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October 20, 2005

sculpture experiments

by sven at 9:43 am

I want to sculpt. It's an idea that's been in my head for years. I've got a pretty clear idea about how I want to work -- but I'm still wrestling with how to get the media to do what I want. Here's what I know about the process I want to use:

In addition to this general vision of process, I have several criteria for what kinds of materials I don't want to be using. Here are some notes I wrote out for myself on Monday:

  1. no toxic fumes (e.g. resins)
  2. minimal dust
  3. no baking / firing / use of flame (e.g. sculpey, ceramics)
  4. carving doesn't require hammering with chisels, or a significant amount of grinding hard stuff away (e.g. wood)
  5. doesn't require making molds and casting
  6. not a battle with drips (e.g. plaster)
  7. not a race against time, drying-wise (e.g. foam latex)
  8. less that 24 hours drying time (if possible)

When you go through the list, I think you're pretty much left with clay and papier mache as the main options. [Although it's been disturbing to read about silicosis -- "a chronic and debilitating lung disease resulting from exposure to clay and silica dust (...) a known threat in the ceramic studio." (from The Spirit of Clay: A Classic Guide to Ceramics by Robert Piepenberg).]

...Things have been stuck at this point for a long time. New inspiration came while Gretchin and I were on the Portland Open Studios tour this weekend. Looking at the ceramic figures of Katy McFadden, I suddenly realized three things:

  1. I've been working too small. The scale appropriate for the level of detail I'm interested in is about two feet tall.
  2. I've been too focused on smooth -- rough surface textures may be more interesting.
  3. A body can be implied with very little. A cylinder plus a sphere equals a body. A sphere with two holes reads as a face.

...It sounds like I know exactly what I want -- but the devil's in the details. This week I've dedicated myself to trying to finally nail those details down. How? Experimentation! Here's a photo of what I've done so far:

Back row, left to right:

  1. A snippet of polystyrene foam coated with celluclay. Clumpy and not fun to work with when wet. Took about three days to dry. Seems to be sandable, but with effort.
  2. A foam bust carved with the sort of flexible razor favored by folks who work with sculpey. I tried dripping parafin over it, using a brulee torch. The parafin is too watery for my tastes, and would have to go on in several layers to be of much use. Dipping might work better.
  3. A foam bust with a tissue paper veneer, papier mached on using Elmer's glue mixed with water. It provides a pretty fine surface, with only minor crinkling. I'll have to try painting a model like this -- when I tried painting tissue paper that wasn't bonded to something, it started to fall apart pretty quickly.
  4. A foam bust with newspaper papier mached on one side, craft paper on the other. This basically just confirmed what I already knew -- that both of these two papers are too stiff for fine detail.

Front row, left to right:

  1. Clay applied directly over a foam bust. Serious cracking.
  2. Foam bust papier mached with paper towel, then coated with Elmer's glue and dusted with concrete. This isn't the texture I've been imagining -- but it's a great discovery nonetheless. My one mistake here was that I didn't get all the concrete wet, so some areas remain dusty. A spray-bottle works well to make sure everything is moist, and a final coat of glue seems to do a good job of sealing while still keeping the overall look intact.
  3. Foam bust (more expressive pose) covered in a mix of clay and pulped toilet paper. This one is still drying, and seems to be cracking too -- though perhaps not as severely. I'd read that with paper clay you can apply wet to dry -- and that seems to be true. The texture is impacted by the pulp... I need to see if I can find a finer grained source of paper fiber.

The paper clay seems to be the most promising direction -- although the tissue paper and concrete options deserve further exploration, too.

...In addition to the sculpting experiments, I put in two hours last night experimenting with paints. I tried using sponge application for the first time -- which I'm totally sold on now. I also tried adding things directly into the paint in order to get more texture: concrete, celluclay, and dryer lint. Dryer lint was the most interesting, the most organic. Celluclay particles were a bit too regular for this purpose. Concrete looked best with its natural colors.

So, for the sake of getting my own head clear about this, here's what I've learned this week:

  1. Polystyrene foam can be cut with a razor rather than shredded with a serated knife, avoiding making that terrible static-clingy dust.
  2. Flat sheets of clay can be created by using a rolling pin and two rails, which determine its thickness.
  3. Adding paper fiber to clay helps prevent cracking.
  4. Paint can be sponged onto a surface, rather than brushed.
  5. I can use Elmer's glue plus concrete or dryer lint to create interesting textures.

And here are my next steps:

  1. Find an easier way to mix paper pulp into clay. (And a source for fine-grained fiber.)
  2. Go to an actual clay store to see what they carry.
  3. Actually try making a full-on sculpture!
  4. Figure out how to attach a foam-core sculpture to a base / armature.
  5. Try juxtaposing a clay-skinned sculpture with other elements. (In general, I like assemblages better than single-media sculptures.)
  6. Sketch out some sculptural ideas.
  7. Clean up the damned work area!

Ah -- lists, lists, lists...

posted by sven | October 20, 2005 9:43 AM | categories: sculpture