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Making A Laughing Buddha - And Then A Ponytailed Barbie Bust:

-In the workshop- 

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:

(Since I’ll be crafting a figure that can sit in the palm of my hand, mine isn’t going to be nearly that detailed.)

-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.)

-Alas, an artist frequently has to be half an engineer; practical considerations  like medium and materials and time and expense and what will be easy or difficult to cast all too often have to be taken into account in creative decisions.  It’s like that in pretty much all creative fields, only the precise details differing.

 I did a little googling –some research never hurts, whether to be faithful to a style, avoid coming up with something TOO much like something else, or both- and read up on the Budai, who I learned was a separate person from the much-thinner Buddha – and glanced over a lot of pics.  Nothing terrifically inspiring or to be avoided, but I gained more feel for the traditional style and gained some faint sense of what Budai was about.

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…


"This is what I was able to do so far for a laughing Buddha with my bare hands in bed last night by the reading lamp.


"I didn't get all that much sleep, but it probably would have been worse if the sculpey hadn't needed some firming up time before I did more detailing w/tools.  It's most of the way there, needing big-lobed ears, toes, more of the hands, and attention to the robe...  I think bulk out the legs, and the bottom in general, a bit more, too..."

((Here's the tools, BTW.)

(-That's from three different clay-crafting toolsets, with an exacto knife and a popsicle stick thrown in. I use the blue ones the most, but you never know what you’ll need, going after fine detail.  I also grow out my left thumbnail, which is constantly useful, not least for always being at hand.  [blinks]  Otherwise, you want to keep the nails trimmed close for working in clays, or you'll waste a lot of time smoothing out fingernail marks.  Keep your tools and work surface cleaner than this while you're at it.  Word to the wise.)


Ready for mold-making...

(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…

-Those are the respective latex mold for each, flanking in the above pics, turned inside-out.


The Trouble With Barbie’s Neck…

Perhaps a demonstration of doing something creative with a common object as a starting point will be more helpful, at least for beginners…

By way of background…  (As I said in the last section, the thinking is an important part of the work, and perhaps my ramblings will cast illumination on my decisions…)


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:

First, I have to fill in the joints, both because the concept involved jointless enhanced realism in the figure, and because it helps hold the moving parts –especially the head I’m putting hair on- still.  I used blue plasticine because I had some on hand and the mold-making process dries the Sculpey out to uselessness, and Sculpey ain’t free.  (Just as well note, here, that I prefer to solve problems with work and cleverness, rather than throwing money at them – and thus, all the work I do in paper mache masks, that medium involving mostly free and/or cheap materials and generally low overhead.)


I thickened the neck ever-so slightly while I was at it.

-Then I spread the modeling clay over her bald head and roughed in the shape I wanted for the hair:


That blue plasticine sticks to everything but itself - at least the decades-old batch I was using.  I needed to go wash my hands after handling it extensively.

Some detailing and cleanup the next day, and I could start the mold and feel insanely impatient again for two weeks...

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…

(However, I’d already made a fundamental error; I’ll spoil this part of the narrative in 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 dehumidifier and hit her head; while I was fixing the minor dent in the clay, I bulked out the ponytail on her back below the gather, which was fine – but I also added non-trivial volume above the gather, closer to what I’d originally envisioned, and made the hair band a bit wider in the process, which resulted in the deepest part of the hair being directly 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.)

Sitting in front of the dehumidifier while the first layer dries:

This was right before she fell over and I had to peel off the first layer and do minor repairs and misguided bulking-out, then start over with the latex.  (Incidentally, there's a bit of ten-gauge wire on top of her head to give me a place to clamp the end of a wick in candle-casting; on a mold without that, I have to cast with a much longer bit of wire held in place with a popcicle stick with a hole in it - as seen near the beginning of the page with Budai's foil core- and thread the wick in later.)

Next, she's in a shot of other projects drying about a week and many layers later - it seems sometimes that I spend far more time waiting for paper mache, latex and plaster to dry, and wax to cool, than I do getting any work done.  I keep several projects rotating in and out as a result, and do a lot of that thinking-while-I-Do-Other-Things work...  With her is also a base to build a pig shout appliance for mask-making on, and the mold for another bust – an original of my niece as a toddler.   

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:

"I finished the latex Barbie mold middle of the day yesterday.


"It turned out thicker than I expected, and the doll and playdough hair really, really didn't want to come out.  -I'm hoping that's because they were so soft and yielding that pushing the top wasn't helping, and a hard cast will be more cooperative.  I cast it in plaster, and let that sit in front of the dehumidifier for nearly 26 hours to get very dry, most of today since I got up, with the shoulders exposed for good measure.

"The bottom does seem bone dry, so fingers crossed.  I'm probably going to fix up this casting to make an easier-to-work-with putty mold on..."

(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.)

-And nearly three hours after that, I posted:

"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 dreadlocks.  The mold/casting flaws of any significance are all in the hair, and thus, easily concealed.

"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 chin- in 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...

That’s the pink silicone mold flanking the new copy on the left, turned around with the seam showing open a little.  A lot of my plaster mother molds, right, have the faces areas open on the figures with faces -looking a little like space helmets when they’re put together- because the indentation under the chin would otherwise make it too hard to get the mold out of the mother smoothly.

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 candle - 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…)

-So, I c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y taped up the cut in the latex mold.

And poured a plaster casting in it.

It didn't leak, so I know I’d managed to tape it tight.  That was one reason to do a plaster cast in it - the main one was to help hold the mold together from the inside during the next phase of the repair.

Then, I c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y pulled away part of the tape, wiped it clean, and dabbed a thick streak of latex on.

I did the latex application over the cut piecemeal because, you may have noted in the pics from cutting it 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 (carefully) did the same at the bottom right before bed hours later, and got the middle area the 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.

 A couple days later, it was ready for a mother mold.


-And a loving mother it got, with more of the crude space helmet look... 


This did work, basically, as intended ---

Resulting in a lovely candle/cast –green- of higher quality than the others I’d cast in the replacement mold in the meantime, but I could tell, while demolding, that the mold might –I stress, might- have one more decent casting in it before all those layers with edges exposed at the cut/seam start separating and ruining everything.  –And it might not last that long.

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.

 …I really do need to put together something on how to make silicone calk molds soon.  Stay tuned…


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