Thursday, October 28, 2010

Project Cthulu Gargoyle Lantern

The Horror in Clay

Earlier in the month as the Halloween decorations were starting to creep out I saw a gargoyle holding a small candle lantern. My what helpful little gargoyles I thought... not only keeping the tops of our gothic towers safe, but also well lit. But you know what would make this elaborate candle holder even more awesome? Cthulu.

As far as prolific bad guys go don't call it a come back. He's been here for years. Before there was Voldemort, before there was Darth Vader, and yes you could argue even before there was that big flaming eye tower with a taste for exotic jewelry there was H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu. Lord of R'lyeh. Horror of horrors. The ultimate big bad himself. A cross between a dragon, some bad sushi, and children’s nightmares.

Cobbling together an armature: Why I’m doing this the hard way...
There’s easier ways to do this... pre-built forms and armatures to sculpt on, metal meshes that hold shapes, materials specifically designed to be coated with clay. But we won’t be using any of that fun stuff on this project.

My work shop area is starting to be taken over by random screws, bits of wood, wire, foam, and general craft/project clutter. Rather than throw this stuff away, or attempt to organize it into a series of draws where it’s absolutely certain I’ll never look to find them again. I wanted to do a couple projects where I mostly use whatever I have on hand, and see if I can cheaply MacGyver something together.

Also I blew the art budget on making the zombie for my front yard. Way to put all my scary eggs in one basket.

Michelangelo once argued that the sculptures he made were there all along and he was just releasing them from the marble. Now just replace the finest Italian marble the Renaissance had to offer with cheap Styrofoam packaging material and you get the idea.

IKEA key wrenches - Man I’m going to feel really foolish when it comes time to move, and I need to disassemble that armoire.


The destroyer of minds cares not for the sustainability of your crappy art projects. Previous Cthulu statues were built using orphan skeletons, and thousands of old non-biodegradable McDonald’s sandwich containers.

Red Bull it gives you...ah forget it...

Anybody else up for sushi?

Yes it’s true... Cthulu’s a Cylon.

Getting back to basics
Now that I've got the armature built I'm not going to lie to you... Since I'd like to use the statue outdoors a plastic clay like Sculpty would probably be better suited for a project like this. If not sealed properly an air dried clay during a rain storm will melt faster than the Wicked Witch of the West. But I had an old bag of it lying around and I wanted to get all old school by using a clay that was essentially a fancy form of dirt.

We're going to start at the base of the statue and work our way up. Our first concern is to just get everything covered with clay. We'll build up areas and add detail later. We're at a about 4lbs of clay at this point.

Eventually I'm going to make one of the tentacles wrap around the arm holding the lantern for added support. I didn't exactly calculate the tinsel strength of the arm relative to the weight of the lantern. Worst case scenario if the lantern arm gives and falls off it'll take the whole head with it. Fortunately I'm not exactly building the lantern out of lead here.

This stuff is pretty easy to work with. It's about two steps up from play-dough

It almost looks like I know what I'm doing here

Blinging out the Cthulu
Creating some shiny red "beady" eyes by disassembling $2.00 plastic ear rings. Also originally I wanted to hang the lantern using some small metal chains. But I kept forgetting to check the junk jewelry section of the craft store for them. So a clipped section of a coat hanger will have to do. We'll paint it later and make it look fancy.

Looking at roughly 8lbs of clay... Man Cthulu's really let himself go since his old college football days.

I always feel like... somebodies watching meee....

Now we'll let this dry, and pray to the unspeakable horrors that dwell beneath the sea that it doesn't crack.

Cracked up

Well not really. But unfortunately this is pretty much par for the course when using this type of clay...

Part of the clay's mass is water. When the water evaporates the clay shrinks. If the clay doesn't dry slowly enough, dries unevenly, or doesn't have enough surface area to dry around it's armature then it cracks.

I'll be repairing the cracks by wetting things down again, and using pieces of moist clay to fill in gaps. Then we'll cover the statue in strips of wet newspaper and a plastic bag to let everything dry more slowly. If all else fails then plan B is always a combination of spackle/nail filler and super glue. Spackle/joint compound/nail filler are usually composed of some sort of gypsum mixture (basically plaster).

In some ways cracks early on are a good thing as it can tell you where the most stress is being put on the statue. If the lantern arm had more cracks in it I'd be concerned, but some of the more telling cracks pointed out that I need to do more work on the lantern itself, and the wings need some serious work.

Don't you fall apart on me you big squid... man-fish?

Cthulu demands only to be wrapped in the obituaries

Plan B
Well at least it cracked less this time... Time for a healthy dose of Spackle.

With the Spackle on we're going to gently sand things and smooth what we can out. I want to give it a stone like appearance so we can keep some imperfections.

Fixes holes, smooths sheetrock walls, repairs statues of unearthly horrors far beyond human comprehension
Priming and Stoning
First step is to cover everything with a couple coats of white primer. Then black and gray spray paint to serve as a base. To give the appearance of stone we'll be trying our luck with a cheap stone textured spray paint.

Every day I find a new use for the 6 gallons of white primer I originally bought to paint the house

hmmm stone-ish...

Faux Masonry
I'm not getting the effect I want out the budget stone spray paint I'm using (probably should have sprung for the more textured stuff) so I'll be adding my own shading and marbling effects to give it more dimension.

First we outline the crevices with black and blend it into the stone. Next the marbling technique I'll be doing is no different from how you'd marble or sponge paint a room in your house. I mix together a transparent glaze with some gray/green latex paint in a 3 to 1 ratio. The biggest mistake people make with texture effects is not using a mixing glaze.

Glaze slows the rate in which the paint dries (giving you time to work with it), and adds some transparency to the paint (which lets you smoothly blend it in with the base coat). Unfortunately skipping the mixing glaze is the reason why you see rooms "sponge" painted like they used dirty diapers as their applicator of choice.

No really... looks great...

The method here involves painting small sections of the statue with the glaze mix then using a balled up rag to quickly dab and remove some of the paint leaving behind a pattern. Alternate how the rag is held and balled up to avoid repetitious patterns. Overlap your painting area so there are no seems. Then we'll go back with a tiny brush to highlight some of the "veining" we're going for if need be.

Looks a bit more like stone with the shading at least. The mascara really brings out his eyes.

Marble effects... Wax on. Wax off. It's that simple.

The not quite green lantern
I've used gold "rub n buff" (metallic wax compound) on the lantern frame to make it look like I didn't just ruin a coat hanger to make this. I've also taken a cheap glass votive holder and lightly frosted it with gray spray paint. Then we drip some melted wax all over the place to look like Cthulu has been lighting paths for at least a little while.

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!
*cough* *cough* sorry had to clear my throat for a minute there...

[Obligatory "Need a light?" joke goes here]

I think I'm done with air dried clay for now. The biggest benefit is your armature can be made out of pretty much anything (like foam and craft junk) rather then only oven friendly items like foil, wire, and metal. Likewise I don't have to measure my oven door to make sure the ridiculous thing will fit. In the future I may try building larger sculptures out of polymer clay in separate pieces then gluing them into a finished product after baking.

I think my armature was too bulky for this project and contributed to much of the cracking. Due to the general amount of shrinkage I think air dried clay is really tough on armatures.

Freestanding wings are difficult. Cracked all over the place. Be prepared to fly high on wings of Spackle and glue.

When building a 10lb statue with big breakable wings and a lighting implement remember to put a layer of cork or felt under the statue's base BEFORE you build it out rather then finagling a protective layer on the statue's bottom almost entirely after the fact. Whoops...

The finished product is sturdy but it's extremities are still reasonably fragile. When not scaring small children on Halloween I need to put this statue in a place where the cat's can't topple a dark god. I don't know which is more evil cats, or Cthulu...

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Project Dianoga (Star Wars Trash Compactor Monster)

"Garbage chute... wonderful idea... What an incredible new smell you've discovered!" - Han Solo

Eventually I'd love to build some sort of sea monster rig to spit water from my small pond out front, but that's a bit too amphibiously ambitious right now. Still I can't resist having something scary coming out of at least one of my fountains for Halloween. So I'm settling on cranking out a Dianoga...also known as that creepy eyeball monster in the trash compactor scene in Star Wars.

Dianoga... Yes I had to look up that name too...

Maybe after this I'll bust out my vintage Rancor monster, and make it attack my Ewok tree fort play set just like old times. No... no there's almost nothing sadder than a grown man playing with his action figures. Except maybe playing with them while also wearing full blown storm trooper armor... Bonus points if the "armor" is actually painted cardboard.

Breaking it down
It doesn't matter if you're drawing, painting, sculpting or recreating an obscure monster from a popular science fiction franchise whenever you set out on an artistic project it's always good to break things down into simple shapes then build up from there. To my eye most of this garbage dwelling cyclops consists of two sphere's and a stick.

Nope totally not scary yet.

Please note I'm only replicating the head and neck portion of the monster. Apparently the rest of the creature according to wookipedia looks like a periscope strapped to an octopus.

Now I've attached a few pieces of foam to thicken out the neck as well as applied a thin sheet to connect the two spheres. Most of my foam comes from packaging or old bedding materials. Better recycled as part of a Star Wars reference then in a land fill.

Archeologists recently unearthed man's early Nerf weaponry

We need a smooth surface to create the eyeball and the porous styrofoam just isn't cutting it. So I've sealed the surface of the ball with primer then applied a round piece of smooth polymer clay. The tricky part here is using the heat gun to harden the clay in place without melting the foam ball or burning down the house.

Insert random pink-eye joke here

Now lets wrap this bad boy
I'm using about 5 pieces of torn T-shirt material to cover most of the dianoga: 2 covering the head and neck, 1 to add more details to the sides of the head, and finally 2 folded pieces that make up the eyelids.

OK now we're starting to get creepy.

The monster also has some funky tendrils coming off it that'll need to make out of bits of weather stripping and rags. To put my own spin on things I'm making these limbs a bit more spider-like and articulated rather than the loosely hanging spaghetti strands as seen in the movie. The whole thing makes me want to make a facehugger alien or some sort of nasty spider monster next year.

Now we coat the whole thing with a healthy dose of liquid latex.

The nasty ammonia smell from the drying latex brings a level of authenticity to the trash compactor monster.

The creature apparently has nasty brown-ish skin which helps it blend into it's natural habitat of discarded spaceship debris.

My base coat came out a little redder then I'd like but I think I can work with it. Then we'll be moving from dark paints to light starting with black and dark brown spray paint. The rest of the skin tones and highlights we'll finish off with acrylics.

Do the tendrils get in the way when he tries to eat soup? How does he handle chop sticks?

Painting the eye
This is probably the most challenging part of the whole project. Iris's can contain a myriad of both subtle and distinct colors but given that our subject is a monster cephelopod we've got some leeway. As far as I can tell the eye is mostly angry red with hints of green at the center.

Basically it looks like a cat's eye with a bad case of conjunctivitis.

Mordor the early years

OK now get my good side...
Adding a comb over
The monster also looks like it's sporting some straggles of hair so we're gluing some old wig hair to it and melting the tufts down a bit with the heat gun.

A comb over is not advised regardless of species.

Making this thing stand up
I struggled with this part as they don't exactly sell aquatic monster stands at the local Walmart. And lets face if they even made such a thing I'd be buying them in bulk at the local BJ's. I tried everything from various containers to an old Christmas tree stand, but I really couldn't find anything that had a low enough profile and could be submerged in water. Eventually I cobbled together a makeshift stand: cut a small plastic paint bucket in half, wedged the creature in the bucket with some Styrofoam, wrapped it in a plastic bag, glued it to some spare wall tiles for added surface area and weight, then finally duct taped the living hell out of it. It's not exactly an elegant solution but it's sturdy and it's standing. Also the fall weather has left most of my fountains filled with muck and leaves anyway so it's not like you're going to see it.

If you can't duct it. It's a cliché.

"Oh yeah the landscaper really freaked when he saw this..."

The little net I use to remove leaves from the pond just not cutting it anymore.

Visine's new aggressive ad campaign just got weirder

Fun Nerd Fact: In early copies of Star War's scripts the Jedi were actually referred to as the "Dai Nogas" which got shortened to just "Dai" then swapped out entirely for "Jedi". Somehow the alien equivalent of Oscar the Grouch was then assigned the proto-Jedi name.

It helps if you read the above paragraph in "comic book guy" voice from the Simpsons. Source: Star Wars Databank

The monster only appears in one film, in one scene, and you only see it for a couple seconds. Still it managed to scare the crap out of 80's children everywhere.

I brought in my Yoda for fall/winter maintenance so the Dianoga monster is taking the place as the token nerdy sci-fi reference in my yard. Maybe this winter I'll justify building an AT-AT and put a Santa hat on it.

Project DIY Foam Tombstones

Because actual granite is expensive

Look for the floral foam section in the craft store. It's the same place every kid get's the foam balls to make their "diorama of the solar system" for the school science fair. Floral foam is usually sold in green and white blocks of various shapes and sizes. It's consistency can range from stiff and crinkly to soft and mushy. Go for the more rigid stuff.

First step is to get it into the rough shape you want by rounding the corners and edges. It's pretty dense stuff and harder to carve then it looks but because it's so porous you can crush and shape it pretty well with your hands. Then I draw in the designs and wording I wanted with a sharpie. Careful as even a sharpie can scrape the foam's surface. Once laid out I then use my trusty Dremel to carve the designs and wording into the foam.

I screwed up the lettering towards the end here so to cover that up I've carved out a ragged chunk and will make it stick out of the ground at an angle.

The material is really part sponge part Styrofoam so it takes a lot of primer to make this stuff actually paintable.

Once it's decently primed we hit it with some spray paint. Starting with black and then highlighting with gray.

Now we apply some texture highlights with acrylic paint and darken the lettering.

The broken tombstone came out better than I expected especially since I botched the lettering and wasn't initially impressed with my paint job. My weeping angel could probably use some more definition but it's not bad for a start.

One of these days if I get enough foam I can turn the back yard into a big styrofoam mosuleam.

A sporting goods store will usually have aluminum tent stakes for under a buck if you need to steak things down. Also if you can find small metal kebob grilling skewers these are just as effective.

The foam is pretty forgiving if it chips. If a small chunk breaks off you can sort of crush it back into place and it'll just look like another natural divot in the "stone".