Monday, June 15, 2009

Subtractive Process

Hmmm, this is taking on the appearance of an art blog.  Well, we have been doing some creating lately, and a blog is a great place to tell about it, don't you think?  An art expert I am not, not even an amateur, so if you are an art expert (or an amateur) and you are reading here, and you see that I am an art idiot, go ahead and correct me.  If it's really bad, you are excused to go to a different blog and not waste your time here.   

Once upon a time we attempted carving in Ivory soap.  The soap crumbled and left us with teeny tiny sculptures that were left outside and eventually dried up, cracked, and were thrown away.  The results weren't even worth blogging about. Someone, probably my artist mother, suggested doing sculpture with a mix of plaster and vermiculite.  My kids enjoy art somewhat (they probably would a lot more with a real instructor) so I acquired some old plaster and vermiculite from the last time my mom tried this project, which was years ago.  Shortly thereafter I invited a good friend and her kiddos to come over and give it a try. In the meantime I was wise to experiment with mixing the sculpture medium. (I do have a good idea occasionally, thank you Lord, my brain is not completely dead.)  Just in time, I found the right combination of ingredients and time to give us a good sculpture material, yippee!

Plaster and vermiculite make a soft but solid carving/sculpting medium for a subtractive process.  Most art projects involve adding things together: paint and paper, paper with more paper, clay with more clay, pounding wood and nails, to get the desired result.  Sculpting or carving involve taking away material to get a desired result, and for that reason they are challenging.  I once heard a sermon illustration on becoming more Christ-like, about a  famous marble sculptor whose secret to producing life-like pieces was that he simply chiseled away everything that didn't look like the desired result.  This is the same process!

If you are trying to be more Christ-like, that is good, and the Lord can help you with that.  But I can help you with this subtractive art project.   It's quite simple, really.  Here is what you need (not everything is pictured):

  • Sta-Green horticultural vermiculite (available at Lowe's garden center), or something similar, such as Perlite, but NOT the Hyponex brand -- it's too coarse.
  • plaster of paris**
  • warm water
  • breathing mask
  • something to mix in
  • something to measure with
  • something to stir with
  • something to make forms with -- paper cups, empty pint containers, milk jugs, whatever
  • something to carve with -- plastic spoons or knives, popsicle sticks, etc.

**Plaster of paris is potentially very dangerous.  Do not breathe this dust  (or any  fine dust) or get it into your eyes.  It can irritate skin.  Use it outdoors or in a very well ventilated area, facing downwind from a fan or breeze. Use care in preparing this stuff!  Keep the kids away.

Pour 2 parts of plaster into a bucket.  Add 2 parts warm water, and let it sit until the plaster stops bubbling. This puts off dust and heat, so again, be careful how you breathe. Stir the plaster and water until it is smooth.  Now add 3 parts vermiculite and mix well. It should be the consistency of thick wet cement. If it's too lumpy and thick, add a bit of water.  Pour into clean forms.  The mold will set up in less than one hour, but I made mine a day ahead of time.  Cut the mold away from the sculpting medium, and you are ready to go.

To give our kids some ideas, I did a Google search for images of simple sculptures, then printed them on a contact sheet. Like this:

A figure that is kind of solid, such as a cat curled up, or a man's head, will work best.  Arms, legs, or branches won't work very well -- this medium is too fragile for spindly shapes. (The music note or guitar would not be good choices if done the way they are in the photo, but they could work if they were made short and fat.)  It might be helpful for the artists if they first draw the figure they are trying to create.  Now let the kids loose with their tools. 

When finished, allow the sculptures to dry for two or three weeks.  At that point they can be sanded and painted, or lacquered.  Or you can leave them alone.

The weather cooperated beautifully for this: a cloudy sky, cold temps (for western AZ in June -- 80's! ) and a little breeze.  The kids were busy for a good hour, then we cleaned up some and had lunch together.  Next time we do this I may add some coffee grounds to the plaster/vermiculite combination to give it a more stone-like appearance.  Now please excuse me while I go sweep up a bucketful of plaster dust!

And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter:
so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it.
Jeremiah 18:4


  1. Looks like fun! Is that your eldest's book sculpture? Very nice & creative. I wouldn't be able to do that. Perhaps you have an undiscovered artist in the family. Maybe you should have a DAILY art class :) Have you seen RobinsEggBlue blog - her daughter is an incredible artist - maybe your girls know their daughters already. Anyways, neat books.

    I always marvel at the men that carve bears & eagles out of logs with a chain saw around here - they are so good -- kindof unexpected coming from a brawny man - if I tried that, I'd only drop the saw and cut off my toes.

    Good job!

  2. Sally, I am so impressed with your craft skills, really. Maybe you take more after your mother in this area than you thought. This looks fun and my kids would totally love it.

    It's funny that whenever I click over here Aubrey is usually in the vicinity and wants to see what you've posted. She was making the remark that your girls are pretty and that your two older ones are so tall (we're all short so taller people fascinate us).

    Tell Amy that I get those close-ups by using my Zoom on the camera to the max with the camera set on close shots. My camera is a point and shoot whereas hers being one of those more souped up kind may need to be adjusted differently. Someday I hope to have a souped up camera but for now the elcheapo Kodak will have to do :-).

    Aubrey has a letter on the way to your sweet Betsy.

    Blessings, Julie

  3. Looks like fun.. I'll have to try that



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