The Making of Shiny Umbreon
Please note, my husband does all of the wiring and electronics for my sculptures. This walkthrough focuses on the sculpture side only. If you are interested in learning more about electronics and LEDs, check out MAKE Magazine and Adafruit.com.
1. Half Scale Sculpey Mock-Up : There are several important aspects to making electronic sculptures in the way that I do. Firstly and most importantly, electronics cannot be baked in the oven. This will destroy them. Secondly, in order for the sculpture to light up properly, certain areas need to be made hollow.
Due to the fact I cannot bake the sculpture, I use Apoxie Sculpt almost exclusively to make an electronic piece. Since Apoxie is an air dry clay, there is limited time to get the forms accurate, especially when also needing to worry about working with hollow forms. Everything must be planned out in advance before jumping in.
That’s where this little mock-up comes in! I think of it as a little clay sketch that I use for reference when creating my final piece. I use it as reference for pose and proportions. I can also use it to work out any changes during the creation of the piece. I can modify the pose easily on the mock up before doing something potentially destructive on the final piece.
2. Armature and Wiring : The armature is made from heavy gauge aluminum wire, wrapped with a thin gauge wire. This helps clay stick to the armature. I next wrap the electronic wires, starting at the head, and positioning the LEDs as I go along. I have one for each ear, one for the forehead, one for the shoulders, one for the hips, and one for the tail. The excess wire is run through a hole in the base at the tail and attaches to the electronics board inside the base box.
It is not pictured here, but I also tightly wrap the electronic wires with electrical tape to keep them in place on the armature. I am very careful not to obscure any of the LEDs and allow them to still bend freely so I can reposition them later as needed. At this point, my husband solders everything in place, including the power adapter and switch. I can now test how the lights look as I go along.
3. Phase 1 Forms and Lights : This photo shows what the sculpture looked like after a few sculpting sessions. I like to start with “solid” areas that won’t be lit. In this case, the upper/mid tail and the lower legs. I then create hollow “cages” using wire mesh around areas that will be lit. In this stage, I needed to do that for the thigh/hip area. I carefully line these cages with foil to get optimum glow from the LEDs. This takes a lot of adjusting to get it right and there is no real trick to it. It’s just working till it looks how you want it to.
For the markings, I cut out circles in the wire mesh forms. I glue into place thin, baked sheets of translucent blue Premo! clay that have been cut into the proper shape. I then Apoxie over this.
I make sure to let each session dry long enough so that it holds up to pressure. That makes it a lot easier to move on to the next sculpting stage. After I get the forms right, I keep moving upwards on the body. If I make any mistakes, I immediately undo it before the clay cures. It’s very difficult to fix Apoxie once it is cured as it becomes rock solid.
4. Phase 2 Forms and Details : I tackled the chest in the same way that I did the hips/legs. It was very tricky in both of these steps to position the single LED so that it evenly lit both sides. In the future, I would think about using two separate lights; one for each limb.
When I am working with Apoxie, I sand as I go along. I always wear a good dust mask when sanding Apoxie Sculpt. As I working on new phases, I also go back to previous phases to make corrections, fill in seams and divots, and start adding details like fur. I smooth everything together using a little bit of water.
5. Final Form, Sanded : The head was the hardest part of this sculpture. I ended up completely resculpting it at one point. The light-up marking was the biggest obstacle. I didn’t have a lot of room to work with the LED as I did with the previous lights. It was also tricky to get the correct angle on the blue disc. But with a lot of tweaking, I finally got it looking right.
The ears were done separately. The tips of the ears were made out of sculpey/premo and baked separately from the main sculpture. I then attached them to the rest of the ear using Apoxie sculpt. I used a similar process for the tip of the tail. This was done to get the proper curve and shape for the areas that need to be lit.
Before priming, I cover the lit areas with a bit of unbaked Sculpey. I can then remove the clay afterwards and have a perfectly primed piece.
6 Final Form, Painted and Lit : I painted this with Delta Ceramcoat acrylics, taking extreme care not to get any paint on the lit areas. I check for any light “leaks” and paint over them as needed. I carefully remove any stray paint flecks using an xacto knife.
Hopefully this gets some of your brain juices flowing. Combining electronics and sculpture is always a lot of problem solving. But it’s also a lot of fun. Experiment. Take your time. Try new things over and over. Eventually you will start figuring things out, just like I do. I completely make all this up as I go along. No one taught me any of this!
Want to learn how to sculpt like I do? My book Creature Sculpt will teach you everything you need to know! Check out all the information here!
I will have limited commission slots available on January 15, 2014. This is the day I begin accepting payments so get your quote request in early! To read my commission policy, pricing, and information on how to get a slot, go here.
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