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

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