Saturday, January 29, 2011

Sculpting with Gloves On and Other Adventures

I'll bet you read that title and said, "Huh???"  LOL.  Read and learn!

I got a "rush job" yesterday, a trophy job that involves me sculpting a relief of a jumper.  After I sculpt it, I'll make a mold and cast a resin of it, then finish the resin to look like bronze.  The problem is, the trophy has to be finished and in their hands by the end of March.  That isn't much time to get such work done, but fortunately for me and the customer, the big piece I'm working on requires a lot of "down time" while the clay is softening in the crock pot, so while the clay is becoming soft enough for me to use, I have time to work on other projects.

I'll back up and explain a bit here.  I'm using a crock pot as a double boiler to soften the Classic Clay Hard that I'm using on maquette for the life-size bronze I'm working on (I'll call it "Nanning," the real horse's name, to keep things simple).  It takes a while for the clay to soften even with the crock set on "high," so while it's warming, I have time to work on other things. 

I don't want to leave the crock plugged in and turned on while I'm not in the studio, so I don't turn the corck on and leave the studio while it warms the clay.  I've got the rider for "Tolt" nearly perfected and need to give that piece a couple of days of not being looked at so I can see it with fresh eyes before I do whatever touchups seem necessary.  Then I'll photograph it and send the pics to my client for approval.  I don't want to start working on the wings for the Pegasus I'm doing using "Feather" as the horse's body because working on the wings takes both hands and my left shoulder is still sore and weak.  I don't have enough working room to get "Horseplay" out to work on while Tolt and Nanning are out.  With all my other current projects on "hold" for various reasons, I have time to work on this trophy relief while waiting for the clay to soften for Nanning.

My trophy customer sent me an excellent reference photo of a college-age rider jumping a nice hunter fence.  The background was very busy, with white vinyl fence behind the mostly white jump and people and a building there as well.  To  make it easier to see what I was doing, I cut the horse and fence out after printing the photo on my computer printer at the size I wanted to sculpt it.  To get it centered on the foamcore board I'm using as a working surface, I marked the outline of it on the foamcore.  This way, when I sculpt the piece, it won't be too far to one side or the other, and the mold will be much better as a result, with no possibly weak sides from being too narrow.

 Hopefully you can see the pencil outline on the foamcore above.  The cut-out reference picture that's been made the size I want it to be for the trophy is to the right.

Once I have the board marked, I start putting clay on the board to fill out the silhouette of the horse.  I will finish the horse first, then add the saddle, bridle, reins and rider (not necessarily in that order), and will build the jump and the bushes on either side of it last.

The trick to doing good reliefs is to remember that the parts closest to the viewer need to be the highest.  That seems like something that should be simple to do, but it isn't as easy to do as you might think.  Consider this horse's back legs.  The left hind leg is nearest the viewer.  That one has to be the highest.  You'd think the right leg would be the next highest thing, but this is a gelding and his sheath is showing, so the sheath has to be the second highest level and look as if it actually belongs between the back legs.  The right hind leg will be the least high.  The "least high" part still has to have a decent amount of depth top to bottom (as you look at the clay, not top to bottom of the leg) so the resin will pour well and the resulting piece won't be too thin and warp.  I have to be sure even the thinnest parts of the relief will pour well and be thick enough to be strong, but not so thick the piece loses its graceful appearance.  That's a trick in itself.

In the picture below, I've done about 45 minutes of work on the piece (with a couple of breaks to check on the clay in the crock).  You should be able to see the definition and different levels of the two back legs and the sheath.  The back legs, rump, top of the tail and the back part of the belly are all in pretty good shape now, although I need to detail the legs, of course.  I'm making this using the Classic Clay Soft I normally use.  I like it because I can push the clay around to get the various shapes needed without a lot of work, so my hands don't tire so easily.

The photo shown on the left above is the full photo.  It's about 1/3 bigger than the one I'm using for the sculpture.  You can see how the white vinyl fence behind the jump is distracting to the eye.  Having it cut out makes my job go faster - it's a nice shortcut. 

This is a *great* reference photo.  Having a straight-on, crisply focused profile shot where the camera is level with the center of the horse's body mass makes life a lot simpler for me, especially when I need to do a rush job. 

While I worked on the jumper, the clay in the crock turned to mush - I should've checked it more often.  As a result, I wound up "frosting" Nanning as if I were frosting a cake!  That was interesting!  I used a putty knife to apply the clay to bulk him up and tried to press the clay in place with my fingers.  It didn't take me long to realize I needed to get smarter about working with that hot clay.  First I took the lid off the crock so the clay would cool a bit.  That helped, but not enough.  Then I took the glass bowl the clay was in out of the crock and set it on the table beside me.  Within a few minutes, it had cooled enough to be easier to work with, but it was still hot on my hands.

Above you can see the crockpot on the left, a plastic box behind it with a red lid - that's where the sliced clay is stored - the plastic cup I used to bring more water to the crock today (there's no water in the machine shed where my studio is).  On the right of the sculpture are the tools I'm using on this one so far: the putty knife I'm using to put clay on (sometimes frosting the sculpture, LOL), a large wooden tool that I use to both press the clay tightly to the existing clay and to carve the piece a bit, and some smaller tools I haven't needed yet.  The Friesian on the bulletin board to the left in the background is not Nanning - it's just one I liked when I first started sculpting.  I never have sculpted that horse.  This is my second sculpture of Nanning (he's the horse pulling the carriage in my bronze, "Friesian Elegance"  The Friesian mounted on the blue Styrofoam directly behind the sculpture is Nanning 374.  In this photo, you can see the clay was laid on in rough "swooshes" - this is when the clay was too soft and I was actually "frosting" the sculpture.  It all worked out okay, don't worry!

I got the bright idea to use vinyl gloves to apply the hot clay.  The glove you can see in the pic below is a "chemical barrier glove" I use when making molds and doing other stuff with chemicals that might irritate my skin.  It's leaving interesting alligator-skin-like impressions on the clay, but that won't last.  I'll be carving this clay down with sharp tools, either heated or after having used a hair dryer on the clay to soften it (hard clay really requires a different working method than usual!) and you'll never know Nanning looked this rough or had alligator skin at any point in his construction, LOL!

As you can see in the photo above, I put a piece of clay on and smooth it out, filling in depressions and gaps with it as much as possible.  Eventually, the sculpture will be smooth and elegant and will look like the well-muscled horse it represents - it's still in the "uglies" stage for now.

This is the best way to measure with calipers - you don't put the curved tips toward each other but AWAY from each other so your eye won't be fooled by the curve in the legs of the caliper.  Here I'm measuring the length of Nanning's body.  

This reference photo isn't as easy to use as the jumper's because the horse isn't in straight profile to the camera.  His body is actually bent, so his shoulder is fairly straight to the camera, but his rump is in 3/4 view.  There are reasons for him being in this position, but the simplest explanation is that he was playing and horses do unexpected things while playing.

This is what the far side looks like when you've been adding clay from one side without turning the piece often.  The clay is still very soft, so the slabs are going on well and are smoothed out on the horse's left side, but they look pretty weird on this side, don't they?  Don't worry, I fixed it. 

Note the toothpicks sticking out of his point of shoulder and point of buttocks above.  They are there to show me how much he needs to be bulked up.  The clay should be built up until the top of those toothpicks are even with the clay.  I have a way to go, don't I?  :)

After adding more clay and blending it in, pressing it so it will be hard and strong and there won't be any "surprises" (depressions where there shouldn't be depressions) in the future, and adjusting the armature a bit (I moved his tail and two of his legs - in pressing the clay on, they got out of place a bit), this is the result.  His neck is too thick and his body not thick or long enough, but my hands and shoulders aren't as strong as they were prior to surgery, so I have to stop here for now.  Thankfully, I'm getting stronger and gaining stamina every day - it's just taking longer than I want it to! 

I'm happy with where Nanning is now.  I could see the "portriat" emerging from the beginning, but I'll bet you can start to see it now.  If you noticed the working board is up on something else, I have a 2x6 under it at the moment that has a turntable on the bottom, so it's easier for me to turn the piece to work on it.  When I get "Tolt" off my big sculpting table and no longer need to use the crock pot to soften my clay, I'll move Nanning to the sculpting table.

That's it for now!  Hope you learned something interesting from me today!

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