, it would probably be kinder to all involved if I phoned Harry & David for everyone who wasn't horse crazy, and focused on creating something that spoke to the people who really would appreciate a shiny horse trinket.

When I did, the word I needed for the bottom left corner came almost immediately. INSPIRE. That's why we exchanged these gifts. At least, that's why I so look forward to them each year. Seeing what other people do, and showing them what I do, is the greatest inspiration I know. And that is the traditional purpose of an Artist Trading Card. And hey, only seven letters and two of them "i"s!

From that point, the design came together really easily. I chose an Art Nouveau font in part because that school of design is a common thread for many of us who work in ceramics. (Art Nouveau, Celtic music and tea.) It also would give me a lot of options for bordering the design.

This was the initial layout done with layers of tracing paper. I often design this way because it lets me move things around in layers. If you look carefully, I have a layer that is the traced outline of the horse. The horse itself was not fully roughed in at this point; his throatlatch and shoulder were still missing. Setting him on top of the design was helpful, though, to see how he worked with the text and the border.

I should point out that at this point I know I'm going to be making changes. Drawing designs on paper has its limitations because lines have a very different weight than a sculpted border. I am pretty sure at this point that the borders I have drawn may actually be depth shifts. So the band at the bottom with the text probably won't have a sculpted line on the bottom and on the top. It might instead be a raised band with the text inscribed in, while the box behind the horse's face might be lower.

I've also left off any mane treatment. I know I'll probably drop the swirled borders in the top left in favor of movement in the forelock, but for now it will work. Like a lot of the design, I'll know better what I need once I get my hands in the clay. All that really matters at this stage is that I have some idea where I am going with the layout. Translating it to the clay is where I'll resume with tomorrow's post.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The concept

"In The Golden Forest" by Bridget Voth, watercolor and guache (2007)

My first step when working on a new medallion is to come up with a concept. What I had in mind for this project was an idea that I had been playing with for some time.

I mentioned my weakness for collecting "chachkis" in a previous post. In actual practice, I collect all manner of handmade items. If there is a theme to my collecting, it would be that I am attracted to things that are small, colorful and focus on animals (particularly dogs and horses). Within those parameters I purchase items made from all sorts of materials and across a wide range of artistic styles. But if there is one category that I collect with particular enthusiasm, it's Artist Trading Cards.

"Chihuahua Puppy and Chameleon" by Aleksandar Alexov, watercolor and pencil (2009)

Artist Trading Cards (ATCs) are works of art the size of a baseball trading card (2.5" x 3.5"). They grew out of the mail art hobby and are really popular among collage artists like my mother. The idea was that the cards were a great way to share techniques with other artists. That's why the cards are usually traded, so that each artist can see first-hand the methods the other uses.

In more recent years, illustrators have begun making the cards, too, though for them the cards are often sold to collectors rather than traded. (Technially the cards are then called ACEOs - Artist Cards, Editions and Originals.) I collect illustrated cards, rather than collage and mail art cards. And for the most part, I only collect originals. That's because seeing the techniques up close is part of the attraction I have. I learn a lot be being able to look up close.

"Itchy Spot" by Maria Lisa Siebrand, marker and pencil (2006)

Since discovering Artist Cards, I have wished they were commonplace in the model horse community. I would love to be able to purchase (or trade for) the work of many of my colleagues. There really isn't a learning opportunity like being able to examine good work up close! All that would be needed was a bas relief that fit the proscribed dimensions.

"Buckskin Breeze" by Sheri Cook, mixed media (2007)

That is the thing about ATCs and ACEOs. Styles range across the spectrum and so does the media used. A favorite in my own collection is a pair of lambs done in fused glass. (Because it is mostly translucent I was at a loss for photographing it properly, so it's not included here.) I have another that is quilted. The only constant, non-negotiable item is the dimensions. The piece has to be 3.5" x 2.5".

"Emma Nouveau" by Addi Velasquez, mixed media (2009). Addi did this one as a gift during her recent visit.

It has been that very restriction that has been the roadblock for me. I love design work; that's part of why I like working with bas relief. But I'm not good at very structured formats. I like overlapping shapes and irregular outlines. If I couldn't fall back on hanging the nose off the edge or projecting the ears past the top, I wasn't sure how I was going to make the piece more than a "horse head in a box".

I had tried a number of times with no real success. This time, however, I decided that time was running too late to find a holiday design. I had an assortment of partially-sculpted horses that were designed to fit the ATC format, so I was going to make it work somehow! All I needed was some self-employment tough love. I told myself I was sitting in front of the clay until I figured something out.

Tomorrow I'll post what a wish for freedom (or at least some lunch) drove me to come up with!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

More on the Chachki Show

I almost forgot to share this sneak peek. This is the award I am working on for the winner in Division II, "China Workmanship". It's a realistically glazed version of last year's Christmas gift. This one will be much like the version that was pictured in The Boat article, with a fancy beaded hanger. I still have several layers of dappling left to do before it is ready, but it should be done in time for the judging.

I did feel a bit funny about entering after I sponsored a prize, but I wanted the show to have a good turnout. I figure if one of my entries wins, I'll do a drawing from among all those who participate (entrants and judges) instead.

Christmas Gift for 2008


Sonja Johnson's "Bjorn" custom glazed by Sarah Minkiewicz-Breunig

I recently began taking pictures of my vast "chachki" collection so that I could participate in the medallion show being held on the Model Horse Blab website. Unfortunately the I will probably run out of time before the deadline (this Friday) to get them all photographed.

The ceramic community has a long tradition of creating these kinds of items, and I have avidly collected them for as long as I have been involved. Originally most came to me as show awards, since that was the primary purpose for them in the early years of hobby-based ceramic production. Tempting awards helped to fill the ceramic classes, which in turn help foster a vibrant ceramic showing community. Over time, however, more and more of my pieces came from my interactions with other ceramic artists. Many of us made these items so we would have something to send to friends and colleagues. Because of this, I tend to look at my collection as a tangible reminder of my connection to people in our community.

The other thing that makes these pieces special is that they are often used for testing ideas. This is true for the sculpting, the production and the finishing. It is so much easier to try out a new sculpting style, or glaze combination, on small bas relief. They are excellent pieces for experimentation!

Sarah Minkiewicz-Breunig's largest "Rune Horse" art glazed by Lesli Kathman

So I have been eager to share them through this experimental show. I also thought it might be fun to share the design process that goes into something like this. The article on medallion design in the recent issue of The Boat has had me thinking about my own methods for this kind of project.

I will have to give a warning, though. The project I'll be using is my 2009 Christmas gift. I'm going to be posting some step-by-step pictures, so for those who exchange holiday trinkets with me, you have been warned! If being surprised by the finished piece is important, you might want to skip reading the blog for a few weeks.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

From "gone to the dogs" to "sick as dogs"

Since my last post, my family was hit with the H1N1 virus. Needless to say, nothing much is getting done. I thought I might work on the horse color book, since it's something I can pick up and put down pretty easily. I hate being idle! At least, I hate being idle when I am well; now that I have the flu myself I am quite listless.

So the pretty little claybody from the previous post sits her unnamed and unphotographed. But I noticed that Sarah has put up some teasers on her blog from the article on painting conventions that I mentioned. This article dovetailed in with some of my own reflections on where I wanted to push my glazing, and it gave me new things to think about as I worked on the mare. I know I've plugged "The Boat" before, but truly there isn't another magazine out there like it. At almost 250 full-color pages, it's more like receiving an in-depth book on the nuts and bolts of creating realistic equine art. I cannot recommend it enough.

I'd like to do post more of my thoughts on painting conventions and the areas where I see glazing going (or at least, my glazing!), but I think I'll wait until I am not at such risk for fever-induced rambling!