The main source for my current inspiration is an article by Mike James in the latest issue of Kit Builders Magazine, in which he details the construction and casting of his most recent and remarkable piece, Angelissa, an angel and sister to Sedusa (both of which are originals and licensed by Mike). What struck me as I eagerly poured over the article was the similarity between his sculpting process and mine. All this time, I thought what I was doing was just the best an amateur could do with a hobby that engaged him, and here I find a well known professional using the very same methods and materials and creating some wonderful and marketable pieces.
To make a long story short(er), I contacted Mike James of Azimuth Design in New York, and he supplied me with a lot of useful information on casting, and put me onto the Gremlin Net. As a result, now having "met" Denis Bohm, and talking to him about my interests, and on his encouragement, I am writing this article on the sculpting of an original piece from Super Sculpey, including what will hopefully be useful information for all of you out there who may have been interested in doing an original of your own, but may not be quite sure of how to go about it. I won't include anything on casting, as that is too new to me, and there are probably many of you who already know how that is done, or know of a production house that would cast your piece for you. And if you haven't checked out Mike's article in KB, please do so, you will find it very informative. And while you might find his skill and final product rather daunting, remember, we all start somewhere and sometime, and here and now would be a great place for you to start.
Here we go. There are two basic approaches I have used, and I'll address them both as best I can, hoping one or the other will work for you. The first involves a concept for a figure that you have pictured in your imagination very clearly. If you are handy with a pencil, start making rough drawings to work out the details and give yourself a sort of blueprint or plan to follow, something to keep you on track. Or if your inspiration comes from a photograph or comic or someone else's work, you already have a pretty concrete plan right there in front of you. Of course, please respect any copyrights or licenses that the original artist might have.
If your blueprint is clear enough, you may be able to construct an armature right from the measurements you take off the picture. If the drawing is not quite of the right scale, just take it to the ol' Xerox amd reduce or enlarge it to whatever size you want. If you can't draw, then skip this step. It is helpful, but not necessary.
For those of you who are new to this, an armature is anything around which you place the clay that supports the work and helps define it. For the purposes of constructing a figure, the armature is a frame or "skeleton" usually made of wire that will serve as the guide for the pose and its internal support. Don't even try a piece of any reasonable size without one. You will pay in frustration later for any short cut you try to take at this stage.
The size of the wire, or guage, will depend on the size of the piece for the most part. For a piece that is approximately 1/6 scale, I find that a wire around 1/8 inch, more or less, works well. It is workable, and will hold a pose easily, while also allowing for adjustments along the way as you continue to work on the figure.
You can all draw a stick figure, just make one out of the wire. Don't worry about the pose until the proportions are correct. Again, check them against your drawing or picture, or just use your own eye. If is looks about right, it probably is. And if you are doing a monster or some sort of fantasy creature, you almost can't go wrong as far as proportions go. Use smaller wire to bind the arms and legs to the torso, or use one long piece to make the arm-body-leg section of one side, then make a matching one for the other side. Bind these two together, then make a small looped piece for the head, leaving a long "neck" on it that you can then bind to the torso. I find this allows me to adjust that always difficult neck length. Also, leave plenty of extra wire coming out past where you think the hands and feet will be - you can always cut it off later, and extra wire at the feet will allow you to bury it in a base, should you decide to add one later. If you are not using a base, you can at least stick the extra wire down into a shoebox lid, so you can stand the figure up there while you are not working on it, rather than laying it down and smashing your hard work.
Often then I will wrap the armature with aluminum foil, squeezing and twisting it around the wire. This gives the Sculpey something to hold on to, and adding more foil, building up the torso, hips, head, and upper legs and arms a little will allow you to use less clay and help you begin to see the figure a bit more clearly.
I have made free-standing pieces and ones that were on a base, and this is the point where this decision should be made. Free-standing figures need to be balanced carefully in the pose, while ones on a base can be at nearly impossible angles - up on one foot, leaning into a fast run, or even "flying", apparently free, at first glance, of the base altogether. Even if the piece will eventually be free-standing, you can extend the leg wires well past the feet, secure them to a temporary base, then you will be able to work the piece without having to constantly be careful about how you handle the body. You will remove this base after the piece is cooked.
While adjusting the pose, use one of your best resources... yourself. (Or another willing subject). Investigate your own body mechanics. How far up your chest does your knee come when you bend it? About to the shoulder? Bend your arm at the elbow and touch your shoulder, noting the length of your upper and lower arm, and how your hand fits into the triangle there. Where does your elbow touch your waist? What's the relationship of the length of your upper leg to the length of your lower arm from elbow to the tip of your extended fingers? Have you ever noticed that your foot is about the length of the inside of your forearm? How wide are your shoulders compared to your forearm? Measure everything. You may get some weird looks while doing this, but your body is the best teacher of anatomy that you have. Spend some time with it.
So... all posed now and ready for the clay. I use Super Sculpey. This is a sculpting compound, relatively inexpensive (between $7 and $9 for a one-pound box), that is available in most of your local hobby or craft stores, and it cooks in your home oven at 275 degrees, so you don't need a special oven or anything like that. You may notice a slight odor as it cooks - this is no big deal. And unless you over-cook it, it won't change colors either. The instructions say to cook it 15 minutes for each quarter inch of thickness, but if I had followed this, I would have burned some of the pieces I've made right to the ground. I usually start with 20 minutes, then check how the surface of the clay feels every 5 minutes or so. Super Sculpey, before it's cooked, feels sort of moist and rubbery, and then changes to a distinctly dry feel like unglazed ceramic after it's cooked. Even when it's finished it will feel a little flexible while it's still hot, but will become rigid when it cools. It's just going to take some time to learn, but this product is pretty forgiving. Regular Sculpey, the white kind, burns and smokes a bit, and will bubble up easily if you are not very careful about not trapping air under the layers. I have never had this problem with Super Sculpey. I have never tried Sculpey III.
I actually have a number of tools, but the one I use the most, aside from the ones I am using to write this, is this little metal cuticle thing I stole from my wife's nail polish basket. It is about three inches long, with one end kind of arrow-head shaped, while the other end flattens out into a sort of little rectangular spade. Every once in a great while, I will pick up a dental tool, but for what I use it for, a toothpick would work just as well.
Super Sculpey is roughly an acceptable human caucasian flesh tone, and will actually, once cooked and sanded and buffed, give you a very nice, deep, naturally alive looking skin. Most of you will pobably be painting, so the finish will not matter that much. If you will not be painting however, here's an important hint: Keep Your Hands Clean! The Sculpey will pick up dirt and oil from your hands and fingers, and you will not be able to get it out later.
Begin applying the Sculpey, in small amounts, all over the armature. Take care to press the clay well onto the wire or foil, and smooth and blend the small lumps into each other, trying to eliminate any gaps and cracks between them. Apply it over the entire armature evenly. This will also help you to begin to see the shape better, and you can make adjustments as you go. It is NEVER too late to make adjustments in the pose, even after the piece is cooked. If you want, you can lop off an arm or leg to change the position, cut the neck to turn or tip the head, saw through the waist to adjust the turn of the shoulders and hips, whatever. There are any number of model fillers that can cover joints and gaps, and with a little sand paper, you can make a mistake look like you planned it that way.
Remember, at this point you aren't going for a human (or monstrous) shape, you are just filling out the armature. Once it's done, you can either cook it as it is, giving you a more stable frame, or proceed to add even more clay. I have done it both ways, and for me they work equally well. The advantage to Sculpey is that you can add to it and cook it more, as long as you don't over do it. It also is pretty user-friendly in that you can work it for several days, and it won't dry out and crack, as long as the frame is strong enough to support the weight of the clay. I keep pieces I'm working on covered with a plactic grocery bag just to keep dust off them.
One thing that works for me while I am doing a piece is to work it fairly evenly all over, not letting one part get highly detailed before the others are halfway done. This is because the proportions need to work together, and it is also easier for your eye to follow the growth of the piece if that development is even and gradual, rather than having one beautifully finished leg on a skeleton body. However, some people can work this way, and I say more power to them. Find out what works for you.
Another tip, keep turning the piece, working at it from all sides at the same time. Many people have some difficulty seeing the entirety of a three-dimensional mass all at once, but most can see an outline or profile much more easily. If you keep shaping the profiles, and keep turning the piece, you will find that before long you can see more and more of the three-dimensional mass, and you haven't really tried to sculpt it.
Also, don't be cautious. Think about it; what's the worst that can happen if all of a sudden you find you've made the head too big, or the nose is in the wrong place? Nothing. Most of you will probably be sculpting monsters anyway, so who cares? For those of you that will be doing human, you still don't need to be particularly careful until the end, and remember, mistakes are easy to fix. For those of you who, like myself, are sculpting the female form, you will need to take more care, but really only in the final phases. So get some clay on there, push it around, find out what it will and will not do. And just in case you're wondering, it will do just about anything, once you really get to know it.
One of the greatest contemporary sculptors I know, Bruno Lucchesi, says this about sculpting, "If you can see, you can do." Step back from your piece frequently, walk around it, turn it upside down, whatever. Look at it from as many angles as you can. You have been looking at the human form for many years now, just keep comparing those images with the one you see developing in front of you. Mr. Lucchesi's point is that your eye is probably your most valuable tool. Take your time, breathe, take a lot of breaks, and if you don't feel like working, stop. Coming back later will give you a fresh perspective.
Don't feel that you have to know a great deal about human anatomy before you get started. You will learn about that as you go along, and you probably know more about it than you think. The main thing is to just get started, and enjoy yourself. Another thing, no matter how much you do this sort of thing, no piece will ever turn out exactly like you envisioned it. You will forever be frustrated if you try to see the piece in front of you for what it "should be", but you may be pleasantly surprised if you let yourself see the piece for what it is.
Try to simplify shapes as you begin. Arms and legs are basically cylinders, slightly tapered. Work in the pinches and bulges later. Head - a ball or egg shape. Hips - a rectangular prism, rounded out later. Mid-section - another cylinder, very short and wide, perhaps flattened out from the front to the back. Upper torso - another rectangular prism, bigger than the hip one, and maybe a littler larger at the top. Neck - another cylinder. Feet - small triangular prisms laying on their sides (not on the triangular side). Hands - flattened out cubes or rectangles, with cylinder fingers attached.
Now, if you stick to that and put all those pieces together, you will end up with something that looks like a big, chunky robot. Cool! What's wrong with that? It might actually be a lot of fun for a first project. Do it, cook it, then you'll have something to point at and say "Yeah, I sculpted that!" It might be rough, but at least you've started. If you want, you can certainly round out the shapes and blend them before you cook the piece, or grab the whole thing with both hands, give it a squeeze, letting it squish out between your fingers, then cook that and you'll end up with some kind of mutant thing or other that you couldn't have imagined even if you tried! Have fun. The ultimate details depend on the gender of the piece, how realistic or fantastic it is, and mostly, what looks good to you. Some details require more attention than others, and every sculptor has some area that always challenges them. Try to avoid copying someone else's piece, or you will always be measuring your success against how someone else has defined it. Discover and develop your own style, do what pleases you. And observe, observe, observe.
When I started this article, I mentioned two basic methods that have worked for me. All the information above applies to both methods, the only difference in the second one is the armature. Instead of making the wire skeleton, I take a sheet of foil and tear it part way up from one end to about the middle, then make a tear in form each side, up near the top edge, about a third of the way in. Then I squeeze these areas into skinny arms and legs, and just sort of mash the middle part into a torso. For the head, I make a ball out of foil and stick it on a piece of wire, which I push down into the torso. Now I just start to play with the pose, letting the armature tell me what it wants to be, and I continue this approach even well into the application of the clay. The piece speaks to me as I work it, and I notice a definate personality the more time I spend. It should be noted that this is a much more subjective approach, and works best for smaller pieces. Usually I mix the two methods, but it's sort of neat to start a piece without a firm idea of what it will look like when it is finished.
The main thing I've been trying to do is to encourage you to give this sculpting thing a shot. Ultimately, there is no one way to do this. Everyone finds what works best for them. The only difference is that some of us have started, and some haven't yet. So what are you waiting for?
P.S. You can find me on the Gremlin mailing list, so buzz me if you have questions or comments.
The Gremlins in the Garage webzine is a production of Firefly Design. If you have any questions or comments please get in touch.
Copyright © 1994-1997 Firefly Design.