Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Creative Stewpot

It's funny how some things are just meant to be, and in their own time. Life's a mystery, a wonderful thing to be sure. Indeed, a couple of weeks ago I discovered just such a mystery languishing right under my nose for...oh...about seven years.

Back story. Okey dokey - I had a 1:9 scale Morgan family in the works some time ago. I started with the mare, but from Day 1 she was a battle. Nothing worked. And I mean nothing. It was one big sculptural Bataan Death March. So I stopped. I've learned it's just better to stop and switch gears rather than force things. Either I'm not ready yet, the planets aren't aligned, or the conflict originates in my inability to listen at the time.

On top of that, I later decided they needed to be in ceramic as well, and so they needed scaling down because at the time ceramic production was infeasible with pieces larger than 1:12 scale (albeit not anymore). Really, the mare's torso alone was a good 9" long, not to mention the neck, head or tail! Back then - before large pieces were slip cast in pieces - that meant the wet, loaded mold would have weighed enough to snap one's spine in half like fresh celery.  

So I made new scaled-down armatures and shelved the original versions in the dark recesses of my studio closet.

 Here's the second generation scaled-down Morgan mare armature. Her torso is only about 6" across. I enjoy creating family sets because I can play with one theme in different ways while also infusing interaction between the pieces.

However, stewing long before all this was the compulsion to sculpt a Lipizzan stallion. I keenly remember the Royal Lipizzan Stallion show Mom took me to eons ago when I was a wee tot, I think when I was in elementary school. Let's just say it made quite an impression.

However, what stopped me in the ensuing decades were the lingering doubts about my ability to truly capture the cavorting white steeds romping around in my imagination. For one, Lippies have a very distinctive look and presence while also imbued with the feel of a living relic, a horse from another age. The breed has a high degree of type variation, too, but despite this, it's surprisingly easy to sculpt them as too-Andalusiany, -Furiosoy, -Morgany, -Arabiany, -Kladrubery, or -Cobby and I risk missing the mark entirely. There's a delicate balance of key features needed to create a piece that immediately and unequivocally reads "Lipizzan." Complicating matters, these horses also incorporate nuanced ideas about anatomy, biomechanics and horsemanship due to their "old world" build and schooling.

Altogether then, one could say that the Lipizzan extravaganza Mom took me to all those years ago was a primary impetus for the development of my art career. Why? Welp, in the truest sense, portraying this breed incorporates everything one needs to know about realistic equine sculpting. But that meant the Lippies who paraded before my tiny, awe-filled eyes had to wait patiently in my head for 30-odd years before I'd come to understand how to do them justice. Some projects really just need to bubble and burble in a creative pot for a very long time. 

Here she is, just as I recently pulled her out of the closet. A GapoxioTM wad of frustration and self-doubt.

As these things tend to do spontaneously, all this smashed together in one of those Big Bang moments of seeming destiny. I was digging through my closet on a totally different hunt (of course) when I came across that old, dust-covered mare. In an instant epiphany, I saw her reborn as a Lippie stallion. It was a literal flash. Quite a powerful moment, actually. Then like my life flashing before my eyes, I realized that's what was fighting me all those years ago! I was forcing this piece to be something it didn't want to be - something it wasn't supposed to be! And too soon.

Here he is, cut apart to be re-pieced back together. Unlike many of my colleagues, I create my full-body sculptures from a self-hardening epoxy clay rather than soft oil clay, or waxes. This means changes can be a real PITA, but it does provide a permanent archival sculpture. This epoxy also has superior characteristics for capturing detail and fleshy effects with ease, at least for me.

So here he is, pinned back together and quickly rough-sketched in Photoshop to distill the idea. Still debating the head and left foreleg position - perhaps the tail, too - but I'll let him guide me this time 'round. While I'd like to eventually sculpt Lippies in the haute ecole and "airs above the ground" movements, right now the "cavorters" have to get out of my head after all these years.

(Above segment) The original version, and (lower segment) the new version. He's going to entail quite a bit of work with tweaking, correcting, re-proportioning and getting things in synch. For example, I see already that his gaskins and hind cannons are too long. However, I work from the withers "outward" so I'll make all the necessary corrections as I go, essentially "cascading" the errors out of his nose n' toes.

Representing a culmination of my entire art career then, this piece will be a true test of how well I've mastered the art form. A heckuva challenge, but I cannot wait to get started! I figure I can work on him alongside my sproinging Arab mare to usher in 2012 with a bang. 

But oy...he's gonna be big. My largest original to date! Heck, he's already the size of my HR Metalchex! This makes him a sharp departure from the smaller scales I've been creating lately, but it's fun to spice things up every so often. And while I don't know how his size will translate into resin or ceramic, I do think bronze is a definite must.

I'm so grateful that Mom encouraged my passion for horses at such an early age - look at the journey it started! A blessed path. What a wonderful thing to look back upon and reflect, and then be able to infuse into this grandiose and thrilling piece! The past and the future, stewing together within the joyous moment! Thanks Mom!

"It has happened more than once that a composition has come to me, ready-made as it were, between the demands of other work." ~ Amy Beach


Monday, November 7, 2011

Variations on a Theme

If you follow this blog, you've probably picked up on a theme by now: my infatuation with serendipity. That is to say a fondness for variety, diversity, change, moment, uniqueness. The things that make each of us individuals and each second a complete universe. 

Creatively speaking, this translates into a gaggle of things to create paired with various ways to create them. Said another way, I not only have affection for variety in media, method and composition, but also for the various expressions of the equine form. Not talking about breed, gender or age differences here. Those are obvious enough. I'm talking about the more subtle differences in how anatomy manifests between individuals that make them individuals and how anatomy changes between moments that make them individual, too. Pour in expression and soul, and that's the fun stuff for me. The rules are just a means to the end.

Now granted, the rules are important. We strive hard to learn equine anatomy (to include biomechanics) as beginners and continue to refine our understanding throughout our career. Deeper than that, however, is the individuality of anatomy. No two individuals are alike and no two moments are alike. So applying the same habitual anatomical interpretation to another sculpture isn't the best plan if we seek to convey this animal's experience with authenticity. (I hinted at this effect a bit more in Parts I and II of my anatomical chart discussion if you're interested in more discussion on the subject.)

Also, when I see a horse, I don't see "a horse," or even a [insert breed]. I also don't make value judgments of "good" or "inferior," "beautiful" or "ugly." What I see instead is a unique individual, much like how I'd identify friends and family. Having evolved away from objectification in my art and towards exploration, I'm far more interested in those qualities that go deeper. How does the saying go? "We like people for their qualities, but we love them for their flaws." Well, I believe the same applies to equines.

Because of this, sculpting "perfect" specimens isn't very interesting to me. I mean, you're not lovely and worthwhile because you don't look like a movie star, centerfold or model? Nah. I don't find your value in how beautiful you are on the outside. And it's so subjective! Indeed, it's those things that make you different that allow me identify you as you! Isn't that much more fun? 

In a similar way then, repeatedly sculpting the same anatomical formula doesn't light my fire either. Sure, it's comfortable and safe, like all habits are, but the serendipity found in living anatomy entices me far more. The irony is that I've been telling folks all this time that I don't sculpt portraiture, but only now do I realize that's exactly what I've been doing. Only I just create portraiture of my own making.

Anyway, this direction came into sharp focus these past two weeks in the ceramic studio. As I mentioned in the previous post, I got a wild hair - as I'm prone to do (perhaps too often) - and cast some Reflective plaques in porcelain slip. I actually bought the jar of this magical stuff some years ago and it sat lonely on the shelf until I was confident enough to swim in its silky goodness. The Joy ornament from last year eroded any trepidation I had, so I figured it was time to swan dive.

Anyhoo, the mold cast easily and the two initial castings were a dream to clean. Greenware porcelain is interesting. You don't really clean it like you would earthenware, terracotta, or stoneware. You really just touch it with water and it "self heals." (In this case, a soft artificial paintbrush dipped in water.) It melts into exactly what you want. It also carves beautifully and holds detail like nobody's business. Imagine mixing talcum powder with butter - that's how it feels.

Elsie supervised the entire endeavor, taking period drinks from my water cup. Yes, I love tapioca pudding, so I have lots of those cups.

Which got me to thinking. Reflective in porcelain was exciting enough - yeah, great. But why stop there? Claybody them! Never mind that I've never worked with porcelain slip before. And let's just ignore the fact that I've never claybodied the stuff either. Don't even mention that I've also done zero research on the process and had absolutely no idea what I would be doing. Perfect! Let's go! Hey, the only way to learn is to stare looming failure in the face and cackle madly. 1.21 GIGAWATTS?!!

But there was a monkey wrench. Unbeknownst to me at the time, porcelain slip dries fast. Really fast. Way before I expected it - even in a cool, damp garage - these two castings were too dry to claybody. Once clay is past a certain drying point, the likelihood of added changes taking well plummet dramatically. In this case, they'd probably just pop off in the fire or create cracks*. So I opted instead to carve them rather than add alterations; to subtract rather than add. Thankfully, it was far easier than expected and terrific fun to boot!

[*In hindsight, little did I know about porcelain's vitrifying properties and how they can be manipulated, but they may have lent themselves to claybodying even these too-dry pieces. But I'll leave that for the next post.] 

So here are the results from the subtractive claybodying, pieces #1 and #2. With them, I simply carved away what I wanted to change rather than adding anything. On the top one, I detailed out those braids and on the bottom one, I made them smaller and more "cigarette-like," as well as removing them from the tail in dressage fashion. On both, I changed the facial features, especially in the muzzle area.

So having had such a great time with those two, I decided to go one step further: Cast three more for additive claybodying. To do that, I popped each fresh casting into a gallon-sized ZiplocTM baggie with a damp wadded paper towel in the corner, carefully squeezing out most of the air before zipping it closed. This keeps the casting wet, something necessary for additive changes.

Here's #3 - in the middle of the claybodying process - in the "wet bag" to keep it damp. You can put your in-process piece back in the bag to come back to it later. It can "keep" in there for a couple of days, but not indefinitely. A spray bottle filled with water and set to a fine mist is also a useful companion to keep the piece evenly damp during the process.

For additive claybodying, I need "slab" and "paste" porcelain rather than runny slip. To do that quickly, I simply pour some slip onto a plaster mold and let it dry enough to still be damp and flexible, but no longer runny. I can keep it as a slab for manes, tails, or bridging expanses, or I can turn it into paste by smooshing it in my palm with some water, as follows...

I make fresh paste each time - it just works better that way.

You can keep slabs fresh in the wet bag, too, or you can prepare them for paste in the "mushpool," or damp cup. Anything left over after you're done gets put back into the dump bucket to be used again for future castings.

Here's #4 in the works. To add on pieces, like manes and tails, both surfaces need to be well "scored" with a sharp tool, then both surfaces are slathered in slip (the same slip used for pouring the piece in the first place). Only then can they be stuck together, squishing firmly to really marry them together and to remove any air pockets (which would cause the piece to explode in spectacular fashion during the fire).
 Oh nose! You can also cut apart the piece and reglue it back together in the same fashion. Here you can see #5 getting a reset nostril after scoring and slipping. I cut it away and reset it lower, so I could carve the skull downward for a more Iberian build.

 Using both these techniques, here you can see #4 with his roughed-out mane and tail glued on, along with his reset ear and resculpted jowl and nasal bone. All other changes were done by subtractive sculpting.

 Likewise, here's #5 during the "ugly stage," using these techniques.

 And here's #3 during the ugly stage. You have to keep your eyes on the prize at this point because it's so easy to get intimidated!
As if all this wasn't enough - guess what. I got another wild hair. Yeah, I told you. I get them a lot. I've been intrigued by the various ways other sculptors rendered the eyes on their sculptures, actually carving in pupils and even the "eye dots" (or omlats), to denote light reflection rather than just a blank orb. I've always wanted to try it and figured - why not now?  
Here you can see what I mean by "sculpting eyes" rather than blank orbs. Initially it took creative acclimatizing - it's definitely a very different way of interpreting de peepers. But I really like how they turned out! "Sculpting with light" this way was a thrill, and I'll definitely consider it again where appropriate. And truth be told, I also wanted to discourage the painting of these pieces down the line by others, to instead be appreciated purely as a sculpture.

 Here's the fired result on #3 - fun, huh?

The beautiful thing about slipcasting porcelain is that it allows me to present my work as pure sculpture. I've always been more of a sculptor than a painter, so this is both pivotal and inevitable for me, having developed towards it over the years. I've lost the compulsion to "color" my sculptures, realistically or otherwise, and even clear glaze interferes with light reflection on a bisque piece, especially with finer details. Yet earthenware is too porous and stoneware a snidge too grainy for some of the projects I intend to tackle. For this goal then, bisque porcelain is perfect - it's vitrious and captures light brilliantly. It's also universally accepted in the "hierarchy of media," making it ideal for submitting work into art shows, and one I can produce in my own garage no less.

So as a bit of foreshadowing, this project (and those like it) has an agenda: to train me for one-of-a-kind pieces in porcelain, in bas-relief, bust and full body. I've long wanted to see if I could do this, and these baby steps are a good beginning. Lots to learn, lots of mistakes and lots of surprises, but what would art be without adventure? 

Similarly, this minimization of "coloring" is how I intend to approach my bronzes and OOAK hand-built ceramic pieces, too. So extreme, in fact, that I'm also toying with the idea of sculpting in pinto and appaloosa patterns, and perhaps even markings. The eye treatment I gave to these claybodies opens up the door to that. 

So here's the whole group in greenware. In the top left is the original version, right outta the mold. Again, forget about the different manes and tails, ears and breed types - those are just superficial differences. Instead study the different fleshy bits, such as around the muzzle and eyes. No two horses manifest flesh in the same way, so no two sculptures should manifest flesh in the same way either. I'm looking forward to tinkering with the eye and ear anatomy more in the next batch.

Here are some muzzle and cheek close-ups of #2, #3, #4 and #5 to clarify the point (after firing). The musculature and features in these areas are different on each piece because they're different on each individual in life. Can't wait to expand on this theme to cram my mental library with even more tidbits!

Anatomy may be the rules, yes, but nature bends them with each of us. If it didn't, every horse would look exactly the same, as each of us would, too. So because every equine is a fresh take on a theme, it's a joy to apply a fresh eye to each sculpture as well.

 During the point of vitrification, porcelain becomes gooey and flexible, and so thin, suspended bits tend to sag. To prevent this, I could either stilt the area (something a bit beyond my skill level just yet - but stay tuned!), or a substance called "porcelain prop" is commonly used. It's a cotton-ball like substance made from inflammable glass-like materials which can be shaped to support those prone-to-sag-bits without becoming fused to the piece (in this case that sticky-outy ear). It's also reusable. Just be super careful with it, as it does have asbestos-like qualities. I also learned to use only the tiniest point of contact with the piece, and put it just below the contact point in order to "catch" the area at the point of sagging. Heat builds up between the two surfaces, which can cause a regional point of over-fire. Lesson learned!

 Cone 6: 2232˚! Big Al's hottest yet! He seemed quite pleased with himself. I could hear him bruxing. I think I even caught him boggling those peephole plugs, too. Happy kiln, happy heart.

So here they are after the mature fire of Cone 6:






To see them in their creamy porcelain goodness is such a treat! It's also interesting to see how the clay softened and where during the fire, and where it kept its crispness. Mental notes for next time. The shrink rate was impressive - I wish I took a measurement photo of them in greenware so I'd have something to compare them to after firing. Next time!

Anyway, #2-#4 will be available for sale today in my Etsy store. #1 and #5 will be available a bit later - I have a couple of hiccups to fix first. Yes - you can fix low-fire porcelain after the fire! I learned this by serendipitous accident (literally) and I'll walk you through it in the next blog post. 

The many incarnations of Reflective: (left) bare white resin (middle) earthenware [in process] and (right) claybody custom bisque porcelain. Can't wait to apply this to future pieces!

Nonetheless, claybodying isn't just for fun. When approached from this deeper angle, it's an extremely useful artistic exercise that stretches the Eye. Applying different anatomical interpretations to the same piece encourages us to search for the mercurial and serendipitous in life. We're compelled to pitch formula and adopt variability. This not only turns the depiction of this animal into a far more fascinating endeavor, but it adds individuality and "living moment" to our work, letting it spring to life in ways no other approach can.

So you can bet that more claybody customs (often shorted by the acronym "CBCM") on my bas-relief works will be forthcoming, and I'm so jazzed now to create more expressly for this purpose! The Fates were shining down on me the day Joanie introduced me to clay - Joanie, you rule! Go raibh maith agat a milliún! ("Thanks a million" in Irish.)

"In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich." ~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer


Sunday, November 6, 2011

A Passion for Porcelain

As I mentioned in the previous post, I'm having a torrid love affair with slipcast porcelain. As I also mentioned in that post, I got a crazy hair beyond just casting the unicorn. My eyes wandered over to my other bas-relief molds and gave me fiendish, Grinchy ideas. Hey, why not? What else are fiendish, Grinchy ideas good for?

So ta-da! Here are the fruits of our passions...

 Here's a set of my Rune Horses in porcelain, beaded as a set.

 Here's a selection of the four Rune Horse "C" pieces, beaded in different ways. Two great things that go better together: porcelain and glass!

 And here are the three Rune Horse "B" pieces given the same treatment. 

A note about those Rune Horses: these designs are being retooled for tile pressing rather than slip casting. This means they'll be redesigned into the standard 4" circle (and another version will be reset onto a 4" square) to allow for greater versatility with the end product and to open up the the possibility of installations. That means these staggered smaller sizes will be discontinued very soon because the molds are near their end and I won't be making replacements. Anyhoo...onward...

 Here's a trio of busts, now in porcelain and beaded as a set.

Here are more, only sold individually. The piece on the far left has a hook in the back for easy hanging on the wall.

Finally, here's the selection of small rectangle plaques with beadery. Each will be sold individually.

Its so exciting to be slipcasting my bas-relief work in this marvelous stuff! It opens up new ways to offer these and future pieces, which is such a tantalizing prospect for the bas-reliefs coming down the pike. All of them will be available for purchase in my Etsy store tomorrow, so stay tuned! 

Also stay tuned for the Reflective plaque in porcelain, to be debuted in the next post...

"All we are given are possibilities – to make ourselves one thing or another." ~ Jose Ortega Y Gasset


Friday, November 4, 2011

The Myth Made Real

All packaged and ready for new homes!

It's been a steep learning curve here the past month, exploring the nuances of slipcasting porcelain. Phew! The cliff notes to this two month epic: I'm passionately in love with this stuff. A torrid, shameless love affair! Wanton! My passions were aflame, my breasts were heaving, my loins were...well, OK, I'll spare you. But this clay is definitely as magical as the subject matter I chose for my first foray - a unicorn

I made an open-face plaster mold and just poured the slip in, letting it dry and firm up just enough to pop out easily. Using that "button" technique with a piece of porcelain clay really helped matters, too. I was able to cast about five unicorns a day with this approach.

The tools of the trade, with some greenware made earlier that day. The extra greenware porcelain is put back into the dump bucket and used for future castings. Ceramics are wonderful - very little waste and lots of recycling!

Here they are all lined up, (left) original oil clay from which the plaster mold was made, (middle) greenware casting and (right) fired porcelain casting. Pretty impressive shrink rate between them!

Here's a close-up of a greenware casting (left) and the finished fired porcelain result (right). Each piece required a great deal of cleaning and tweaking to get just right. A labor of love.

And voila! The finished result! Well worth all those long hours and determined effort. I decided to leave the piece bisque to showcase the sculpture itself and preserve all the details - I vastly prefer bisque porcelain to glazed for this reason. To my eye, it's an ideal medium for highlighting sculptural aspects, so elegant and lovely.

All packaged and ready for Etsy this weekend! 

I am absolutely thrilled to have completed this ambitious project successfully! Slipcasting porcelain opens up entirely new horizons for my work, especially for my bas-reliefs. In fact, I got a bit wild n' crazy along those lines, but I'll leave that for a (soon) future blog post. I also found that certain post-fire flaws can be fixed, along with contriving a solution for the warping problem (again, I'll leave that for a future post). Indeed, the experience was so positive that I decided to make this unicorn ornament an annual series, so next year I'll come out with a new design. 

I gotta say, though, this project relied on my aggressive naivete and militant optimism. I had no idea what I was doing, simply forging ahead with what I knew about slipcasting earthenware. What surprised me after it all was how non-scary and accessible slipcasting porcelain ended up being. I still have some glitches to iron out with bigger pieces, but overall, you can bet more of this luscious stuff will be popping outta this studio! 

Now, back to the mud for more tiles, that Friesian ornament and other clinky goodness! MUSH! 

"One of the things I learned the hard way was that it doesn't pay to get discouraged. Keeping busy and making optimism a way of life can restore your faith in yourself." ~ Lucille Ball

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