Thursday, November 10, 2011

Bulls In A China Shop

This tangent brought to you by an uncommon youth. While my fellow teens-to-early-twenties were indulging in chemically-induced shenanigans, I was networking in my future field. I had been trustworthy at collectibles shows since an early age, and later had to be reliable as the lead working student at the barn. As a result, most of my social circle was comprised of adults, already well-established in their lives. The other great thing about mature friends is that they have cars, and are pretty awesome about letting "the kid" tag along for road trips to big model horse shows in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

I jumped at the chances for shorter trips to run errands, visit potters, or going to pick up new models. I was very fortunate to have fallen in with the authors of the first Hagen-Renaker Handbook (now the Charlton Standard Catalog) and other local collectors. My journals of those years record details about visits to the Renakers and some of their designers. One of these personalities was a former moldmaker for Hagen-Renaker. We knew him as the dude with some HRs for sale, which was unusual in the hobby back then, and as a friend who used to play card games with Joan, Susan Candelaria, and little ol' me.

Part of Skip's sales list, from 1993:

Now, you may be thinking, "A misspent youth, going to Vegas and playing cards!" Nope. It was innocent Uno, at Joan's old dining table, under that retractable lamp that was replaced so long ago. The game earned him his nickname: "Skip". Back then, long before Pour Horse had a kiln and added the word "Pottery" to its name, the ceramics fun was where Skip worked. A tile maker had leased a couple Renaker family-owned greenhouses. Skip was using part of that space, and as he was no longer an HR employee, he was working on free-lance moldmaking, including dolls, etc. Looking back on it now, it was a pretty sweet deal for a potter. He was surrounded by molds, samples, discarded pieces, and even had a working fiber kiln. The guy was like an art student on a self-directed semester; he experimented with reglazing, and once, he attempted to immortalize a mouse. Yes, in the kiln, which was in the area where he slept.

"[Skip], moldmaker to H-R at San Marcos, and previously moldmaker to Freelin McFarlane, was a very interesting man. He told us about dipping a dead mouse in slip until it was covered, and then firing it to achieve a perfect (and perfectly useless) shell mold of the mouse. Something tells me that being in the room with the firing kiln that day was not very pleasant. Or, likely, for some time to come. Besides, who wants a mold of a dead mouse? Is that what happens when moldmakers are bored?..."
Joan Berkwitz, March, 2003

When Pour Horse started, Joan was just learning about resin casting. She entrusted our first big venture, the Roped Calf model horse prop, to Skip's moldmaking. This was one of my first full-body sculptures, and I had so much emotionally invested in it. Let's just say, the last thing a nervous novice wants to hear is this, in a deadpan tone:

That would be an accurate self-portrait of that moment, recorded in my journal for February 9th, 1994. And then:
"The guy in the studio next to Skip... saw my [Pour Horse Roped Calf]... And so, my friend Skip introduced my name to him... Laird wants to hire a part-time sculptor to do some modeling* and some relief tile work. He said that people write to him from back East, asking for jobs in his studio... He didn't want to hire someone that was artistically 'set in their ways', but rather a new talent who could be trained and groomed to the business' style."

February 13th, 1994:
"I did a frog tile today! I was interviewed yesterday and accepted as part-time sculptor (designer). Last night, I went out to dinner with Joan, her husband, Susie, and Skip to celebrate. We ended up playing cards 'til midnight, hoarse from laughing."

Of course, only until midnight, as I was a good kid and had to sculpt at Laird's the next morning! In three weeks' time, Laird asked to me spend the Summer working full time as his designer. From there, my dual career was started as a professional commercial sculptor/ceramist.

Sometimes, I rode along on trips to Skip's to pick up very special HRs from his collection, too rare to risk shipping. These pieces were not like his sales list items, some were tests and custom glazes. As a youth, I never dreamed I would ever be able to afford such treasures; I just stared, with eyes like chicken eggs, much as in the drawing above. I'm really glad I kept my ears open and have these memories of the models' provenance.

During one such visit, Skip sold his two custom glazes of the DW Longhorn mold in 1994 or 1995. I have the year 1995 from another source, but my journal timeline leans toward 1994. Skip told us that these Longhorns were originally commissions for a non-hobbyist private collector. One of these customs now resides in the late Karen Grimm's model horse museum collection. Skip made it very clear to us that these were both custom glazes, not tests. These are pretty amazing to have survived at all, as the Longhorn models were very easily tipped over and broken, due to their touchy balance. Here is the other one he sold:

He has a pinpoint of missing color on one horn tip, which is how he came from Skip. It's staying that way, as a sort of salute to his origin. There is no signature to the glaze. He was decorated in the factory, making him a factory custom, in collector terms. When I first saw this bull, he enthralled me; I found his face, hair, and skeletal details so beautiful. He has very crisp mold detail. I was an aspiring cattle artist, with my modest Roped Calf sculpture so weak by comparison. I wished I could capture cattle like his designer, Maureen Love.

In retrospect, it makes me smile that both Skip and this model resonated together with my first apprenticeship, which led to my career. Skip made the people-connection and the same species subject got me "discovered". Let's not forget, Joan got the ball rolling by both introducing me to Skip and commissioning that hapless Roped Calf, in the first place.

Years later, this Longhorn changed collector hands. Fortunately, when he came up for sale a third time, I was in a position to acquire him. Of course, this bull is named, "Skip".

The regular run HR San Marcos DW Longhorn looks quite different, and it was made for only one season (in HR terms, a "season" is half a year), Fall of 1981. The older (Monrovia) regular run color was a dark brown pinto, achieved by some resist or sgraffito technique (or both), and was only made two years. There is one to view at this interesting site. I'm very curious to handle one in person and see exactly how it was decorated. "Skip" the custom bull was decorated by airbrushed spots, in contrast.

It is a great joy when old friends and good times are immortalized by the very ceramics we collect. I like having a bull in my china (work)shop.

* meaning, modeling clay, not catwalk stuff

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Four Heads Are Better Than One

If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again.

Oddly, necessities of moldmaking first steered me in this direction, that eventually led to sculpture improvement. It would be helpful if this occurred more frequently, but that would make my job easier. We certainly can't have that. Another factor, the choice to offer two breed versions of this stock horse, clinched the decision which led to better results. Usually, the opposite is the case, because a sculptor can generalize too much! There has been a trend, nay, a tradition, among model horse exhibitors (and producers) to use one mold for multiple breed designations. For some molds, this works fine, as some breeds have the same foundations. In other cases, it doesn't work. The more I researched for the the two versions of this horse, the more it became clear that one head was not going to work for two breeds. The client desired the changes in grooming and overall hair volume between the two versions. We agreed that to better capture each individual breed, it had to go beyond the hair-do. We also agreed that the second head, the one he was wearing at the end of this blog post, didn't fit and seemed too general.

Under the client's direction, I sculpted a third head, before their very eyes. The Mustang head is on the right. A little later, the Applaoosa head on the left was sculpted. The coarseness of the Mustang really stands out when side-by-side with the pedigree Appaloosa. They are shown here in the original Chavant clay.

We're both much happier with this solution. The previous Mustang heads look stylized, like "artist's conceptions", compared to these revisions. Remember?

The new Mustang head could have some draft in the woodpile, and he sports a beard and fully-fuzzed ears (sculpted separately).

Where did I get my idea of an Appaloosa head? My client searched the web for photos of Appaloosas of the 1960's and earlier. I pulled two books from my shelves, Appaloosa (1972) and Champion Horses of the Americas (1971). Like a Mustang, there was a range of overall face types, with a few features in common. The eye, shaped like an almond, seemed to show up the most frequently. Just one photograph, of "High Thunderbird", looked strikingly like Carol Williams' QH-1 (the Stone QH mold) in the head and large, round eye. Another old Appy looked like a spotted Thoroughbred (and was, virtually, by descent). I certainly don't want to get too close to what others have done before, so I chose to go with the alternate, the look I saw most frequently among those '60's Apps. This Appalooosa head is refined without being overly wedged or Arab-y; it has the eye shape I saw on so many of the old photographs. Very different, but both new heads have stock horse substance, honesty, work ethic.

Then, it was time to recapitate him. My husband molded the heads and their respective ear sets (fuzzy and clean-shaven), and poured resin castings for me to work with. I played with the ear positioning on the Appy head, after attaching it to the body. Somehow, it needed to be less like the designated position for the Mustang, and more like the Appies in the old photos. Forward, pointing slightly outwards, not airplaning, but not with the tips touching, either. Pleased with the progress, I went to bed.

The next morning, I walked in, looked at his head set, and immediately decapitated him a third time. I mean, I didn't even sit down yet. Wrong wrong wrong. Let's try that again. Much better. Oh, and I was curious to see if my Cowgirl Poetry (classic scale) custom tack set would fit him. I couldn't find my matching saddle pad, and looks like I need a new girth to slide that saddle back.

Then, it was ON. I was sending pix before even completing mane sections! The client asked for a rattier tail than previously sculpted, and since it no longer needed to be a plug for the pourhole, I was free to reduce it and get really ratty. Next, the client wanted a sparse, flipping-on-both-sides mane. Even though the old show photos had completely roached (or with just a tuft of forelock) manes, the client wanted that little bit of outline break-up, that "umph" of a sparse App mane.

The tail needed another edit, because it STILL had too much hair. I kept going back to the photos, which showed shaved or very short hairs on the upper tail, which fanned out farther down into sparse, longer hair. Underneath, his tail bone is visible.

Have I toyed with you enough? Here is my rat-tail Appaloosa, as he stands tonight. The few tasks yet to be done may not even be noticeable in later photos (a tail key, a signature, etc.), so these are a fair representation of the final Appaloosa sculpt. The Mustang will follow, of course.

Many more photos, brighter images, will be in galleries at my yahoogroup and Facebook art page.

I hope this sculpt serves a niche that was not well addressed in the hobby. There are so few specific Appaloosa resin molds, and I can count the existing Appaloosa ceramic molds on one hand (one is the same as a resin). It's a shame there are so few, because so many artists love painting and glazing Appaloosas! This guy, my little "ratrod", was made for exhibitors and collectors who dearly love the differences in breed morphology.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Would You Like That "Extra Crispy"?

This is a topic that I hope will inspire some collector participation, as in, send your photos. There will be a follow-up post.

We all know that these ceramic artworks are fired in kilns to achieve their permanence and luster. What some don't know is that despite careful monitoring and loads (literally) of experience, temperatures can fluctuate inside the kiln. Sometimes, it's a matter of the arrangement of the kiln load, or how close an individual piece is to a heat source (be it gas jets or electrical elements). At other, more infuriating times, it is due to a spontaneous malfunction of a regulator, relay, or other modifying mechanism. Those are the times that try potters' souls, but not nearly as mind-melting as when you are a factory with a load of dozens or hundreds of pieces. Some of these "Toasties" can be salvaged and sold; some, well, they sort of melt where they stand.

Not all factories are horrified by the resulting glaze variants. Some, like the first studio where I served an apprenticeship, absolutely delight in variants. It gave that pottery's stoneware tiles a color family range, exactly as the original Batchelder tiles. I remember Laird being a big fan of his glazes' extremes, particularly when they got a little toasted by the jets.

Another pottery, Hagen-Renaker, kiln fires large numbers (compared to us hobby ceramists) in each load. Over the years, I have seen a few HR factory "Toasties". These appear different from the blackened miniatures resulting from accidental reduction firings (without oxygen). Toasties retain some of their intended hue, but usually only in their deepest detail. I don't want to wax overly technical here, but things are happening underneath the glaze on a chemical level, beyond the human hand's application of that pigment. Please forgive the label, "Toasty"; it's all I have to work with until I learn a more friendly term. "Over-fired" is just not a cute word.

When were these made? They have happened occasionally, over the decades, and still happen. I bought these two HR reissue Native Dancer models in June of 2009. They were in a regular, brick-and-mortar gift shop HR retailer, from the same fresh shipment.

This is the normal one.

Here you can see how the Toasty's pigment is reduced and grainy over the broad surfaces, and only the details cling to color. These areas only have blotchy rich color. It's almost the look of hand-brushed watercolors, not airbrushed underglazes! This effect is universal on Toasty glazes. The airbrushed pigments are, in fact, dissipated chemically, without the influence of the human hand. In my own ceramics experience, I've seen this happen when pieces are glaze fired repeatedly (or accidentally overcooked).

In a HR firing moment between 1981-1984, probably early on in that period, judging by her fully tri-eyes, a regular palomino large Zilla got toasted. Zilla photos courtesy of collector Karen Beeson.

She was over-heated so much that her seamlines, greenware sponge wipes, and white mineral specks rose up under her glaze (see her back).

I get that it "looks" like color was swiped on top, but it's actually the pigment settled into her clay surface texture and minerals (grog) of the clay changing the surface, as it attained a higher temperature. At HR, sponging the seams down is standard practice. This removes the outer "silt" layer of fine clay and exposes the micro texture of the clay (fine grog). Those white specks are the grog exposed after greenware sponging, usually unnoticed under normal firing conditions.

The body shading is on all SM palominos, it just is palomino color when fired correctly. Some underglazes are unstable when heated above the ^04 range. Weird things happen to over-cooked dirt.

Note that her belly, where no sprayed underglaze was applied, looks fairly normal.

Everybody wants to know if these are more valuable, since they are factory OF variants. Honestly, some people are grossed out by them. Do not expect a Toasty to win a Breed class at a model horse show. They don't look like real horse colors. There is no way of telling if they are even all that rare, and this is not a condition that is only found on one color, nor one mold. The circumstance is random and an equal opportunity underglaze obliterator. Fresh Toasties retail right alongside normal siblings, so it is not like the factory retains them, out of collector hands. They are out there.

On a more personal note, I was present for the following over-firing, back in 1996. The Manual Kiln Sitter had a bar failure, and roasted a whole batch of Joanie's early Pour Horse Pottery Owynn. Talk about scorched earth! These earthenware fellows were vitrified, and drooped upon their stilts like Vlad's victims. They couldn't be glazed, so technically they are bisque Toasties. They don't have the pigment dissipation effect only seen in glazed Toasties. Instead, the overdone Owynns show the instability of gray and black underglazes at excessive temperatures. Here is one of the lucky ones, and even he stands 1/2" shorter than a normal gray Owynn. Yes, the gray one is what he was supposed to look like, had he survived past this fatal bisque firing. If this had been a glaze firing, I don't even want to think about the collateral damage that would have done to the kiln's furniture. Meltdown.

Toasties happen, and they can't be 100% prevented. They aren't realistic nor gem-like, and their collectibility is subjective. People like them or hate them. One thing is certain: no one orders their horses "extra crispy".

Monday, July 18, 2011

Glazing: Old and New, Both Good

With my backlog nearly completed, I took one day off and ran up to the Breakables and Fairytales Live at Breyerfest for the evening. This is a North American Model Horse Shows Association qualifier competition for all ceramic (and OF resin) model horses. It is the only model horse show at Breyerfest where you will see horses aged 100 years or more competing -and winning!- against the latest issues. There are categories for horse ceramics from every corner of the earth, made from every type of earth! You couldn't tell by now that I love the vintage pieces, adore the unusual- and this show did not disappoint. I did some proxy exhibiting for clients, but I managed to get a couple of photos of pieces that struck me as interesting.

The problem all horse artist-potters face is, how do you make a piece of china look like a horse, with all the variety of markings and colors? As many potters as there were and are, there are just as many answers, and that is what makes an all-ceramic model horse show such a great treat.

Dapples and Reverse Dapples

This dapper gent (unusually, it's not a mare polo pony) was the Rosenthal factory's answer to the question of dappling and reverse dappling, back in 1911. Some modern collectors may overlook this fellow, but there is a lot going on here. His roached mane and forelock have individually painted hairs. His eye is detailed, and even his nostril has an interior gray spot. Both types of dapples are subtle without hard edges or runs. There is a great deal to be learned from this piece, even one hundred years after it was made.

Here is a very subtle and elegant answer to the dapple question, from Nymphenburg, sometime after 1915:

This is a modern piece, recently decorated by Horsing Around of the UK. Each factory has its unique flair in decoration, and it becomes readily identifiable to collectors. A little further down is a photo of this same mold, addressing the same color, as an example of the endless variety in approach.

Here are two more modern takes on the dapple concept. The pony on the left is a RW custom glazed by the late Anthony (of Alchemy and formerly, Royal Worcester) and the on the right is a dapple rose gray by myself, of about 2 years ago.

Although she was not entered at this show, this model was on my table as a sample. I custom glazed this model (same mold as the Horsing Around above) this year. I aimed for a nice blend of the old and the new, soft and yet detailed.

The Smooth Body Surface

What do you do when your model has a soft form? How do you make its few details "pop"? By selective shading, without compromising or muddying up the slip pigmentation. Here is a Hagen-Renaker Sespe Violette, with strategic directional shading on her withers wrinkles, throat wrinkles, and leg feathers. She dates around 1954-55. There are many more heavily shaded examples, several were at this show.

Here is a current release, a Callahan sculpted and glazed by Addalee Hude, which rises to the challenge with pattern detail, rather than relying on strategic shading alone.

Making a "Blah" Color Sing

Here is a lovely vintage example of what many collectors would call a "boring" color choice: a solid bay. The Royal Worcester "Mill Reef" edition translated a bay color, that could easily have been flat, into a chocolate enrobement that exalts the sculpture. True, it takes a little stylist side trip here and there, following some sharply delineated contours, but that speaks to their commitment to the original designer's concept. That's cool. Overall, the shading and application, and attention to detail (nostril interior sinus pink!), has volumes to teach modern glaze artists.

I saw many rare and beautiful models that I simply couldn't get to fast enough to photograph on the judging tables. I hope this little sampler inspires you to attend the next all-ceramic horse show near you, or at least look at the china classes at the next horse show with fresh eyes. So much thought and technical work goes into each piece, be it an edition or one-of-a-kind. The appreciation knows no bounds of time or nationality.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Following a New Set of Fresh Prints

Sometimes, I get to work with clients who are not in a tremendous rush. I love this! This means the sculpture can develop a bit more naturally, it can "simmer", and I have opportunity to grow, revisit it, and improve it before it goes to molding. The best improvements are made with fresh eyes, and that means literally putting a piece in a box where I can't see it every day. Thank you, Mustang client, for everything!

This about my new stock horse sculpture, first introduced last year in this blog entry.

The next gratitude must be expressed to the brave folks that examined him in person back then, and gave me constructive criticism. Some additional notes came via email and phone, from people who sincerely love model horses; it is so nice to have such support and encouragement in the pursuit of excellence. To those who were entirely thrilled with the first stage of him, and loved him as he was: I hope you can see what I see now.

A comparative analysis, showing side-by-side images of old and new, is a pretty soul-bearing experience for an artist. Some people never talk about this aspect of the process, maybe because they don't want to admit error. That omission may lead others to think it never happens to the professionals. Here is what a growth spurt in sculpture looks like, and trust me, there are growth pains.

And after the dust settles:

Wait! What just happened there? First, he had major body surgery, including being cut in half and having length added to his torso. Because he was sculpey and epoxy, his torso pretty much broke up under the saw, and had to be stabilized. Next, his withers were defined, his loins bunched further back to remove the "roachback", and all of his major muscle quarters were re-assessed. I found that the muscle groups along the curve from his point of buttock to Achilles tendon, were short, narrow, or just didn't tie right for a stock breed. Every single one, both sides! Here is the old construction, with my drawn-on guides for where the new muscle edges should lay:

Here is the finished area:

A little further down the hind legs, I could not stand his stance. He wasn't showing enough flexion to be engaging and crouching. One could imagine a horizontal line through the hocks, and the two sides were doing two different things. I broke his pasterns and fetlocks, then bent and cut the armature wire underneath, when the pieces fell off! Brrrrutal!

Then, I realized that to see what I was doing with the bones and tendons, I needed to shave his feathers and coronets. Nothing was lining up until the hair was removed, and then, of course, all the tendons had to be resculpted from scratch.

Finally, he looked like he was sound, athletic, and moving:

By this time, I was on a hair-removing mission. The tail was too bulky for reality, and was blocking my view of the hindquarter symmetry, so it came off, straight away. POP! As mentioned before, there are two versions of this sculpture to be produced. The Appaloosa "rat-tail" version of this sculpture could be addressed while I let the Mustang version's new hair simmer in my head. I looked at references of this old school type of stock horse, and studied how their thin, short manes and tails could be shaped to both be aesthetically pleasing, and still pull from a ceramic mold. Van Gogh's sunflowers were picked.

Now being a short, unruly old school Appy mane, there was still hair on both sides. This helped with visual interest, too:

The tail of the Appy presented a technical problem. The horse is to be slipcast via a pourhole through the butt, and the big Mustang tail would naturally serve as the pourhole plug. However, for the follically-challenged Appy, I had to make a plug shaped like the undersides of a tail, because there wouldn't be enough hair to cover.

Perhaps you are wondering now, "Why go to all this trouble to preserve the integrity of a butthole?" The answer is, one of the major defining traits of an Appaloosa is the mottled skin of its nether regions. Therefore, Breed and Workmanship judges, as well as the collectors, will examine this part of the anatomy for accuracy.

The front end was not without its share of corrections. His bony elbow points were awash in a mush, and needed to be defined. Once they came to light, I could better get a measure on his front bone lengths, and correct one longer leg. As with the hinds, the fronts got shaved and completely new tendon structures, as well as improved knees (wrists).

All four legs got an update in another aspect that I have been struggling to understand for years. I managed to get close in my Sia sculpture, but it has eluded me in full comprehension until now. I always hated my pastern-fetlock-canon transitions. They were always blocky, and dipping in the wrong spots. I reached this by dremelling his limbs down to the bone, using the anatomy book directly, then building up tissue and tendons. Finally, this horse has pushed me past a major plateau or roadblock.

Hogging on these things, hoping a magical formula will manifest:

And it didn't.

Next try, almost there...


He has real bones! Uh-oh. Better add bone to that shoulder point, too. Oh, no. Another roadblock to bust through... the chest. The really gut-wrenching thing is that I thought I had finally gotten this part right. Chests have been another problem area where my brain bucked and refused to comply.

And, then, the light shone down, and improvement was made on a perceived success.

It's time to talk about his most obvious change, his head. While Mustangs can be wicked ugly, and can look like his old head did, it doesn't mean all Appies look like that. Since the structure of an App or other stock breed head can occur in Mustangs, I went the other direction. I foucsed on the client's request for old-timey, rat-tail and started looking at mid-century stock breed heads. I went heavy on the jowl, gave him small, foxy ears, and an overall wedge in shape. At the same time, I had to line up all with the features of the old head, because of the old head's scale to the rest of the body. So, I decapitated him and started a whole, new head.

And just when I thought I had it- at last!- I realized that his nasal bone was crooked and drifting into a spiral. And his cheekbones didn't match, and...

Finally, getting somewhere, but don't be surprised if it gets more changes:

Now, the turn-arounds:

Now, all that remains are some fiddly changes, like lip stuff and all the veining.

It's worth noting that all of these changes were done alone, in my studio. I didn't have critics sitting at my side, pointing... the critiques themselves were short, with maybe two words to each flaw, to sort of point me in a general direction. I had no specific measures to go by, with the exception of a saddle measurement for a real horse. This was largely about battling my own perceptions and rote bad sculpting habits. This highly recommended artist's blog entry pretty much covers the torment of changing my brain. It is so much more than just having the guts to chop, saw, dremel, and vaporize your former best. You have to sit down, make a game plan, and have an absolutely clear vision of what the end result must look like, regardless of steel armature or personal preferences. It hurts, like someone is stamping fresh hoofprints in your head. In a way, you are.