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!

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!  😉

Some ART, finally!

(Apologies for the lousy photos! I used my phone camera for most of these, but you can still get the basic ideas I’m trying to share!)

An artist friend of mine, Billie, did this sweet little Etude of my darling Wabi,
Billie's "Etude" of Wabi
which I insisted we trade for.

Those of you who know me have heard allllll about my total artistic block, lately (for most of the last year!) What to do?? I wanted to do a portrait of her little Buddy dog, but … there’s that little issue of The BLOCK! :^P

I had decided to try some new media, new anything, to see if I couldn’t loosen up The Block. I wanted to do some sculpture, and paper mache seemed like a pretty inexpensive way to achieve 3-D without dipping into the bank account during the learning curve.

I decided to try a “bust” of Buddy, hopefully getting across a particular expression that Billie likes,
showing his little lower canines sticking up (like my own Wabi’s!)

I played around some with making pulp, which was fun, but it was so goopy and rough. I experimented with building up using wadded paper, then paper strips,
then details in the pulp …
Maybe the toilet paper core wasn’t such a good idea for the muzzle!
Or just pure pulp …
(Yes, that’s a mouse, not Buddy! I said I was experimenting!)
😛 Not too happy with any of this! (There’s that learning curve, eh? Well, hopefully there’s a curve!)

So, I did some research, and came across this marvelous artist doing fabulous paper mache sculpture. Luckily for me, Jonni also posts tutorials in her blog. Bingo. I decided to try out her techniques on my portrait of Buddy.

With the experience of two failed heads behind me already, and the weirdness of the idea of a dog’s head on a base (hang it on the wall like a hunting trophy? set it on the coffee table staring up at you?), I decided to go for the whole body pose.
“Rub my tummy!” Love it!

Using Jonni’s technique of the cardboard cut out guide and armature, I drew out cross-sections of the body with the neck and head, then all four legs and the tail, and cut them out of cardboard.

Then I started adding wads of paper, keeping in mind the underlying muscles and bones, etc., wrapping it all together at this stage with masking tape.
Know what? Masking tape is sticky! 😛 Kind of a pain when one hand is trying to hold a wad of paper that wants to unwad and fall off, and the other is trying to tear off a useable piece of sticky tape, and then put it somewhere other than your hand! But, how fun to see the flat cut-outs become the fully dimensional dog, even at this rough stage!

Here it is, pretty well taped up and ready for the first layer of paper mache:

I decided early on that I’d forgo the details like toes and claws, and concentrate that level of detail in the face. I did, however, decide I couldn’t leave out his little hoo-hoo. So, there it is. (Funny story about that. I had to remove it and start over as it got … quite large, with the added layers of paper! A bit too … erm … distracting.)

Jonni says she likes to use brown paper bags, but apparently Trader Joe’s uses mighty thick paper. It was very unfriendly. I happened to have a lot of white newsprint-type paper that came to me as packing material. It made wonderful paper mache; very melty, and looked so nice right off the bat. Kind of like porcelain.

At this stage, I had to give it a rest to dry. But I just was NOT happy with this head! It was too big. It looked like a Boston bull terrier or a flying pig. Well, one of my mottos is, If it’s not right, it’s not right. The next morning, I took my bread knife, and decapitated poor Buddy.
Yet one more head to the waste pile!

I was especially not looking forward to doing the ears over. That was a process of using stiffer paper (a flour bag, in this case), cutting out an ear shape, with tabs to attach it to the head, curling it around, and taping it down, before building it up with paper mache. Tricky, but at least I had learned to tear up lots of tape bits to be ready when needed!

Okay, so I redid a smaller, narrower muzzled cardboard armature, wadded and taped it up, leaving room for the bulbous eyes to be added on as details, which is part of where I’d gone wrong before.

Paper mached the skin, detailed the eyes and muzzle, got those ears done. The eyes I tried to get to show the white cornea/inner lid (whatever that is!), so the direction of the gaze would be obvious when painted later. The eyelids and eyebrows were liberally soaked and shaped from paper and the flour paste. See below for a close-up of the face details.

I found a paintbrush extremely useful for forming the paper into tight areas, like around the eyes, ears, nostrils, lips, and in the folds where the limbs join. I also ended up keeping a damp rag near to occasionally wipe off the accumulated goop drying on my hands and between my fingers.

Break for drying. Oh yeah! I put Buddy in the oven to dry at 225’ F, as suggested in Jonni’s tutorials. Do you know the smell of toasting paper and flour? That smell right before it catches fire? ;P Buddy was too big to truly fit, so I had to leave the door open a bit, and tented with foil to hopefully keep most of the heat in. I think it confused the thermostat. Anyway, it didn’t actually burn, just … got dark and toasty, and only in a couple places!

At this point, Jonni suggests using joint compound (used on drywall, before painting) to smooth out the sculpture. That was the part I was very interested to try, since smoothing was a big concern of mine. I ended up spreading it on full strength (not diluting it as suggested), mostly with the back of a spoon, and smoothing it with a damp paintbrush. The challenge, as it turned out was to avoid getting little voids or bubbles under a skin of compound that showed up later when sanded. But it was fun!

Sanding was less fun, but very rewarding, nonetheless.

Next layer of paper mache went pretty quickly, but I took the opportunity to fill in some areas that I thought were skimpy. Especially the belly, which I wanted to be irresistibly round. Then I wanted to do yet another smoothing layer of joint compound. Then sanded again. At this point, H commented, “This project is getting a little obsessive, isn’t it?” Heh heh! Well, I was using it to learn, too!

Maybe he was objecting as much to the total use of the kitchen counter for several days. ☺

Finally time to prime! Since the primer is white, and so is the joint compound, I wanted to see where the primer was, so I tinted it with India ink. Buddy is mostly black, so I figured that would get me that much closer, anyway.

I rested him on a pillow wrapped in a plastic bag while I worked on the underside, to protect his breakable top side stuff (legs, ears, facial details).

Once Buddy was all primed, the surface looked to me like ceramic, or plaster. Like a bronze casting positive. I said so to H, who had apparently said so some time before, and I forgot. (Xan forgot something? SO unlike me!) Well, NOW I thought it was a good idea! 🙂 Though it was hard to let go of the painting details I wanted to do (pink showing through on the belly, whites in the eyes…). I went online again, and found a metallic finish in a water-based acrylic solution that got good reviews, called Sophisticated Finishes. I chose their blackened bronze, and H managed to find it for me at Michael’s. It was exciting painting it on! The coverage was amazing, like painting with liquid bronze! I did one layer of their sealer as well, for a final effect of a big bronze casting, very shiny, with the pinkish highlights and greenish-black shadow tones of bronze. Or dark chocolate. Well, either way, pretty good!

Here’s the final product.



A little closer up on the face:

Buddy is a cute little guy. I get to meet him and his mom in person in October, and I can’t wait!
Hope you enjoyed the ride with me. I love comments! Like, suggestions what to do with these extra dog heads!