Note: This is the original draft that I wrote and fed to GPT-4.
I recently completed my first-ever sculpture commission! It was a lot of fun, but quite difficult and an emotional roller coaster at times. I wrote this to wrap the project up in my head, to create a snapshot of the things I learned for future self-reference, and to entertain you. Maybe you'll find it useful if you're getting into sculpting. At the very least you can laugh at my dumb mistakes, which I openly share throughout.
If you want to ruin the surprise and see the finished piece then scroll to the bottom of the page. Otherwise, join me as I guide you through the construction and share some images that I took along the way.
It all started in 2021 when I rediscovered my love for sculpting while dealing with the stifling pandemic response in Toronto. For practice, I decided to recreate a pumpkin from Kruggsmash's Dwarf Fortress Waddlesquash series. I shared my creation with Kruggsmash, and he was kind enough to feature it in one of his videos! If you haven't checked out his content, I highly recommend it - he's incredibly talented and creative.
Thanks to Kruggsmash's shout-out, a viewer saw my pumpkin sculpture and commissioned me to replicate a different drawing from the same series. Here's the image I was tasked with bringing to life:
When I saw this drawing, I knew I had an opportunity to create something really cool and it had to be a much higher build quality compared to that first pumpkin sculpt because I was now a professional artist. I only had a vague idea of how I'd pull this off, but no matter, that's how I like to roll: jump into projects beyond my capabilities and try to make something happen. I think this is the best way to level up your skills. You're going make mistakes and get smacked around by unknown unknowns, but don't let that fact stop you from starting. The challenges you face may be painful in the moment; however, they will become the highlights of the stories you share later.
Alright, with the obligatory corn dog motivational chat out of the way, let's get into it.
Before I touched any clay, I had to work out the sizes. I had never sculpted anything large, so I figured this was a good time to try it. Here's my technical breakdown of the desired dimensions:
Are you ready for some cool stuff, slick stuff, neat stuff, raw stuff?
I roughed in the small pumpkin using a combination of Super Sculpey soft, the pink clay, and Super Sculpey firm, the grey clay. The firm clay does a great job at holding details and I prefer to use it on the surface. At this stage my primary objective was to lock in the proportions. It doesn't make sense to jump right into detailing something if the foundation isn't correct.
I wanted the barrel to look really good and realistic, so I took my time measuring every piece and carefully cutting them. I unfortunately don't have any pics of the early stages, but I can explain some of the work that led to this.
The inner core is made from compressed aluminum foil. This is a standard polymer clay technique for reducing weight, conserving clay, and lowering the chance of thicc sculpts cracking in the oven. In this case, I wanted the barrel to be a hefty boy so that it didn't tip over when the pumpkin guy was placed on top. The clay-to-foil ratio was all guess work and it luckily worked out.
I initially stuck a wire into the top thinking I would build the guy around it, but it didn't work out for reasons I now forget, and I ended up going the traditional route of making a separate armature.
The most challenging moments making this was wrapping the hoops around the barrel while keeping them parallel to the ground, without distorting them, and carving out uniform wooden strips. It annoys me when I get a pizza and some of the slices are super skinny - I wanted to avoid that here.
Going forward the barrel guy will be referred to as Mr. Pumpkin. Gotta put some respect on his name. Before I committed a bunch of time to Mr. Pumpkin, I needed to get a sense of his proportions. I quickly roughed him in:
It wasn't easy translating a 2D image into 3D! I wanted to both replicate Mr. Pumpkin looking down at his pet and allow the viewer to see the details of his upper torso and face without requiring them to duck down to inspect. This requirement of mine led to me revising his shape and head angle MANY times while building him, until everything felt just right.
I had no prior experience building armatures, so I turned to Youtube for guidance. The process was a bit harder than the pros made it look. Here's my crappy first attempt at legs:
It wasn't working out, so I started over and came up with this alien thing. That'll do!
With my alien armature in hand, I could start to properly build out Mr. Pumpkin.
I found it challenging to work out the limb proportions! I wanted him to look cartoony like the source drawing, but also somewhat human-like since he does have to physically sit on the barrel and look good from all angles. I think I got too obsessed with trying to match the source image.
I scrapped what I had a few times until the proportions looked correct. I finally settled on this:
More work was done on the head. I followed a similar approach to the barrel: foil core; then soft clay; bake to lock the core shape; add firm clay on the outside. His head will go through a bunch of revisions!
He needed arms, hands, and feet so those came next, along with more shirt details.
The fabric folds were made by using a soft silicone tool to gently push around the existing clay. It turned out OK. If I ever sculpt fabric again, I'm just going to add clay worms on top and blend them in. That'll be faster and have more pronounced definitions.
The pants texture comes from the grip of a metal tool. I just rolled it on the legs. It was hard to evenly apply it along the round surface, particularly on the inner thigh region. Next time, I'll just press fabric onto the clay for a more even and realistic texture.
With the body mostly done, I turned my attention back to the head. Notice all the dust and fibers? That's always a thing when sculpting no matter how clean you keep your environment and hands. This stuff seems to materialize from another dimension. The easiest way to remove it is with some isopropyl alcohol and a paint brush or Q-tips. Just be gentle when rubbing because the alcohol melts the clay, and you can easily rub away your details. I didn't worry about the dust because I was going to eventually paint over it.
I'm going to jump ahead a bit because I didn't take any pictures when I made the hat. I decided to make it with Cosclay which is a hybrid plastic/rubber polymer clay that has some flexibility after baking. There wasn't any tactical reason for this, I just wanted to play around with a new clay and figured a floppy hat made a good test subject.
Overall, I enjoyed using it. The annoying thing about it though is that it gets tacky from the warmth of your hands and fingers. The easiest solution I found is to apply a little cornstarch to your fingers and/or the clay, and that immediately removes the stickiness. You can ignore this suggestion if you're an undead creature with icy cold skin.
I made the cape using Cosclay which gave it some flexibility. I tried to cut out the shape from a flat piece of clay, but wasn't able to make it look good. After a few failed attempts, I used the sloppy quilt approach of building it with pieces that are then blended together.
My first dumb mistake took place during Mr. Pumpkin's final visit to hell. I was baking his new cape and needed to preserve its folds and overall shape. I figured I'd just place the cape facing up towards the ceiling. This meant that Mr. Pumpkin was resting face down with the tips of his shoes and the brim of his hat pushing against the tray. Dumb.
All of his weight was pressing down on the limbs and hat brim. This resulted in his shoe tips breaking off, the back of his feet cracking open and the hat splitting a bit. In the picture above I've already reattached the tips with liquid clay. I forgot to take a picture of the hat damage. This is the moment I learned about the various ways to support a sculpture with sensitive parts.
Lesson #1: Cured clay slightly softens when reheated. Don't apply pressure onto fragile parts while baking! You can support pieces by placing them onto/inside a pile of cornstarch or baking soda. I prefer baking soda over cornstarch, since the latter tends to leave behind a subtle white residue. This white tinting is problematic when baking translucent or coloured clay that won't be painted after baking.
I filled the cracks and reattached the shoe tips using liquid clay, which has the consistency of the Elmer's glue we used (and tasted...don't pretend you didn't sample it) in grade school. It bakes to the same hard polymer as regular clay, except it's translucent, so it's great for filling cracks and gluing pieces together.
I took the repaired sculpture out of the oven, and for some dumb reason I wanted Mr. Pumpkin to cool off on my counter top instead of on the baking tray. This is completely unnecessary! Don't touch the hot sculpture.
If you recall
Lesson #1 above, cured clay softens when heated. I was reminded
of a mathematical formula that day:
weight of Mr. Pumpkin + the weakened
bond to the barrel + the force of gravity = HIS DESCENT FROM THE BARREL AND
COLLISION WITH THE EDGE OF MY CAST IRON SKILLET, WHICH OF COURSE IS PERFECTLY
POSITIONED TO INFLICT MAXIMUM DAMAGE. This resulted in a big ass tear across
most of the cape and probably some unseen structural damage. I was not using my
brain that day.
Luckily it could be fixed without having to remake it, but it was still disheartening.
Lesson #2: Clay finishes curing while it cools. You already waited 30+ minutes for it to bake, you can wait another 15 while it cools on the tray.
After the trauma of two mishaps in one day, I threw sensibility completely out of the window because I was already deep in the chaos. I rushed to have a more permanent bond between Mr. Pumpkin and his barrel. I achieved this by super gluing them together.
The glue cured almost immediately upon contact! I barely had a chance to make sure he was seated in the exact same position as before. Also when I tried to position him, his legs slid around a bit and smeared some glue across the barrel. That smear haunted me until the end of the project. Spoiler alert: paint doesn't really stick to super glue. I had to meticulously scrape it off with a knife, which was super hard because it's super glue. Super fun too.
It wasn't long until I regretted gluing him to the barrel. It turns out super glue shouldn't be heated beyond a certain temperature because it'll emit toxic fumes, and that critical threshold was the exact temperature range I was baking in (obviously). I figured my wife wouldn't be happy with toxic glue fumes in our kitchen, and I didn't have the PPE for it anyway, so I wasn't able to repair the cape tear with more clay. Goign forward, I was a man of the glue.
I rejoined the tear, but this approach is a bit messy and there was a slightly visible seam. I used a knife to scrape away some of the surrounding clay, which helped a bit.
Lesson #3: Don't super glue clay that needs to be reheated. Ignore this if you don't mind breathing in death.
With the most challenging sculpting work done, I turned my attention back to the little pumpkin pet to finish him up. He will henceforth be known as the 'little guy'.
I didn't record the first improvement pass I did, but basically I focused on his expression, added detail to the body and I created the tap & valve that extrudes from his side. He doesn't seem to mind the impalement, which is very stoic of him.
In the picture you can see the first vine test using Cosclay:
I figured I'd use Cosclay for his entire underside to reduce the risk of damage while painting and handling. I think it worked out great! I really liked the look and the slight flexibility that Cosclay provides. The thinner the clay, the more bendable it is.
The time to paint had arrived. That first sculpture I showed you at the start of this post had been painted with acrylics. I didn't particularly enjoy painting it, nor did I like the end results. I find acrylics to generally be a pain in the ass because of their quick drying. And I decided against airbrushing because I didn't have any experience and I didn't want to spend a lot of money on the equipment.
At this point I remembered the amazing work of Dmitry Fesechko and his tutorials on painting plastic figures with oil paints. I fell in love with his work at first sight and knew I had to give this a try. I did more research and found James Wappel's videos on painting plastic minis with oil paints. The man is a painting machine and a fountain of wisdom for beginners! Check out his Twitch channel for near daily painting streams. I ingested many hours of their content trying to soak up as much knowledge as I could before embarking on what would turn out to be a VERY TIME-CONSUMING PATH.
It wasn't clear if I would have the same results painting polymer clay compared to the plastic minis, however the clay does cure to some type of plastic—hence the polymer in the name—so I figured it wouldn't be too different. I made some small figures to test out the painting process before going all in. The results looked good and I fully committed to using oils.
My first step was to prime everything. You don't have to prime, as I learned from my test painting, but it does give you a nice consistent surface to work on and the primer had the added benefit of filling in some of the cracks from the previously mentioned damage (like the cape tear). I'll take whatever help I can get!
I used the same primer that James Wappel uses, which is called Badger Stynylrez. It's self-leveling and a real joy to work with. You can airbrush it or apply it with a brush. And my favourite thing about it is that you can work over areas before they dry and you'll still end up with a perfectly smooth application. That's not the case with things like varnish or acrylic paint.
Here's a before and after:
If you look behind the sculptures in the picture above you'll see some little paint bottles. Those are oil paint droppers that I put together using empty bottles from Amazon. They contain a bit of oil paint that was thinned down with Izosol, which is an odourless low toxic mineral solvent, and some metal balls for mixing the paint. I followed James' tutorials    for this and made a bunch of these bottles. It was very boring, messy and time-consuming work, however it saved me time over the course of painting and gave me consistently thinned down paints. I really appreciated that aspect as a novice oil painter.
Why thin down the paint? If you use oil paint straight from the tube then it can take a looooong time to dry, like weeks or months! Even these thin layers I was applying could take ages to fully dry. The duration depends on a variety of factors such as humidity and the colours being used. By thinning these down, I was able to reduce the wait to a couple days between applications and in some cases I sped it up further by adding in a stabilizer gel from Schmincke called Malbutter. The latter was particularly helpful when using some cadmium-based colours.
Having said all of that, there is a catch to making these bottles:
Lesson #4: The paint will eventually dry inside these cheap plastic bottles because the lids aren't airtight! You have to shake them often and sometimes you need to add more mineral spirit into the bottles. I didn't realize this until some time had passed after the project's completion. I wanted to use them for a new sculpt and they were dried out. James Wappel doesn't really have this problem because he's painting every day and using up the paint. In the future I'm just going to use paint straight from the tube and thin the paint as needed.
I started to paint the leaves and vines of the little guy. It was going well and then this happened 😢
This unfortunate arm break took place while gently nudging the appendage in order to rotate the figure while painting the bottom portion. I suppose the clay wasn't fully cured. I didn't stress too much though, since I knew the ways of the glue and would eventually use it to rejoin the limb. I punted the repair work until the end of the project because its absence actually made it easier to paint the front region.
It took some time to paint all the nooks and crannies of the underside since some spots were quite difficult to reach. Make sure to rotate your subject often to find the unpainted areas that are only visible from odd angles!
Overall, I'm quite happy with how it turned out. There are some nice colour shifts from the variety of hues I used, which wasn't picked up too well by my phone camera, however the effect will be more noticeable in the final shots post-varnishing.
The transition from light to slightly darker hues on the head and foliage is my attempt to simulate object source lighting, with sunlight hitting the front right side. I kept it subtle since I didn't have any experience doing this. I'm pretty happy with how it turned out and I'm going to make this effect more pronounced in future projects.
It wasn't until I started to work with the orange tones (cadmium yellow deep) that I realized painting this with oils was going to take a long time.
This paint gave me a lot of trouble. It's an opaque paint, but for some reason it was going down very streaky and transparent. It took many applications to get the paint to be smooth with a consistent coverage. At first I thought it might be due to the smooth primer not providing enough tooth, so I lightly sanded the surface. That made no difference. I then tried using paint right from the tube without thinning it at all and that also made no difference. I never did figure out what the issue was.
I don't mean for this work log to be so negative, but there were a lot of mistakes along the way!
This one was devastating. I finished painting Mr. Pumpkin's head and placed him in my closet on top of a dresser to dry. This isolated spot has little air movement so there's less dust to stick to the drying paint. A week or so goes by and the head is nearly dry. Yay. Then one day I was in a rush for an appointment and needed to grab a bag from above the dresser at the top of my closet. Can you guess where this is going?
It just so happens that my laptop case was sitting on top of my bag, hidden out of sight. I had lazily put it there days earlier instead of inside my bag, and I knew I was playing a dangerous game at that time, but I have executive function issues and I ignored the thought. Well, I paid the price for that. The case fell as I pulled out my bag and of course it had to knock Mr. Pumpkin off the dresser...
The poor guy fell 1.5 metres onto my concrete floor. His head received the brunt of the impact and essentially exploded, blowing off the body and cracking along the backside. His hat split in a few places and the barrel was chipped a bit. It was a horrible thing to witness after putting so much time and love into Mr. Pumpkin. All I could do in that moment was compress the grief into a dense material like that of a neutron star, push it deep inside, and go to my damn appointment.
It's unbelievable that there wasn't more damage. I got lucky in that sense.
I was in too deep to give up and I knew everything could be repaired, albeit at the cost of more time.
The first step was to strip the paint from the head using Izosol. This ended up being very tedious work over the course of a few days. Maybe it would have been faster to remake the head. Hard to say.
I then used a combination of aluminum foil, liquid clay, and Sculpey firm to rebuild the head.
I reattached the head by putting glue on the wire and sliding it back into the hole. This worked decently well, except the wire hit a snag in the head, resulting in a slight gap between the head and torso. I doubt anyone noticed though.
I cleaned up the chipped barrel edges with a knife and remade Mr. Pumpkin's hat. The hat turned out better than the first version and sat on the head with less visible gaps. Sweet!
I first directed my attention to the head and fully painted it. I then worked on the hat and re-primed it. Don't do that! Prime everything before you paint. I was very careful while priming and thought I had done a good job, but when I inspected my work the next morning, I saw specks of primer on my beautiful orange paint. This happened because Stynylrez is very runny and can easily be flicked off the brush, even with subtle movement.
I highlighted some of the specks below. I'll deal with these closer to the end.
Continuing to paint the rest of his outfit:
I was a bit on the fence regarding the hat colour. It become lighter as it dried, which was unexpected. I didn't want to repaint it again so I left it and eventually gave it a cool shimmering effect by applying a blue pearlescent acrylic wash on top.
Working on the barrel again. I'll return to this a few times to make it progressively more aged looking.
While working on the barrel, I gently lifted away the bottom of the cape so that I could paint behind it and a crack materialized! I think it was already damaged from the catastrophic fall and it was just waiting for an opportunity to appear.
There was only one way to fix it. I busted out the super glue again and rejoined the tear. I also glued the bottom of the cape to the barrel so that this wouldn't happen again. That made it hard to paint the front side of the cape, but I preferred that struggle over fixing more broken clay with glue.
It was also around this time that I decided to cover up those specks of primer and to touch up a few areas on the heads that needed more paint. For this work I used some leftover orange paint on my palette that was still workable, but starting to get a bit sticky as it dried out. Oil paint isn't cheap, and I didn't want to waste! I thought this would work out just fine because I was able to reanimate the paint to its original consistency using some mineral spirit.
With a combination of inadequate light and reanimated paint, I "touched up" the head. It looked really good in that moment. I went to sleep with not a worry in mind.
The next day I reviewed my splendid work and that's when I saw just how patchy, blotchy and rough the new paint looked. I circled some of the areas in the picture below. The camera didn't pick it up too well, but take my word that it looked terrible and really stood out. The excessive mineral spirit created these nasty dried out blotches and the tacky paint was rough looking. Dammit!
At this point I had to accept my fate: I would have to completely repaint the heads for the third time. How depressing.
Lesson #5: Don't be a fool like me and use drying paint. Also, try to avoid painting at night unless you have lamps with the illumination power of the sun.
I wanted the cape to have a striking colour that contrasted the warm tones of the head and body, and shades of turquoise did the trick. I blended it with cobalt blue on the right side to simulate less sunlight hitting that end.
The turquoise was a real pain in the ass to apply on some areas of the Cosclay cape. There were spots where the paint was very streaky and a few places where it didn't want to stick at all. I had no choice but to keep reworking it and put down a few coats. The dried paint in those problematic regions would lift away when applying fresh paint, and at first I thought it was the mineral spirit in the additional coats, but the same thing happened with paint from the tube. It was a strange experience because the majority of the cape was fine. I never did figure out what the issue was.
I was starting to sense the end at this point and my spirits were lifting! I turned my attention back to the barrel and had a lot of fun aging it.
It's not easy painting reflective metal with oils, so I had to practice quite a bit on some test sculpts. I think I did a good enough job and was able to mask things a bit with a rust effect. The rust was created by layering very thinned down washes of browns and reds, followed by some more opaque reddish-brown details. I also blended in some blues to suggest a sky and cape reflection. The wood was aged similarly with some dark brown washes, followed by lighter tones dry brushed on to create scratches.
I ended up having to repaint the entire cape because the dried paint was rubbing off as a powder. There was something about the primed Cosclay that these colours did not like. I didn't have this issue with any of the other Cosclay...
Up to this point I was on the fence about varnishing the sculpture in fear of making a mistake and ruining it, but now I had no choice because I needed to lock the turquoise paint in place.
I also finally got around to repainting the heads again to cover up the blotchy mistakes from earlier. This was the final big painting task. The finish line was now clearly in view.
I painted the shirt buttons and cape buckle with a metallic gold acrylic paint and added some silver pearlescent on top for extra shine. You can also see some sparkle on the hat from the pearlescent blue wash I mentioned earlier.
All that remained was some small work on the little guy. I painted his tap & valve with metallic acrylics and then reattached his broken arm with my trusty glue. The repair work was a fairly smooth process, and the damage was covered up decently well. I could finally retire the glue for good.
I let everything dry for a few weeks and then I did the varnishing. I didn't take any pictures of this step, but I'll share a bit of what I learned because unsurprisingly I had some issues!
I experimented with various varnishes on some test sculpts before doing anything to the finished piece. I had some acrylic varnishes on hand and they worked perfectly on the oil paint, with one exception: the gloss acrylic varnishes immediately went cloudy upon contact with the paint and turned into a gummy substance. I tried a few different gloss and high gloss varnishes from Folkart, Liquitex and Golden and had the exact same results. So strange! I had no issues with satin and matte varnishes, so maybe there's something in the gloss substances that's reacting with the oil paint? No matter, the satin varnish is good enough in my opinion and barely indistinguishable from the gloss kinds.
I also tried using Gamvar, which is a gloss varnish by Gamblin made specifically for oil paint. I really liked how easy it was to apply on my test piece. It has a water-like consistency that self-levels and it doesn't dry right away so you can easily get a smooth application. I liked it so much on my test piece that I decided to use it as the main varnish.
I started by applying a very small amount to the barrel—as recommended by Gamblin—and set it aside to dry for a couple days. Unfortunately, it didn't completely dry and it had a slightly tacky feel in some spots. I didn't have this problem on my test piece so I must have used too much. I thought maybe blow-drying it would help, and it did in the moment, but the tackiness returned shortly after. This wasn't going to dry any further no matter what I did.
I had no choice but to remove the varnish with Izosol and Q-tips. It was very tedious work rubbing the varnish off and it's seemingly impossible to not take off some of the paint no matter how gentle you are. I didn't have the time or knowledge to find the right substance for removing Gamvar without affecting the paint. This removal process resulted in my very thin layers of rust and wood scratches being completely ruined and I HAD TO REPAINT ALL OF IT. At least it looked even better the second time around!
I tried using Gamvar again on a tiny inconspicuous spot because I loved how it looked. This time I used a micro amount, but I got the same tacky result. There was no point trying with less. I busted out a satin acrylic varnish and applied it to the entire piece, including the area with the tacky Gamvar. It worked out perfectly! The varnish dried without any discolouration or tackiness. Phew.
Lesson #6: It's probably best to not use Gamvar on oil painted clay sculptures if you can avoid it. I don't trust it after the inconsistent results. If you want a glossy look then just use a satin acrylic varnish (or gloss if it doesn't cloud/gum up) and move on with your life.
Yes, the commission was finally finished and ready to be packed for its journey to my very patient client!
Here are some pictures of the piece after varnishing:
As you can probably imagine I was nervous about shipping this to its new home. It was to travel from Canada to the United States via priority air. I didn't have any experience packing a sculpture and the few resources I found online didn't help much. In the end though it was actually the easiest part of the build. I had no issues at all!
I went all out on the packing to make sure nothing broke. I didn't take pictures of every step, so I'll explain instead. I first filled every gap with bits of a foam cloth to create an even surface. This was particularly necessary on the little guy given all the tiny fragile pieces of his underside. I then taped on multiple layers of makeup removal sponges to create a padded cocoon. Finally, I wrapped the figures with multiple layers of bubble wrap.
For the boxes, I squeezed the sculpts into their own small box and wedged in foam to lock them into place. I wrapped the boxes with bubble wrap and then placed them inside foam cut-outs. This foam frame kept them suspended inside the larger parent box.
The parent box was lined with foam sheets and then the small boxes were squeezed inside. I stuffed all the remaining gaps with air pockets, foam bits and paper wrap. Everything was super snug and nothing moved at all.
Was it overkill? Hell yeah it was, but I didn't want to take any chances!
That was one hell of a challenging project! There isn't much to say about it that hasn't already been said, so I'll stop here 😄
I appreciate you reading this far and I hope you enjoyed my story. Before you go, I just want to quickly mention that I'll be launching an online art store in the near future!
The initial plan is to sell polymer clay items and eventually I'll expand it to include paintings and possibly clothing & bags designed by my wife. For the sculptures, I'll be making a mix of products ranging from earrings, desk/shelf/plant friends, charms, keycaps, and one off pieces.
Here's an example of a dog design I'm working out:
A proof of concept keycap for mechanical keyboards:
And some of the unique pieces that I occasionally create. These will likely be spawned by the weirder side of my brain - the sort of stuff that my wife finds hideous and doesn't want to see laying around the house!
If any of this interests you then follow my store account on Instagram and keep an eye out for future posts announcing the official launch!
If you would like to leave a comment then return to the original article and scroll to the bottom!