The Bird Sculpture Process
I love being outside and hiking in nature. What does that have to do with bird sculpture? Everything, actually! I love the scenery, trees, rocks, stumps, sky and clouds, the breeze, the quiet, and of course, the birds. I can't be deprived of solid time in nature, or I start to get cranky after a while. It's the best therapy there is for me...a huge part of who I am and a peaceful place of refuge.
When I am outdoors I am just a simple observer and can think of nothing else except what is before me. I will notice the curve of a stump or how a burl blends into some moss...simple ideas from nature that might give me compositional ideas for a future bird sculpture.
I typically decide what type of composition I want, maybe a branch, or a stump, or rock, and THEN after that, I will decide what kind of bird I want to add to the concept. Long before I begin the actual sculptures, I have hundreds of ideas that have been percolating in my head for many years, with new ones coming constantly. I know that I will never be able to complete all of these projects in my lifetime, but that is okay because at least I will never be bored or run out of ideas.
Once I have a basic idea of what I want to do next, I begin really researching in depth, whenever possible, the particular species of bird I am planning to do. There simply isn't any way to duplicate reference and personal knowledge of the bird. Your artistic skills are worthless if you don't know your subject. You will only be as good as your knowledge of the species. I just can't say that enough.
I have thousands of reference photos of hundreds of species that I have gathered over many years, and I am always adding to these collections. My goal is to know and understand the species as well as I am able. The ones I know best are usually the ones I seem to sculpt over and over again. We all have our own favorites.
Once I have decided on a species, as I am going through my photos, I am asking myself; what it is about that species that I want to portray in this piece? What do I want to emphasize? For example, a screech owl has a very short tail and thinner wings; not really that beautiful in flight, but the dramatic face and powerfully huge eyes are a great focal point. Their little body is a fluffy ball of cryptic colorations so those are the main things that I would want to show in the piece. Seeing a fluffy resting screech owl with eyes partly closed, feathers moving various directions with fullness, gives me a feeling of calm and peacefulness. (This is much harder to explain in words than it would be to SHOW what I mean in a sculpture.)
Another example would be if I were to sculpt a blue jay, the beautiful blues with dark barring and colorations of the wing and tail are things I would want to showcase. Blue jays are highly active and movement is part of their personality... these are aspects that I would also want to show.
Once I feel like I have a basic direction to go, I may rough sketch out my idea, or I may just jump into a small clay maquette. A maquette is a "rough idea" clay sculpture similar to a painter "sketching" out a composition, but the maquette is obviously in 3-D. This helps me work out compositional problems before I start on the actual sculpture. It also helps me think through the possible poses and gives me the chance to visualize where it will go.
(A blue Jay maquette)
"Blue Autumn" the completed piece
My goal with these compositional maquettes isn't to do any real detail, but to get a feeling or snapshot of what I want to portray in the piece. I have learned over many years NOT to put too much work into these early stages because I will ALWAYS change my pieces many, many times before I am finished anyway!
Once I have my design to this point, I then put all my research information together, which includes measurements of the bird, my reference photos, and reference base material (like a leaf or branch, etc.) This preparation saves me a lot of time down the road.
Sculpture Rough In:
The initial "rough in" of the actual sculpture is a lot of fun. It is basically me slapping together mounds of clay on a melamine board to build up a mass that will become my basic shape. The water clay I use (professional stoneware clay) is extremely soft at first and feels like firm mud. It can get pretty messy but the little boy in me comes out and has a good time!
(An owl in the very early stages of roughing in the sculpture.)
My type of sculpture process includes adding and subtracting clay over time until I arrive at whatever it is that I want to portray. Some sculpture processes are subtractive only in nature, like stone sculpture or wood carving. With those mediums, you can only subtract material but can't put it back on. With clay, you get the luxury of adding or subtracting clay, or changing your mind altogether and doing something completely different than you initially planned to do! The only bad thing about this kind of sculpture is that if you can't commit to anything, then you can go on forever...(ask me how I know...)
The biggest challenge of sculpting in water based clay, is that you must control the evaporation and drying of the clay. As the piece dries, you gain firmness and ability to do detail work, but lose the option to change anything. It is a battle at times. I live in a very dry, high altitude climate (Utah) so sculptures can dry very quickly. I control the drying speed with plastic, water sponges, spray bottles, etc.
Early on in the process, I will also need to hollow the piece so that it can fire properly down the road. If the sculpture walls are too thick, you risk the possibility of the whole thing exploding in the kiln when being fired. All those hours of work ka blooowee! (That wouldn't be a good day!) So I want to do all I can to prevent it.
The early sculpture process goes fairly quickly, putting in the basic shapes; wings, tail, head, and all of the rough form, and then the detailing can begin. First feather groups, and then individual feathers. The detailing process takes an enormous amount of time and is probably close to 70-80% of the total time required for the sculpture.
("Blue Autumn" blue jay sculpture detail)
Once the piece is completely detailed and I have everything the way I want it, then I allow it to fully dry out. This must be done very slowly or there will be cracking. I continue to control the drying time with plastic bags and moderating room temperatures. This portion cannot be sped up. Depending on the size of the piece, it will require weeks or even months to properly dry. About a week before I fire the sculpture in a kiln, I will put it in an oven at 150 degrees (F) for at least a week. This is just insurance for me so that I know that it is completely dry.
The piece is fired in a pottery kiln for 24 hours with temperatures rising very slowly and also decreasing very slowly--all of which prevents cracking. Once the piece is fired, it is left in the kiln for another 24 hours for final cooling to room temperature. The fired sculpture is pure white.
A base coat of gesso (a foundational fine art primer) is brushed onto the piece in preparation for painting. Though I enjoy many of the processes with this type of sculpture, my favorite part by far is the final painting. A lot of it has to do with the fact that almost all of the decisions in the sculpture have been made. Once the piece goes into the kiln, it is final--no more changes! No more trying to decide what I need to change or questioning myself...it is done. Now I just need to finish it--the icing on the cake!
Painting isn't relaxing by the way, (at least not for me!) It still requires a great deal of focus and decision making in order to do high quality work, but I love it! The temptation is to just "illustrate" the colors of the bird and call it good. I enjoy a painting style called "painterly painting." This is when you paint the sculpture as it would be on a canvas. For example, if I were painting a bald eagle head and I just painted it white, it would look fake, flat, boring, amateur, and craft like. (Blech...) BUT if I were to paint all of the values (dark and light) in colors MIXED with white, adding grays, blues, greens, oranges, yellows, etc., then the piece looks like a painting...a 3-D painting. THAT is what I want to show in these sculptures.
I paint with a light source....which means that I decide on a direction the light is coming from onto the sculpture. Is it morning or evening? Is it fall or summer? All of these and similar questions are ones I ask myself to help determine the type of painting I will do. If I add in fall leaves, maybe I will cut some of the color saturation on the leaves so that their colors don't dominate the piece and distract your eye from the main subject...the bird. Everything is an orchestration of the whole piece and will determine the final outcome and emotion.
The paints I use are high quality professional grade fine art oil paints. There are numerous paints out there that are much cheaper, but they aren't worth it to me. Those that I use are rated at 100+ years archival quality. Which means that they will not fade or crack for 100 years or more when properly cared for. There is a rich, velvety look that shows from high quality oil painting, I love the look.
Painting style is personal and unique to teach of us who paint. With each bird I do I am learning more and more about brush work and blending my colors. My goal is to create an emotion in the person who sees it, and I feel that high quality painting helps create those emotions.
Once the paint dries (it can take up to several months), then a high quality professional varnish is brushed over the paint to give it a slight sheen and to seal the colors onto the piece.
"Morning Sky" (Red Screech owl)
Now it is ready to go to its new home... (And the process starts all over again!)