In The Workshop
Making A Laughing Buddha - And Then A Ponytailed Barbie Bust:
There really isn’t everything in the world to say about creating a figure from scratch without going into a full course on sculpture – which I don’t feel like I can, having near-zero formal training/schooling in sculpture (some drawing in my art education, something for which I have no overwhelming talent, but virtually no sculpture, alas) and nothing but a certain head for 3D shapes and years of experience practicing and self-teaching and getting better.
What I can do is talk about my process and technique and materials in hopes of providing at least that much help to artists and aspiring ones. I take a lot of pictures of what I’m working on for a thread on the forum I run, so I’ll see what I can say to go with the pictures I took of two projects earlier this summer.
-Up front before I proceed, I think it’s important to mention that an enormous part of the work of doing art is the thinking you do about it, both before you even start and during the actual crafting, mostly while you’re doing something else that isn’t terribly engaging. I come to a lot of creative decisions and have ideas for how to tackle crafting problems while I sit with my cats outside during feeding – honest. I do a lot of art thinking in bed, in the bathroom, while cooking – you name it. My subconscious is a powerful thing, and the back of my head is a productive place – my daydreams dream about what I’m working on, on a good day, and sometimes solutions come to me, sorta for free.
So, one of the ideas I’d had for a candle towards the end of my last high creative-energy/productivity cycle was one of those laughing Buddha statues. My sister had one when I was a kid, and he had a lot of cheery charm.
Sis’ looked a bit like this:
-It’s worth pointing out, too, before I go further, some other factors informing my creative decisions; I thought of the laughing Buddha as part of a series of candles that I would be casting copies of. The mold was to be latex, and the vaguely conical outline of the figure, wide at the bottom and narrow on top with no tight constrictions to have to stretch the latex over during demolding, was ideal. Latex painted on in multiple layers can take the heat of melted wax, though it ages the latex faster, and it’s a stretchy, flexible, material, but the less stress on the mold, the better for its longevity, especially when it has to take some heat, too. (They last a lot longer casting plaster than melted wax.)
The first thing I did physically was to squeeze an aluminum foil core into a cursory shape of a rotund seated, robed, figure, see below to the right in two pictures of casting the previous project.
-That core’s actually not very good, by the way – too much head and not enough body. I squeezed the head as small as it would go, and seem to recall adding foil to the bottom – and still ended up with an extra-thick layer of Sculpey, the polymer baking clay I use to craft most of my originals, at the bottom.
The whole point of a foil core is that foil’s cheaper than Sculpey and easier to restock, and that polymer baking clays bake more reliably when they’re not solid forms over a quarter inch thick.
And that brings us to the frustrating part of a sculpture tutorial; the brain enters a somewhat timeless state when you’re in the zone with the shaping, it’ll take forever to stop and take any photos, and it’s difficult to describe. To say that I spread clay over the core and then moved it around for about an hour until it began to resemble what I’d imagined is true, accurate, and very unhelpful. Someday, I should set up a camera to take time-lapse video while I craft a simple figure. That might prove to have more educational value than having to, basically, skip the hardest/most important part…
So this is what I posted on the forum the next morning…
(Mold-making I go into somewhat in the next section, but I need to dedicate a page to it.)
-Following up a couple months later, as I whip this page into shape, I regret that these resisted photographing. The pics capture neither the details not the charm very well. That foot in the center was a mistake for multiple reasons; it’s never come out of the mold completely intact, it really makes the lower part of that leg too short – and that’s a terrible place to put a protuberance on a figure without vulgar intent.
Still, much improved in the detailing, not least the proportions of the legs – but the features never came to look particularly Asian and the laughing expression was probably better in the first draft, for all that the details of the features became more regular, sloppy nose notwithstanding. It was a credible expression of what I imagined, and the robe drapery, something I’d never tried before, came out OK. I’m fairly proud of this one, while aware of some room for improvement.
-And here’s some shots of the wax castings I did of him, all with a different Barbie bust than the one I talk about making next…
The Trouble With Barbie’s Neck…
This is a 20 year-old (dirty) resin bust I did, copied off an actual Barbie with a hairdo I made in the style of a mid-60s release. That skinny neck has been the destruction of at least one latex mold and caused the snapping off of the head of a number of castings during demolding, and part of the inspiration behind the big hair Barbie keeping Budai company in the photos just previous was thinking about a workaround in the form of hair that went all the way down to the shoulders…
-That one was actually made on this one with hair added, and one of the problems with it was copy degradation. (Another was that the big Doris Day ‘do still left a deep constriction at the shoulders where it turned in and met, and while a huge improvement on the bare neck, it was still very hard on the longevity of the mold.) So when a Barbie with her hair in a loose ponytail started kicking her way out of my subconscious, I went back to the original, for the higher fidelity of a first-generation copy of the actual Barbie parts.
(Why Barbie -from a middle-aged straight man- has to do with having a Barbie artist for a sister…)Here’s the actual same doll I did 60s mawmaw hair Barbie off of, back in the day, trussed up because the moving parts otherwise move under your hands while you’re trying to shape the modling clay still parts:
-Then I spread the modeling clay over her bald head and roughed in the shape I wanted for the hair:
I see in retrospect that this is when a slight tilt to her head crept in without me realizing until the first cast was demolded – a happy accident, because I liked the head tilt. It gave her a little more perky personality, and was a further difference from the other two custom-hair Barbie busts…
already made a fundamental error; I’ll spoil this part of the narrative
revealing that gathering the hair at the
back of the neck caused the
narrow-point/bottleneck with demolding
that the hairdo was intended to avoid.
It was compounded when she slumped over in front off the
hit her head; while I was fixing the minor dent in the clay, I bulked
ponytail on her back below the gather, which was fine – but I also
non-trivial volume above the
closer to what I’d originally envisioned, and made the hair band a bit
the process, which resulted in the deepest part of the hair being
opposite the chin, with two constrictions behind the throat. -More on that, and pics, below.)
...Next, I built up plasticine around the rubber band to make a base for the latex mold and started dabbing on layers of latex...
(I’ve found no better way of applying latex than to dip a finger in and dab on the subject – brushes and sponges and such are hopelessly fouled with bits of random dried latex after a single use, no matter what efforts to clean them.)
The modeling clay I’d built up for the bottom of the mold had softened in the heat in front of the dehumidifier and slumped away after several coats, so I took a Pringles can lid I’d used to suspend other Barbie figurine molds and cut a little more out of the hole to accommodate the ponytail and carefully worked it into place underneath and soldiered on with the dabbing layers and waiting for them to dry. Note that more of her is tied up now, to stablize the body when I set her out to dry and avoid nasty surprizeswith her flopping over.
Time passes, and I’ve made considerable progress on the pig snout in between dabbing new layers on Barbie, and the mold for the figure of my niece has just gpotten a plaster mother mold to hold it shut during casting…
I’d started Ponytail Barbie on 18 July, and finished and started the mold the next day, to give you an idea of the latex mold-making timeframe. On the first of August, I posted:
(An artist friend had suggested molds made of silicone calking putty shortly after I committed Ponytail Barbie to latex – I’m still mastering working with that, but have found it a nice –and cheap- compromise with the slowness and lack of longevity of latex, and the very high price of something like Amazing Mold Putty.)
14 minutes later, I posted:
“...Snapped her head off already..."
(Not as big a
disaster as it may sound.
White glue works fine, provided there was no great chipping
around the edges of
the break -and you're patient enough to let it dry properly- and
plaster can be
painted on with a brush for covering boo-boos, too.)
"Well, after several minutes of
struggling with it, I cut the mold to preserve
the figure w/o further damage.
"The facial features came out
exquisitely preserved, though the shoulder seams
need covering, as of course, does the crack around the neck.
I'd like to
add finer texture to the hair, too, so it doesn't look like
The mold/casting flaws of any significance are all in the hair, and
"I don't know how the tilt of the head
got in there -it's not from the break-
but I think I love it.
"I was very foolish to do a loose
ponytail like that -with the gather resting so
low at the base of the neck and hair belling out above it opposite the
a design intended to minimize
the demolding bottleneck troubles; I think I made it worse.
"-But I believe I can make a mighty fine calk mold on this that will be no trouble at'all to work with..."
Latex molds are one-piece sheaths of more-or-less rubber, flexible and somewhat stretchy, that you sort’ve turn inside-out as you demold; silicone, flexible but less stretchy, you generally make much thicker and have to cut a seam in one side for demolding, which makes wrapping in plaster gauze –a mother mold- necessary to hold it closed during casting. The big problem I’ve encountered with silicone so far is a strong tendency to want to leave gaps in places like under the chin as you spread the putty while making the mold, forcing you to do a lot of handwork on your castings, patch the gap -which is very difficult to do smoothly- or start over with making a new mold if your master is in any shape to.
I probably should have started over with the doll and the plasticine and avoided the copy degradation –any flaws tend to add up as you copy copies- but that would have been completely from scratch, as getting it out of the mold had destroyed the hairdo and I’d already cleaned the rest off the doll – besides, I could paint thin layers of plaster over the shoulder seams and neck crack, as I mentioned above, and do some careful sanding, and have a very good copy to work with, which I did.There was probably more copy degradation in the end than I should have tolerated, but the second-generation copy I had by the end of the day was still higher-resolution/quality than the big hair Barbie, which I’d been satisfied with at the time… -Don't forget that I'd been waiting for nearly two weeks, too...
I do strive for
perfection, knowing I can’t
have it, but you have to
learn when to stop chasing diminishing returns and move
on the next work with what you’ve learned, so I commenced the first
but I've taken good care of the master copy since, just in case.
-I decided to investigate getting the latex mold back into usable condition, too...
(Here’s a shot of two subsequent candle casts in front of the mold and mother together, with a third candle cooling…)
did the latex application
over the cut piecemeal because, you may have noted in the pics from
open, the mold wants to hang wide open at the cut/seam and some of the
tape had to stay holding it shut shile the rest fried. I
the same at the bottom right before bed hours later, and got the middle
next day after the top and bottom were credibly dry enough to hold the
rest shut and lined up right.
I was just going to have to cut it open again to demold, so why bother? Because it needed a mother mold to hold it shut, and this made sure it stay shut and lined up right -tape would have fouled the mother up several ways- and built a slight ridge on the surface to help orient the mold just right on reuse, and made it that much thicker around the seam. With a really snug mother, it'd work same as a thick silicone mold, I thought.
This was the last casting of this figure I’d planned for now, anyway –all the colors and scents were now covered with with this one- and I suppose the time/effort of the salvage attempt wasn’t entirely wasted, with a very good candle to show for it, and an advance in my knowledge of things you can and can’t do with a latex mold.