Saturday, November 07, 2009

The New Armature, step by step

I live in Ohio but my bronze foundry is in Oregon, which means I have to make my armatures very strong in order to withstand shipping that far.  Remember, UPS doesn't pay any attention when a box is marked "UP" or "Fragile"!!  If it won't withstand a drop of four feet onto concrete they won't pay for damages, so my pieces have to be built and packed as well as possible.

Because this piece (working title:  "Tolt") is so large (25" high by 28" long, IIRC), I don't think the normal aluminum armature would be strong enough, so I did a slight variation on Karen Kasper's type of armature.  I used a galvanized pipe screwed into a floor flange on the bottom and BOLTED, not screwed, to the working surface so it won't break loose in shipping (that happened once - it was a nightmare but the piece was saved anyway!).  A galvanized T is put on top of that - I'm using 3/8" pipe here.  I used two 45 degree "street elbows" on the T, which is the beginning of Karen's style of armature.  I used 1/4" thick copper wire for the basic framework and the brace for the neck.  Instead of dipping the armature pieces in wax as Karen does, I put the warmed wax on with a putty knife.  The surface is lumpy but that shouldn't be a problem.


I built up softened wax (warmed in a baking pan on top of an electric griddle set to 200 degrees at first, then lowered to "warm" when the was started to get warm) to bulk up the form and strengthen the armature.  I'll still be able to move the armature a little bit once I get that done, but it won't be long before it will be locked in place.  I'll make adjustments as I add wax and clay.

The bump and dip in front of the tail (to the left) indicate where the horse's buttocks should end.  I hope you can see that I stopped short of building the wax that far back.  I did that to allow room to install the leg armature (that comes later with this type of armature) and to insert toothpicks for the length and width of the back of the horse. Toothpicks don't insert into wax well.

I use an oil-based clay called plastilene (some brands are marked "plasticene").  This brand is Classic Clay, and this is the soft, tan version.  They have a chocolate brown clay as well, but I can't see detail in it as well as I can in the light clay.  I have carpal tunnel, so soft clay is much easier on my hands.

Classic comes in 12 lb. slabs.  I get my husband to cut it in thin slices with a machete - honestly that's the best tool for the job, we've found after a lot of experimenting.  If the slices are too thick for me to manage easily, I run them through a pasta machine (with the noodle cutter removed) to condition, thin and soften the clay.

Shown above is another softening method - a light bulb shining on the clay.  I often use a Styrofoam cooler with a light bulb inside it (15 watts - it doesn't have to be high wattage) with the sliced clay in trays stacked in the cooler.  This softens the clay so it's malleable and easy to apply to the armature.

Here I've laid clay over the wax and pressed it in hard.  If you don't press it in, you'll get soft spots that may sink later on, so if you can't press it with your thumbs or hands, use a wooden tool to press it in well.  Unlike water-based clay, it won't damage the clay if you have air pockets, because this clay is never fired.  (Water-based clay with air pockets in it usually breaks in the kiln.)  I've included the pop can on my sculpture stand so you can get an idea of the scale of this piece.


This is the view from the front.  I'm building up the silhouette of the horse and will insert toothpicks to show me how thick I need to make the various parts.  Each of my sculptures is made to measure, an actual scale model of the horse, until I get about two-thirds of the way through sculpting.  Then I let the art take over and the horse may not be to scale anymore, but he will be more dynamic and lifelike than he would've been if I'd stuck strictly to the measurements.  Other people can do scale models that turn out beautifully, but that's just not the way I work.  My pieces are more like an impression of reality than tight reality.  I don't do a lot of veining because the horse is normally in motion, and you can't see the veins clearly on a moving horse.  I figure the veins being detailed stops the motion of the horse, so I don't do them except the big Y-shaped one on the face, and I don't always include that.


Here you can see the layers of clay I've added on teh back and near the bottom of the chest.  I will press them together with a wooden tool then blend the edges with my thumbs or a tool.  The toothpics are markers showing where I'm going - how thick each part needs to be.  There are none on the  head and neck because I'll do those later.

Here the little Icelandic mare is built up some more - yes, her back is not shaped right, but I'll get there, don't worry!  She will have a saddle and rider, so I don't have to be as careful with the shape of her back as I would for a "nekked horse" :D  (a horse at liberty).

She's gotten thicker side to side as well as vertically.  I will start building her thickness after I get her silhouette roughed in at about the right size.

Showing the layers of clay I've added to her neck and head.  I'm not worrying very much yet about getting their shape right  - I'm just laying on clay in an approximation of the way it should be.  Once I have the body bulked out to the end of the toothpics, as it is on her back, chest and rump right now (that's why you don't see those toothpicks anymore - they're surrounded by clay), I'll make sure the clay is well pressed-on, then I'll beat it with a small board (a 1" x  1/2" works for me) to compact it (yes, I will!).  I'll smooth it out with my thumbs and with tools and then I'll get serious about shaping it the way it should be to be the horse I'm sculpting.

If you have questions, feel free to ask me.  Please don't post this anywhere without giving me credit - this page is COPYRIGHT Lynda Sappington 2009 and will be used both on my website (Equine Art by Lynda Sappington) and in the third edition of my how-to-sculpt book, "Sculpting 101: A Primer for the Self-taught Artist" Second Edition (available from me as well as The Compleat Sculptor, NYC, various libraries, and other bookstores).

I will be teaching a sculpting workshop in New York next May (see sidebar for info).  I won't be teaching how to make this particular armature, but the lessons will be similar - some demonstration, some explanation and as much personal help as needed.  If you'd like to try sculpting or would like to improve your skills, come to my workshop!