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!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Finally making real progress!

And it's about time!  There was a setback when I started working and realized the armature wasn't as tight inside the plumbing T as it needed to be, so I had to remove the clay that I'd put on already and add more toothpicks until it was nice and tight.  It felt tight when I finished making it, but in moving it around some to get it mounted on the pipes, I guess some toothpicks shifted and it loosened.  There's also the fact that  my arms and hands are just not strong like they were pre-surgery, so it was as strong as I thought I could make it before.  Now it's fine.  I stripped some clay away and shoved in more toothpicks and made sure it's secure, then covered the armature with clay and added a bunch more, so now it's starting to look like something!  It still has a serious case of the uglies, but it's making big strides forward now.  I can see the horse developing and the beauty of his form in all this mess.  It WILL turn out all right, I promise!!

Some pictures to help you see what's going on:

Above is the armature I'm using - heavy wire wrapped with thinner wire running through a 1/2" plumbing T.  Yes, one set of legs is done with copper wire, the other with aluminum - I ran out of aluminum wire the right size and copper's all I had to substitute with that was the same size.

This is how the armature looked yesterday before I realized it was too loose in the plumbing T.  I had to cust off a lot of clay from the pipe area - the mid-part of the horse was totally clay-free when I got done cleaning clay off (it peels right off, being a hard clay, once you cut into it enough to give you a hand-hold.)

If you've followed my work before, you'll notice the horse is floating in mid-air rather than having the wires attached to the working surface, which is my normal way of working.  This piece is the maquette for a life-size bronze of Nanning 374, a 17 hand Friesian stallion.  There will be no bronze "grass" under the life-size to save weight and expense, so the maquette has to be made the same way.  By floating it in mid-air on a pipe with a coupling in the middle, I can take the piece off the support pipe, attach a plumbing T to the bottom of the pipe, slide a chain suspended from the ceiling through that plumbing T and hang the piece upside down so I can do the detailing on the belly and so on without having to turn myself in to a pretzel to do so.  Yay!

This is today's work after I strengthened the armature.  This is Classic Clay Hard and I normally use Classic's soft clay.  Yes, it looks exactly like the clay I normally use - it's the same brand, but two hardnesses harder (how do I say that more sensibly??  And I call myself a writer!  Argh . . .).  Classic offers two colors, this tan and a milk chocolate color.  I have trouble seeing details and defects in the dark color, so I stick with this light color.

See the red crockpot at the left?  I have a glass bowl inside the crock and water in the crock itself so the bowl acts like a double-boiler.  I put the clay my hubby sliced for me (using a blow-torch-warmed machete and a lot of upper body strength, bless him!) into the bowl (the sliced clay is in the red-topped box behind the crockpot), then set the crockpot on "high" and keep the lid on tightly.  Within a short time, the slices of clay are either nicely malleable, or so soft they're mush, depending on how thick they are!  This is the only way I can work with clay this hard since I have carpal tunnel.  Once all the clay needed is on the armature, I'll use sharp tools to carve it, and if I need it to be soft, I can aim a light at it for a little while or use a hair dryer on it for a few seconds to warm and soften the clay, or I can heat my tools, whichever seems the best at the time.

Car manufacturers use hard clay in their originals of new cars so they can carve the clay with a sharp tool and get a mirror-like finish on the clay.  That's how hard "hard" clay can be! 

I have to press it on and smooth the edges and beat it with the flat side of a big wooden tool or a wooden paddle to make sure it's applied as densely as possible.  Once I've built the clay up to approximately the size of the horse's profile, I'll start bulking out the body more until it's as big as it needs to be.  Then the fun begins - I start carving away what isn't a horse! 

More later!  As always, I welcome questions.  If you're confused or just want more information about something, please let me know.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Armature Angst

I had this great idea (well, I thought it was a good one anyway) to build the maquette for the life-size on an armature that wouldn't need plumbing to hold it up.  Hopefully, it might even stand on its own three feet (one foot's in the air in the pose the owner's chosen).  I built the armature out of twisted aluminum wire as I normally do, but put the wires through a galvanized connector rather than a plumbing T since I planned on this one not being mounted to a working board.  I thought the way I was making it would make it possible for me to lay it in my lap and work on the belly without any pipes in the way, so I could get the detail better.

I built the armature and shoved toothpicks in the connector (shown above) to keep the wires from wiggling, as I normally do with a plumbing T in my usual armature.  Then I wrapped it all in black duct tape, which is not something I normally do, but I thought it might be a good thing to do this time (this keeps my fingers from being poked by the toothpicks while laying on the clay).  After that, the wire was coated with Bondo so the legs wouldn't be as likely to bend as they usually are.  I started adding clay that had been warmed in a crock pot used as a double boiler (clay inside a glass bowl sitting in water in the crock).  That was all fine.  (First photo below shows the Bondo-covered armature in the seat of my chair for contrast - and yeah, those are my legs and feet at the bottom of the picture, LOL.)

After covering the armature with clay (but nowhere near as much clay as it would be when it's finished), I tried standing the horse on its feet to see how sturdy the legs were.  They weren't!  Argh.  I was hoping the Bondo would be a big help but it just didn't make them as strong as I thought it would. 

Luckily, this is a Friesian and as such, he has thicker legs than something like an Arabian or Quarter Horse, for instance.  So I built another armature with heavier wire which would be difficult to use on a horse with finer legs.  I haven't put Bondo on it yet, but now I'm thinking it just won't work the way I want it to, so I may not Bondo it at all.

Shown at right is the horse I'm sculpting and the pose he'll be in.  I printed the picture out at the size the bronze will be and arranged the wires on the picture to get the size and shape adjusted.  From there, I put a wire between the front legs and between the hind legs to spread them the width they should be, keeping the wires high enough that they stayed inside the body.  You can see those cross wires in the picture above (where the armature is covered in Bondo).

With only about 1/3 of the clay on it that it will have in total, I realized the weakness in my shoulders, arms and hands due to my shoulder surgery and long idleness while recovering is going to be a serious problem.  The piece is so big (1/6.5 life-size of a 17 hand horse) and already so heavy, working with it in my lap or on a table is just not feasible at my current strength level.  I probably wouldn't injure myself, but I'd certainly wear myself out a lot faster trying to move around a piece that heavy.  So, this armature method won't be the one I use - this time.  Perhaps in the future when I'm stronger, I'll try it again.

I've decided to try an armature method another friend told me about.  It incorporates plumbing the way I normally use it, but also has a way of unscrewing the horse from the support post, then screwing a plumbing T on the bottom so I can hang it upside down and work on the bottom side of the belly without twisting myself like a pretzel to see under the piece.  In this method, the horse is suspended in air - his feet aren't attached to the working surface the way they are in my normal armatures.  I now have all the plumbing parts I need and a chain to hang from the ceiling.  I just have to get my husband to hang the chain for me before I actually need to use it (probably next week). 

I'm not looking forward to redoing the second armature I built yesterday (the one with the heavier wire) but I think it's in my own best interests due to the atrophy of my muscles while recovering from surgery to use an armature method that's self-supporting.  I'm less likely to injure myself and more likely to be able to work longer hours if I don't have to lift that clay every time I want to move it.  My sculpture stand spins around so I can sit in my chair and turn it to get to all sides.  It's also the kind that cranks up and down rather than having to be lifted  up like my old stand, so I don't have to worry about lifting the piece until I want it to hang from that chain upside-down.  I should be able to lay it on its side to get it attached to the chain - at least until I get the detail on the horse's sides nearly finished, but by that time, the underside of the belly should be finished. 

I think this method has a lot of promise.  Keeping my fingers crossed that it works well for me!  I'll post pics of the new armature - or perhaps the piece in progress - once I get it going (Friday, most likely).

Friday, January 07, 2011

The Rest of the UPS story

Got an e from my shipper tonight.  He found out that there is no actual UPS "lost and found" site.  It's an internal setup for USP investigators only.  He still can't understand why they couldn't match the information about my claim with the piece sitting on their shelf.  Oh well.  All's well that ends well - and do get Google Alerts on your name!  It's a real help! 

Lost Bronze Found On Ebay Thanks to Google Alerts!!

Last summer, I needed to return a bronze to my foundry because the bits on the horse weren't done correctly.  I shipped it August 31. By September 1 it was lost.  It left Centerville OH and was checked into West Carrollton OH (about 10 miles away), then into Sharonville OH(about 30 miles away) and then disappeared. 

It was a  high-value package traveling via UPS.  Their practice for such packages, so I'm told, is that the manager of each stop has to walk high value packages from the truck into the building and lock it in a cage, then walk it from the cage to the next truck when it's ready to go on and tracking paperwork has to be signed each step of the way.  This type of handling should be a great safeguard, yet my bronze was lost its first day in the transit.

UPS paid the insurance to the foundry, since I was shipping on their account (because I was returning it for repair).  The foundry, at my request, cast me another piece in that edition with the money UPS gave them.  I recently got that casting - it's still in the box waiting to be mounted.

Now the story gets exciting.  Yesterday, the Google alert I have on my name (to track where I'm mentioned online - a way of tracking advertising, word of mouth, etc.) arrived in my inbox with a listing for Ebay:  "Lynda Sappington Bronze Horse & Carriage Elegance" and the edition number of the piece and the copyright year.  When I saw it, my hands literally started shaking!  The store selling it was in the Central Time Zone (I'm in the Eastern Time Zone), so calling and talking to a live person wasn't going to happen for a while, and I needed to leave for an appointment soon. 

I researched the company and found out it has an A+ Better Business Bureau rating and a 99.4% positive rating on Ebay.  Those highly positive ratings made me decide to trust that they were a legitimate business and not somebody who'd stolen my bronze to make a killing on it.  I called the company and left a message:  "This is Lynda Sappington.  You have my bronze, "Elegance," listed on Ebay.  Please stop the auction.  It was lost by UPS in shipping.  I want it back."  (Yeah, I was a bit tense when I called . . .)

I called my shipper in Centerville and told them about finding the piece on Ebay, then forwarded them the link to share with UPS.  By afternoon, I'd heard from a Centerville police officer investigating it as a theft and gotten a call from UPS as well.  And bless them, the company had stopped the auction.  By the end of the day, after a LOT of phone calls, the police were out of the picture (since it wasn't stolen) and UPS was making arrangements for it to be shipped to my foundry for repair.  I had to pay the insurance back to UPS before they would ship it to the foundry, but that was the right thing to do. 

After some investigation into how it wound up at a lost freight merchant, UPS told me there was no label on my package, so it was sent to their lost and found, which is on the Ohio/Indiana border somewhere.  They then put a listing for it online for three months.  When it wasn't claimed, they sold it to a company that buys lost freight to resell it - the company who'd listed it on Ebay.

There are several weird things about this whole situation.  I shipped it with a waybill (sp?) on it, the kind of thing that goes in one of those plastic envelopes that stick on the top of the box REALLY WELL.  So where did the label go???  They didn't say a plastic envelope was stuck to the box - they said there was no label at all.  My shippers know their business.  I've used them for probably 15 years now.  There's no way a box without a label would ever leave their shop.  Since it was marked "high value" for the insurance, my shippers think someone may have stolen it, ripped off the label, then changed their minds or something and put it back in the system.  That's the most logical explanation, anyway.  A description of the piece was sent to UPS when the insurance claim was made, yet they were apparently unaware they had that very piece in their lost and found.  Neither my shippers or I have ever heard of that lost and found website before, so we didn't know to look for it there.  We're going to find out more about that site for future reference.

Anyway - long story short - put a Google Alert on your name, your studio name and any variation of those names that might appear anywhere (on message boards, in the newspaper, in magazine ads, etc.).  Google Alerts are free - you just have to create a Gmail account to be able to get a Google Alert for as many names as you want.  Sculptors, be sure to sign your work in an obvious place in the clay, not in some obscure spot or just on a brass plate on the base.  Painters, it would probably be a good idea to make a permanent signature, not one in pencil or hidden on the back of the piece.  That may be the only identifying mark on your art if it gets lost in shipping, and it should be easy to find.

I'm so glad "Elegance" is back where it belongs (somewhere between me and the foundry at the moment, but in my control!) and appears to be undamaged.  If it's damaged, UPS and I are gonna have words . . . .  I wish that bronze could talk and tell me what happened!  At least it's not lost anymore!