Miniature Book Necklaces

A couple of years ago I made a batch of miniature books to sell at a charity craft fair. Since then I’ve been on a bookbinding course and researched a little on working with leather, and so I recently decided to give it another go.

Miniature Book Of The Dead

I’ve been trying to figure out how to take good photographs of them.  As they’re painted with gold and silver the light tends to obscure the designs if it’s too bright.  Practice practice.

Red Day of the Dead Miniature Book Evil Eye Miniature Book

Here’s a smaller, better version of the Slytherin miniature book I made for my Design Every Day Project last year.

xP1050602

I’ve finally got them to a point where I’m quite pleased with them and could consider selling them through Etsy.  The next step will be working out how to package them!

Book Review: Annihilation and Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Ok, I’ll admit it. I originally requested these based solely on the covers (what a gorgeous rabbit-based design!) and a cursory glance at the blurb, “sounds vaguely sci-fi, I’ll give it a go”. I couldn’t have predicted how much I’d end up enjoying them; so much in fact that it’s taken me a while to attempt a review of Annihilation because I simply didn’t know how to put it into words. I still don’t, but if I don’t have a go at it now I’m not sure I’ll ever manage.

Annihilation *****

Annihilation

The central character, known only as the Biologist, has volunteered for an expedition into Area X: a stretch of coastline cut off from the rest of civilization for reasons that are unclear at the beginning of the novel. The book follows her trek into the increasingly strange landscape beyond the ‘border’, and the things she encounters there.

It’s been compared to Lovecraft for obvious reasons: it takes the form of an account written by a character who is trying to make sense of something unearthly. The writer is afflicted by a creeping dread, a haziness to reality and a sense of monstrous things just outside their field of vision. But rather than just pressing all the usual ‘atmospheric horror’ buttons, VanderMeer couples it with a haunting beauty captured in the immersive and almost poetic descriptions of the landscape from the biologist’s perspective, and this is where the book really stands out. It’s a short book but not an easy read and I found that quite refreshing. It doesn’t feel the need to conform to a predictable narrative. I’m sure that’ll throw some people, but it’s worth the extra effort for the richness you’ll get out of it. Area X has certainly stayed with me several months after finishing the book, and I’m not sure it’ll leave me even after Acceptance is published in September…

You can download a preview of Annihilation Here at Waterstones.

 

Authority ****

Authority

I’ve just finished reading Jeff Vandermeer’s Authority.

The first thing that struck me was the contrast to Annihilation, and to be honest it threw me a bit and it took a while for my brain to get back up to speed. The first in the trilogy had seemed to me a beautifully formed piece all on its own and I loved the way it had immersed me in the landscape of Area X through that strikingly vivid and surreal description. I suppose I’d been eager to leap straight back into that world, so at first the second book seemed almost drab and tedious in comparison.

 I’d empathised with the environment and the biologist in book one, her observations on the landscape and balance between objective analysis and delighted immersion. In the second book the environment is the (relative) normality of Southern Reach, the organisation and hierarchy. Part of me wonders if a reader who had worked in a similar obscure governmental environment or office would connect to Authority the same way I did to Annihilation.

But as I read on it occurred to me that the books are not all that dissimilar. If Annihilation shone with the living, gleaming terroir of Area X, then Authority sets down the opposing terroir of Southern Reach: the dysfunctional resistance so bogged down in reports and dusty files, internal intrigue and bureaucracy that you can’t help but question whether it achieves anything useful. But, as in Annihilation, the descriptions lay down a fertile mulch of information, glimpses and hints, secrets revealed just enough to leave you hungry for more. There’s an almost purposefully mundane office-y feel to many passages interspersed with a strangeness that keeps you on edge as though Area X is seeping in around the edges of the pages. Despite my slow start, by the last third of the book I was hooked and sailing through the pages, relishing the challenge of it. September and Acceptance seem much too far away!

 Authority is available from Waterstones Here.

Mask Making After Florence

I was buzzing to get started on mask making when I returned from Florence but it was going to take a while to gather the materials and equipment.  Luckily I still had a few old half-finished masks lying around from last year.  I’d left them in various states after booking my course in Florence, as I figured I’d probably learn more there than I would by completing them straight away.  I wasn’t too worried about ruining them as I’d learned a bit about how to design a mask to fit a face properly since making them!

I started on the old Cthulhu mask.  I managed to find a british equivalent of the paint from Florence that resulted in a much more controlled cracked effect than my attempts last year.  The paints used for the colour were a bit of a puzzle and I managed to make a bit of a mess with a cat mask before giving up with them.  It might just have been an error in translation, but I did some more experimenting and managed to layer up a selection of others for a fairly pleasing result eventually.

I also had a go at adding gold details to the last cat mask, and leaving the background white to see the result of the aging effect more clearly.  Although it looks better in real life than this photo makes out I still think I need to work on that a bit.  I also managed to cover this second Cthulhu in red fluff after trying to polish him too early.  Again, hooray for learning processes.

Then, finally, I had everything I needed to start a new mask, including a rare full day off work!  I made a new clay sculpture using my mask from Florence as a reference, cast it in plaster, and have left it to cure.  The real test will be in a week or so when I attempt to make a first mask from the mold.  Til then I’ll just have to amuse myself with other projects.

Mask Making in Florence

After my experiments last summer making masks I decided I wanted to learn a little more about how the papier mache mask is made in Italy. I scoured the internet and bookshop for related articles and texts, and quickly came across The Masks of Prof Agostino Dessi.

The book itself is beautifully produced, filled with full-page photographs and for anyone interested in masks it’s well worth obtaining.  By that point I’d seen a lot of masks and Agostino’s stood out to me as some of the best around: unique and far more like pieces of art than mass produced partywear… So, buoyed up by the mad artistic enthusiasm that grabs me from time to time, I got in touch and asked him if it would be possible for me to visit him and learn how he does it.

And he said yes.

So, I booked my hotel and flights and set off on my own for Florence at the end of March.  I’d only been to Italy once before, had a tourist-level grasp of Italian from listening to the Pimsleur Italian course for a few months (which I heartily recommend: no other language course has stuck in my mind so well.  Check it out of your library for free), and was travelling alone.  It was a bit daunting.  Especially when I made the mistake of looking up reviews for Expedia just after booking.  It’s a bit like looking up your symptoms to self-diagnose: you’ll always find links to the worst possible scenario and people don’t generally go online to post “actually it was all fine”.  So, to break the trend: it was all fine.  Expedia was great, communicative and easy to use.  London City Airport was fast, easy to drive to and navigate internally as it’s so compact.  Air France were friendly and the flight was pain-free which was nice: my hearing was impaired and my ears hurt for several weeks after the flight home from Venice last year.  So, credit where it’s due, even if it’s not as exciting as “and then the engine blew up on the runway and we all had to be evacuated”… an incident involving the same airline and airport about a week earlier that I’m glad my parents told me about after the trip.

Agostino Dessi's mask shop in Florence
Agostino Dessi’s mask shop on Via Faenza, Florence

And Florence was beautiful.  The people endlessly helpful, and I got chatting to so many more people than I would have if I hadn’t travelled alone.  I stayed for a week, touring the city in the mornings and studying with Agostino in his beautiful mask shop every afternoon.  I had the best time.  THE BEST time.  I learned so much, saw so much, and can’t wait to go back.  It’s a gorgeous city filled with incredibly talented people, so many of whom are based in the streets around Agostino’s shop that they seem to be forming an artistic quarter, which can only be a good thing.

I had my own little corner of the shop to work in
Agostino’s shop.  It took me a week of evenings to produce my mask from scratch, so I can only imagine the sheer quantity of man-hours contained in this one image.

One of the many problems I’d had with the masks I’d tried to make before was getting them to fit a real face.  I’d been making a clay replica of my own face and then building the mask on top, but then found that the finished item was too wide, narrow, too close to the eyes, or didn’t have enough space for a nose.  Just being able to recreate a face doesn’t mean it’s the ideal shape for a mask.

Sculpting the face in clay, then embellishing with details
Sculpting the face in clay, then embellishing with details

My first day at the shop was almost entirely spent getting the proportions correct according to a set of rules that should eliminate that problem.  Fingers crossed I can remember it all from my notes now I’m home!

After casting the sculpt in plaster I started to apply the papier mache over a couple of evenings.
After casting the sculpt in plaster I started to apply the papier mache over a couple of evenings.
Painting the mask
Painting the mask

Then I painted the undercoat for a cracked and antiqued surface, before adding the details and finish.

The finished mask
The finished mask

I’m really happy with the final result, and can’t wait to try recreating the whole process at home!  Watch this space.

Mask Painting

Having amassed a collection of blank masks, the time had come to start painting them.  I’ll be the first to admit that colour is not my strongest point, so I’m glad I’ve got a few to play with!

Red Devil Mask

A basic red devil mask with silly eyebrows.  I’m thinking about adding some gold detailing to make it more interesting, or maybe some occult symbols across the forehead.

Bark Testure Mask   Red Bark Mask

Here I tried a technique for an aged, cracked surface.  If I ever want to do a bark texture mask, I’ll know how.  The red one resulted in much larger cracks, perhaps because my red paint is much older and thicker.

Sun Mask

I tried using gold glass paint to create the raised gold details on this chap.  It worked, but I still prefer the thicker, less uniform lines with the gold leaf that I did a month or so ago.

Cat Mask

And a cat mask.  A more refined crackled surface, painted with watercolours.  I’d like to age this a bit and add a layer of varnish, but I rather like it and don’t want to spoil it with a technique that fails so I’ll have to experiment a bit more before finishing him off.

Cats, Devils and Cthulhu

Back to papier mache masks.  I’d started to get a little fed up with plasticine as a sculpting material.  It was difficult to work with and took forever to create the details that I wanted so I ordered some clay and a couple of airtight containers, and a couple of weekends ago finally found the time to try it out.

What a difference!  I can’t imagine how I put up with the plasticine now.  Using clay has reminded me how much I used to love working with it at school many many moons ago.  It’s so much more agreeable and much easier to smooth.  I began by making a cat and devil sculpt:

Cat Mask Clay Sculpt Devil Mask Clay Sculpt

As you can see, the cat mask was sculpted over the same clay face I used previously.  For the devil mask, I pushed the clay into a modroc cast I’d made of that same face:

Pushing clay into the face cast

This essentially replicated the underlying clay face, but in damp, workable clay.  I added details and chopped off the lower part of the face, and all this resulted in a much closer fit than the cat mask.

Devil Mask Cat Mask

The cat and devil mask popped out of the molds.  They need trimming around the eyes and edges, but otherwise it seemed to work brilliantly!  The cat mask is based on the traditional cat masks found in Venice.  I liked the simple form of them, so didn’t change too much when I made my own.

Sketching Cthulhu

And finally, I wanted to try something a little more complex, and Cthulhu seemed like the perfect subject (when is he not?).  I pondered over how to do the tentacles for some time.  The sketch on the far right would no doubt be easiest: a stylised straight tentacle look.  But who wants to go for the easiest option?  I studied some photos of classical statues with curly beards, then went for it:

Cthulhu Clay Sculpt Cthulhu Mask

The clay Cthulhu sculpt, and the resulting mask as it was this morning; a layer of glue drying so slowly that I had to hold it for the photo otherwise it’d stick itself to my favourite Generic Background paper, and we can’t have that.

In case you can’t tell, I also discovered Instagram.  I’m using it to document my mask making trials and errors as I always have my phone nearby while I work and it’s easy enough to snap a work in progress.  My camera lives upstairs in a drawer, and sometimes you have to be quick before something dries/runs/sets in the wrong place.  See what I’m up to on Instagram.

Leather Maskmaking

With Halloween on the way, I wanted to make a mask for a costume and thought it would be a good excuse to try leather maskmaking.  I’d used leather before in bookbinding and enjoyed working with the material, so it only seemed natural to have a go at using it for masks as well. 

The Leather Arrives

 

There was slightly more leather included in the delivery than I expected, but that just means I’ll have more to experiment with…

trimsoak

Leather mask making seems fairly simple.  Soak the leather.  Form the leather.  Dry the leather.  Paint the leather.  I’m sure it gets more complicated when you want to engrave or singe designs into the surface, but for the moment it’s easy enough to make a form.

Leather Stag Mask

My first leather mask was an antlered half face mask with a rather large nose.  I’d been watching the new Hannibal TV show, so Will Graham’s nightmare stag may well have crept into my subconcious only to be released in mask form, but it took a friend to point out the link!

Black Leather Stag Mask

The painted leather stag mask.

I had an odd-shaped piece of leather left over from where I’d cut out the stag, so I turned it into a smaller horned mask:

Leather Horned Mask

I actually like the form of this one more than the stag.  For a start it’s less likely to poke people’s eyes out when they stand near you.

You’d think I’d start making the mask for the costume after that, but no: further distration ensued.  I’d been wanting to make a Bioshock Splicer mask for a while, but thought the ears would be too delicate for a papier mache.  Would it work in leather instead?

Leather Splicer Mask  Leather Splicer Mask

Yes, yes it does.

I should point out the kitchen roll in the second photo is actually supporting the cheeks while they dry in position.  Glamorous, I know, but I ran out of ramekins.

Conclusion: leather maskmaking is FUN, and will be happening again shortly.

Masks and Moldmaking

After making a few masks by applying the papier mache directly onto the sculpt (see previous post) I decided I wanted a way to produce multiple copies of the same design.  This’d make it less labour-intensive, quicker, and would save me worrying about ruining hours of work on a mask by getting the decoration wrong.  So, back to the research.  In Venice, they seemed to create a clay sculpt of their design, then cast it in plaster to create a mold for the papier mache.

Plaster of Paris seems to set in most circumstances (even underwater) so I skipped the clingfilm and poured it straight over a new plasticine sculpt.  My suspicions proved correct, and it set with no problems.  I can only assume it was the glue component of the papier mache that didn’t like the plasticine in my last post.

Plasticine mask moldmaking   Plasticine mask moldmaking

The plasticine then peeled out of the mold easily, leaving a smooth surface for the mache.

Plasticine moldmaking mask

And there we go!  A replicable design.  The loose bits of mache need sticking down, the edge trimming, and a smooth layer added on top, but it still takes a fraction of the time the other method did.  Still- I’ll use the method from the last post if I want to make a one-off mask, or a more complex design.  The more complex the surfaces, the harder it’ll be to get it out of the mold.

Plasticine mask moldmaking

Red and Gold Mask

Here I experimented with a method for raised gold detailing using replica gold leaf.  Think I need some practice.  I also tried adding a wash of dark paint and then removing most of it to give an aged appearance and visually deepen the recesses.  Again, not satisfactory and will need a good bit of experimentation before I try it on a mask I like!

Gold Detailing Mask   Gold Detailing Mask

Here I used the same technique to create the raised lines, but instead of using gold leaf, I picked them out with gold acrylic paint above by just covering the whole area in gold paint, and below by trying to stick to the raised areas, and distressing the rest with another wash of dark paint.  I think it makes it look like it’s just been dug up, rather than carefully stored and aged for half a century, but there we go.

V Mask

All of this was to try and make a mask for a friend, and here’s what I produced by the end of that period of experimenting.  My first finished mask: gold leaf raised detailing on blue and gold.

Let the Maskmaking Begin…

I’ve always loved masks: from recurring obsessions with Phantom of the Opera and Labyrinth, to finding every project for my anthropology degree tended towards masquerade and transformation.  I’ve also had a good few attempts at making them throughout my life, but it’s been a while since I attempted it with any real focus on refining technique.  My early masks were thick, unweildy, lumpy papier-mache creations, better suited for hanging on the wall than wearing.

Earlier this year I went on a short holiday to Venice with friends.  As a mask obsessive, it’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit, and I was not disappointed!  I’m afraid I dragged my friends into every second mask shop that we saw (and there’s certainly no lack of them), turning the masks over and trying to work out how they were made, as well as admiring the amazingly skilled decoration.  Needless to say, I came back inspired and fired with determination to give mask making another shot.  I researched, bought a couple of books, and experimented for a few months.

For my first attempt I used a method suggested by Jonni Good in her book ‘How to Make Masks’, which is well worth buying if you’re interested in starting to make masks.  It uses easily obtainable materials, and results in a lightweight, smooth mask.  Jonni also runs an excellent website over at Ultimate Paper Mache filled with great tips, videos and examples of her work which helped no end.

For my very first attempt I used an old clay model of my face (I’m sure everyone has one of these lying around) and created a sculpt from plasticine on top.  I then built the papier mache directly onto the finished model:

Plasticine Mask Sculpt    Plasticine Mask Mache

Plasticine is horrible to work with, I’ll say that straight away.  Smelly, stubborn, and leaves a nasty residue on your hands.  I also discovered that it reacts badly with the plaster/glue papier mache mix and retards the drying process.  After half a week it was still gloopy, so I abandoned this mask and started afresh.

Plasticine Devil Sculpt Plasticine Devil Mache

I decided to go for a full face mask, again using plasticine on top of the clay model.  This time I covered the model in clingfilm (using vaseline to get it to adhere to the model and follow all the recesses and details), and then added the mache.  This worked an awful lot better, and the mask was almost dry in an hour.

Plasticine Devil Mask

Here’s the devil mask trimmed and after a bit of sanding.  It fits my face so well it hardly needs a cord to stay on!  There’s still a bit of smoothing to do before I paint him.  The disadvantage of this method is that once the mache is dry, you’re pretty much guaranteed to destroy the original sculpt as you pull it out of the back of the mask.  That makes this chap a one-off, so I’m a little nervous about painting him in case it goes wrong.  I decided to make a few more masks to experiment on before painting this one, and to do that I wanted a method that would let me create multiples of a particular design…

 

Baking Bad

I couldn’t let Breaking Bad finish without some kind of celebration.  It has, after all, been one hell of a ride these last few years, and I have no idea what I’m going to do with my Monday nights now it’s all over.

Stage one: the cake.

baking bad cake

It’s a blue (well, more aquamarine to be honest, damn you Todd!) and white marbled two layer cake.  This layer did a bit of a chestburster inpression as I tried to bash coax it gently out of the tin, but as you can see the cracks where it was reattached are barely noticable.  Or at least, it’ll all be covered in piles of icing soon, so frankly who cares.

Baking Bad Crystal Cake

And here it is, possibly the most dangerous Breaking Bad cake in East Anglia.  The ‘crystal meth’ is rock candy (see previous post) and while not as dangerous as the first lot I made I’d still recommend removing the big shards before taking a bite!

Breaking Bad Cupcakes

The second batch of cake mix I made into cupcakes for my fellow BrBa obsessed colleagues. I made about 15 and they disappeared pretty quickly, so I’m glad I kept a few aside for the actual episode later that night!

Dangerous Cakes

I had a little of the candy glass left over, so… dangerous cake happened.  This one was later carefully deconstructed and eaten by trained professionals.

Breaking Bad ChocolatesBreaking Bad Chocolates

By the time I’d finished baking, I was on a bit of a sugar high so of course Breaking Bad Chocolates seemed like a brilliant idea, never mind that I already had half a kitchen’s worth of washing up to do.

Dark chocolate with blue-tinted white chocolate filling and candyfloss-flavoured crystals.  Nom.

Monday evening finally came around and before viewing commenced we ate (no rumbling stomachs would dare interrupt this episode!): the boy had cooked us Pollos Hermanos chicken in a basket, complete with Cap’n Cook’s Special Ingredient fries.  An awesome surprise to make the night complete!

Los Pollos Hermanos