A Report to The Cabal:
Not the usual stuff of the typical 'model building' screed, but nonetheless a technique that has to be exploited from time to time, is the technique of sculpting: the practice of giving form, by hand, of a mailable medium into a specific shape. Sculpting is best suited for the representation of the human and animal form.
Model builders sooner or later find the need to create scaled models of little people, and sculpting is but one arrow in the quiver of the accomplished scratch-builder. After all, model building is not restricted only to the representation of structures, vehicles and landscapes. I reject the convention that there is a hard demarcation line between model building and sculpting; that one is a craft and the other an art.
You see this artificial distancing of the two activities, and are likely first introduced to this enforced segregation in school where you attend 'shop class' (in my times an elective set aside for idiots with little academic potential), located in the dank, dark, noisy catacombs of the building where machine lathes spun, saws spit out chips and your instructor was some burly ex-military drunk who'd been in the system just long enough to know how to keep his gig. However, you were a different kind of guy if you went to 'art class': you likely had a sunken chest, were a member of the radio and chess club, and learned 'art' at the feet of a know-it-all, Liberal, skinny, bug-eyed, hyperactive fag who's only brush with art was four years of it at the University of Michigan; this jerk making it a point to keep his class room walls covered with prints of 'modern' art.
The shop goons, like me, and the art class goodie-good-shoes at my high-school never cooperated, thus never cross-trained, which would have greatly broadened our understanding and practice of these widely spaced aspects of the craft. It is this enforced separation of 'shop' and 'art' class then (and I have to assume today) that has so limited the potential of those who leave school -- they could be so much better trained than they actually are. Unfortunately sculpting, for the model builder, is something you learn yourself or acquire through a self-directed pursuit of additional formal education outside of the public school system.
Proper sculpting -- exacting representation of the human or animal form from a mailable medium -- is not 'art.' Not the way the word is used today. It's a craft.
Today an 'artist' is to often a degenerate kid-toucher who presents a crucifix in a mayonnaise jar full of piss. What makes him an 'artist' and his shit 'art'?! Because some pale, wispy Art Critic say's so? (who died and made these guy's the arbiter of what is/is not 'art'?). Is something 'art' because The New Yorker magazine say's so?
Too many fools (that's you and me, friend) accept these claims and pronouncements as fact. What is an 'art critic' anyway? I suggest that they are no more than a collection of socially isolated, jaded jerks who are all too willing to make the appropriate cooing sounds of approval if the subject they are passing on is controversial enough; they thumbs-up this shit only to secure for themselves invites to the never ending parade of gallery exhibition cocktail parties (bribes), and the notoriety it garners them. And this, boys and girls, is how, today, a black and white picture showing a bullwhip, sticking out of some guy's ass gets proclaimed loudly, proudly, and with much fanfare as, 'art.'
So. I'm a Craftsman.
(As I write this, I hear on the Fox News Channel that Broke-Back Mountain just secured eight Oscar Award nominations. Prosecution rests).
Go into an AOL 'Authors Lounge' or 'Artist Cafe' chat room and ask the losers there if they regard themselves as true 'artists'. Yeah, almost all of them proudly anoint themselves as 'artists'. The noun has become less than useless -- its become corrupted.
Sculpting, unlike model building, is a free, rather freeform process: you keep slapping mounds of a mailable material together (in this case a material with the plastic qualities of clay; something easily worked at room temperature with fingers and tools) into a rational, identifiable form. The materials and tools are basic and the end result is the culmination of the Craftsman's ability to transpose his study of the actual subject (or pictures of it) to a reasonable facsimile, rendered in clay, or a clay like substance.
Today there are many substrates possessing clay like physical characteristics: The basic sulfur bearing earth clay is the standard from which all other materials are measured. Some natural clays will remain plastic at room temperature for a very long time, others need to be kept moist and cool. The oil-based clays also have very long shelf-lifes in and out of their wrappings, but cannot be induced to assume a solid state. The self-curing synthetic mediums, most of which are formulas of epoxy remain in the plastic state after mixing for a relatively short time.
The ideal sculpting medium, to my way of thinking, is therefore one that can be induced to become hard when the work is done, but remains a receptive substrate for either grinding/cutting/or gouging (a reduction process) and further material buildup and contouring with sculpting tools (the addition process). Today another desired characteristic of a modeling medium is that it be compatible with the synthetic rubbers used to make tools -- or at least is receptive to a barrier coat of primer. Also, the medium should exhibit good adhesive qualities that will permit over coated with fillers, putties, primers and paints. Also desirous of this medium is a reasonable high strength, to limit the need of exotic internal stiffing and support armatures. Finally, this synthetic clay should, when hard, be receptive to heavy duty shaping with machine and hand tools.
Fired ceramic sculpts are too brittle and hard to work with tools easily. Also, most of us don't have the kilns and know-how to bake that stuff anyway, so ceramics are out. Earthen clays contain sulfur, which will not permit curing of RTV silicon molds. Oil-based clays cannot be hardened. That leaves us with the thermoplastic synthetic clays: either the exothermic curing epoxy based ones (Milliput) or the baking type PolyVinyl Chloride (PVA) modeling clays (Sculpy).
The heavily filled epoxy mediums work through self-heating of the material once the two parts of the material are kneaded together -- the isothermal reaction between the chemicals contained with the 'resin' and the 'hardener' eventually cook the epoxy to the point where a chemical reaction takes place. That reaction, called polymerization, is where the short molecular chains of the pasty, clay like material begin to crosslink into long molecular chains, the material assuming the physical characteristic of a solid. The disadvantage is that you are time limited once the two parts are mixed -- and the characteristics of the soft material change as it transitions from clay like material to a solid. Something that gets some getting used to.
I've played with just about every sculpting medium, and the one I've settled on (not only for sculpts, but also for some specialized model parts as well) is Super Sculpy. This material is of the baking type PVC. As it arrives in the package the stuff is a little tough to work with, just a tad softer than C-4 plastic explosive (Does Homeland Security monitor these sites?) at room temperature and is prepared by working with hand or run through a pasta press a few times.
Sculpy works much like earthen clay, but will remain plastic for years at a time. It only hardens when baked. However, that baking temperature is critical -- between 225 and 275 degrees. My practice is to make a simple armature of the stuff, bake it hard, then to build up most of the sculpt (head, limbs, and torso are usually done separately, all joined near the end of the work) and only when I get to the point where detailing gets in the way of previous soft work, I bake it again. A typical head sculpt might warrant as many as five work-bake cycles. More experienced sculptors do it all with just one baking.
My current figure project is a 1/6 'warrior girl,' here you see the second baking of the head sculpt, which is just past the initial armature stage. Note that pre-baked round eyeballs are set into the hardened scull and then the lids are worked up from Sculpy. I'll then work areas away from the eyes, like ears, lips, and brow, up to the point where things get uncomfortably tight, at which time I pop the work into a preheated toaster oven. As Super-Sculpy cures at 275 degrees at a rate equal to fifteen-minutes per quarter inch of new material, only a few minutes in the oven are needed to harden such thin 'surface' applications of raw Sculpy.
As I worked the eyes of this 'warrior girl' bust I not only made use of photos of the specific subject, but also photos and drawings of other Asian women I had on file. This to get a better sense of the intricacies of how the lids overlapped and blended into the other features of this racial type.
The sculpts right eye has received some Sculpy eye lids, whereas the other eye is sitting bare in its socket, awaiting its pair of eye lids. The pre-baked Sculpy eyeballs were adhered within the eye sockets with little blobs of well thinned Sculpy.
You can never have too much reference material. I have collected hundreds of documents dealing with Asian women alone (shut up, Joel!).
Sculpy is similar to earthen clay in consistency and mailability. However, with the ability to take the work to any specific point and to then harden the work through controlled heating, you have the luxury of changing (which you don't have with earthen clay) the state of the work to make it easier to handle for followup grinding and/or buildup of additional Sculpy. The adhesion of fresh PVC to the hardened PVC is very good and improves on re-baking. For example, I build up the rough shape of this head without eyes or significant feature detail, I then bake that hard, then add pre-baked round pieces of Sculpy for the eyes, then sculpt lids over them and continue on with buildup and/or enhancement of lips, ears and nose, then bake all that, then go in and do some contouring with a grinder, followed by more buildup and sculpting. Hardened Sculpy is most receptive to dremel-tool grinding; as well as conventional, scribing, knife cutting, hand filing, sanding, and polishing with steel wool. hardened Sculpy has the workability of a bar of hard bath soap.
You can see that this sculpt has some grinding work done to the back of the skull to correct some contouring problem with the initial buildup. Standard sculpting tools are used when working with unbaked Sculpy. One has to keep the tools wet to prevent them sticking to the PVC. If the Sculpy is baked too hot it will turn brown -- black if burned! This accounts for the difference in color of the two eyes used on this bust; one of 'em got too hot!
As sculpting is pretty much a freeform activity -- with little implementation of measuring tools, such as templates, molding gauges and surface gauges -- it is vital that the work be checked against the source documents during every phase of the job, the work observed from every angle, employing side lighting in order to throw shadows to identify form and symmetry. What looks good in profile, may be revealed to be wrong in plan.
The discoloration of the bust to the left is the result of an improperly set temperature setting on my little toaster oven. Too hot the work turns brown. Way too hot and it turns black! Not on the darker of the three busts the light areas of still soft 'surface' Sculpy applied to refine the features of this piece.
I typically work three or more Sculpy items at a sitting: While I'm working one piece, another is in the oven baking, and another sitting on the bench cooling. By time I've built up enough Sculpy to the point where I can't handle it for fear of marring soft material just applied, I pop the piece I'm working into the oven, take out the one in there and set it aside to assume room temperature, and the unit that was cooling is picked up and addressed with grinder and then more Sculpy.
Note that I keep at hand reference anatomy sketches and other documents needed to remind me about proportions and details. The documents here are all sized to represent body parts at 1/6 scale. To check scale I just plop the head, hand, whatever I'm working on, over the documents and check for correct size and placement of specific features.
A standard toasting oven is used for most of my Sculpy baking chores. Note the specialized temperature gauge within the oven -- needed to insure that proper operating temperature is attained and maintained during the baking of a Sculpy piece. To prevent radiant heat (the overhead elements) from hitting the work and charring it, I cover the work with a sheet of aluminum foil. The ideal heat transfer mechanism is convection -- transfer from heat elements to air, to the work. Radiant heat transfer can create hotspots and charring of the work.
The only critical issue about working with baking type PVC clays is the need to keep the temperature of your oven below and near the critical temperature -- the point where the surface of the work will discolor to a brown or to even char in extreme cases. Sculpy markets a wonderful little thermometer, calibrated for their and other PVC clay products. As this thermometer sits in the oven, it give a direct representation of the actual heat at that spot -- put your work next to the thermometer, set the oven so it's heat will not exceed the critical temperature of the work, and you'll get a good cure without significant discoloration, each and every cycle.
Super Sculpy is the material of choice for my sculpting work. This PolyVinyl Chloride (PVC) material is packaged in a clay like state, and it stays that way till you heat it to a critical temperature. The only liability to Sculpy, and the other PVC type clays, is the very narrow range of temperatures between where it will harden, and where it will char. Special care has to be taken on how you use your heat source, be it hot-air gun or oven.
Here you see simple armatures ready for use to support Sculpy bust (head) sculpts -- just some K&S aluminum sheet strips cut out with tin snips, curled at the end and Sculpy wrapped around. Sculpy produces a thinning fluid (Sculpy Clay Softener) which, when mixed with the clay, will reduce the hardness of the material -- very useful when using a brush to stipple in texture or to literally brush thinned Sculpy onto the sculpt in order to fill or soften lines.
My preferred scale for figure work is 1/6, though recent work has been in 1/12 and 1/96 scale. 1/6th is just big enough for me to see comfortably without eyeglasses ... hey, I'm a doddering old fart and the eyes are slowly going south.
Note that a brass tube with soldered, twisted brass wires forms the arm-handfingers armature -- this needed to assure structural soundness of the hardened Sculpy fingers. Sculpy has very low tensile, bending and sheer strength, so at some critical minimal thickness the medium requires an internal strength member to assure the sculpts survival during repeated operations of Sculpy buildup, baking, grinding and buildup.
I keep on hand an assortment of leg-foot and arm-hand-fingers armatures so I can practice whenever the mood strikes or a job comes to hand. Some early tests with epoxy paste substrates are to the extreme left. Working isothermal curing mediums is a form of the craft that I've yet to get a comfortable handle on -- at this time the baking type PVC synthetic clays, like Sculpy, are my sculpting mediums of choice.