Experiments with Air-Dry Clay

When I saw Shaun Tan’s “The Singing bones” I fell in love with his simple and evocative sculptures.  I was delighted to find out he used inexpensive materials and techniques so I set out to experiment on my own. In the afterword of The Singing Bones Shawn explains:

“The main materials I’ve used are papier-mache and air-drying clay, carved back and painted with acrylics, oxidized metal powder, wax and shoe polish. The resistance of clay in particular at a small scale encourages simplicity, especially where the key tools are blunt fingers and thumbs: Faces and gestures are abbreviated, just like characters in the tales themselves. “

He also wrote a blog post about his process. I remember playing a lot with modeling clay when I was a child. I created a lot of creatures and strange faces and I think I wanted to experience that aimless sense of creation again. I bought some relatively inexpensive Crayola brand air-dry clay at a store near me and set out to feel the material.

My first tub of air-dry clay

It’s nice to work with when wet and it accepts the common clay techniques and tools. But my favorite part is carving it when it has dried a little bit (usually a few hours depending on your climate).  A made a short video to demonstrate:

 

The tools I’ve been using besides my fingers are a couple of carving gouges, an X-Acto knife with a #22 blade (the curved edge is nice for scraping), a paper clip and a bamboo skewer:

Some of my carving Tools

Size wise I’ve stayed below 1.5″ x 1.5″ roughly. I think this type of clay can support bigger sizes especially if you make a wire structure but it’s nice to have limitations. Here are some of the characters I’ve made so far, ruler and coins for scale:

 

I think I would enjoy making more elaborate sets for these characters but so far I’ve kept it simple. Sometimes I take pictures on top of my sketchbooks or inside a lightbox I made out of foam core and tracing paper. Total cost (without the lamps) was less than $2, there are a lot of tutorials out there for building your own, this Instructable would be a good start.

DIY lightbox is about 12″x12″x12″

Right now I’m more interested in the shapes than in the stories of each character. Although I hope some of the pictures will suggest a story by themselves. Here is a collection of the ones I’ve posted so far on my Instagram account. I think it’s a fun and approachable material, I suggest you give it a try.

 

a podcast on crafting security

This month I was a guest on episode #8 of the opposable thumbs podcast. The podcast is hosted by Rob Ray and Taylor Hokanson and on each episode, the hosts and a guest tackle a creative challenge and then discuss the results, discoveries, problems, and solutions. I was very excited about it when I listened to the first episode so a made a gift and sent it their way last April.

This was my first podcast and it was a really nice experience. Rob and Taylor were super welcoming and very organized. They had an agenda and documents about what to expect as a guest, which was very helpful. And while recording the podcast we were able to exchange notes and pictures using slack.

I wanted to post a couple of pictures of the thing I made here but you should go listen to the episode and look at the other projects on the opposable thumbs website.

Part of my inspiration was XKCD comic number 936 on Password Security. My intention was to make a sort of analog password generator that looked good and was nice to handle. So I made a “flexi-cube” (I’m not sure if this is the technical name). This video tutorial by pocket83 was very helpful, I mostly used it for inspiration but it really covers the basics if you want to make your own.

Part of the fun was making a jig for cutting the poplar squares using the table saw sled:

cutting the grooves

This is a closeup of the Jig, I had to add a thumb-rest after cutting a few cubes because my thumb was getting sore:

After cutting the cubes I engraved the words using the laser on my converted 3D printer (an old solidoodle-2 with a 30 dollar 1/2 a watt purple laser that I modified following this instructable).

engraving with a laser

After engraving the cubes I assembled them using elastic hair bands. I made 3 different versions: the first one has only English words, the second one is bilingual (English and Spanish) and the third one has Japanese words written in Hiragana with their corresponding translation. I finished the poplar with olive oil to bring out the color.

English Version is shown flat
English and Spanish version is shown as a cube

This is, of course, a proof of concept, but the basic idea is that you would be able to generate simple 3 or 4-word memorable passwords by playing with it. There are a lot of possible combinations. Each version has 27 cubes with 2 words per face. That is a total of 324 words in the English language one and 162 words on the bilingual ones. It’s also just a fun toy. On the subject of passwords, don’t take my word for it, there is more to it and there are more sophisticated ways to generate them, this article could be a good start on your research.

 

 

opposable thumbs

I made a little gift for my friends at the Opposable Thumbs Podcast. They take on a creative challenge every two weeks and then talk about it with some tool recommendations thrown in. I’m enjoying it a lot. I’m particularly fond of their code of conduct because it aims to create an inclusive space, which can be hard to do among geeky people who enjoy talking about obscure subjects. I’m copying it here for future reference:

Our podcast is dedicated to providing a harassment-free experience for everyone, regardless of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, knowledge of presented subject matter, or religion (or lack thereof). We do not tolerate harassment in any form. Our overall belief is that mutual respect and voices from all walks of life must be heard to create a balanced society. We want our community to be more diverse…whatever your background, we welcome you. We actively support an inclusive environment, and we want you to be a part of it.

Although I wasn’t trying to join their first challenge (paper clips and and 2×4 lumber) this thing sort of came out while tinkering aimlessly at my desk. I had improvised the shape out of a scrap on my bandsaw while trying out the technique that Jimmy Diresta uses in this video (similar to the well know bandsaw reindeer that Matthias Wandel takes to the next level here) and it seemed like a nice way to hold a hand-cranked contraption while being vaguely thumb shaped. I’ve been trying to make paper clip gears with various degrees of success since I saw this video of Arthur Ganson making wire gears and I made one for this project but it didn’t quite fit the way I wanted, and it wasn’t perfectly centered, so settled with the offset orbiting hands design.

My failed paper clip gear.

Give the Opposable Thumbs a listen and do let me know if there are any other similar podcasts I should be listening to.

 

Warm Heart Automata

A little story about how not to steal like an artist first. Sometimes I seek inspiration in social media. One day I found this awesome illustration by Instagram user @you_just_illusion and decided to use it as the base for this drawing. I sincerely though I had made it different enough and imbued it with my own style but that’s not how he felt and he let me know in a polite direct message. I apologized and we agreed that a shout out to his work would be enough atonement.

I think sometimes there is a fine line between inspiration and copying and it seems like I crossed the line in this case. I wasn’t trying to be malicious but sometimes this happens. Originality is not very important to me. I subscribe to the “Everything is a remix” idea. And almost everything I do came out from somewhere else. Sometimes the influences get lost, mixed with the others. And sometimes you make the wrong judgement about how far you actually mixed something. In this case no one got seriously hurt and we had a good interaction. And I’m also satisfied with how this piece turned out.

The first version I drew was for a zine project I was working on, which you can see in the background here:

warm_hear_start_wolfcatworkshop

I’m on a quest to unite my visual output with my maker spirit. Making drawings that move seems like a great way to do that. I started by cutting the outlines out of 1/4 in plywood and attaching the flames to a couple of dowels.

My initial idea was a simple crank and some wavy motion but I wasn’t entirely sure about how the mechanism was going to work, so I made a prototype out of scrap wood and wire:

And here is what the final version looks like with the two cranks:

After I had the mechanism figured out I moved onto painting. I started with a few coats of white acrylic ink. I sanded that with 600 grit sandpaper to get a nice even surface and applied a coat of workable fixative. The fixative helps with bleeding. I applied the black ink with a brush and and quill for the fine details.

warm_heart_progressI like how you can still see the grain of the wood on the white areas.

Before the final assembly I coated the main surface of the box with superglue. It acts as a hard clean finish. The other parts were coated with a matte finish. The moving sections were lubricated with bee’s wax. I made the handle out of some ebony scavenged from the keys of and old piano a friend found in the street.

One final detail is the wall mount. This system with two matching pieces of wood cut at a 45 degree angle is called a “french cleat”. The screw on the side is for added stability when using the crank.