Thursday, April 2, 2015

Tutorial: sculpting a Skull Vato

This tutorial is dedicated to a miniature from head to toes; it tackles a project with a low complexity in terms of shapes and details. The putty used is Super Sculpey; tools are quite varied: steel wire, flat and cutting pliers (for the armature), a calliper and a plastic set square (useful at almost all steps), different clay shapers, a good modelling knife and various spatulas (most of them of my own design) - see the note at the end of this tutorial.

Note that this mini is approximately 8cm tall, hence some techniques and problems may be more specific to that "large" scale. However, I think it is still relevant for all those who want to start sculpting.

A French version of this tutorial is available here.

Preparation of the project

Most of the time, it starts with a more or less precise and advanced sketch more. The most important, for the next steps, is to give a good idea of the volumes; for that purpose, it is really useful to make sketches under different viewpoints. In a case as simple as this, two views are enough. In general, I don't spend too much time on the details at this stage, except on those that are part of my motivation to tackle that miniature. I also try to make the sketch approximately at the right scale, either directly on paper, or by indirect means (by scanning/taking a picture of the sketch, and changing its scale in a picture editor software before printing it...).

The next step is very important for the rest of the project: to determine the shape and the size of the armature. I often use tracing paper (partially transparent paper), that I superimpose on the sketch (one can also draw directly over the sketch or over a copy, it doesn't matter) and I draw a wireframe sketch of the armature. I try to take the thickness of the wire into account (more or less), to show where it will be straight and where it will be twisted, and I pay a lot of attention to the areas where the thickness of the body is small (neck, ankles, wrists,...). The oval at the level of the head aims at keeping it from rotating freely around the vertical axis during the work. On the left, the armature drawn on the tracing paper; on the right both sketches together.

Note: since I first wrote this tutorial, a long time ago, I have written more general and updated thoughts about the armature, that you can read here.

Then I draw the volumes that are a complement to the armature, that I use to call the "cores". In general, when working with large volumes, it is difficult to force the putty to stick to the armature, especially during the first steps. The cores are there to prevent this problem by giving a mechanical coherence, stiff volumes with a surface to provide a grip, like the core of a fruit. On the left, the cores as drawn on the tracing paper; on the right both sketches together.

Armature, cores and base

Let's start with the real deal now... I build the armatureby bending and twisting a metal wire. I use my 1:1 scale sketch to evaluate the length of the wire that I will need (the twisted wires should be counted twice), I cut it and shape it. For bending, I use flat pliers to make straight angles; for twisting, I tighten it enough to ensure stability (when there is a loop like in this case, you can insert a cylindrical object inside of it to ease the process). I put the sketch and the armature face-to-face on a regular basis to check if everything looks correct. Any error at this moment will follow you until the end.

I fasten the armature inside a small interface made out of plywood, that I attach to a base. The base must be chosen to allow you to hold/manipulate the mini comfortably, and to put it down safely on your desk.

Let's now tackle the making of the cores. (1) I start with simple volumes that I adjust until their shape corresponds to the sketches. (2) Then, I cut the volumes in two parts, where the armature must pass (this means that the 2 parts do not necessarily have the same size, depending on the location of the armature... hence, the sketches can be very useful...). Thick armatures can be taken into consideration by removing some putty. (3) Then, I assemble everything, trying to ensure that they are fixed firmly (filling the voids in the joints with putty), and to keep the shape of the volumes (note: to avoid a hole in the center of the head, I'm adding a little bit of putty inside the loop of the armature). Note the thin layer of putty around the feet/legs, that will improve the adherence of the putty during next steps.

It is of prime importance that the cores be firmly fixed to the armature at this step.

Next, with a sharp knife, I scratch the surface of the cores by making small cuts in different directions. This will improve a lot the adherence of the layers of fresh putty.

It is then time for the first baking, to harden all this. It is not necessary to overbake, as the cores will be baked again the next time(s) the mini will go into the oven. You only need it to be stiff.

The main volumes

I go on with the main volumes. I start with some putty that I flatten to the good thickness thickness (any cylindrical object, such as the handle of a modelling knife e.g., can play de role of a rolling pin): not too thin, to avoid multiplying the steps to set up the appropriate volumes, and not too thick, to avoid trouble when trying to have a firm adherence of the putty. Then, I cut pieces out of this foil to position them on the mini: again, not too small to avoid multiple repetitions, and not too large so they remain easy to position, especially on highly curved surfaces. The shape of the piece must be roughly adapted to the area where it will be positioned.

(1) I take a square of putty that I put on the body, ensuring it is well fixed. For the first pieces, I always try pushing the putty against the core starting from the middle and then pushing towards the exterior. I also put a lot care in the edges, both in their shaping, and in the quality of their contact with the cores. I usually bevel them towards the core. (2) Same process for the back. Again, the most critical part is the joint between two pieces of putty. When needed, I cut small pieces of putty that I press in the joint, and I try to "fuse" the junction until you cannot see it anymore.

And it goes on until the first layer of putty is done.

It goes on with the second layer of the body. As the areas are a bit flatter than at the beginning, we can afford larger pieces of putty. I adapt their shape and thickness, trying to stick roughly to the sketch, to gain some time. Again, I'm careful about the quality of the adherence and about the joints, adding small pieces where needed.

Moving on to the head, now. First, a fact: it is impossible to cover a sphere with a flat foil without tearing the foil or having wrinkles, that are very detrimental to the adherence. So again, one must proceed piece by piece. I developed a simple process to avoid having to work with small pieces: (1) by cutting small triangles regularly in the foil of putty, that will avoid the appearing of wrinkles. (2) I position the foil on the core, ensuring a good adherence of the middle part. (3) Then, I deploy the "teeth" over the core, trying to create a junction between the so-formed lips, to obtain a more or less continuous surface. If needed, a couple of small pieces of putty will help filling the gaps.

I do the same with the rest of the head, again filling the inevitable gaps with small pieces of putty.

Then I compare the result to the sketches, and I adjust the shape: I remove putty with a sharp blade here, I add some pieces where putty's missing, etc. Here's the result after 2 layers of putty, a bit of "cleaning", and a rough smoothing, compared to the sketch.

Note: some puttys are much more tolerant to removal than others. Super Sculpey, Super Sculpey Firm and Fimo, mixed together or used alone, can be easily cut (with a good blade, that is!) without deforming everything; so you can work both by addition and removal very comfortably. Milliput, Green Stuff and the likes, on the contrary, do not accept removal without usually a significant amount of distortion.

Finally, I add the bottom of the body, that will be shaped as short pants, with the same kind of step-by-step approach. At this level, the main volumes are done, which gives you a better visibility for the next steps, that will consist of defining the shape with more precision and of adding details. In general, I tend to proceed in this way, with an increasing general complexity and precision. This allows you to be "brutal" at the beginning, without any fear of ruining special parts.

The details - I: the head

I focus on the details of the head now. I start there because they will be quite "big", so that I should not fear damaging them too much while working on the other details later.

(1) I start with the jaw, with a piece of putty that I shape roughly and position where it's meant to be. (2) I add small pieces of putty progressively to converge towards the desired shape, and then I move to other parts of the head (the cheekbone here). (3) I repeat the operations on the other side of the head. When I work on symmetrical parts, I always try to shape the pieces of putty at the same time, symmetrically, to ease the work. (4) After several successive steps, and after smoothing it all, here's the current outcome.

Let's move on to the details of the face: (1) I start by drawing the outile of the eyes and of the nasal cavities, that I will use as a landmark for digging them. (2) I add a lump of putty to create the volume of the nose. (3) I dig the cavities of the eyes, and I adjust the shape of the different transition areas: eyes-brow ridges, eyes-cheekbones, eyes-nose, ... I remove some putty at the level of the temples (sides of the head) and of the transition temples-eyes-brow ridges to give the "face" some expression, some traits. Here's the result after some work (by successive additions and removals of putty) and some smoothing.

Let's take care of they brow ridges, now: (1) I make a lump of putty of the right thickness so as to obtain two identical parts, with the length of the ridges. (2) I flatten the lumps to obtain one side that is flat and the other that is curved. (3) I put them down at the level of the brow ridges, and blend them in the face, trying to shape them in a symmetrical fashion.

As one progresses with the detail work, it is easier to have a good overview of the general shapes of the skull. It is now time to correct the flaws of the global shape, taking care of the way the details are blended with the rest. I don't care too much about finger prints left here and there at this step, because I will probably put new ones down during the next steps before the baking. I keep the smoothing as the ultimate step before the cooking.

The details - II: the short pants

After adjusting slightly the volumes of the pants, I start with the detailing, starting with the edge that constitutes the limit with respect to the belly. (1) I start from a lump long enough to circle the belly (to ease the manipulation, it's even better to make it a little longer). (2) I flatten the lump to make it a thin strip of putty. Then I flatten slightly one of the long edges to make it a bevel, and I use a knife to adjut the shape of the other edge, to make it straight; I straighten both short ends in the same way (not shown). (3) I lay down the strip on the belly, starting from one end, and I progressively circle the belly, making sure that there is no wrinkle, that the adherence is good and that it is straight. (4) I cut away the excess in a motion that is perpendicular to the strip (to avoid damaging it and to ease the blending of the junction) (blurry pic, sorry). I adjust the shape of the long edge: (5) I start by cutting the strip as straight as possible (blurry pic, again), then (6) I remove the excess and I improve the shape of the the edge and both upper and lower junctions. (7) I add a cloth strip for the zipper thanks to a small and thin strip of putty: I blend it on the side where it is supposed to be sewed, and I make sure that there is a slight natural gap on the side of the opening, by sliding a very thin tool and bending the putty where needed. I also suggest the sewing lines by creating a slight hollow line.

The belt, now, with the same kind of technique: (1) for the belt itself, I create a lump of putty that I flatten to a very thin strip, and I cut it cautiously to make it straight. I lay it down, and I adjust it. For the buckle, I use a small strip of putty again that I cut as a rectangle, lay down and adjust. (2) for the belt loops, I start from a strip again, that I cut to the desired shape, and that I position cautiously with a clay shaper, trying to give them a natural shape.

The details - III: the feet

Nothing new here, in the technique and in the approach: we make the volume grow progressively, to make sure each piece of putty adheres well. The strip around the shoes (6) is done in the same fashion as the belt. The images should speak for themselves.

Intermediate baking

Before working on the arms, I go through an intermediate baking to fix definitely the work done up to now. I can afford it as the volumes of the arms and of the body are very well decoupled, the transition is sharp, I am sure that the work done up to now is what I want to achieve. Furthermore, it will allow me to sand down/smoothen/rectify the belly and the back much more easily than if the arms were in the way.

So before going to the oven, I smooth carefully all the ares that need it. In general, I wait for a couple of hours, or even a night, then I check the mini from all sides again to make sure everything is ok, with a fresh mind, before I put it in the oven.

After baking, after letting the mini cool down, I start the sanding with two objectives: remove the last surface flaws AND improve some shapes (typically the parts with sharp angles), or even correct them in some extreme cases. Note that the longer the mini cools down, the easier and the better the quality of the sanding (it will also decrease the amount of residue that accumulate on the tool, forcing you to clean it regularly during the work). Don't hesitate to look at your mini under different angles, also with respect to your lamp, some flaws are more visible than others under some angles.

The arms

 Last step of the body: the arms. (1) I create a prototype of arm, rough and a bit too large. (2) I put it on the body (not caring about the adherence right now) and I try to find an adequate position. (3) I cut away the excess of putty to obtain a result closer to what the actual arm should look like, and I adust its shape and position in parallel. (4) One the result satisfies me, I try to reproduce it on the other side. These draft arms will be used as guides for the definitive ones.

Let's start with the left arm. Nothing really new: I start with small amounts of putty, making sure their adherence on the body it good, and I use the arm draft as a template to check the evolution. Then, I refine the details, and I move onto the right arms in the same fashion. 

Note: since these pictures, I have sculpted 2 more versions of the Skull Vato. In the last 2 versions, I have scratched the surface under the footprint of the arm with a knife  to improve the adherence. Nothing difficult, but you should be cautious to avoid scratching areas that will be visible in the end. Another nice trick is to use vaseline paste (see below, for the bandana) that actually acts as a "glue".

Intermediate baking

It's now time to check if everything looks fine: shapes, flaws, fingerprints, junctions,... Smoothing, smoothing, smoothing... Again, I then let the mini rest for a night before double-checking that everything is fine. And then, straight to the oven, followed by another session of sanding. And here's the result up to now. I got a bit away from the initial concept, with this skull that is a bit less caricatural than on the initial drawing.

The bandana

In what follows, I switch to a mix of Super Sculpey and Super Sculpey Firm, my first intent was to take more explicit pictures. After gaining some more experience, I found this mix more convenient for this kind of part:
- it is a bit less sticky, which is useful for things you have to flatten quite heavily and that you have to extensively manipulate, position/reposition, etc.
- the addition of SS Firm, with its "drier" aspect, decreases a bit the amount and depth of the fingerprints that you leave on the foil
- SS Firm also stiffens the mix, which helps in the general shaping and in the ability of the foil to keep its shape once positioned on the mini.

I start by filling the hollows that will be recovered by the bandana, to make sure that they do not create an unaesthetic print-through. Nothing difficult, I just try to have a more or less continuous finish. Again, with some more experience today, I would use pure Super Sculpey for that step, because of it higher stickiness, that will ease the positioning of the bandana later.

I take some Vaseline paste (cfr picture on the right) with a clay shaper, and I spread it on the area of the bandana. Indeed, that type of Vaseline does not really act like a lubricant on Sculpey, but rather like a soft solvent! (*) The Vaseline film will thus act like some sort of weak glue to improve the adherence of the bandana on the skull. (this is the same principle I described above for the arms)

(*) This is a good motivation for using this kind of "smoothing product" with care: once the putty has been put in contact with the Vaseline, its state of surface is degraded (more or less, depending on the degree of exposure), and it may become really difficult to work on details later on. Since I have noticed that (after some bad experiences) I avoid as much as possible the use of such products with Sculpey: I keep it only for very specific cases (surfaces without later detailing work), and preferably as the ultimate smoothing before baking. One can also incorporate a *very tiny* quantity to a ball of Sculpey that would have gotten a little dry after some time, to give it back some flexibility and cohesion.

Let's come to the main part of the bandana. (1) I start by flattening roughly a foil of putty with my fingers, for a quick result. (2) I refine it by using 2 pieces of cardboard/thick paper placed on each side of the foil, that are used as a caliber for the thickness, and a cylinder used as a rolling pin (here the handle of my knife). (3) I repeat the process a couple of times. If needed, I gradually decrease the thickness of my calibers. Important thing: between which I peel the foil away from the support. Indeed, if you wait for the very last moment to peel it, the foil will stick so much to the support that you will probably tear it off; the thinner the foil, the higher the chances to tear it off (both because it is thin, and because it is firmly stuck to the support as you had to press it more against it). So this step requires some care, and you may want to make sure that, during the last passages of the cylinder, you do not create too much adherence between the foil and the support.

(4) I now have a regular foil of putty. To avoid bad surprises later, I check the homogeneity by transparency, by looking through the foil with a lamp. (5) I cut the strip to the required size, trying to have a regular result. At this step, the length does not really matter (however, an excessive length will make the strip difficult to handle; you can easily estimate the needed perimeter with a string or a small strip of putty), but the width shall be well chosen. It necessary, do not hesitate to make drafts to have an idea. You can use paper for instance, or even foil of putty that you adapt by trial and error. You can always keep the remains of what you have cut away from your actual strip. They will be useful for the following (and they already have the same thickness as the strip that makes the biggest part of the bandana.

I fold the bandana close to the knot, at the back, one side after the other. I create a vertical shift between the two ends, with a slight zigzag motion.

(1) I put down a small piece of putty to fill the gap between the two ends. (2) I cut a small rectangle of putty from the remains of the big putty foil, and I adapt its dimensions through a couple of round-trips between my desk and the mini. (3) I create some folds and (4) I lay down the putty over the knot, with a little slope and (5) I cut away the excess length, I ensure the adherence of the whole, and I adjust the transitions on both side (up and down) of the knot. (6) I repeat the same operations with another foil, folded differently (*), I position it again with a slight slope but this time in the other direction, and I adjust (7). Finally, I take care of the areas where the outgoing ends will come in the next step.

(*) When making a knot in a strip of cloth, the parts on the inside of the knot tend to be more folded over themselves than the outer parts. To visualize well and avoid getting lost, I try to have a reference under my eyes when I do this kind of things. In this case, I took a scarf that I have knotted around one of my thighs, so I can easily switch my look from the mini to the reference. It's also to tighten and untighten the knot at will to understand how the strips behave and are imbricated together.

I now come to the outgoing ends of the knot. I start with a foil of putty again (1), cut down to an adequate shape (2) (make prior tests to achieve the shape you want). (3) I use a conical clay shaper to wrap the foil around (4), then I cut the excess putty on the side that will be inserted in the knot, creating a sharp point-like shape that will ease the next steps (5). I use again my clay shaper to handle the part (6) and I insert it in the hollow that I have adapted previously for this step (7). Finally (8), I adjust the shape of the part by bending it. I repeat the same operations on the other side (9); this time, the part is positioned on the opposite of the knot. You're free to play with asymmetry to give it some more visual impact, traits.

Final pictures

I make the last adjustments of the shape, mostly hear the edges, to give it some more visual impact again. Then, I bake the mini to harden everything. Finally, once everything has cooled down, I sand it to remove the surface flaws and improve the shape of the edges.

The same technique can be used for other shapes, like below. I have also used it even at other scales (like on the Chained Gangsta Inmate or the Vato Minimonsta) and in general I always find it a really pleasant exercise.

Last words

This kind of mini is a bit far from the ones we usually see in the world of (fantasy) miniatures, but the technique remains mostly the same as it roughly only depends on the putty and on the size of the project. So I hope this tutorial can give you some ideas that you can adapt to other projects.

Although this tutorial is quite old, when I have sculpted the 4th version in 2014 (4 years after I initially wrote the tutorial), I used roughly the same techniques, that still seemed relevant.

The pics above show the details of the sculpture of version 2 of the Skull Vato design, and the final pics of the first version (with the bandana over the lower part of the head). Versions 3 are shown below, with relevant links.

Version 3: sculpture - painted .
Version 4: sculpture .

Note: the main tools used for this mini are shown below:

- a caliper, used escpecially for the armature, and also for checking easily and quiclmy the volumes at the beginning, etc. The goal is not to try and reproduce "accurate dimensions", but rather to get rough sizes and shapes quickly.

- a modelling knife

- a spatula and a house-made spatula-like tool

- a clay shaper

These are not the only tools I have used here, but they are those I used the most on this project. More about tools in general here (currently only in French).

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