Miniature Figure Sculpting (Part One)
by Bob Lippman
When Mike Marshall asked me to write an article on miniature figure sculpting, I wasn’t sure what to say. I mean, I have only been messing around with sculpting for about a year and I certainly don’t consider myself any kind of authority on the subject. In fact, until I bought my first roll of Kneadatite and rolled up my sleeves to see what I could do with it, everything I knew I learned right here on the Internet. What qualifications could I possibly have to write such an article?
But then I got to thinking about who would be reading this article, and it occurred to me it would probably be people just like me, complete beginners with just a bit of artistic skill, a lot of enthusiasm, and a willingness to learn.
It has often been said that people with a lousy sense of direction often give the best directions. This is probably because such people take nothing for granted. It is in that spirit that I offer this article, in the hope that it may inspire someone else to try a bit of sculpting and possibly avoid one or two of the pitfalls that I fell into on my way.
Getting down to business!
There is, from what I can tell, no single correct way to sculpt a figure. Some people seem to do it all in one shot, while others do it layer upon layer. Some never carve their figures, but only add to them, while others, myself included, do as much figure sculpting with a razor as we do with a spatula. What follows are the basics, used by *most* commercial figure sculptors.
To begin with, here is a list of what you will need, starting with the basics:
Sculpting tools: These include blades, spatulas, burnishers, tiny tubes for stamping out circles and picks. Don’t be discouraged if you have no professional tools to start out. I began by using my fingers, a toothpick (or “cocktail stick” as they say in the UK) and my X-acto knife. Eventually I convinced my dentist to give me any broken dental tools he was just going to throw away anyway. Now I have about 15 different dental picks and wax carving tools accumulated for every occasion, but to be honest, nothing gets used as much as my fingers and my trusty No. 11 X-acto blade!
A Smooth, Reliable Working Surface: Don’t overlook this – and try to find a spot that can be left undisturbed for a period of weeks while you are working. Cleaning-up and setting up before and after each session can really cut into your sculpting time (especially when you have a full time job, a wife, an upcoming tournament to think about…)
Wire, Wire Cutters and Needle-nose pliers: Get some 20-28 gauge copper wire, some floral wire and possibly some braided electrical wire. You will need these to make the wire armatures, or skeletons, of the figures you will be sculpting. Being handy with a Soldering iron is a big help here, but alas I am hopeless when it comes to soldering. In my case, I find that Zap-a-Gap glue makes a fair substitute for sticking wires together. Another alternative which I have heard about but never tried is to use braided wire for the armatures, and simply split off strands to form the skeletal limbs and head. To each his own, I suppose. The main point here is that it is far, far easier to sculpt over an armature than to form a figure onto itself without any underlying support. Calipers are not essential, but I use them along with a good metal Ruler, to make sure that my armatures come out to the proper scale.
Corks: I use corks from standard wine bottles as bases for my miniatures while I’m working on them. You can insert the feet of the wire armature right into the cork to hold it in place while you are working on it, and this will also give you a convenient way to handle your work without getting big old thumb prints in the backside of your masterpiece (yeah, I’ve done that plenty of times…)
Denatured alcohol, or Vegetable Oil: These will be needed to keep the tools from sticking to or “grabbing” your miniature while you are working on it.
A Mini-furnace: This is totally optional, and explained further below. And last, but certainly not least ~
Epoxy putty: As the old saying goes, when art critics get together, they talk about line and form and shadow, but when artists get together they talk about paint and canvass and brushes. (I love that old saying…) Well fellow artisans, exopy putty, or what I fondly refer to as “the stuff of dreams”, is certainly worth talking about at some length…
There are two basic kinds of putty that you will probably want to work with. The first is sold as a two part ribbon of blue and yellow, from which you can cut off pieces and mix until it turns green. The product name for this stuff is Kneadatite, but I have also heard it referred to as “Duro” and, of course “green stuff.” What it was originally made for is sealing leaky pipes, and I cannot say how well it functions in this role for I have never used it for this. What I can say is that it can be very hard to track down. I have heard a rumor that Games Workshop is now selling it directly to the public. If so, then this is great news indeed. If not, or their supply runs out by the time you find this article, I would suggest you go to your local plumbing supply company and having a look around. There are many brands of Epoxy Putty available, and many are fairly close in their physical properties to Kneadatite.
And what are those physical properties? Here is what I have found: Kneadatite mixes up to have the consistency of chewing gum after you have taken it out of your mouth for a couple of hours. Pretty gross, huh? Its important to know this stuff though!
The Kneadatite will be very sticky – it will stick to just about anything – and you will need to “wet” your tools in order to use it so that they do not stick to the stuff. I have heard it suggested that you can use some denatured alcohol on the tip of your sculpting tools to prevent them from sticking to the piece. I have also heard that some sculptors, “real sculptors”, lick their tools (!). Personally, I find that I can get my sculpting tools to work well by dipping them in a bit of vegetable oil. Suit yourself…
Kneadatite will harden at room temperature in about two hours (but will probably only remqain workable for one hour). It will harden faster in a hot room and slower in a cold room. In fact, you can bake it under a light bulb to get it to harden in about 20 minutes if you are really in a rush. Simply make a mini-furnace from a coffee can and a 20-40 Watt light bulb. This is a handy tip, as you may want to harden some small detail that you have just finished, like a belt buckle for instance, before you continue on (and accidentally obliterate the miniature detail with your thumb, as I often do…). Be careful when using this method however – check the miniature frequently – if the can gets too hot it can blister or even melt the epoxy! Personally, having screwed up more than my share of figures, unless I am really dying to get to the next stage I’m quite satisfied to let the figure sit overnight between sculpting stages. This gives me time to admire the minute belt buckle I just made and visualize my next move.
Another point to make about the putty hardening while you are using it is to try and incorporate this knowledge into your sculpting. Start with larger basic shapes and work to the fine details from there. Realize also that the putty has an elastic memory. You may sometimes have to allow for a piece to snap back slightly to its original position after you move it. Compensate accordingly.
O.K., enough about the green stuff.
On to the “other stuff”, Milliput. Some sculptors never use this material, but being a rank amature, I have few preconceived notions and have found it quite handy. While also technically an epoxy putty, Milliput has an entirely different consistency from Kneadatite. Where Kneadatite is elastic, Milliput is clay-like. Where Kneadatite has a uniform consistency, by adding water to Milliput it can be either thick as clay or as thin as milk. Where Kneadatite is flexible, Milliput can be brittle. Finally, while Kneadatite can be cut with a knife, Milliput dries like stone and can be filed, sanded and drilled. There are times when nothing else will do. A good example is when you are trying to make something with inorganic angles and flat surfaces, like a spear tip (See Figure One, my Ratman Riding a Giant Vampire Bat).
On this piece, the spear blade was made from Milliput by forming the basic shape right on a wire which would later serve as an armature for the Kneadatite “wooden” spear shaft. Once the Milliput was hard I simply grabbed a hold of the same needle files I use to clean flash off of my commercially purchased miniatures and started filing away at the blade (much the same technique that you would use if you were sharpening a knife). I could not have done this to a Kneadatite blade. It simply would have disintegrated.
Once you have played around a bit with Kneadatite and Milliput, you may find that there are times when the substance you need has to be a compromise between the two. Again, using my Bat Rider as an example, this turned out to be the case when I had to sculpt the thin membranes between the fingers of the bat wings (See Figure Two).
I found that by mixing the two putties together, I got a very pale green substance that could be made fluid with water, yet could be applied with very organic folds and curves. Best of all, when dry the wings would hold up to a Dremel Motor Tool with a grinder bit attached, and allowed be to grind down the wing membranes until nearly paper thin.
One final note in all this talk of putties: the main reason Kneadatite is as popular as it is has nothing whatsoever to do with its sculpting properties. Yes, you read that right, and don’t let anyone tell you any different! The real reason Kneadatite has the position it has is actually a function of its heat and pressure bearing characteristics. While this is of paramount importance to professional mold makers who must prepare Vulcanized rubber molds for their spin casters, it makes no difference if all you plan on doing is painting your piece and using it when done, or if you make your own molds out of room temperature vulcanizing (RTV) silicone and pour molten metal into them by means of gravity. By all means, try to get some Kneadatite and get comfortable with it if you think you want to “go pro”, but until you reach that level, there is no reason not to try some of the other, cheaper, more readily available and far more forgiving bakable clays such as Sculpty (and its cousin, Super Sculpty) and Fimo. The things I’ve made with this stuff have taught me many invaluable lessons, and I still keep a bit handy for one-shot sculpting projects and homemade texture tools (described in Part Two).
[Onto Part Two – A Step by Step Guide to Sculpting]