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  • Writer's pictureMaking To Make Happy

Keep on Learning

Part of having Joy in the Process for me is the learning. There is still so much I don't know, and things I don't even know to enquire about. So any short courses or tutorials I can access are a great thing as other people are a treasure trove of knowledge.

Just yesterday I completed a week-long summer school course in Prop-Making at The Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Considering it was so short a time we covered a lot of ground and it was thoroughly enjoyable to be in such a great workshop surrounded by like-minded makers.

Plaster casting

Early in the week we got to grips with plaster casting - I think by the end I was finally getting the hang of working out the different consistencies. At first I just kept making either milk or cream cheese, missing the happy mediums in the middle - but it was messy fun when it came right. We built up a mask in clay from a reference picture - I chose a half-face Venetian style with a big nose (1) - and then poured layers of plaster onto it to create a cast. The first layers were a thinner consistency, so as to creep into all the little crevices of the sculpture; the further layers were thicker meaning they could hold firm as it grew higher and not just spill out everywhere. We left it to set and once it was hard and cooler we removed the clay from inside.

Then we poured latex into the plaster mould and swirled it around so as to cover the whole of the inside - after a few minutes we tipped out any excess latex to stop it pooling in the deep recesses and left out to dry for the rest of the week. Once pulled out you're left with a rubbery cast of your original sculpture, which can be painted and back-filled to hold it's form. I didn't have time to paint mine so that will be something to continue with in the Shed.

In other plaster casting news, we created moulds around vegetables (2) so that we could later pour in an alginate solution which would create a silicone version of the original - a great way of creating fake food for shows! Mine was a small centre of a lettuce and I'll be having a go at painting that up in the Shed too.

Polystyrene Sculpture

We made two things by carving polystyrene - a doughnut (3), which was straightforward, and a skull (4), which was trickier. The doughnut was a simple circle shape, with a hole cut out of the centre, which was rounded off on all the edges. After sanding it a Fire-Retardant paint was used as a base coat (to keep it safe from stage lights) and then plaster was put on top for the cream...mine was really thick but I liked it! I left that for painting in my Shed as it was a simpler design.

We were given a bit of a shortcut to start the skull as our pieces were cut flat on a bandsaw to get the most excess cut away. However, after that it was all a case of finding our way. Keeping a skull model in front of us we used it to reference where eye sockets should be, nose sockets, deep recesses and shadows. I found the jaw particularly tricksy, and sadly knocked a bit off that I shouldn't have...meaning I had to even it up on the other side and it made him look far more ape-like! If I'd have had more time I might have stuck the bit back on but it was hard to find it amongst all our shavings. Still, I'm pretty happy with it as a first attempt and I'd like to do it again, even just in clay, to see if I can do a better job next time.


I had not heard of Worbla before this course and now, if I can only find myself a heat gun, I'm interested to use it again in future. It's a kind of heat-activated mouldable plastic. We used it to create masks over clay sculpted faces (5). At first, not really understanding what I was doing properly but just having a go, I used rectangle pieces and just lay them over my clay face in layers. It just looked like I was making a mummy! But looking around at others I started to learn there were better techniques. By cutting up more precise strips there were less edges to blend in, and also, you can keep re-heating the worbla while it is on the sculpture to allow for further blending and shaping. A-haaaa!

So therefore, despite slightly cocking up my mask, I was determined to have another go with a different item later and to do it better. I got my chance with my second dagger...

A tale of two daggers...

We were allowed to choose our own prop to make in the last couple of days and, in trying to think of something which might be useful in future (but that could be made within a day!), I chose to try for a dagger (6). I had a reference photo of an old 1500s dagger that I saw in the Museum of London, so that was the starting point.

I was allowed to use the bandsaw (yaaaayyy!) to cut out my basic shape in wood and then the big electric sander (yaaayyy!) to create a nice pointy end for the blade. I had a practice blade first which came out pretty good, so I plunged in on the proper one.

I was a little unsure at first which method to try in order to build up the handle. I had thought of worbla, but needed something to form it around and I faffed about a bit trialling masking tape, twines etc. The tutor suggested I might be able to get a result with air-drying clay (although it might crack a bit). However, as it was an old rusty dagger that I was trying to replicate, the odd crack sounded like it might be useful in making it seem aged - so to the clay I went. I added in some cord to seem like carved detail and then left it to dry.

I still wanted another go with the worbla though, so I took my practice dagger point and figured I'd use it. I just began cutting up thin strips and rolling or twisting them into cords, then intertwining them to try and create intricate patterns. I loved it! Cutting tiny leaves and attaching them in, gradually building it up little by little...I was in my happy place.

Lastly we painted and decorated as much as we could, using emulsion paints mostly - very satisfying all round. I was able to try out gold (brass) leafing too which I was super happy about and will definitely try again with in the Shed. I will carry on the painting of each of these now I'm home and see if I can make them better.

All told, a very enjoyable week of learning, getting stuff wrong and getting stuff right.


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