contrasting work: 23 years apart

This is a comparison of two dogs I made, one in 2000 and the other in 2023.

I returned to where I started but with all the knowledge, expertise and experience I have under my belt now. I thought it would be intriguing to go back and see how I’ve improved in 23 years, but in all honesty I thought it would be low hanging fruit. I was a bit stuck and thought I knew how to make dogs easily and it would get my fire lit again after a lot of setbacks this past year.

I’ve loved a slender, long-nosed, muscle-hound ever since my lurcher Arthur many years ago and this first dog was based on him. I had little understanding of dog anatomy back in my student days. I hadn’t yet studied skeletons or the actual mechanics of a dog’s movement. Nothing but a fairly flimsy wire armature underneath, and huge amounts of plaster bandage and more plaster quickly slathered on the top. I call this dog Alberto because of my love of Giacometti at the time, and the rough texture, thin legs and oversized feet were inspired by him.

Alberto’s pose is impossible for a pooch – his elbows hover in mid air, the legs aren’t splayed and don’t allow the chest and shoulders to drop low. There’s also not enough bend in the knees or ankles of the back legs. It’s not balanced properly, the back feet are uneven and the poor thing wobbles because of the flimsiness of the armature causing too much movement to the sculpture. Four limbs are cracked and the tail broken. But hey, I really like the elongated neck and head, the playful pose and pointing upwards nose.

Alberto was also the first time I tried burning plaster. I remember trying different liquids on the surface to achieve a toasted effect when I burned it, to accentuate the rough texture and give the dog some subtle colour. Eventually I discovered strong instant coffee was the best and a jar was always in my toolbox for many years. I varnished it with a fairly thick satin varnish that over the years has cracked off in some places taking bits of plaster with it. Considering it was student work, only ever intended as an exercise in study, experimentation, and exploring what was possible it’s stood up fairly well. It sits on a shelf in the studio and was what inspired me to make a dog again. A tutor once told me years ago it’s perfectly fine to revisit themes, ideas and motifs you once had, because you’re not going backwards so much as spiralling upwards, with fresh ideas, knowledge and increase in expertise.

So what is different 23 years later? Firstly, I understand dog anatomy much better. I can make a far sturdier armature which means lighter and airier plasterwork. I now know it’s crucial to get it right at the armature stage, although I still have to spend a lot of time modifying and altering the structure before I can even start modelling the form. I have got a lot better but I’m still lacking in areas and have  plenty of room for improvement.

Second, I understand the importance of composition, balance, harmony and beauty, and the role of negative space. I’m less inspired by Giacometti and rough textures and prefer weathered surfaces worn smooth, river stones, bones and ceramics. I love imperfection and the beauty sometimes in decay. The form is guided by how the scrim and wet plaster interact with each other, the scrim is cut into random lengths or shapes and I’ll soak it in the plaster then wrap it working intuitively. I’ll often end up cutting bits away the next day and reworking them if I’m not happy. It’s a constant game of creation, demolition and rebuilding. I’m trying to eliminate the non-essential, get rid of the clutter. As with all my work I never make a maquette, I work intuitively while asking myself questions: what do I smooth, what do I leave? What holes to I fill, which do I leave? What needs refining, what lines do I like? Where do I want scorch marks and cracks? I no longer use an agent to help burn the plaster. Protecting the wood elements can be difficult and sometimes they get scorch marks but if I like them I’ll leave them. I blacken some plaster areas like the nose, ear tips and prominent bones like shoulders, hips and toes. I love the cracks that appear, they resemble raku fired ceramics. Once I’m happy with the surface I clean off and stabilise the imperfections and cracks with water-based glue. I use a very thin matt varnish to soak in deeply rather than sit on the surface. I coat the wood with 2 coats of liquid wax as well as the plaster and once dry I’ll buff it all to a smooth and subtle sheen. I’m seeking an organic, natural flow. Nothing is symmetrical, each paw, each ear, each limb is different. Then there’s that zigzag tail, the focal point. It fizzes with electricity, playfulness and anticipation and completely defines Bolt’s character and gave him his name.

It’s been really interesting to do a comparison of the 2 dogs, to see how much I’ve changed and what has stayed the same. I always enjoy doing these sort of reflect and review type exercises and think they are really helpful part of the creative process.

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