04 May 2019

Bird Modification Process

Final result.

I had a recent request for a commission by a friend who wanted me to copy a painting by Mark Tortorella...but I didn't want to just copy someone else's work. But after some heavy thinking, I came up with a solution that would satisfy both of us: I'd make a 3D version of the painting.

The idea of taking a 2D image (intended to fool the eye into thinking it's 3D) and making a 3D version of it was too fun to pass up. And now you're looking at a 2D version of my 3D results! The circle is complete!

Closer view.

My bird is only a close approximation of the one in the painting, my primary goal being realism rather than copying exactly what was in the original version (it's like maybe 95% like the painting, but closer to 100% realistic).

"Sparrow" by Mark Tortorella

I really like the bittersweet idea that even in death, this little sparrow is still capable of making something as beautiful and hopeful as an image of a rainbow. It's a lovely concept and it's executed exquisitely by Tortorella.

Starting point.

I knew I'd be customizing some kind of store-bought bird (I didn't expect to find an exact match) so the fact that this little guy from a craft store was the wrong colour wasn't an issue; the important thing was its size and shape were perfect for this project.


The body was made of foam and the beak, eyes, and legs were plastic and all of it needed to be painted. I used black primer to provide some shadows in advance since the new colours I'd be adding would be rather light. I bent one of the legs to match the painting.

More paint and wings.

Here I've started airbrushing some light greys and a bit of buff for colour. I made the wings out of Bristol board, cut to the shape of the wings of the bird in the source painting. The backside of the bird (and wings) wouldn't be seen, so there was no need to add paint/detail there.

Workbench view.

As the feathering progressed, it looked more and more like I had an actual little dead bird on my workbench. That didn't bother me, but I was surprised that I did a double-take each time I glanced in that direction.

On the far left is the bag of feathers (pheasant, I think) that I used in various ways to bulk up the bird. I used the canopy glue (with the long applicator that's near the bird) to attach most of the feathers and superglue for the rest.

It was a tedious, finicky, and sometimes frustrating process, but I felt it was the best way and, as you can see, it worked out as well as I could have hoped.

Almost there...

The body is covered in fine vanes cut from the shaft and placed carefully with tweezers and attached with glue. I started at the bottom and worked my way up to the head. The feathers on the wings were ends trimmed to take advantage of the more colourful parts.

I dry brushed the legs with a bit of brown to break up the black and give it some dimension. I used Pledge floor wax to get that nice shine in the eye. I used a bit of it on the beak, too, but it wasn't as important for the beak to be glossy.


As the bird neared completion, it was time to replicate the chalk circle/rainbow. I made a few circles in light pencil using a compass, keeping them in proportion to the bird, then freehanded the rest. I installed a screw which went through the entire assembly (Bristol board on top (glued to thick cardboard), then the foam and backboard which came with the shadow box). I clipped the protruding bit of the screw and I was confident that what remained would be secure.

Final layout.

The pastels I had were way too fat compared to the ones in the painting and, even though I wore them down to a smaller size, they were still too big. Attaching them to the string with superglue was a tricky enough process that I was just happy to have them all there, even though they wouldn't be able to make those circles if spun around. If this was a deal-breaker with the commissioner I'd re-do the circles to conform to the arrangement of pastels, but she was okay with it. Considering the difficulty of this last stage (and the need to keep that white surface pristine while handling powdery chalk pastels) I think "close enough" was good enough.

In the shadow box.

The bird is glued down to the paper so it's not going anywhere, but the pastels, while glued to the string, are free to move and wobble and mark up the paper...and that's okay. In all, this looks pretty great in the shadow box; very "finished."

Before and after.

And for kicks, here's a neat little B&A of the star of the show, the little dead sparrow.

02 May 2019

Kimberley (with Owl)

Kimberley (with Owl)
36" x 48", oil on canvas, 2019, private collection

After months of hemming and hawing, I decided late (almost too late; the deadline was April 26) in 2018 to try to get into the Kingston Prize for portraiture. My previous entries were (in chronological order: my Self Portrait (Shoulders) in 2011, George Emlaw in 2013, George Meanwell (Concertina) in 2015, and Kelsey with Accordion in 2017. None of them got into the show. Too many Georges? Too many parentheticals? Not good enough work?

By the end of January this year I decided to reach out to an old friend and ask her if she'd like to be my subject for what could very well be my last attempt. She happily agreed.

I've known Kimberley Tardik (née Black) since high school –right around the time I started painting in watercolours– and I've painted her several times in the 1990s: Mythological, Implies, clear, and in these two paintings featuring the Scarborough Bluffs. Since 2018 marked my 30th anniversary of painting I thought it would be appropriate to paint one of the first models I used once I started shooting my own photo reference...and a good friend.

Early sketches.

In my initial sketch for this portrait I had an owl perched on her far arm. This was a sort of spontaneous idea, but it was easy enough to reverse-engineer the concept and discover that it was, ultimately, very appropriate: owls represent wisdom and that was one of Kimberley's traits I felt would be best to feature in this portrait of her.
Since neither of us had an actual owl, I composed the picture in Photoshop using an great horned owl from a Google search.

One element I completely forgot about when compositing the image in Photoshop was the floating empty picture frame in the little thumbnail –which is an interesting idea and harkens back to The Fiercest Calm– but I'm glad I did because I like the radiating lines making all those interesting shapes better.


In my Photoshop composite I lowered Kim's arm so that the eyes of the owl "perched" on it would line up with hers. I made her left eye the centre for all the radiating lines (with that circular shape centered more on her right eye). I also colored the background in PS to give me a road map later on. Already I could tell that leather jacket was going to be fun to paint.

Off-colour colours for interest later.

Because of my peculiar paint application, there are always areas throughout my paintings where the coverage isn't perfectly solid and the surface underneath shows through a bit, so I use orange acrylic as a ground colour (rather than having the white of the primed canvas show through). I also like laying down some dark colours to give interest and depth to the light colours that will be painted over top. It adds some variety to the orange ground.

Skin tones next.


I haven't had the opportunity to paint much leather –the most was probably my Dance Partners series from my WWI project in 2014. One of my favourite textures/materials to paint in watercolours is denim and, with this painting, I discovered I really like painting leather in oils. The exciting challenge is to see if I can paint these textures convincingly.

The backgrounds begins.

I wanted the background to be abstract but still evocative of ground and sky via the colours.

Some art nouveau curls.

I did a doodle to remind myself to add some Alfons Mucha-inspired curls to the ends of Kim's hair and then forgot about it for a long time. But then I remembered and I'm glad I did. Also, at this stage, I lightened the blue areas and made a slight gradation, getting lighter towards the centre.

The owl begins!

Lotsa feathers and lotsa details, but I love a challenge.

Nearly there...

Something had been missing and it was bugging me for a long time...then I realized I had to cool down the shadow areas on the skin, so I added a slight glaze of light blue to Kim's face and hand.

Owl detail.

It was extremely fun painting this horned owl and I can foresee painting owls again. The only thing I would change about the owl is adding a slight "shadow" glaze to the bird to make him seem more integrated into the scene...but I've already submitted the painting, so I probably won't do any more tweaking. Probably.

29 March 2019

Classic Han Solo DL-44 Blaster Upgrade

Both sides complete.

This project took a long time to complete –not because it was difficult or time-consuming, but because I paused many times for long periods since I decided to give this old toy a bit of an upgrade a couple of years ago. It had been sitting around in an old dresser drawer at my parents' house for years and years until my return to modelling inspired me to give this a shot, using some new techniques I've learned.

October 1979.

I think the toy itself dates back to 1978 or so, but I definitely got it for my eighth birthday in 1979. It's possible this was a gift from my friend from across the street (seen here holding the gun, fresh out of the package), but I honestly can't remember who it was from. It could have been my two other neighbourhood friends on the left or my cousin (third boy from left, and that's my sister behind me). I apologize if the gift-giver is reading this, but I just cannot remember.

Original packaging.

It's curious the packaging has a photo of Han Solo holding his gun at an angle that doesn't give you an idea of how accurate (or inaccurate) this toy is compared to the filming prop (and, for a toy, it's actually fairly accurate). Also, the "DL-44" make designation came much later as Star Wars lore beyond the films began to grow (that's why the post title and cover graphic have different wording: I wanted to cover all the bases as far as the description of this thing goes).

Futuristic prop in high school play.

The toy definitely got a lot of playtime when I was a kid, but it was stuffed in a drawer (the same one I recently rescued it from) for years during my adolescence...until I needed a futuristic gun for a little play I adapted and directed (based on the Philip K. Dick short story "Impostor") in the late spring of 1990.

The story and my four-character adaptation were set in a vague near future, and I thought my toy blaster would work as a prop for my Major (on the right, played by Jen, wearing her riding boots and looking perfectly future military). This is one of only four pictures from the performance taken by my drama teacher (and I thank her since the only other record of this whole project is the poster and program I designed).

Baseline: front.

Those two knobs on the front each turned slightly so that you could remove the battery cover (see further below for a better shot of the cover)...and the batteries were for the "2-speed 'laser' sounds" mentioned on the front of the package.

Baseline: back.

The "secret button" can be seen on the front of the handle, just beneath the trigger guard; if you held it down with your middle finger while pulling the trigger a mildly annoying whirring/grinding/drilling sound came out. I doubt I replaced the batteries more than once.

Drilling out the flash hider.

Most of my upgrading involved removing elements that made it obvious this was a toy: raised copyright text, terribly misaligned seam lines, that "secret button," and the narrow openings of the flash hider and scope. I used a pin vise to drill all those holes and then just ground out the excess with files until it looked more accurate.

Opened up.

Those grills should be rounded rather than squared-off like that, but I didn't want to change too much of the toy's original structure (besides, I'd have to remove the whole thing and make or acquire a more suitable part (same goes for the "wooden" handle: I just left it flat).

Battery cover cleanup.

The obviously sanded areas used to be two raised arrows (clearly visible in the first baseline shot, above) that had to go. The holes next to those were where the knobs hooked into the cover and kept it shut when you turned them into the positions seen in that shot (or they could be turned down, since there were two little bits on the gun itself that matched the two little bits on the cover (I removed those after taking the above shot) that indicated the cover was "locked."

I chose not to open up any part of the cover for accuracy; this was close enough and I wanted to do as little structural work as possible, keeping about 98% of the original design of the toy.

Hinky seam lines to address.

That's a helluva misalignment, but I managed to file that down –and remove the "secret button" while I was at it.


Once I was satisfied with my structural alterations/improvements I applied some nice grey primer to prep it for paint, but also to see if anything else needed work.The gun stayed in this primered state for a very long time before I resumed work on the upgrade.

*by "improvements" I mean getting this closer to the look of the film prop in the first Star Wars movie.

New knobs.

I removed and repaired a few surface details, but the only parts I actually replaced were the two knobs that kept the battery cover closed. The movie prop looked like it just had a few washers glued to the surface so the original toy knobs would have to go. For the new knobs I used tank wheels from a donor kit (with some extra bits for more screen accuracy).

Adding weight.

Being plastic, the gun is fairly light and would only be weighed down slight by the two C batteries. Rather than leaving two batteries in the gun, I got a bunch of heavy metal bits and used epoxy to fix them into place, then sealed the battery cover permanently. The gun has a nice "realistic" heft to it now.

Silvery undercoat.

Solo's gun in Star Wars is mostly black with a only few scratches. The gun(s) he uses in Empire and Jedi have a silver flash hider and the surface details are different (for example, only the gun he uses in Star Wars has the front grille and the three knobs). That said, I wanted to weather this gun a bit and, after spraying the gun with Tamiya rattle can gloss aluminum, I gave it a shot of hairspray to prepare it forsome nice chipping. The handle is masked off to keep it in its grey primer state until I was ready to do a wood effect.

Painted black.

I airbrushed acrylic black over the whole gun and used a bit of gunmetal on the flash hider for a slightly more metallic look (and gave the rest of the gun a slight dusting of that colour for added interest).

Chipped front.

I used online reference for the areas to be chipped, but I didn't want to overdo it; I wanted a nice balance between screen accurate to the first movie and reasonable (and appealing) wear and tear.

Chipped back.

Once chipped, I gave the gun a gloss coat to seal the work and to prepare it for further weathering (I'd planned on washes and gunk, but decided it didn't need anything else). That circular area next to the grille appears to be a silver washer on the prop, but I didn't want to add anything else, so I just hand painted that with some acrylic aluminum.

After removing the masking tape, I airbrushed various shades of brown and orange to get a dark wooden look consistent with he prop. For added texture I used a bit of brown oil paint to complete the wood look, then used some silver paint on the "screws" on either side of the handle.

Trimming the foam.

I thought about getting or making a clear plastic display case and prop the gun up vertically, so it can be seen from all sides...but as I was searching for display cases, an interesting variety of other styles turned up and I fell in love with a case designed for storing eyewear. It had the perfect measurements and the dividers for six pairs of glasses were removable (it was really just one unit that easily slid out).

Having found the perfect case for an elegant look, I needed to get some red velvet (what else?) and some foam. I bought half a metre of velvet from a fabric store (saving the extra bits for my next fancy display case) and I got some off-cuts that were the ideal size from Andrew McLuhan who uses foam in his upholstery business (The Cover Up). Thanks again, Andrew!

It fits!

The foam edges didn't have to be perfect since they'd be covered up by the velvet, but getting it to fit snugly inside the box was important. Here, the gun sits high, but when the foam is cut to its shape, it'll be a perfect fit.

Tracing the blaster.

I lightly dragged a thin Sharpie along the perimeter of the blaster and got a good tracing, then made sure my knife (seen in the "trimming" pic above) had a fresh blade so it would cut the foam cleanly without tearing it.

Adding a little bracing.

I cut a little too much out around the front of the gun's handle and I didn't want the thing jostling around in the case so I cut a bit of foam and glued it in place. Once the velvet was installed, the fit would be nice and snug.

So far, so good...

I cut some Bristol board to the size of the inside of the box and glued it to the bottom of the the foam. Then I put some glue (I had carpenter's glue on hand, my Weldbond being pretty much used up) on the paper in the cut-out shape of the gun and pressed the velvet into the void and shaping it along the walls where I also applied glue.

The glue seemed like it would never dry but about 12-or-so hours later, it was good and cured and it was ready for wrapping the rest of the velvet around the back. There's some discolouration of the velvet where the glue seeped through which I might fix by airbrushing some red paint onto it.

As good as I had imagined.

I wrapped the extra velvet around the back of the foam and, after trimming some excess, glued it to the paper backing. The now-velvet-lined insert fit snugly into the box and the blaster looks great inside. This turned out exactly as I imagined it when I first saw that eyewear case online and realized the size was perfect.

I love it when a plan comes together.

Happiness is a cozy gun.

This customized display case was an unexpected but very worthwhile additional project for my Kenner toy upgrade, and it's a far more elegant and "warmer" solution than simply using a clear plastic box. My satisfaction with this whole project went from 10/10 to 11/10.