Oolong’s Zoo

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


On Saturday I went to the second UK Maker Faire in Newcastle. This is an event that gets together a whole lot of people in one building who have something creative and technological to show off, share or workshop. That’s a pretty broad remit; there was probably a slim majority of fun robotics projects, plus a bunch of people doing interesting things with 3D printing, a giant musical Tesla coil playing tunes using lightning – that sort of thing.

The Orange Cat of Sugru One of the things that was most interesting to me personally was a new kind of silicone putty, called Sugru. It’s being sold mainly as a way of modifying existing objects, by sticking things onto other things, adding comfortable grips and suchlike, but I’m intrigued by its sculpting potential.

It has a few things in common with epoxy putty – it sticks pretty firmly to many different surfaces, making it great for modifying existing objects; it gives you about half an hour or so of working time during which it goes from being really quite sticky to kind of stiff, then it cures fully in about 24 hours; and it comes in a range of different colours.

The big difference is that when it ‘hardens’, it stays soft and rubbery. Drop it, and it bounces. You can probably use it to erase pencil marks. That makes it more desirable and fun for certain kinds of uses – I’d rather mod delicate electronic equipment with something that bounces rather than crashing like stone, for example. Another difference is that unlike epoxy (which needs to be mixed up) it starts curing from the moment you take it out of the packet, which means you need to use a whole pack at once if you don’t want to waste any.

It’s quite like Fimo to work with, and holds details well. The surface noticeably cures a bit faster than the inside, but you don’t seem to get the kind of annoying wrinkle-prone skin you do with many air-drying modelling clays. For me the working time is plenty for most of my sculptures, though I know a lot of people take longer. The two sculptures I made held their own weight surprisingly well, sagging only a tiny bit, which is a relief after working with epoxy putty or even Fimo Soft. I only got to play with a little bit at the Faire, and it hasn’t launched commercially yet, but I’m looking forward to doing more with it. I can see a lot of interesting potential there.

posted by frm at 16:06  

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


I stumbled on a science/art workshop led by Lizzie Burns at The Bowery a few weeks ago, part of the Edinburgh Interdisciplinary Discussion thing, which I’m quite excited about now that I’ve heard of it.

Lizzie makes jewellery and paintings inspired by various fields of science, and also runs workshops in museums and things – they’re mostly aimed at kids really, but she suggested that I come along, so I thought I’d give it a go.

There were actually a series of workshops each based on sculpting bits of the body, leading up to the one I was at, where we made whole bodies. There’s a long history of anatomy being studied by artists, and I figured it might be a useful exercise for me, especially since I’ve been sculpting more humans lately (mainly at Dr Sketchy). Either way, it was fun making a skeleton.

The material is a light air-drying clay resembling Efaplast Light, but a bit more elastic. Very well suited to this sort of thing, though a little tricky to transport safely before it’s fully dry.

posted by frm at 19:38  

Monday, March 31, 2008

Write me a Script!

I’ve been wanting to animate my beasties for years now, but despite being full of character designs I’ve never really had an animation idea good enough to inspire me to action. I may be a writer of sorts, but I don’t really do fiction.

That’s why I’m soliciting scripts. Specifically I’m looking for scripts which don’t call for elaborate staging, and will take no more than 60 seconds of animation time. If you can make a recording of the script and send it to me that’s even better, but if not I can probably get people together later to record it for us, so don’t worry about that too much.

I’m open to receiving scripts by email, but what I’d like best is for people to submit them to Everything2 for Gone in 60 Seconds – a Theatre Quest, and make sure that they would work as one-minute plays as well as animations.

There’s nothing particularly taxing about submitting things for Everything2 – the main things are just to make sure it reads well, add links by putting square brackets around a few relevant words or phrases, and check that it looks okay after you post. Ask me on the site if you have any questions or problems after you sign up.

posted by frm at 15:21  

Monday, March 31, 2008

How I Make Creatures That Aren’t Cats

I’m a cat person; I always lived with cats when I was a kid, and their moods and body languages are deep-seated in my psyche. If I just sit down to doodle with a lump of clay, a cat tends to be what comes out. That’s no excuse though! This world is full of interesting creatures which aren’t cats, with many more imaginary beasts noodling around in our collective consciousness – so I often make an effort to sculpt other critters.

Much of what I wrote in How I Make Cats applies more-or-less across the board, so rather than going in to great detail about every beastie you might like to make, I am instead going to try to summarise what makes them unlike cats to sculpt, looking at distinguishing features rather than techniques…

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/0olong/34156428/Dogs
    Quite a lot like cats, superficially – but the snout and the floppier, less-pointy ears make all the difference to their faces, the body language of dog-tails is quite different from that of cats (although it is not unrelated) and their legs are a bit meatier.
  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/0olong/402277594/in/set-72057594090341738/Fish
    The sinuousness of the fish is quite pleasing, although its lack of limbs somewhat narrows the range of possible creative expression. On the other hand fish, more than almost any land animal, invite boundless creativity on the colouring front, and eyes can say a lot – especially if you take a cavalier attitude to the question of whether fish should have eyelids. One tricky thing about making free-standing fish is to make sure they’re either curvy enough or fat enough not to topple over. If you’d rather they go on a wall or something like that, you’ll want to think about fixing a loop of wire or a magnet to the back.
  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/0olong/444883636/in/set-72057594090341738/Pigs
    Pigs are sort of like really fat, pinkish cats with flattened snouts, beady eyes (for which the easiest thing is probably to use actual beads) and little curly tails. They also have trotters rather than paws, if you’re into that level of detail, and their ears stick out a lot more.
  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/0olong/35168352/Beavers
    The national animal of Canada! The humble beaver is perhaps the gnawingest of all beasts. Its main distinguishing feature is its broad, flattish tail. It also has a sort of blunt-ish, snuffly snout, and to make their beaverishness obvious you might like to give them two prominent front teeth – although they don’t really stick out that much in real beavers.
  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/0olong/34156449/Lizards
    Lizards are fun. Low on the ground, their legs protrude from their sides and their serpentine bodies make for lovely dynamic curves. Sometimes I might give a lizard a spiky spine, pinching vertebrae out of the flesh of its back, but they don’t always need it.
  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/0olong/214364621/Dinosaurs
    Like many people, my mind is occasionally occupied by velociraptors, with the odd hadrosaur also passing through from time to time. Paleozoological rectitude has never been a major concern of mine, so I freely make nameless dinosaurs which sit on their haunches or stand on two feet and a tail, roaring, waving little arms in front of them, and generally trying to look threatening.
  • Dragons
    A perennial favourite, most people who ever sculpt in polymer clay at all probably end up making dragons at some point. They take more work than most of the things I make, thanks to the wings, tails and facial detail – the things that make something identifiably a dragon, and not just a confused dinosaur. There’s plenty of latitude in making dragons though, in the absence of any real-world reference there’s nothing much to stop you from saying ‘well my dragon is fluorescent pink, with two tails and a head like a ferret’s.’
  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/0olong/315945803/Demons
    Being both mythical and endlessly various, demons basically allow totally free rein to the imagination. Often they have claws or horns, which you can make by extruding nodules from the clay and then pulling and squeezing and rolling the ends until they are sharp and fearsome, or make separately as tiny little cones, which it’s sometimes worth cooking in advance so that they don’t buckle when they’re attached – a trick which is even more worthwhile with sharp teeth. The monstrosity of demons invites doodling and experimentation; I leave the details up to your subconscious.

Most generally, if I don’t feel like I’ve got a handle on what would make it obvious that a given clay creature is supposed to be the animal I’m aiming for, I run a Google Image Search and maybe check out Wikipedia, which usually has a couple of good pictures.

posted by frm at 13:12  

Friday, March 14, 2008

USB Sculptures

CyclusbI’ve been having great fun lately customising USB sticks ((thumb drives, flash drives, whatever you want to call them…)) using epoxy putty. The putty doesn’t require any baking, and it seems to be hard enough and strong enough to survive in pockets full of keys for long periods without any visible scratching – although it does accumulate smudge marks very quickly, they’re easy to wipe off.

USBmonkeyIII 002It’s an interesting challenge to decorate a USB drive, because you start out with a sort of rectangle a few millimetres thick, and it’s probably best not to make the final product very much bigger than that, so that it doesn’t take up too much space in pockets and can still be plugged into computers which might not have much space around their USB sockets. That means you’re constrained to subjects which can be plausibly fitted into a long, thin cuboid with a minimum of protrusions. You also ideally want things with a head or some other part which can be unobtrusively removed, with a join just at the right distance from one end…

USB Monkey HeadlessThe basic technique is pretty straightforward – you just mix up the epoxy putty with the hardener, roll it into a sheet and cover the drive in it. Leave space for anything you don’t want to obscure, like the LEDs most pen drives have that light up to show when they’re active, or loops for keyrings. There are two approaches you can take at this stage. One way is to use a thin sheet and add more putty to that – freshly-mixed epoxy putty sticks extremely well to almost anything, but especially itself. The other way is to use more putty to begin with, and extrude or carve from that.

USB Monkey II (headless)There are many different varieties of epoxy putty available. I’ve been using Sylmasta A+B (formerly SuperCarve), and so far I’m very happy indeed with the new reformulated version of this – the colours are pure and vivid, where before the blue and the yellow were both slightly greenish ((I’m told their white has been reformulated to be brighter, too, but I still haven’t used up all of my 500g block of the previous formulation so I haven’t tried that yet.)). They’ve also extended the range to include brown and black, so it’s now possible to mix almost any colour from those available. For about £50 I got 250g of each of five colours, which should go a looong way. I have also had good results using metallic powders you can rub into the putty while it’s still soft. Most of the powder sticks well to the putty if it’s rubbed in well enough, but it’s worth varnishing these afterwards to be safe.

A Dead Badger So far I’ve made three USB monkeys, a couple of aliens, a zombie badger that runs Linux and a fish that really didn’t work the way I wanted it to. I might make a crocodile next. Any other suggestions are welcome, whether or not you want to buy them yourself! As ever, I am very happy to take commissions…

posted by frm at 20:14  

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Old Ceramic Sculptures

Creations Unpacked

Clay Eyes

I moved to Edinburgh a few years ago, and when I did I left a couple of boxes’ worth of clay sculptures in London. A couple of months ago I finally got managed to bring most of them up to Scotland with me. I guess I’ll try to sell most of them; some could probably make good Christmas presents for people, and so on. I’m still pondering prices.

It was fun, in any case, just taking all my old sculptures out, laying them on the mat and getting photos of them. I think I’d missed them a bit, without really being conscious of it.

I miss working with clay; I’m currently trying to find somewhere in Scotland where I can go for a couple of hours or something, every now and then. Every week, maybe. There are just so many things you can do with ceramic clay that you can’t really do with polymer, and I want to be doing some of them!

I also have a box of unfired clay sculptures still left in London, including most of The Bunny Mob (only the original, Alfonso di Bunniti, is here with me in Edinburgh) which had been sitting on a never-touched shelf all these years, but have now needed to be moved, and some of them got broken. I’m not sure how I’ll fix them and get them fired, but I guess I’ll get something figured out sooner or later. Sooner, I hope.

The Arranger Cigar-Smoking Bunny

The Bunny Mob

SadfaceDermot O'Hare

posted by frm at 01:26  

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Pixar exhibition

We caught the Pixar exhibition on its last day at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, and I’m glad we didn’t miss it. I found it fun and fascinating, if a little short on technical detail. It features several original polymer clay maquettes and many more cast polyurethane models, some marked with grids for scanning purposes.

Besides all the concept art and the intriguing but rather superficial descriptions of process, two things in particular make the exhibition worth attending. One is a giant 3D ‘zoetrope’, lit by a strobe light flashing around 18 times a second, featuring various characters from Toy Story rendered into physical reality by 3D printing. Each repeats its motion at least once every second, although in some cases the repetition in time is obfuscated by duplication in space: A stream of toy soldiers parachute from the zoetrope’s pinnacle, and several green aliens pop up, waddle along and vanish down a hole.

The other particular highlight for me is Artscape, in which a miscellany of 2D concept art (mainly scenery) is animated in planes across an enormous panoramic screen, to a wordless musical soundtrack. It’s beautifully done, and makes you think about the process of turning 2D art into 3D animation.

Another thing that’s new to me is the concept of a colourscript, simple images for a film laid out in chronological orter to help visualise its structure in terms of moods and visual feel.

Pixar’s short films are all well worth seeing, of course, but none of the four on display here are new to me – although it is years since I saw the tragic Red’s Dream, and the pre-Pixar Adventures of Andre and Wally B. is interesting to see, though it is nowhere close to the quality of later work by any standard, obviously being more of a technical showcase (for 1984 technology!) than a storytelling effort.

Predictably, the exhibition renewed my determination to make animated films (collaboration suggestions are invited!) but I also come away with a more surprising, equally powerful urge to do more work with pastels. The pastel art on display (settings, mood pieces, sometimes character sketches) comes across, unexpectedly, as being just as impressive as the sculpture work, and almost as important to Pixar’s creative process. The characters drive the narrative, but their setting is absolutely crucial to the experience of the film, and I don’t think I’ve always given settings the attention they deserve in my own work.

posted by frm at 23:13  

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Epoxy Putty: First experiments

Inspired initially by this excellent figure of an Ood (out of Doctor Who) and its co-creators answers to my questions about it, and spurred on by this thread in Flickr’s Miniature Sculpting forum, I recently purchased some epoxy putty for modelling.

I first got enthused reading about Magic Sculp, but eventually established that even the cheapest UK supplier I could find, Sylmasta, charges around three times as much as it goes for in the US (and about twice as much as I pay for the same weight of polymer clay) – but as it happens, they also sell their own brand of epoxy modelling putties, Sylmasta A+B (white, or at least very light grey) and Super Carve (available in a range of colours), which also come highly recommended by random people off the internet. Milliput is the only epoxy putty I’d been exposed to in person before, and it’s very easy to get hold of – but it’s relatively expensive, and not very highly regarded by most of the sculptors I’ve seen expressing opinions.

Epoxy putty of any variety has several advantages over the likes of Fimo and Sculpey – it doesn’t require baking, it adheres firmly to almost any surface and it ends up being far stronger and far harder. On the other hand, it has a faintly unpleasant petrochemical smell, requires a bit more work and tends to work out more expensive (at least in Europe).

The putty starts out in two parts, a resin and a hardener, and you need to thoroughly mix and knead them before you start. This is probably best done with gloves really (at least according to some sources) but I’ve been doing it bare-handed so far without any obvious ill effects. As soon as it’s mixed, it starts hardening – on average, you’ve only got a couple of hours to work with it before it’s really hard, and in the first hour or so it goes from being distinctly on the floppy side to being really very firm; depending on what you’re making, the firmness might be very desirable or a big pain.

Me being me, the first thing I made was a cat. This was fun, and went fairly smoothly, but it brought out what to me is the most striking difference between epoxy putty (at least, A+B) and the polymer clays I’m used to: It’s near-total lack of elasticity. It’s one of those things you don’t think much about until it’s gone, but it turns out to make a big difference. I started to extrude limbs in the way I usually do when I make cats, and found I kept needing to smooth over the cracks I was making as I went.

One advantage of this is that things stay where you put them much more readily than they do with polymer clay, which sometimes springs back into place a little. Also, the putty is very quick to bear the impression of anything that presses against it, which is potentially very useful even if it isn’t always desirable. It’s not sticky to the touch, despite its excellent adhesive qualities when left in place – but it did prove sticky enough to easily attach little beads for eyes, which is handy given the limited range of colours I currently have available.

Once it’s cured it has a pleasing weight to it, and it’s really good and hard; it feels altogether far more substantial than polymer clay, and it’s easy to beliebe what I’ve read about its vastly greaters strength.

After the cat I still had lots of putty left over which I needed to use before it set hard, so I set to work making a human face. Humanoid, anyway… the squishiness of the material tripped me up a bit here – it is putty, and it feels and works like it. The head came out okay in the end, but it’s sort of… meltier than I’d really intended.

I regretted not leaving the putty to firm up for a while before trying to do something like that, but then when I did leave a bit more to harden, I ended up going away for too long and it was almost impossible to work! We live and learn though, and I always expect to make mistakes when I try out a new medium.

I made the same mistake again when I tried out the bright read Super Carve I bought – it’s noticeably a good deal softer than the A+B, and the dinosaur I made kept sagging gently to one side or the other for a long time after I first made it, as if it was drunk and sleepy. I straightened it up repeatedly, but in the end it still sort of slopes forwards and to one side; it’s alright, it mostly just looks like it’s staring at something much smaller than itself, but I made sure to leave it for about half an hour before I started working on my next project – a big dragon, to which I will return once it’s finished.

posted by frm at 10:59  

Thursday, January 11, 2007

How I Make Cats

Before I start: Bear in mind that everyone is different; nobody ever taught me how to use polymer clay; and what works for me won’t necessarily work for you… or even for me on a different day. Experimentation is key, and if I ever had to stop messing around when I’m making my critters, I’d probably stop altogether.

All that being said, it can be helpful to get a glimpse of how other people do what they do, so here goes…

Make a ballWith almost any sculpture I’m making, I begin by kneading the clay into a ball. I squish it and roll it and warm it till I’m happy with its consistency, then I make it spherical and work from there.

Pull out appendagesThe next thing is to pull out the various appendages: Four more-or-less equal legs, a longer tail and a fatter head.Keep sculpting till it's a plausible cat shape Give the head a couple of ears, and it should already be starting to look a little bit like a cat. It might even have some personality – if so, you might like to work with it.

Get the whole thing into a shape you're happy with, paying some attention to body languageEither way, keep making the tail more tail-like, keep making the head more cat-like, and hopefully personality will emerge, whether through design or of its own accord.

The next thing is the eyes, and for me they are the single most important part of almost any critter I make. It’s amazing how much they can express, and how different that expression can be made by a shift of a millimetre or less. So take care over the eyes, but be prepared for them to surprise you.

Make a tiny sausage for the eyeballsI start by rolling out a sausage of clay, because it’s easier to divide a sausage evenly. Split the sausage into two equal parts and roll them into ballsI tend to use glow-in-the-dark clay for this, because surprise cat eyes glowing in the dark amuse me, but obviously it’s down to personal preference. Divide the sausage into two roughly equal parts, and roll each one into a ball. Affix the eyesUnevenly sized eyeballs give an air of derangement, which is fun when you’re in the mood, but not always desirable. Attach the balls to the front of the head, and presto! You now have a cat that can stare at people.

Repeat the procedure to make two tiny pupilsNext up are the pupils – each one half of a very small black sausage. Attach the pupilsThis is one of the fiddliest bits of the whole process, because the amount of clay involved is so tiny and black; I sometimes resort to using a tool to attach them to the eyeballs.

Now the eyelidsOnce the pupils are in place, I usually add eyelids. Sometimes I give a cat upper and lower lids, but most often I stick with just upper lids, each of which is made from a semi-circle of clay, created by forming a ball, then squashing it and halving it.Shape the lids into rough semicircles and carefully fix them on The precise angle at which the lids are attached can easily make the difference between a critter which is sweetly looking for affection, and one which is brimming over with malevolence – great care is called for!

Now just make any finishing touches, and it's ready to bake!Once the cat has eyes in place, it is time to concentrate on the details of its body language – a tail is a beautifully expressive thing; the set of a cat’s ears and the angle of its head can tell you a great deal; the way it’s standing is crucial too.

That’s about it; if the texture of the piece is okay and there aren’t any niggling mistakes, it’s time to stick it in the oven! Sometimes it is worth laying a cat on its side at this stage, or supporting it around the middle, because polymer clay legs are flimsy things at the best of times – and can turn downright floppy while they’re being baked.

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posted by frm at 13:58  

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Different Kinds of Polymer Clay

There are many types of polymer clay available, if you know where to look, and they all have advantages and disadvantages. Many people will argue passionately for one variety or another, but I have noticed that some of the major brands are surprisingly inconsistent between colours, and possibly between batches – so sometimes I see someone dismissing Premo Sculpey in favour of Fimo Soft, on the grounds that the latter is too soft and floppy, but sometimes I see the opposite.

Sculpey III and Fimo Soft are the varieties I see for sale most often in the UK; Fimo Soft has largely supplanted Fimo ‘Classic’, probably because most people – kids especially – can’t be bothered with the extensive kneading the latter requires. However, the Soft kind is sometimes too soft, failing to hold delicate shapes or support the weight of a sculpture on legs. Sculpey III is if anything even softer, while in my experience Premo Sculpey is slightly firmer, but still a good deal less work than Fimo Classic. How firm you like your polymer clay has a lot to do with how hot your hands are, your patience, and the delicacy of the sculpture you are trying to achieve.

Much more significant than the differences between these mainstream brands is the leap from them to Super Sculpey or Super Sculpey Firm. These are far better at holding delicate shapes and fine detail, making them much more appropriate for some kinds of work. They do take a lot more kneading to make them pliable, but I find that only a minute or two of squashing and rolling gets them ready to use. Their big disadvantage is in the colours: Whereas the more common brands of polymer clay come in a dizzying range of attractive colours, standard Super Sculpey is always roughly the colour of northern-European skin, while the Firm variety is a sort of granite-grey. Obviously that’s great if you happen to want to make something in one of those colours, but otherwise you’ll be looking at a paint job at the end of it; of course some people are very happy painting their sculptures, but it’s not for everyone.

Achieving quite similar effects are Puppenfimo, also known as ‘miniature doll Fimo’, and Sculpey Living Doll. Aimed chiefly at the ‘art doll’ market, these are slightly softer than Super Sculpey, and the latter is available in several different fleshly colours. They retain a slight softness when cooked, and make for tough little sculptures which are slightly translucent, like human flesh.

Many other kinds of polymer clay are available – Creall-Therm, Cernit, Kato and Makin’s all have their own brands, about which I have heard good things, while Fimo and Sculpey have a range of other varieties which I haven’t touched on here. New products are devised on a regular basis – polymer science is very much a living field, and the polymer clay companies are spurred on to ingenious new applications by current high levels of interest in polymer clay as an artistic medium.

posted by frm at 12:10  
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