Soft Sculpture: Jack!

© Xan Blackburn 2012
Greyhound soft sculpture

Back in April, I participated in an auction, committing to create a soft sculpture portrait for the highest bidder.  Marcy won on May 1st, and she chose Jack, her brindle greyhound, to be the subject of our portrait.

Yes: May. ¬†So, it’s been a long-term project, you might say! ¬†Let’s get to it, shall we?

Brindle Greyhound Soft Sculpture

But first, what am I doing??

Jack’s portrait started before the auction even began, as I dove into researching techniques for creating soft sculptures and art dolls. ¬†It got to the point I was dreaming about piecing and jointing! ¬†When it finally came time to start, I had worked out that I wanted to do a jointed sculpture, rather than one in a set pose. ¬†That was a pretty ambitious way to start my learning curve (oh, did I neglect to say, this is the first critter I’ve attempted to sew in about 30 years, at which time I was winging it, as well?), but I got really fixated on the idea of a jointed dog early on. ¬†I had lots of other stuff to pin down (as it were) after that though.
How many joints? ¬†What kind of joints? ¬†Button-joints? ¬†Bead joints? ¬†Hidden button or bead joints? ¬†(None of which I’d heard of before!)
What kind of material should I use to represent this fawn brindle greyhound?  Should I try to find something already stripy?  Embroider the stripes on plain fawn-colored fabric?  Paint them?
What about eyes?  Button eyes?  Painted eyes?  Needle-sculpted eyes?  Embroidered?
Should my sculpture have an armature, or be able to stand or flop about on his own?
How realistic did I want to get? ¬†Trusty pencil, let’s see what we come up with.

Okay, that’s pretty realistic. ¬†And it has lots of pieces. ¬†I think. ¬†But, I like how it looks so far.

Note that the feet look like they’re broken or something. ¬†That’s to indicate they’ll be darted to make them bend the right way. ¬†(It’s complicated!)
greyhound soft sculpture, sketch 2: exploded
Now to see how many pieces are actually in that concept drawing.
Uh. ¬†Okay, I see I have NO idea how to translate the curvy gussets (the inserted pieces that give width, among other magical powers) to flat pieces of fabric. ¬†That took … well, it took a long time, alright? ¬†I also had no idea just how deep or wide to make my darts (that’s essentially where you remove fabric, which can create either roundness or remove roundness – obviously, also magical).
I thought I might try my hand at a 3d sketch, to get more of a handle on the shapeliness, and think about joints.
greyhound soft sculpture, Sculpy sketch
What I worked out here was: no joint for the head, button joints for the shoulders, hips and knees, and gusset joints (ball? hidden button?) for the elbow and hock.
After a trip to the fabric store, the hardware store, and hours poring over books and websites, I settled on the heavy velour-ish herringbone-ish fabric of our bedroom curtains (re-use!), with a plan to embroider the stripes with black yarn (and possibly embroidery thread, on the face). ¬†I was thrilled to obtain a bag of hand-made ceramic buttons, which I thought would give real character to the joints (but which turned out to be hole-less, and un-useable, which is why they were on the “seconds” table!) ¬†I had also bought some blanks to make fabric-covered buttons, so I had a back-up plan.

First Attempt(s)

I will now fast forward through the following months of trial and error, in this pictorial review.
first attempt, already simplified considerably from original drawing,
cut and pinned for sewing
(piece above head is a gusset for the head top)
custom cloth-covered buttons,
hand-made ceramic heart button, and heart-shaped pillow
cloth-covered buttons, early painting stage: rejects!
First attempt at cloth-covered buttons: material is too thin
Attempts at needle-sculpting eyes.
Note how fray-y the edges are, and how thick the fabric.
This was a thorny problem throughout.
First attempt: sewn and turned, head stuffed, and pieces placed where they
will be sewn
First attemp: uh, yeah. ¬†I see some issues here. ¬†What’s with those paws? ¬†And what on earth
is that disembodied head glaring at??  Help!
Oh dear.
Note the needle-sculpting on the head, the partly painted eye,
and the weird spider legs!!

Blood, Sweat and (yes) Tears

Okay, there was nothing salvageable from that first attempt, or the other sets of ears, eyes, tail and heads I haven’t bothered to show you. ¬†Time to start over, using what I’d learned. ¬†I took a much more simplified approach, starting from this sketch:
2nd attempt: much simplified greyhound soft sculpture pattern
Turns out, the head looked like a tiny torpedo, and the ears were too small, so those joined the reject pile as well, bringing us to this head, which finally worked.
Head pattern: top gusset, bottom gusset, side and ear

I might still make some tweaks on that, if I ever did this again, but this worked quite well. ¬†The colored lines mark where each piece has to align with the others. ¬†Pinning and hand-sewing them all was a lot like doing surgery on a porcupine. ¬†People like me should not be allowed around sharp objects. ¬†That’s where the blood comes in.

I will spare you all the pictures of how I got it all done, and just show you my final products, eh?
Jack: greyhound soft sculpture
© Xan Blackburn 2012
He stands!
Jack: greyhound soft sculpture
© Xan Blackburn 2012
He has a flippy ear, like his name-sake
You can also just see the button on top of his head, allowing him to turn it from side to side
Jack: greyhound soft sculpture
© Xan Blackburn 2012
You can see the oval paw pads, and his pose-ability, here.
You can also see his heart: the ceramic button, sewed onto a stuffed fabric heart.
His collar is a layer of that gold mottled fabric, with the ribbon sewn on.
Jack: greyhound soft sculpture
© Xan Blackburn 2012
His tail also has a button joint, allowing it to move fairly freely
Jack: greyhound soft sculpture
© Xan Blackburn 2012
Showing the embroidery detail down his back, and his tail’s button joint
Jack: greyhound soft sculpture
© Xan Blackburn 2012
He can even roach!
Note that his neck can move up and down, and his head can turn side to side.
Last but not least, I’ll leave you with his gentle, mischievous smile, so you can get another look at those eyes. ¬†They’re embroidered in several colors of embroidery floss. ¬†I actually mixed threads (un-winding individual threads from the floss) to get the mixing in his irises.
Jack: greyhound soft sculpture
© Xan Blackburn 2012
Embroidered stripes on the head are with cotton embroidery cord for finer detail, while the ears and body were embroidered with yarn.


What to do with 7 heads, and a headless spider dog?  Not to mention all those eyes, ears and disembodied parts??
Pattern pieces tried and rejected

Now What?

Some of you may recall that I was in the midst of a portrait of a puppy and her human dad. ¬†That is getting put back into top priority. ¬†Also on the board is a holiday card design for a corporate client (our third together, and I’m really pleased with our concept!), wrapping up a logo for another real estate agent, and … I’d like to do a portrait marathon before the holidays!
Stay tuned!

Petey: time for a new color

Petey in progress – Detail
acrylic on canvas panel, 8 x 10
© Xan Blackburn 2012

I swear, I haven’t been completely idle all this time!

Hope for Hounds

Since the last entry, I’ve been working on the 2012 Hope for Hounds collar and tee-shirt design, which is a yearly fundraiser, and collaborative effort between myself, 2 Hounds Design and Greytwear.  I can’t show you that design yet, since we like to make a big splash with it, but suffice it to say, it was a series of new challenges, and I learned a lot, including how to make repeating patterns using Illustrator.  That was fun!  In a tearing-my-hair-out sort of way.

Then there was a surprise health issue that took me out for a few weeks.  Bleh!  Let me just say this about that: this nation needs to have some kind of socialized medicine and price controls.  Normal people cannot afford even short-term illnesses.  I will be making a concerted effort to up my commission output accordingly!

Jack: Soft sculpture “sketch” in sculpy
© Xan Blackburn 2012

Jack: soft sculpture

Still on the books is Petey, of course, and the soft sculpture portrait I auctioned recently.  The soft sculpture got a sculpey “sketch” cobbled together while I was recovering.  That was really useful, as it clarified some issues about joints and proportions.  And it was kinda fun, too.  You can see that I’m thinking of using large buttons for 3 of the big joints (per side), and a sort of inset joint, like a clam shell holding a hot-dog, for the other two (per side).  Doing this 3D “sketch” helped me figure out where the main body will have to be narrow to allow the limbs to have a pleasing fullness, and to decide what parts can be sewn as one whole piece and what will have to be sewn separately and attached to the body, like the head and tail.  I’m still considering using an internal wire armature that will allow Jack to stand up, and to pose his body and head a little bit.  It’s a pretty ambitious design for a first effort, but heck!  Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

But let’s get back to Petey!


You may recall that we left Petey in a watery phase.  Very nice in its own way, but just the beginning.  I’ve been developing the underpainting, concentrating on the deep shadows and delicate striping, his darkly outlined eyes and nice big greyhound shnozzle ball.  This series of pictures demonstrates how these have built up.
Petey in progress
acrylic on canvas panel, 8 x 10
© Xan Blackburn 2012
Starting to brave the darkest darks, and establish some of the finer stripes and squiggle markings.
Petey in progress
acrylic on canvas panel, 8 x 10
© Xan Blackburn 2012
Lots more depth already here, building the form of his long face, and the cast shadow.
Petey in progress
acrylic on canvas panel, 8 x 10
© Xan Blackburn 2012
Just about ready to start in with new colors.  I’ve reclaimed a couple highlights that got washed out, on the nose and in the shadowed eye.  The perspective is shaping up nicely.  I still need to get a lot darker in the cushion as it plunges down along Petey’s throat.  The contrast between the dark shadow of the cushion and his lit face will really pop him out, too.
I’ve been using some new brushes, nice pointy round ones, and I like the variation of strokes I can get with them.  It’s hard to remember, as I curse my old splayed brushes, that once they were this springy and fine!  A new brush is a wonderful thing.  Yes it is.  
Alright, back to work!

Petey: that watery phase

Petey: Greyhound portrait in progress

Petey got some long-awaited (and well-deserved) attention today.  Let’s see where he’s at right now.
Petey: work in progress
Acrylic, 8″ x 10″
© Xan Blackburn 2012
I know I’ve said this before, but I really enjoy this phase.  There’s a dreamy quality to it, the suggestion of things not quite pinned down, but clear nonetheless.  The quality of translucent color is restful, perhaps even because the contrast of light and dark (value) is so subtle.  
Still, that’s not where we will stop with young Petey.  Onward!
To re-cap, here’s where we started with Petey.  The reference picture,
and the first washes of color.
Petey: work in progress
Acrylic, 8″ x 10″
© Xan Blackburn 2012

Today, I started in with the the values, beginning to establish the dark areas with a very cool blue, to contrast with his soft gold highlights.  With my usual timidity, I haven’t committed to anything very dark yet, telling myself to build up to the darkest darks in layers for maximum control and depth of color.  Some of the dark areas will warm up considerably before I’m done, but I want this coolness to be at the base, reflecting through the subsequent layers.  

I can afford to be a little loose here, but, like a skeleton inside a body, these darker values will always be the underlaying structure, and if they’re way off, it will show, deforming the final painting.  Hence my timidity!  

Soft Sculpture

I’ve been immersing myself in all things soft-sculpture for the last week or two, in full research and inner-creativity mode.  This is to fulfill my donation of a soft sculpture portrait in the recent Portrait Auction.  My winning bidder has a brindle greyhound, so that’s my challenge.
My desk is littered with sketches and notes, and my project table has a big pile of collected materials.  
My plan so far is to use a combination of techniques, including a wire armature for the head, and spine (not sure about the tail, yet), button joints for the shoulders, hips and maybe the knees, and ball-bead joints for the elbows and hocks.  I don’t know why I’m jumping into such a complicated, articulated sculpture right off the bat, but what the heck: in for a penny, in for a pound!  
I went shopping on Monday.  I covered three stores: Hardware Sales (I could spend DAYS in there!), Goodwill (looking for fabrics, notions, and inspirational stuff), and JoAnn’s.  I sort of struck out in Goodwill, and was hoping for success in JoAnn’s, but was a little frustrated for the main item: fabric.  I wasn’t sure what I wanted, but was hoping to be struck by the lightening of Rightness when I ran across it.  Not so much.  
My winner’s taste runs to the Victoriana, shabby chic sort, and my subject is a brindle greyhound with well-spaced stripes, and a thing for bananas.    The sculpture will hopefully be pretty poseable, and include a banana in some way.  Or, posed, with a banana.  We’ll see.  I chose a soft gold, mottled, fabric for the body.  I may add some other bits as I go along.  I also bought some black yarn to embroider the brindle stripes, buttons and beads for the joints, doll making needles (very long) to sew them, insulated copper wire for the spine, nylon tubing for the leg bones (not sure I’ll use that, but …), heavy duty thread to hold the joints together, and two sizes of hemostats for stuffing.  Really.  Oh, and knitting needles to stuff and turn the narrow bits, too.  I already have batting.  My good friend and fellow artist, Jonni Good, has sent me some Apoxie Sculpt she had but wasn’t using, which I’ve been lusting for but was too cheap to purchase.  I’m not sure it will get into this sculpture, but I can’t wait to experiment with it!  It could be a nose, claws, or eyes, which would make a neat sort of textural contrast to a stuffed cloth dog.  
We’ll see how this evolves.  I’ll definitely be showing you the process I go through.

Seven – no, EIGHT – Pet Artists in one fundraiser!

Detail of Minke
eyes are leather buttons, painted with

I’ll be creating a soft sculpture portrait: a first for me!  
{edit: bidding is now closed.  Thanks to all the participants!}

If you’ve been reading my blog, it’s probably because of my pet portrait work.  I’m really stepping outside my own box for this one, since I was in such challengingly unusual and talented company in this auction.

Sculpture has always been a big draw for me, but for some reason, I’ve only dabbled.

primitive soft sculpture for my sister,
who’s last name is Vinke

Wax portrait, cast from clay portrait bust
© Xan Blackburn 2012

I did a bunch of soft sculpture in my mid-20s, I have a drawer full of nice wood-carving tools, another with various polymer clays  I kept a wax mask of a clay portrait I made that was meant to be used in a bronze-casting class, but never was.  I got excited about paper mache a little while ago, and created a portrait of my friend Billie’s dog, Buddy.  I’d love to do ceramic sculpture, but not having a kiln has always seemed too big a barrier to start.

But this opportunity just screamed sculpture to me.

I’ve been taking bits of time here and there to look at what others have done in this area: art dolls, soft sculpture, softies, stuffies … As you might guess, is nearly a bottomless source of inspiration and wonder (just for starters …)  Among so many fun, amazing, funky, funny, purposely ugly, primitive and positively ornate offerings, there are many that have fired my imagination.  Lisa Lichtenfels absolutely knocks my socks off.  I’m thinking I might have to add soft sculpture to my repertoire on a permanent basis.

You might think it would be a drawback that I haven’t got a sewing machine.  Well, they scare me, y’know?  I ran my mom’s sewing machine needle into my thumbnail when I was little, and haven’t been the same since.  Childhood trauma.  You know.  So, I’ll be hand-stitching.  I’m sort of obsessive when I do sew, and my stitches are tiny, which is good, but time-consuming.  I also have a tendency to stick needles and pins into me, which I like to think means that there is literally a bit of my heart in each thing I sew.

I’m not at all sure how I’ll approach my winner’s pet portrait.  Depends on the pet, the owner, and the synergy that always happens there.  I have a feeling I’ll be using a mix of techniques.  Maybe the doll will be posable, with a wire armature or joints.  Maybe there will be a mix of materials, both hard and soft.  Maybe there will be recycled materials involved, to honor the recycled nature of an adopted pet.

We’ll know pretty soon who the winner is!  If you want it to be you, get bidding!  ūüėČ

The Auction is ON!

Born to Run Global Sighthound Rescue

Read all about it over here, but the main idea is:
Seven artists, all totally different, offering their unique and amazing talents to create pet portraits for seven lucky bidders!
I’m doing a soft sculpture, which should be a lot of fun.  I can’t wait to get going on it!
Go and bid!  ūüėÄ

Edited to add:
Thanks Jonni Good (one of the seven artists participating in the auction) for the very nice blog post about this!

Keeping it fresh!

See a difference around here?
I just finished my web re-design.  Tell me what you think!  Go take a look at my website and give me some feedback, okay?

Okay, now I can work on Petey some more!

Reminder!  Make sure you’re ready to bid on the SEVEN ARTIST Pet Portrait Artist Auction starting on April 20th at 9am Pacific time!