Monday, November 18, 2013

On Creativity: The Secret to Creating Great Art

    My stint as a visiting artist at Hartwick College earlier this year was nothing like I expected yet everything I could have wanted. Being placed somewhat unexpectedly in the role of educator alongside the familiar one of puppet-builder proved both challenging and rewarding in a myriad of ways I could have never anticipated. It is an old axiom that the teacher learns more than the students. I found this to be very true. One of the most surprising aspects of teaching for me was the way it confronts you in a very real and tangible way with what you know.

     Since the end of my residence, I have been slowly trying to compile observations about living the creative life in a series of essays. I am attempting to confront the realities of the creative process in as pragmatic and rational manner as I can. I do this partly to record my own ideas in a coherent form, but mostly out of a sense of gratitude to my former students and colleagues. It is my fervent hope that these writings can help others along their journey. To this end, I will endeavor to speak in the broadest possible terms, using the word "Artist" in it's most general sense.  

    On a personal note to all those I associated with during my Residency: I apologize for those moments when I could be cranky irrational and overly demanding. The only defense I have to offer is that I felt that I could relentlessly demand excellence from you because time and again you proved capable of it.
I am extremely proud of the work we did together!

"Here are my Principles, and if you don't like them...well, I have others!"
-Groucho Marx

The Secret of Creating Great Art

There is a moment that every working creative dreads. It is that moment when an enthusiastic and appreciative person asks “How do you do that?” They don't mean how was one specific project accomplished. They want to know how to PAINT, How to WRITE, How to ACT! It as if the artist could, by some magical act of beneficence tell them a simple universal truth that would part the veil and magically welcome the questioner into the sacred order. Any answer that can be given is going to come as a terrible letdown. It will ring false or trite in the ears of the audience. They come to you seeking to unlock Truth and Beauty and are forced to make due with cliches like “Write what you know”.
No artist can tell you what you want to learn in a few short sentences. They can give you a few pointers, certainly they can draw you a map, but you need to embark on your own voyage. The process is always going to be your greatest teacher. I have been fortunate enough to have had the guidance of many wonderful instructors, both in a formal and casual capacity, and have found their insights of inestimable value. At the end of the day, however, I must admit it was the wood that taught me the most about how to carve.

I have discovered that there is,after all, a great and universal truth to the creative process that can be stated simply and succinctly. Here it is-At long last revealed the secret that every successful artist knows! I should warn you, it's terribly disappointing the first time you learn it

The secret to creating great artwork is simply this: Make bad art.

Behind every masterpiece painted lies a graveyard of terrible drawings. Every soaring violin composition reached it's heights on a scaffold of hours worth of scratchy shrieked notes. That beautiful inspiring passage from your favorite writer is only possible because of pages and pages of poisonous prose. Those dancers that float effortlessly across the stage have fallen more times then you can count

This is another one of those stories we tell ourselves as artists: Some people are just “born with it”. They are naturally talented, and so opportunity falls in their laps. They are blessed by the gods with something divine that makes them more that the rest of us.
That's true. It's called a work ethic.

Don't get me wrong, Natural talent is real. There are people who are more musically inclined, more graceful, more visually oriented from birth. I have met these people. This is an excellent start. It opens the door for them but rest assured they have to climb the mountain just like anyone else.

Here's what really happens: A young person shows some aptitude for a task. They are praised by their friends and family, and so they continue to try. With a little more effort and a little more positive reinforcement, they realize that they really enjoy doing this more than anything else. Because they are doing what they love, they embrace it. They work hard and never notice the effort because they enjoy every minute. Obstacles become challenges. The desire for praise turns inward. Instead of wanting the praise of parents, the young artist wants to be the best, to say something original. Parents worry about these new found obsessions and start to encourage their child to do pursue other interests. Peers may even mock the young artist for their strange new obsession, but by now none of this matters as much as the passion. Like any other addiction, it takes hold of the person's being and begins to define them. As the process of learning the craft gets more difficult, the artist becomes less and less capable of extracting themselves until they can barely imagine doing or being anything else. I know this to be so because it is my story, along with thousands of others.

The special trait that artists have that you believe you don't isn't talent. It's passion and determination. Successful creative people are simply those who continued to work. Stop telling yourself that you aren't “Born with it” or whatever other convenient excuse you are hiding behind. Nobody wants to hear how you can't even draw a stick figure. That's a cop-out. If you truly want to draw, pick up a pad of paper and fill it in. Once you've finished that one, move on to the next. Make your mistakes like everyone else, and learn from them. Don't expect to get it right the first time. You won't. Keep trying. Each attempt teaches you something new. Remember, you are honing a skill. It's a lifelong process.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Tempest:In Detail

I finally got around to documenting some of the puppets used in the production of The Tempest. Here are some of the better close ups

Ariel: My initial idea for Ariel was that s/he would be a shape-shifter and take on the form of various birds. the director, Malissa Kano-White was kind enough to indulge me. We had two actors playing the role. They would alternate lines accenting the amorphous male/female nature of the character and allowing for a great range of motion. The eagle worked as sort of the embodiment of the storm 
 The heron became a source of comic relief, due in large part to the actors' manipulation
 The owl was Ariel's gentle side.
 I tried to make the wings as naturalistic as possible
 The Director wanted Ariel to have a "True Form" that was non-corporeal and abstract, possibly made up of several components. After a lot of discussion and experimentation, we agreed on a floating two part mask based around the idea of a Celtic spiral. each puppeteer would control the mouth of one half. It required a great deal of co-operation and coordination
 The mask halves could split and join together, permitting them to work autonomously or in tandem. I initially designed the halves to match, but later realized  they would have more personality if each side "spiraled" a different direction. Here is the "Up" side...
 ...and the "Down" side. The puppets were backed with black fabric which made it possible for them to vanish against the dark background simply by being turned around
 Sebastian was one of the villains. I based my character design around archetypes. For this character, I wanted a lean and angular "Grand Vizier" look. at nearly six feet, this was easily the tallest of the puppets
 For Stephano the drunken butler, I wanted to accent the clownish sense of imperiousness and self centered nature. I gave him the proportions of a toddler. He has a vaguely porcine aspect.
 Several of the gender roles were reversed in this production. The wise councilor Gonzalo became Gonzala, a feisty yet kindly grandmother figure
 Trinculo the jester was one of my favorites. I wanted him to have an air of constant anxiety along with a  buffoonish cast.
 Antonio, Prospera's usurping brother, I wanted to have the air of arrogant entitlement of a "Burra Sahib"
 One of the concepts I wish I had more time to explore was the living nature of the island. I wanted to create the feeling that any part of the environment could spring to life. For example: this pile of boulders that was onstage for the whole show...
... became a terrifying "Hell-hound" to chase the clowns offstage. I actually researched medieval hunting breeds to get the look just right. I purposely used the same painted muslin that our set designer used for the backdrop to help them blend in
 The same is true with this seemingly innocuous  log of driftwood -
 ...that becomes a massive wolfhound!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Fiction: The Lake

                                                 The Lake.
                                           By John A .Ryan

“You boys really thinking of doing the Six Lakes Swim?” The old bar owner at the Lodgepole Inn deposited our breakfasts in front of us. He had a long nosed ungainly lank-limbed melancholic air that reminded me of a moose. The Lodgepole was not the ideal venue for a pre-swim breakfast. It's grimy wood paneling, flickering neon beer signs and clientele that appeared to be mostly left over from last night identified it more as a seedy small town dive bar than a place to get a good meal. It was however, the only eating establishment in the tiny town of Barrelhead

“I am” replied Dave starting in on his buckwheat pancakes “Tim here is my support team. Right Tim?”

I paused Monster Push on my tablet and looked up “That's right. I follow along in the canoe in case he gets in trouble.” I took a sip of my bitter coffee and hungrily contemplated the mountain of greasy eggs and bacon that was my Lumberjack Special

“Not many make it all the way through”the bar owner mused aloud

“We aren't many” Dave grinned and took a swig of orange juice “I've already beat Juniper, Monroe and Wolf lakes.

“Tuurngait is the breaking point for folks. Four miles of glacial run-off against a headwind. It claimed that Sorrel girl last summer and that fellow from Whisper Falls” he gestured with the coffee pot towards a wall of yellowing newspaper clippings. “You city boys might find it more than a match for you”

“They said the same thing about Monroe, didn't they, Tim?”

I mumbled affirmation through a mouth full of toast “We broke the old record”

“Take my word, friend Tuurngait Lake is the tough one. It'll change you. If you make it out the other side, there's no saying you'll be the same person as dived in.”

“You sound like you're speaking from experience” I said

“Back in '73” he confirmed with a nostalgic smile“Sooner or later everyone round here tries the Swim”

“What happened?” asked Dave

The Barkeep chuckled through the mists of recollection
“I never left. I'm still here, aren't I?”
With that he stalked through the swinging doors to the kitchen.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Do you think it's some sort of local past-time to try to freak out tourists?” Dave asked me as he downshifted the pickup

“They have to do something. You can't even get a decent radio station this far north” I flicked a twig goblin causing him to explode into a cascade of leaves and earning a hundred points

Dave clicked his tongue
“What is it with you and that game? You've been glued to that screen for the whole trip”

“You need to try it. It's seriously addictive. You travel through the Magic Woods looking for treasure and try to push the hidden monsters away before they grab you. ”

“Christ, Tim! We're surrounded on all sides by pristine wilderness and you're ignoring it to bop invisible monsters! We just drove under an eagle's nest and you didn't even notice. How can a digital forest possibly be better than the real thing? Just promise me you'll leave that thing in the truck when we're out there okay? I need you focused.

“Have I let you down yet?”

“No, man, and I really appreciate you doing this for me. I'm just a little on edge”

“Don't let that old coot from back in Barrelhead get to you, Dave. It's like you said. They have nothing better to do than to try and scare people. You'll make it fine and we'll have a celebratory dinner in his bar and be off to Pinetop in the morning. Just like we planned, right?”

“Right” he relented “Could you do me a favor though and turn that off? It's making me nervous”

“No problem”

I traded my tablet screen for the windscreen. Dave was right. The view was spectacular.


“Isn't it weird the way the mist hasn't burnt off yet? It's already 11:30 ”

The mountains keep the cold air trapped down here. Makes the water nice and brisk” Dave grinned as he zipped up his insulated wet suit “ I wouldn't have it any other way. Just look at this place! If it were warmer it'd be teeming with tourists”

I had to admit he had a point The snow cloaked peaks rose like spires into the clouds appearing in places to bleed into them. armies of deep green conifers ascended the mountainsides from the lake shore accented here and there with highlights of crimson and gold from the occasional maple or birch that had already begun to turn, even though August wasn't even halfway through. In the distance a loon's clarion call rang over the ghostly waters. As I stood on the rocky lake shore with my friend it felt as though we were the only two people in the world .

Watching Dave go through his series of leg lunges, knee bends, and shoulder stretches I contemplated how we had come to be here. Most men going through a divorce would sink into despondency and drink. Dave, for reasons known only to himself, threw himself into the idea of open water swimming with a frightening zeal. We had known each other casually for a few years. Like most of our circle of friends, I had viewed Dave's aquatic pursuits with a mixture of admiration and detached amusement. Then Bethany left. After four years of gradually growing apart, she finally decided that she'd had enough of my antics. Even though I was devastated, I understood. If I were honest, I had to admit I wasn't a particularly boyfriend. Brooding over my fate one night at O'Malley's I ran into Dave fresh off a triumphant race. Several rounds later he confided that he wanted to try longer swims but he needed a spotter. He surprised me by asking me to take on the role. To my further astonishment I found myself agreeing. That was eight months ago. In all the hours of training, long drives, and poring over topographic maps, we rarely discussed anything personal, but a friendship born of the bonds of shared purpose and mutual heartbreak.

“Here's the plan” he announced, shaking me out of my reverie “We'll take it nice and easy today. Once we get about 50 yards out, I'll do my plunges. From there I'll check in every twenty minutes for a breather. That should be every half mile or so. I reckon we'll make the other side in about two hours. You ready?”

I nodded my assent

“Fantastic” he said, snapping his goggles over his eyes “Lets go swimming”

Dave marched intently towards the water. With his beard pushed up into a sharp peak by the rim of his wetsuit hood and his jaunty swaggering gait he looked like a fugitive from an early animation. I scanned the cargo of my candy-apple colored canoe one last time to make sure everything was in order and pushed her nose into the lapping waters.

Just past the halfway point, I had fallen back into the easy paddling rhythm that had become automatic after several months. Just off the left side of my bow, Dave had switched from an Australian Crawl into his preferred Butterfly Stroke. I could see his arms break the gray surface of the water in canted parabolic arcs punctuated by the sharp intake of breath. It had become a subconscious game for me to time my paddle strokes just after these breaths. One of my first cues of trouble, should it arise, would be the interruption of this pattern. For the moment, his labored flight across the lake's surface continued unabated.

Although I would never admit it to Dave, I had come to relish these moments out on the water as rare moments of quietude. He often accused me of having a technology addiction. In the privacy of my mind, I agreed. It seemed like my entire life was bathed in the glow of screens. I like computers for their endless entertainment value and their logical nature. You could get any information you wanted out of a computer, provided that you knew how to ask. In my lifetime I had run into few things that were this simple to understand. The trouble was that so much screen time left you unprepared for the messy and illogical real world and filled your head with electronic chatter. Skimming across a silent northern lake allowed my mind to work unencumbered and made some much needed reflection possible. Of course, if I ever let Dave know this I would never hear the end. Dave is one of those people who is relentless in his opinions and advice. Conceding that he was right on a point would be inviting a ceaseless barrage of well intentioned council on every aspect of my life. Well intentioned or not, I felt uncomfortable at the thought of inviting that level of external scrutiny.

Far above my head, an osprey hovered, silhouetted on ruler straight wings against the clouds. I wondered if it was the same bird that half an hour ago glided almost within arms reach, examining me with it's mad tangerine eyes. On the near shore a mule deer doe and her twin yearlings collectively decided that my friend and I posed no threat and began to drink. Nearby in a stand of tall spindly trees-

I shook my head to clear the cobwebs, for what I saw, what I believed I had seen, could not possibly be there. A second closer look confirmed this. There was nothing among the trees. For just an instant I had imagined that there had been a figure standing in the copse of pines. It had been taller than any person could be, almost the height of the surrounding pines. I thought it was the form of a man, seemingly composed of the limbs of trees, a gangling coniferous Colossus. dark as the shadowed bark gazing out over the water with an air of infinite sorrow. It was a trick of the light conspiring with my overstimulated imagination that made the shadows of branches resolve themselves into a pine tree giant straight out of a fairy tale illustration or off the screen of Monster Push. Even knowing that it couldn't possibly be real, the impression stuck powerfully and eerily with me. I decided that it would probably be best if I took a break from that game for a few days and resumed paddling. My momentary lapse in concentration had caused me to fall an embarrassing distance behind.

I strained my shoulders for almost ten minutes behind the paddle. My redoubled efforts seemed to do little to close the distance. For fear of pulling a muscle I called out to Dave to slow down and let me catch up. He slowed his strokes to a stop I saw his grinning head turn towards me. His arm broke the surface to give me the OK signal. Dave tread water for a moment or two before, to my horror, his head vanished beneath the glassy water with barely a ripple. A shout of panic escaped my lips as I began to paddle with all my might. From the cold water rescue course we had taken, I knew that every second underwater was potentially lethal. I was still to far away to reach. Dave and he had already been under for longer than was safe. I had just reached the point where I saw him disappear when an explosive inhale shattered the silence. Dave had re emerged supported by two other swimmers. His face was drained of color except for the sickly bleached violet of his lips.

“Get him aboard now” commanded a woman's voice from the smaller figure in the pale blue wetsuit. We heaved Dave's dead weight onto the canoe. I hastily tore open the package of a Mylar blanket and wrapped it around my friend's shivering body

“We'll start a fire onshore. Meet us there, quick as you can” With that order the woman and her companion shot away swiftly and gracefully as a pair of otters.

“Cold grabbed me all the sudden” sputtered Dave “Must've hit a thermocline. Froze right through me.”

“Hold still, man. I'm so sorry! I got distracted and fell behind. It's just lucky those two turned up.”

“Yeah, lucky” agreed Dave, teeth chattering.

By the time we made it to shore, the woman was already tending the beginnings of a good sized campfire. I could see her companion's yellow and black suit clearly among the trees as he searched for more wood. She helped me beach the canoe, and lift Dave onto the shale by the fireside.

“Blankets and dry clothes in the big orange float bag” I instructed her as I peeled away the wetsuit.

We helped Dave into a dry sweatpants, sweater and draped a wool blanket over him.

“I can still move my fingers and toes. No permanent damage” Dave announced. He attempted to sound clinical, but I could hear relief pouring from each syllable.

“It's really lucky you guys showed up” I told our new companions “Do you live around here?”

The woman made a sound halfway between a laugh and a grunt.

“That's one way of putting it. I'm Megan Sorrel. He's called Quinn. He doesn't say much.”

I shook hands and introduced myself. I was astonished at how cold their hands remained even after drying by the fire. With their hoods and masks removed, I finally could get a good look at them. Megan was a handsome woman with her dark hair cropped in a fashionable short style I couldn't pinpoint it, but she looked familiar somehow. Quinn would have been a perfect specimen of a blonde breezy Californian were it not for an unusual network of facial scars and his pale skin. Both of them had skin even paler than Dave's when he was first pulled from the water and the same unusual shade of green eyes. I wanted to ask if they were related and how Quinn had come by his injury, but I felt that it might be impolite. Instead we sat for several moments in mildly oppressive silence.

“The Lodgepole man says that you have come from far away” said Megan, more as a statement than a question

“That's right. We live down towards Carson.” I affirmed. “Dave wanted to swim the lakes.”

“Thanks for saving my life, by the way” Dave chimed from beneath the blanket

“I haven't yet, but I will” Megan told him “I will save both of you. Take my word on this. You do not belong here. You should go and never come back. Forget your swim”

“Okay, I choked up a bit, but I'm sure I can make it across after a few days rest” Dave protested

“You aren't listening. We're showing you a kindness because you are strangers here. Get in your boat and turn back. If you swim another stroke the lake will claim you and you will never leave it again. Tuurngiat Lake is protected ”

“Look, Don't think I'm not grateful to you and all, but you can't scare me with whatever superstitious nonsense there is about this lake. I don't believe...Where'd they go?”

The mysterious pair had vanished as suddenly as they appeared, leaving not even a footprint. The campfire was the only sign that anyone else had ever been there.

Once we had loaded up the last of the gear, we sat in the cab of the truck with the heater blasting watching the sun descend behind the peaks.

“Okay, that was a little weird, but I think we ought to try again next weekend, don't you?” Dave announced, breaking the silence.

“No.” I said “I think that's a really bad idea.”

“Oh come on! Just because they slipped away and hid while we weren't looking? I thought you had more sense than that Tim.”

I took a deep breath and weighed my words carefully, scarcely believing what I was about to say.
“It's not that. Well, it's not just that. If it were just the disappearance, I might think it was just some sort of trick but-”
“But what?”

I considered telling him about what I had seen, but after I regarded my friend's incredulous expression, I knew Dave would think I had completely lost my mind. Another detail, no less uncanny, floated to the top of my recollection .

“Do you remember the girl who was supposed to have drowned here last year?”

“Yeah, sure. What about her?”

“Well when you got up to use the bathroom back at the bar, I read the clipping. I just remembered. Her name was Meg Sorrel.”

“Are you kidding me? That's your reason? It's either some locals messing with us or a coincidence. It can't be the same person.”

“I think it was. There was a picture”

Dave sighed heavily
“Unbelievable! I'm the one who has a near death experience, and somehow you are the one coming unhinged. Tell you what, Let's go back to Barrelhead. We'll have some dinner at the Lodgepole, you can take another look at your article, and you'll see how stupid you're being. Maybe then we can talk about this like reasonable people. All right?”


An hour later, as we were arguing over the map on the shoulder of the road, a highway patrol cruiser pulled up behind us in the dark.

“There any trouble, fellas?” The trooper was a large suet-y man in his late fifties His gleaming pink face appeared as though it had been shaped from pressed ham

“Hi officer, we're a little lost. We're trying to get back into Barrelhead.” I said

When he burst into laughter, it occurred to me that I had never actually heard anyone guffaw before.

“Now what on earth would you want to go there for?”

“We thought we'd get a bite to eat, and maybe spend the night” Dave told him

“I suppose you can if you want” the trooper chuckled, “But you'd be the first people to do so for about a hundred years. Barrelhead's a ghost town, boys. I have no idea why they keep putting it on the map. The only road in has been totally grown over for at least sixty years. What you want to do is push on for Smokesville. That's about forty to forty five minutes south on Route 18. Tell Erma at the diner that Officer Daniels sent you. She'll treat you allright. Drive safe now.”

Still chortling to himself, Officer Daniels swaggered back to his car and sped off.

Dave's face was a mask of disbelief.
“Okay, now I'm freaking out.” he muttered “ What the hell did we eat for breakfast?”

-J. Ryan 2013

Friday, September 6, 2013

Primitive Projectiles

There seems to be a common theme to the subjects and activities that fascinate me. Here is a brief outline of the criteria necessary:

-It needs to be reasonably involved and/or complex
-A relatively high level of skill should be involved
-I should be able to learn it on my own, or at least without much guidance
-There should be little if any probability that anyone could ever make any money doing this
-If there is any practical application to developing the skills involved, it probably has gone obsolete about a century ago

I am also apparently susceptible to, as one of my ex-girlfriends put it: "The quintessential male near-obsessive  urge to throw things".

So, considering all this, it shouldn't be too surprising that I have a long standing fascination with making and using simple range weapons (for targets). In college I started making boomerangs. Pictured here is the first one I made and still my favorite:
 Last summer I made a sling and spent hours happily flinging rocks across an empty baseball field

This year I decided that the time was right to try something I've been wanting to do for a long time: Build a Longbow. I used Red oak with a muslin backing.I finished it with Tung oil. The handle is wrapped with leather. It measures 70' nock to nock when unstrung. I have no idea what my draw weight is. Here is my bow when strung...
... and unstrung
 Here's a close-up of my top nock
 I decided that the plain muslin backing was a little dull, so I painted it.

Here's some close up of the handle and arrow shelf

I'm shooting carbon fiber arrows that were made by a company that hasn't paid me to endorse them. My quiver is made out of the leg of an old pair of khakis. Not very interesting looking, but functional. I almost showed you my target, but it looks like what it is: A large cardboard box stuffed with more cardboard with a target drawn on it.

 I did, however, make myself a nifty armguard out of scrap leather

I wanted to have a cool picture of me firing an arrow, looking all keen-eyed and dangerous-but with no one else to hold the camera, this is as close as I could get

 When I went to retrieve a stray arrow, I found this little guy. His form isn't too bad, but I think he needs to get his elbow up.

I've been practicing for a few months now. I think my aim is getting better...

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Food for thought

Here's something to consider:

Look down at your clothing. What are you wearing? Does it fit you? Is it comfortable? Did you think very much about it before you put it on, or like me, did you just pick the first items that appeared to be clean? Even if you took elaborate care and thought in choosing every item you wore- making certain your shoes offset your shirt just right, and so forth- here's something so simple and obvious that it probably never even occurred to you at the time: Every garment you are wearing was most likely made by another person. There are of course rare exceptions to this statement, but chances are even if you have made every item of your own wardrobe, it is unlikely that you also harvested the raw material, processed it, dyed it, and wove it into a cloth. These activities were all done for you by other people who you will, in all probability, never meet.

They might live on the opposite side of the world, or two houses away for all you know. Now think about the hundreds and hundreds of items you use every day, from the tools you use, to the food that you eat, to the place where you live. Every one of these things represent a moment in the life of another living person with thoughts, loves, and dreams like yours. They each have friends and family as well. They made these things for you. They most likely never knew or cared that the thing they were doing in that moment was for you. Whatever their reason for creating the object in question whether it was an exquisitely crafted piece, made with the joy of a crafts-person, or the cheapest piece of mass produced garbage produced at the end of a long shift, somebody made these things. Each and every life in this society is utterly dependent on the work of anonymous others.

If you met these people face to face, what would you say to them- The person who designed your computer, who harvested the cotton for your clothes, or made your favorite cup? Would you want to thank them, or offer criticism? What if you discovered they were the person you cut off in traffic, or the guy you smiled at in the street?
Would this change anything?

Here it is, the fact that is so massive, that it is nearly impossible to see . It is as easy to take for granted as gravity or oxygen and just as necessary for our survival:

We are all, in the most real and tangible sense, connected to every other human life on this planet. Our actions, for good or bad change the world around us in ways we can never comprehend. Regardless of belief or politics, Each and every person is an important part of our world that helps shape it into what it is, regardless of whether they understand that or not.

Taking this into consideration, don't we owe every person we meet a huge debt of gratitude? Isn't it our duty to, at very least, be kind to one another?

Under this light, the highest human aspiration would be to make the world a better place for everyone else in whatever way we can.  

Saturday, June 22, 2013

In The Details Part #2 : Casting Glances

      When building a character, I feel it is critically important to get the eyes right. It's usually the first detail anyone notices and you can convey a world of information through the eyes.In the past, I've used several different techniques to make eyes for my puppets. I've used polymer clay, ping pong balls -painted and coated with high gloss varnish, commercially made doll eyes and  even working L.E.D's to name just a few. Each of these works to good effect. Recently, though I discovered a simple and highly effective method for making resin cast eyes which has quickly become one of my favorite techniques. I'm going to show you two different variations of this method, partly so you can see the different results and partly because I'm not sure which approach will look better with my puppet.

     First you need some clear casting resin. this is available either in a two part variety, where you mix equal amounts of resin and hardener, or the kind where you add a small amount of catalyst into the resin. Either kind works fine. I'm using the two part type simply because it's what I happen to have on hand. whichever kind you use,measure and follow the mixing instructions EXACTLY as they are written. The batch I made before this one never hardened properly because I didn't stir the mixture enough.  Pay careful attention to the safety precautions and work in a well ventilated area while preparing the resin... or don't. Live your own lives, people!

 Once the mixture is ready, you can pour it into the round indentations of those cheap plastic circular palates that are available anywhere that sells art supplies. I'd suggest using new ones or having a set exclusively for this purpose. Casting resin will pick up anything it touches, so the cleaner your mold is, the better. Let the resin set for 24-48 hours (or whatever the instructions suggest). Once the resin hardens, you can crack it out, just like you would ice cubes. You'll wind up with a small pile of  nice round clear lenses. Select the ones with the fewest air bubbles and imperfections. Now the fun begins!
 Using acrylic paint, I first paint  the pupils onto the back (flat side) of the eye blanks. This process is a lot like painting on glass, you want to do the most visible details first. Notice that I've painted the pupils slightly off center. This males the eyes "cross" slightly, which gives the puppet a sharper focus. Size and shape of the pupils are also important. Our own pupils dilate when we see something or someone we like, which creates a subconscious sympathetic response in those around us. In practical character design terms, the larger the pupil, the more sympathetic the character appears. Conversely, smaller pupils make a character look more sinister and aggressive. Because I want my devil to be reasonably likable, I gave him fairly large pupils. I briefly considered giving him rectangular pupils like a goat's, but decided that round ones would be less eerie looking
I now paint the whites around the edges. this will give me a relatively clean edge around the iris. I like to let my eyes be a bit "painterly". I think it gives them a lot of personality and I don't have to worry about getting the edges perfectly round.
 Here's where I start to deviate methods. One pair of eyes will be painted entirely on  the back of the lens. this method looks sharper and usually works best for video or animals. The other pair will be painted on the curved part of another pair of lenses. When I finish, I will put the two pieces together, flat side to flat side. It creates depth and generally works great for human characters and live performance. Either way I start with my lightest color and accents. I painted a few highlights around the pupil to further help create depth. I'm going to male my irises a catlike greenish-yellow. This will stand out nicely against my devil's red skin. Incidentally, if were to paint the pupils to onto the back of the two-part eyes, the convex/concave relationship would make them appear to follow the viewer.
 After the first layer dries, I add a slightly darker yellow and light green. I find painting overlapping asterisks gives the iris a nice faceted texture.
 I add some darker accents into the empty spaces for contrast. Here I'm using a light blue to add variety to the color. I find that the more layered you make the iris, the more intelligent your character looks
 In order to fill in the remaining gaps, I paint on a golden brown-ish base coat. The eyes are starting to look a bit muddy from the back, but this doesn't matter. They will only ever be seen from the other side
 I found that the first base coat was more translucent than I wanted and that I would like more contrast, so I painted some dark brown accents.
 Finally, to fill in the remaining gaps, I add another layer of yellow ochre.
 Here are the finished results. The top pair are the one-part eyes and the bottom pair are the two-parters. Notice the difference? I attach the two pieces by either hot glue or super-glue around the edges
 I can now test them out on my puppet to see which ones work the best.
Stay tuned for the results! 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

In The Details: A Puppet Build-Along. Part #1- Head's Up!

    A lot of people ask me about my construction methods. I am always a bit hesitant to describe them. My puppet building techniques are a strange hodge-podge of things I found in books, tricks other puppeteers have shown me and things that I apparently invented. oftentimes when I am working around other puppeteers, I will do something that seems to my mind to be the only logical solution or method of handling a material only to find those around me are astonished that anyone would use that method to get those results. This comes out of trial and error more than any attempt to be innovative. As a mostly self educated puppet builder, I'm not entirely sure where what I've figured out from just playing with materials ends and traditional established technique begins
   I don't believe this is much different than any other puppeteer. To a certain extent I think we all build on what we know in our own way. In short, what I hope to demonstrate by this exercise is not how to build puppets, but how I built one particular puppet. This is intended as a demonstration rather than a tutorial. for all I know there are way better methods than mine. So far this is the best I've come up with.

In this demo I am building an old devil puppet for a video project I have in mind. The basic design will be a hand-and-rod puppet, similar in operation to "The Muppets", but hopefully quite different in overall effect. I know basically what I want, but I don't ordinarily work from a sketch so the process stays fresh and I allow myself to be open to discoveries. To make this post, each time I added something new, I would stop and photograph what I had just done.  I edited out some of the smaller steps for brevity's sake. I will describe my methods and thought process at each photo. Hopefully the cumulative effect will be a relatively step-by-step document of the creation of this piece.

-Wood, leather and fabric to make the mouth part
-A roll of 1" thick medium-firm compression poly-foam. (This is slightly denser than I ordinarily use. I thought I'd try a different compression. It woks fine.)
-Pair of very sharp scissors
-Hot glue gun  with high quality hot glue

I have recently become extremely choosy about the blend of hot glue stick that I use. Good hot glue makes a world of difference! You spend a lot less time clamping and swearing. It is more expensive to buy the really good stuff but you use less of it. I order mine online. The stuff you find at the craft stores is practically useless.

 I'm starting with the mouth blank as my base. This is simply two pieces of thin wooden board shaped and jointed with leather. The straps are also leather I may later replace them with wide elastic strips

I took a small sheet of foam and glued it to the curved edge of the lower "jaw" I want this character to have a pointy chin with a big beard, so I left it bigger than I ordinarily would.
I did the same with the top half. Note that I didn't glue my edges flush, but left a little space in the mouth. That way, if I decide to add teeth later, I'll have room

 Here I rounded the top of the head by gluing the top edges together and created a curve to the front of the skull.

 I added another piece to create the back of the head.
 I wanted the chin to stick out farther to create the character and play up the slight natural under-bite that the puppet already has, so I added another block. Later I will realize that this block is a bit crooked. I will partially correct for that, and decide that I like it slightly askew.
 Here is a closer look at the chin after I've shaped it a bit more by carving it with scissors. I use this technique a lot as you'll see.
 I folded the nose and shaped it before gluing it into place. I like to have the dominant features established first so that I can fit the rest of the face around them
 Now I shape the forehead and brows by adding another piece. I also trim the top of the nose to play up the hooked appearence

I add the cheekbones at this stage. This establishes the eye sockets. The basic planes of the face have been set at this point.

I like to have a "test eye" on hand throughout the process. It gives me a better notion of the final appearance and lets me know if my focus is where I want it. Some of you might recognize this as the heron puppet's original eye. If I don't have a spare resin cast eye around, sometimes I'll draw a pupil on a ping pong ball.
 Testing with the eye made me realize that my face was too thin, so I added another layer to the forehead...
 ...and more "meat to the sides of his face. I think he's starting to look like a grumpy old man now, but I want to play up the devil aspect. Time for horns and pointy ears. 
   I know immediately that the ears are longer than I want, but I wait until I can see them in relation to the other features

As I want an old devil, I decided that I wanted long, twisty horns like an old goat's ("Old Goat" by the way is a really fun image search!). To get the twist I wanted out of sheet foam, I had to be inventive.
 Here is one of the horns in process. I pinched the tip together and glued it into place, then I folded the foam back over itself and glued it. The foam naturally wants to spring apart and pull loose. I'm clamping it in place here. This was probably my third attempt to set it. This procedure is time consuming, frustrating and a bit difficult. I heartily recommend against it.
 I've trimmed back the ears and added a base to the horns here.
 Adding the line of the naso-labial trough adds a slight sneer to the face and sets up the location of the nostrils
 I decided to add a little hump to the bridge of the nose to make the hooked profile more dramatic
 Next I add some nostrils by bending a thin strip into place on either side. I briefly toy with the idea of adding a sharper point to the tip of the nose before trimming the bridge and deciding I don't need it. Instead, I give him a lower lip to exaggerate the under-bite and make him have a natural scowl.
 I add a strip to either side of his face to distinguish a stronger contour of the skull and add two blocks to the eyebrows. When I add hair (Hopefully long white fake fur or sheepskin, if I can find it) these will help establish the jutting set of the eyebrows.
 I wanted my character to look more grandfatherly than sinister, so I added crow's feet and kept the curve of the eyelids soft.
 This is where having the '"test eye" around really pays off

 I added the folds of the ears at this point and a few wrinkles around the bottom lip. I may decide to add some ridges on the horns later, but for now, the last three pictures are the final results of this stage

Stay tuned for more!