Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Yes, you can make translucent membranes with paper mache

Interior of dragon's chest showing heart, lungs, and air sac membranes.

Last time I discussed my dragon project, I'd finished the lungs and needed some air sacs to go with them.  Bird air sacs are basically membranes, and membranes are basically translucent.  Paper isn't.  Therefore, I had to make the paper translucent.  You can do this by rubbing grease on it (remember Dr Nick from The Simpsons: "if the paper turns clear, it's your window to weight gain"), but grease was obviously out of the question.  Happily, grease isn't the only thing that turns paper clear.  Polyurethane will do it too.

What you're looking at there is a piece of toilet paper that's been coated with polyurethane.  It's not entirely clear, but it is translucent and also has a nice membranous texture.  Perfect.  Getting this effect is as simple as putting the paper on a sheet of plastic, brushing on a good thick layer of polyurethane, and letting it dry.  Once it's dry you can carefully peel it off the plastic sheet and you have your membrane.  You'll find you have the devil's own job getting it off the plastic backing, but just be patient.

Here are the two posterior air sacs prior to being inserted into the chest cavity.  They have their little corrosion cast veins in place and are all ready to be superglued inside the chest cavity.

Now, all I have to do is paint the dragon's skin and it'll be finished.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Happy holidays everyone!

People celebrate a lot of holidays around this time of year; Christmas, Solstice, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa are the ones I can think of off the top of my head.  Of course, here in New Zealand we mostly celebrate the fact that we get statutory holidays for Christmas and New Year.  

Whatever you're celebrating, I hope you and your family are enjoying it, and I wish you all the best for 2014.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

The dragon's heart

Here's the heart of my dragon, along with its lungs and the air sac that sits behind the trachea (there will be seven air sacs, as in a bird).  Next time, I'll explain about the air sacs and how I get around the problem of simulating membranes with paper mache.

Photographed in my hand to show size.

Usually I use a lot more Payne's grey for corrosion cast blood vessels, but in this case I've used mainly cadmium red so they'll stand out in the dark chest cavity.  I have cheated a bit with the blood vessels; as you can see they're modelled off a human circulatory system, not an avian one.  I didn't have a good anatomical diagram showing how a bird's heart and lungs are connected, so I figured that since birds have a four-chambered heart like humans the plumbing system couldn't be all that different. 

Friday, 20 December 2013

Corrosion cast dragon parts

You may be wondering why there's a sodding great hole in my dragon's underbelly.  Good question!  The hole is there so you can look at the preserved internal organs.  I want to put preserved organs in the chest cavity, in the style of an anatomical specimen.

Here's the chest cavity with the ribcage visible inside.

Bird lungs are fascinating.  The lung itself is quite small, but it has several large air sacs attached to it.  These air sacs extend right down the body cavity and even into the bird's bones.  This is a trait that birds inherited from their dinosaurian ancestors, so it stands to reason that a dragon which evolved from theropods in parallel with birds would have them too.  It's not just theropods that had these lungs, analysis of sauropod bones shows that they had air sacs in their bones too - there are some cool open access journal articles on this phenomenon here and here.  Having these air sacs makes a bird's bones lighter, and means the bird can oxygenate its blood more efficiently (it was also one of the reasons why sauropods could grow so enormous).

I want my dragon to have this same system of lungs and air sacs, preserved inside the chest.  First up, I've got a pair of lungs attached to a trachea, and the system of veins that will attach the lungs to the heart.  The veins are a separate piece which I'll put in place once I've painted the lungs.

The lungs are quite small, but they're supposed to be.  Bird lungs are small because most of the air is stored in the air sacs.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The dragon tail is giving me some problems

Here's how my dragon's tail started out: 

I like the spiny back of the beast, but not the spiny tail.  For me the best way to deal with a situation like this is to leave the project for a day or so and then come back to it.  So I did, and I quickly realised what I didn't like about the original tail.  It's too irregular and too asymmetrical, and all those spines are just a bit much.  So I pulled out a lot of the spines and cut some of them down, and replaced the ones I pulled out with smaller nodules like the ones I used on the back of the neck.  Much better!

I think I will put a single long spine on the tip of the tail.

Why are some of the spines brown?  Well, that's because I sped up the drying process by putting them in the bottom of the oven while I baked some bread.  They're a little burnt because the temperature I use for bread is really a bit hot for paper mache.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Experimenting with Sculpt Nouveau

Remember how I said I got some Sculpt Nouveau metal coating to try?  This weekend I had a play with it.  I'd like to show you some photos and share my thoughts about Sculpt Nouveau, because it really is an exciting medium to work with.  Here's the final result of my first experiment:

Final result: two coats of Sculpt Nouveau brass coating over primer.

What you're looking at there is brass coating on a cast paper leaf (they're fun to make and I'll post a tutorial soon).  At first I applied two coats of brass coating to the leaf.  It had a nice colour, but it wasn't as rich and vibrant as I'd like.  The next photo shows my first attempt, with brass Sculpt Nouveau applied directly over paper.  As you can see, it's okay when photographed with a flash...

...but when photographed without a flash it's decidedly underwhelming:

In fact, the surface has a dull greenish tone to it.  At this point I realised where I'd gone wrong.  You see, this is what you get when you apply gold leaf over white.  Medieval artists who made illuminated manuscripts used to paint a red undercoat before they applied their gold leaf, because the red shines through the thin gold and gives it a nice rich gold tone.  So, off I went to the hardware store for some red primer.

When the primer dried I applied another two coats of brass coating, plus a coat of clear gloss to seal the brass coating.  It's important to use a coat of sealer with this stuff, otherwise it will corrode over time.  The end result of my little experiment is shown in that first photo at the top of the post. 

At this stage I haven't had a play with patinas, because I wanted to see what the Sculpt Nouveau looks like on its own.  However, these metal coatings are designed to be used with patinas and it's possible to create some amazing effects by applying patinas.  The Sculpt Nouveau company has a YouTube channel with tutorials on how to use the coatings, and I highly recommend you check it out.  There are some great videos on how to use metal coatings with different patinas.

Sculpt Nouveau is very convenient and easy to use, since you simply paint it on.  I bought the B formula, which is water-soluble in its liquid state, and this means you can clean your brushes with water and detergent as you would with an acrylic paint.  Just don't let it dry on the brush because I promise you, once that stuff is dry it's not going anywhere.

Interestingly, the leaf feels heavy and cold to the touch.  Sculpt Nouveau contains powdered metal, so what I have here is essentially a paper sculpture coated in brass.  For obvious reasons, this is a very exciting innovation for artists who work with paper.  I can't wait to try some patinas with this stuff!

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Skin texture

Last night I had a wee think about how I want my dragon's skin to look.  I decided against the traditional scales.  Instead, I want a horny, spiky kind of texture on the areas where the skin would be thicker, such as the animal's back and flanks.  Where the skin would be thinner, I've made it slightly wrinkled and pebbly.  I didn't get too far with it because I had to make a bunch of little spikes and then leave them to dry, but here you can see the beginnings of this skin effect:

The dromaeosaurs that my sculpture is based on had feathers.  However, I won't be using any feathers.  Instead I've made small spikes out of paper and glued them onto the skin.  Between the spikes I've put bumps and nodules of varying sizes.  The skin effect is partly inspired by this picture from All Yesterdays:

Yes, I know: ceratopsians aren't theropods and I specifically said I was going for something that looked like it evolved from theropods.  It's called artistic license, and if it's good enough for Naish et al it's good enough for me.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Shopping with barnes.com.au

I've been desperate to get my hands on some Sculpt Nouveau for a while now.  I've had trouble finding a supplier because no one in New Zealand seems to stock it.  In the end I ordered some from www.barnes.com.au in Australia.  If you're in the Antipodes, I highly recommend Barnes.  The customer service is fantastic, the prices are very competitive, and my stuff arrived the day after I ordered it.

The great thing about Barnes is that they're a specialist sculpting supplies store.  I get sculpting supplies from all kinds of places, but there are some products that only a specialist store will stock.  Barnes has a good selection of all these items, and the staff will be happy to answer any queries you have.  They know their products.  In fact, the website actually gives you a brief description of each product, complete with information on the item's properties and the sort of applications it's most suitable for. 

Next to the awesome customer service, the product descriptions are my favourite thing about Barnes.  You can select stiff clays, or soft clays, or waxy clays, and decide whether you want polyester resin or acrylic resin or epoxy resin, all by simply reading the product description.  This means you can buy with confidence, because you know what you're getting.

So what did I buy?  Um, well, quite a lot actually, but let's take a look at the Sculpt Nouveau.

Sculpt Nouveau in brass, bronze, and silver formulations.  $17.60 each from Barnes.com.au 


Sculpt Nouveau isn't exactly a paint, and it isn't exactly a metal plating product.  It's a composite material made by suspending metal particles in a binder medium.  Some formulations dry hard enough to be polished with a grinder, and all are waterproof when they dry.  You simply apply it like a paint, and when it dries you have a metal surface that you can burnish and patina just like any other metal surface because, and this is the mindblowingly cool bit, it is a metal surface. 

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Moa dragon feet

Yeah, I know it's an awful pun, but I couldn't resist it.  I talked about how my dragon project's feet were based on raptor feet before, but of course we only have bones to go on with raptors.  I based the soft tissue of the feet on moa (Megalapteryx) feet.  There are a few mummified moa foot specimens, so I had a good look at the soft tissue on those. 

Picture from Wikipedia

The moa didn't have the big "killing claw" seen on dromaeosaurids, and which I used for my dragon, but it does have quite a similar structure.  There are four toes, one of which is positioned like a dew claw, and the foot has a pad of tissue to help the animal walk.  Here's another mummified moa leg, though it isn't in as good condition as the last one:

Picture from The Tyrannosaur Chronicles

See how the skin on the ankle has that great pebbly texture?  Expect to see similar textures on my dragon legs when they're finished.  And how is the dragon doing so far?  Well, the legs are in place and I've given the claws a coat of paint.  Now I just need to make a tail and apply some nice skin texture.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Dragon feet

These feet were fiddly and time consuming.  Partly this was because I changed my mind about what I wanted the toe proportions to be so I ripped the feet apart and changed them.  But I think it's worth taking the extra time to do these things properly.  With that in mind, today's post is dedicated to dragon feet.  Here we have a close up showing the toes and skin texture, and the little pad of tissue at the back of the foot that the animal would walk on:

Here we have it from a slightly different angle:

Here are both the feet:

And here's a close up of the big raptor toe, which gives you a good look at the knuckles and skin texture: 

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Dragon drumsticks

Having finished my dragon's wings, I'm now getting started on the legs.  At this stage they're just the basic shapes of legs made out of paper and wire, with some little claws on wire toes.  They don't look much like toes yet, but they will.  Since this is an avian dragon and its body plan is based on theropods like gigantoraptor, I have the perfect excuse to give it a set of raptor claws.  Excellent!

For sculptures in this sort of size range I find paper pulp is the most durable material for making the little claws.  Polymer clays and air dry clays are too brittle and tend to break.  Ceramic would probably give great results, but I don't have a kiln and I doubt it would have the same tensile strength as celulose fibre anyway.

Here's a good shot of the half-finished feet.

Friday, 22 November 2013

I finished the dragon wings

Here's a close up of the final texture on the wing membrane.

As you can see, the wing texture is much improved since the last time I posted photos!  I didn't like the small raised bumps in the surface of the paper; they were too regular, too round, and looked fake.  Now the wings have a wrinkly, organic texture that looks like crumpled skin.  I got this texture by simply adding layers of my favourite paper sculpting material, toilet paper.  Similarly, I've given the skin on the fingers more texture by applying - you guessed it - toilet paper.  I tend to apply the pieces of paper to the sculpture and paint glue onto them, otherwise the paper just disintegrates.

Here's another close up of the wing texture.  I've also used paper to shape and define the knuckle joints on the fingers, particularly the long third finger that supports the wing.

Monday, 18 November 2013

More dragon wings

These wings aren't finished yet.  I'm not happy with the texture.  If you look carefully at the next picture you can see that the surface of the wing membrane is covered with small round dimples, which don't look at all convincing or appropriate.  The wings have that unfortunate texture because I made them out of paper towels, which are absorbant but still able to hold their shape quite well when I saturate them with glue.

I always enjoy doing things like fins and wing membranes and hands.  I especially like doing fingers, because fingers are really interesting.  They have lots of fun little bones and they articulate in interesting ways.  On this project, I designed the wing structure to look like it was adapted from theropod forelimbs, like a bird's wings are.  Although the wings have membranes instead of feathers, they're modelled on the wing structurers of early avians like archaeopteryx.  That's why it has three fingers on each hand.

With this archaeopteryx, you can clearly see that it has fingers.  It has feathers growing out of the wrist and that’s basically the end of the wing.  In a modern bird, the “hand” bones fuse together to create the tip of the wing and the bird doesn’t have any digits as such.  The archaeopteryx has three digits and the reason for this is that archaeopteryx and its modern avian cousins evolved from theropods with three digits on the front limbs.

Picture courtesy of Scientific American.  Click on the link for a very interesting article discussing the possibility that archaeopteryx could be the ancestor of modern flightless birds.

Bats are a bit different.  They have membranes stretched between their finger bones, which forms the wing.

Picture from Brown University.  Click the link to see their robotic bat!

Pterosaurs were different again.  They used very long, well developed pinky fingers to support their wing membranes.

A great comparison of pterosaur wings, bat wings, and bird wings from the USA's National Centre for Science Education.

I’m going the pterosaur route here.  The first finger and thumb form a little “hand” for the dragon to grip things with, while the second finger is hugely enlarged and supports the wing membrane.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Dragon wings

Right now, I'm building up the wings on my dragon project.  I like to use layers of paper pulp to represent the muscle layers in the wings, but it's slow going waiting for each layer to dry.  As you can see, I still have to add the biceps and triceps. as well as the forearms and fingers.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Back to my dragon project

Now that the Halloween countdown has finished, I'm getting back into my dragon project.  Last time I blogged about it, I'd finished the head.  Now, I've attached a rib cage to the head.  The wires sticking out to either side will eventually be wings.

I like to cut all my ribs in one unit as pictured below, bend them into shape with the aid of some wire, and paper mache over them.  From there it's a simple matter of taping the bits together.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Happy Halloween 2013!

Well, it's that time of year again.  Have a great time everyone!  I plan to.

Here's a fairly decent photo of me with my paper mache horns:

Very metal!

Slightly less of a success was the hallucination dress I made to go with the horns.  I need to do some more painting on it, but I can do that.  Unfortunately my budget doesn't stretch to hiring models so you get to see another pic of my ugly mug:

Not a good photo, but actually the best one I could get.  It took me an hour even to manage this one so don't complain.

The black outer skirt hangs closed over the painting and shows bits of it when I move, and that works okay with the horns.  I guess it's not a total disaster.  Me wearing a dress is certainly scary and that's what Halloween is all about.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Finished Halloween mask

Well, here it is.  It's all finished, painted, and polyurethaned.  Enjoy!

Right side.

Left side.

The back of the skull.

From the top.

Paper mache mask and horns drying in the sun.  You can't see the mask so well but I like the light and shadow in this pic.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Channelling Leon Bakst

When I designed my Halloween costume for this year, I had Leon Bakst firmly in mind.  I’m a total sucker for anything Art Nouveau.  I also became captivated by how conceptual costumes could be in the Art Nouveau era.  Take this example, a costume design for The Firebird from Stravinsky's ballet of the same name (based on what was one of my favourite stories when I was a kid).

Firebird costume design, 1910

I think we can agree it's pretty spectacular and does a good job of communicating the firebird concept, but it's also very abstract.  On its own, out of context, you might not recognize what it's supposed to be.  In the 21st century, we tend to want our costumes to be more literal and self-explanatory, but I like this abstract approach.  I thought it would be fun to try it this year.

Then I got to thinking about how some researchers think that historic experiences of witchcraft, such as the events that happened in Salem, were actually caused by ergot poisoning.  Ergot is a fungus that infects rye crops and has hallucinogenic properties similar to LSD.  At the time, so the theory goes, people didn't understand they were simply having a bad trip and thought witchcraft was to blame.

What a great concept for an abstract Halloween costume!  So I decided I wanted an Art Nouveau interpretation of an acid trip.  What I actually had was some fabric paints and a couple lengths of cloth left over from other projects.  I had about the same timeframe for this thing that you see on Project Runway episodes, so I'm actually quite surprised I got it done.  In this photo I'm half way through painting the costume to represent a hallucination.  I've used form constants (basic shapes that are hardwired into the visual cortex and therefore turn up a lot when we hallucinate), and eyes, which are a staple of hallucinogenic imagery.  As a wee nod to the Art Nouveau fascination with Egypt and the East, I made them wadjet eyes.  I might add in a hymn to Ammun as well, but writing on that cloth is damn difficult.

Yes, the paints and the water bowl are sitting directly on the dress.  I like to live dangerously.

I'm using a water based fabric paint, which allows me to blend the colours with water and let the colours bleed out past the edges of the shapes. 

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Finally, some progress on my friend's mask

Right, let’s get back to that Baphomet mask on my to-do list.  I’ve done the skull, and I’m now adding some facial details.  And some corrosion cast veins, mustn’t forget those!

The veins are looking pretty good.

The jaw bone and horns were a bit tricky because they’re weak points in the mask until the paper pulp dries.  Once the paper pulp dries it’s actually pretty strong, but until then the horns were inclined to fall off when I picked it up to work on it.  But I went at it armed with masking tape and my choicest selection of Anglo Saxon expletives, and I’m rather happy with the result.  I like how the skin is moulded around the base of the horns.  These horns are made the same way as my own costume horns, which were the prototype for the mask’s horns.

Because the mask is built over a mould of my friend’s face, I already had facial features to work with.  I mainly used paper pulp to accentuate the shape that was already there.

Here it is drying out in front of the window.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Paper mache devil horns: finished

My costume devil horns are all finished and painted.  I’ve used a mixture of ultramarine blue, raw umber, and burnt sienna, which I then covered with a black wash and a coat of polyurethane.  This means that the horns are water resistant.  They aren’t totally waterproof and I won’t be going swimming with them, but if they get rained on a wee bit it won’t be a problem.  This is an important consideration during a New Zealand spring.

I've got horns!  Being made of paper they weigh almost nothing so they're nice and comfortable.

There are a number of ways you can wear horns like these.  You can glue them to a headband, thread them on a piece of elastic, stick them on a bandana – whatever works for you.  Because they’re made of paper mache they weigh very little, which makes them comfortable to wear and helps to ensure they won’t fall off unexpectedly.

Here's the finished pair of horns

This pair of horns was essentially a prototype, and I think they’ve been very successful.  They cost nothing to make since I already had the materials at home, took as much time to make as it’d take me to drive to the costume store and back (drying time doesn’t count because I just get on with something else while a project is drying), and best of all they look totally badass.  Result!

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Check out this website!

I can’t post the final instalment in my Halloween devil horns tutorial quite yet, because I haven’t had a chance to take any photos of me wearing them.  I’ll get onto that this evening.  In the meantime, I’d like to introduce you to an artist called Ethis.

Just one of Ethis' many stunning sculptures.  You can see them all on his website.

Ethis makes some absolutely stunning pieces that are very appropriate for the Halloween season.  This website came my way, as so many good things do, via Propnomicon.  It’s in French, but don’t be put off if you don’t read French because the pictures speak for themselves.  Truly, www.ethiscrea.com is a Halloween goldmine.  There are artifacts, zombies, and plenty of costume related items like this cool post-apocalyptic bandit mask:

Some of these awesome things are even for sale!