Saturday, May 22, 2010

Project Yoda Garden Statue


The Yoda at Skywalker ranch is a valuable work of art created by a professional. I'm just a working stiff with some free time on the weekends and an AC Moore nearby. I by no means set out to create a small scale duplication of the fountain at Skywalker ranch, nor do I possess the skill even if I was hell bent on replicating it's every detail. I was inspired by it, and I wanted to at least attempt capturing the overall noble essence of the work. Also OMG Yoda's in my backyard!1!11! Wooo!

*Legal Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with the companies, stores, or products I used in the creation of this statue. I chose these materials because they work for me, and I shop at the establishments mentioned because they are local. I am also in no way affiliated with Lucasfilms. I made this entirely not for profit, as a fan, and simply as a personal decoration for my yard.

Finally please take note that I have very little formal artistic training... I've done some work with natural clay, but this was actually my first time using polymer clay on a built structure (armature). This is less of a tutorial and more of a "hey look what I did" account of the creation process. So if you attempt a similar project using these steps as examples do so at your own risk. This process worked for me but I'm sure a professional might look at my own creation and say: "OMG why did he use [material here] with [second material here] every artist knows that causes [disastrous result here] he's lucky it didn't break into a million flaming pieces..."

Building Supplies (main components):

  • Super Sculpty - A popular polymer modeling clay. Ended up using about 2 1/3lbs
  • 4ft of thick aluminum modeling wire - Main skeletal structure soft and bendable
  • Picture hanging wire - A medium gauge wire for secondary support
  • Floral wire - Thin wire usually used in artificial flower arrangements and wreaths
  • Aluminum foil - To bulk up the armature also to seal in the freshness mmm...
  • Generic Gel Glue - Would have preferred some old school plain white Elmers glue but every place I checked was out. Somewhere someone is either taking a bath in this stuff or must have some sort of schoolhouse glue huffing problem.
  • Light saber - Oh come on you knew this joke was coming
  • A series of clippers and needle nose pliers - Plier of the month club anybody?
  • Gimpy plastic modeling tools - All I need to get things done really. I've had good success with these using natural clay.
  • Make shift smoothing tools - More on these later
  • Oval piece of Basswood - Using it as a stand. Going for that natural straight out of Dagobah swamp look.
  • Wood dowel - Goes through the center of the sculpture. Used to secure the sculpture to the base

Building the Armature (skeleton):

In the past I've mostly made small solid natural clay (air dried) figures that relied on some strategically placed pins, wires, and a whole lot of crazy glue. This works fine for small indoor decorations but I need my little green friend here to be able to battle the elements. Not to mention from what I've read heating polymer clay is a lot like microwaving a large frozen burrito. If it's too thick it's tough to make it cook all the way through. Hence all the aluminum foil...

George Lucas reluctantly admits that the Star Wars Jiffy Pop promotion may have gone too far

All of the shrapnel on the side here is from my first failed attempt at making Yoda's body/cloak. I probably could have saved myself some headache at this stage by buying a few sheets of wire mesh. But because I'm a cheap bastard instead I've folded over large sheets of foil multiple times, then applied it to the thick wire body outline. Once in place I wrapped the hell out of it with thin floral wire and gave the whole thing a coat of glue.

*Safety first! Wear goggles while cutting/bending/shaping wire. If you're concerned you'll look like a dork just remember that you're building a Star Wars character in your basement. We're waaay past the point of worrying if you look like a dork here.

Sculpting the head/face...

This is where we find out if I've got the chops to complete this project or if I'm going to be left with a baked potato Yoda in the corner of my basement next to the other failed "well that was worth a shot" projects. If I can't get Yoda's face, head, and ears down right I might as well pack it up now. It needs to be undeniably Yoda. I don't need anyone asking: "Hey why is there some sort of old cat monkey statue in your yard? Is that some sort of weird religious thing? Do you make offerings to it when the moon is full?" No offence to the followers of the Cat Monkey or other moon phase cycle idol gift bearing religious groups...

Zombie Yoda disapproves of your crappy modeling skills...

OK getting better

Details, Details, Details:

Most of the armature is now covered at this point. Just need to do some more detail work on the: feet talons, hands, walking stick, and cloak. Hands are tough. Doesn't matter if they're human or of an alien of race unknown. Luckily the way he's griping the staff here allows me to deal with a minimal number of digits.


OK so now we've got the armature fully covered, Yoda is completely shaped, the detail work is done. So what's next? Throw this sucker in the oven and head down to the Mos Eisley Cantina for a few beverages with a couple of our alien buddies? Whoa hold on there space cowboy... before we can ring in margarita night at Tatooine's favorite shady watering hole we need to smooth this bad boy out.

Now as I understand it there are several ways to smooth out a sculpture like this using a combination of: fingers, smoothing tools, and in the case of polymer clay 90+% rubbing alcohol. You could buy a fancy set of smoothing tools to save you some trouble, or you could MacGyver yourself some smoothers by making loops of wire with handles using left over armature wire or guitar strings. This is just the beginning of the smoothing process (the sanding and priming stages are coming up). So I'm attempting not to go too house on this thing only to end up trying to add clay back to sections where I've scraped and smoothed too much away.

Oops crap too late... Had to go back and slap clay back on a few places where I got overzealous.

*Makeshift smoothing tools. Given the fact that my subject is a well aged muppet in what appears to be a heavily tailored potato sack.... I can leave quite a bit of the sculpture wrinkly/bumpy. Nothing against Yoda's outfit and his personal wardrobe decisions. I'm just pretty sure there wasn't an Old Navy on Dagobah. Get this man some flip-flops.

Freshly Baked Yoda Just Like Mom Used To Make:

Since I left my kiln in my other house my kitchen oven will have to do. I don't want to taste plastic clay next time I make lasagna so we're putting Yoda in a roasting bag. In hindsight I probably should have measured this out better in my plans. On the bottom rack he just barely makes it into the oven standing upright. If I made him even a quarter of an inch taller I'd have to really get creative in order to make him fit.

Remember to baste your Yoda regularly... otherwise he'll dry out and the white meat will become tough. Just kidding thats pretty gross no matter what galaxy you're from.


So now he's out of the oven and has hardened up quite a bit. Time to wet sand a few rough spots with some fine sandpaper and prep him for priming.

Priming the Yoda:

It's at this stage a professional might recommend a nice glaze, sealant, or protective enamel for this. But times are tough and I got this big bucket of latex Kilz primer left over from painting the house so we're going to slap some of this on instead.

Kilz handles: drywall, plaster, masonry, and Yodas...

The hardened polymer clay is waterproof by definition (it's plastic). The primer on the statue is less for weatherproofing and more to ensure a nice even base when it comes time to spray paint. The wood base on the other hand could benefit from some of the sealing benefits of the Kilz.

Extra Sealing:

Now that I think of it... even though the wood base is likely treated I'd hate to have water seep under Yoda's cloak and rot out the dowel that connects him to the base. As an added precaution I'm sealing him to the base like I'm insulating a window. Spots where the cloak doesn't touch the base I'm stuffing with foam and caulking. Then I'm hitting the bottom of the statue with some spray on waterproofing enamel as an added bonus.

Light Sanding:

Gotta be careful not to let the primer overwhelm some of the finer details.

Bronzing the Yoda:

I've got some metallic spray paint as a base coat (to give him that fake tan look).

I then highlight it with some "autumn gold" rub n buff. Rub n buff is a waxy metal compound usually reserved for antiquing picture frames but it works on all sorts of stuff. It doesn't quite advertise itself as being weatherproof but I've had some success with using it outdoors on a few surfaces and it beats trying to gold leaf something by hand. This stuff is all about moderation. Only use a little at a time or you'll end up with a bronzed latex glove instead of a decent looking statue. Also open the windows as it gives off some serious fumes.


Making the Statue Look as Old as Yoda:

A padawan learner would probably stop right about now, and just be happy we got ourselves a decent looking metallic finish Yoda. But we're going for full Jedi Master here. We're adding a faux patina effect. Oh snap!

Patina effects simulate age. It's the art of making that new pair of $200+ dollar jeans look like you've been wearing them for half a decade already. Only instead of adding unnecessary holes in the statue's knees we're going to be using a variety of blues and greens to simulate oxidizing metal. You can buy patina kits (usually consisting of a small can of blue/green paint that compliments a metal spraypaint basecoat). Or make your own by combining your favorite paint with a mixing glaze. The glaze adds some translucency to the paint and slows the drying process down so you have more time to work with it and get the effect you want. The technique is the same as sponge/rag painting a wall.

Since I do like the bronzing effect I pulled off we're only going for a slightly-worn-showing-signs-of-age Yoda patina...not a full-blown-Statue-of-Liberty-almost-totally-green Yoda

Finished... the Yoda is...
Mercifully the only Yoda-speak joke in this whole write up.


*Height: Roughly 13" (with base)
*Time/Effort: Took about 3-4 weeks off and on. Ranging from days with out even looking at it to cranking out several hours of work in one night.
*Cost estimate: $40 - $50 The clay and the heavy aluminium wire were the most expensive materials. If I try something like this again I may check out the hardware store for more heavy wire options. That being said this stuff is made specifically for modeling so you get what you pay for: 4 ft of soft yet sturdy wire thats easy to bend and use at around $10. Beige Super Sculpty runs about $10-$13 a pound and is worth every damn penny and then some. Most of the other supplies (tools, paint, etc) I just had lying about from other projects around the house.
*Return On Investment: I consider this project well worth the money seeing how even a small model of Yoda (as in bigger than action figure stature) can set you back $100 - $500+ depending upon size/quality/vintage. That and it's probably not equipped to leave outside in the rain (would you leave $500 out in the rain?). A limited number of official small scale reproductions of the fountain at Skywalker Ranch were created, but ran well into the thousands of dollars as I believe they were cast from bronze and not built by some crazy person in their basement.

In Retrospect:

The basswood base added a touch of nature because it had a ring of tree bark around the outer edge. Unfortunately tiny pieces of bark would break off and embed themselves in the clay frequently as I was moving the sculpture around. I'd add a heavy coat of glue to the bark sooner to prevent flaking ahead of time. Finished product was worth it though.

I would have spent more time fleshing out the wire work on the armature. I had to tear off clay to reshape the shoulders and back of the cloak a couple times. I also had to create a few balled up tin foil "implants" to bulk up certain areas where the armature had gaps and caused the clay to dip in. Not exactly the most elegant way to build something.

Generic gel glue is inferior to plan old Elmers white glue. It flaked off a bit and wasn't as easy to work with. Though it held up to the baking process admirably.

Could have bunched up the cloak flaps a bit more. I didn't really think of it until after I started the smoothing process. Rubbing alcohol makes the clay a bit more rigid to work with so what's done is done past that point.

Might have had a better "aged metal" effect if I sprayed it matte black after the primer then sprayed it bronze... oh well.

If I was going for any other effect besides a metal finish I'd put a final coat of exterier spar varnish on this as a first line of defense against the elements. Most weather protectors that I know of come in a clear gloss or satin finish which probably wouldn't look right to the eye on something that's supposed to be metal. It's probably overkill, and would only really need it if I planned on leaving Yoda out during a blizzard.

So what's next?

Cylon garden gnome?
Millennium Falcon birdbath?
Doctor Who phone booth flower planter?