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Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Self-Critique and Sharing Lessons

Perhaps you have always wanted to create an illustration with polymer clay. Perhaps you have not, but you're such an arts and crafts geek that you'll find this fascinating. In any case, I've always been a fan of artist Paula Pindroh, aka "Polymer Paula," who used to do illustrations for us occasionally when I worked at the Plain Dealer. I started to wonder what my own brains and hands would turn out if I tried my hand at clay illustrations.

What you see above on the right represents my second attempt. My first, being simpler, was also a bit more successful, but I don't have it on hand right now to show you. Still, there are things I like a lot about this process, and even things I like about the lizard. So I thought I'd go through what I learned -- for my own benefit, mostly, but also for yours, if you care to read farther.

I started by getting a lot of lizard references off the Web, and mashing them up with backgrounds in Photoshop. I ended up using the warp tool to distort my lizard after I'd put him in this environment. Then I used my PS mashup for a drawing in my sketchbook, where I tweaked the composition and played with color. The drawing on the left is, obviously, that "study." (It's such a high-falutin' word for such a bit of play, isn't it?)

Now it is true that my experience with Sculpey is almost nil, but I figured I could make a solid plate or square of clay onto which the rest of the illustration would be built. I did that with the terra cotta clay, which you see here. That was nice because the terra cotta Sculpey comes in big packages, so I didn't have to buy a bazillion of those little squares for the background. I used the Sculpey pasta machine to make flats of clay, but I still had to piece them together, which I did on a piece of parchment. Then I took tracing paper onto which I had drawn my square, laid it over the clay, and used an X-acto to cut out the flat of terra cotta clay. I took pains to make this section as even in thickness as possible, and I think this is an important thing. It's probably about an eighth of an inch thick, at most; next time I might make it a little thicker.

OK, as you can see, I changed a bit of the design after doing my sketchbook version. I thought the bright pink sky, though it appeals to my sense of wild color, was way too bright and came forward too much, so I dialed it back in the clay version. I thought it would be cool to try a couple different colors for the sky, but next time, I'll go with flat color on something like this, where I want it to recede. Don't love the way the sky turned out. Also, while I know that showing a sun up in that position is sort of third-grade, I felt that I needed it designwise. The sun position in the sketch is problematic for getting across a lizard in the full heat of day.

Had some real trouble getting nice, neat sides in areas where I was using cut-out piece of clay flattened with the pasta machine. It's worth it to take time and use a tool for rounding out those sides. It also helped when I starting angling the knife inward, almost beveling the clay.

Another major lesson: Constant handwashing will really help the results. There were a number of places here where I ended up transfering stains from one color onto another. Some are covered up, some not. I got a clue about halfway through the project that I couldn't just try to be careful with handling the clay.

If I were doing this again, I'd go for a much cleaner design. For instance, the yellow almost-stripes on the lizard body were created by blending the yellow with the blue body color. When you do that, some interesting things happen. But I think the lizard would look better with more controlled shapes on those stripes. I'd also have recreated the really clean shadow shape you see in the sketch, using a darker version of the terra cotta, rather than that sort of cheesy black line I've got going there now. That needed to happen before I laid down the lizard itself, but I tried to sneak it in afterward.

Next time I'll also rely a lot more on dimensional, hand-formed shapes. I ended up liking what was happening with that rear leg that's in the foreground, for instance -- how it rises up off the surface. That gives the piece more character, and eliminates the problem with the cut edges.

So I'll mention now that the lizard is a gift for someone who has historically been pretty generous about appreciating even my rather failed efforts. I put it in a shadow box frame, and decided to give it -- humble as it is -- because the making of it was a nice experience anyway. And I'm glad to share the success/failure info here, too, both for me, as I said, and for you.

Now go knead something!


Don West said...

Now that's pretty cool! Never seen anything like that done with polymer clay. Very creative and well done!

Paula Pindroh said...

Hey----not a bad first attempt at clay! Nice, bright colors. Practice, practice, practice! ;~)

I had so much fun working with the Plain Dealer! I still have my very first printed newspaper illustration saved ! It's turning yellow, but I remember how exciting that was!