21 June 2018

Pearls of Wisdom

40" x 60", oil on wood panel, 2018, private collection

This fall I'll mark thirty years since I started painting in 1988. Unlike my 25th anniversary, I'm not making such a big deal about this one...for some reason...but I did want to commemorate the occasion with a painting. For my silver anniversary I used actual silver leaf in the painting (Silver Jubilee, which also features Ashley). That painting also literally references 1988, 2013, and 25, and the alchemical symbol for silver; I don't regret any of those choices, but I wanted to do something more subtle this time.

In brainstorming ideas for this painting, I went back into my picture archive and found a variant on the photo I used as reference for my 20th anniversary watercolour back in 2008. It's nearly the same pose, but different enough to still be interesting, for example, I like that she's tucking her hair back like that, which gave me the opportunity to get in there and really describe the complex shape of her forearm down to the elbow. Plus, there were books in her lap...then I added more. Incidentally, the book she's reading in the earlier painting is the bottom book on her lap in this painting.

The traditional Thirtieth Anniversary gift is pearl but I didn't want to be literal (like burying her in chains and chains of pearls, or something) so I went metaphorical, using the abundance of books in conjunction with the title to convey the idea. Also, the three decades are marked in tattoo form, but the three Xs representing the Roman numeral for 30 look more like stitches, which must mean something...

The only concession to making a big deal of my 30th is this painting's size. For my 20th, I used the largest size watercolour paper I felt comfortable dealing with (20" x 30"); for my 25th, the painting I did for that was quite large, too (36" x 60"), but just a little bit smaller than my 30th (40" x 60"). So, then, seeing as each anniversary painting has gotten larger each time, do I do an even larger painting for 35? Whatever I do, it'll probably feature Ashley, though...

17 June 2018

Armistice Day Anniversary Cake

12" x 12" x 6", styrofoam, spackle, synthetic sponge, plastic, wax, caulking, acrylic and lacquer paint, wood, wood stain, spray varnish, 2018

In 2014 I embarked on a huge adventure to do 100 paintings on the theme of World War One called To the Sound of Trumpets, commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of that war. For roughly nine months I was steeped in research and sketching and painting and by the end of it I was emotionally exhausted and artistically drained, but I was largely satisfied with my efforts, knowing I did my best. You can view a short video of those paintings (the accompanying music suits the mood very well).

I knew I needed more than 100 ideas to make sure the 100 I did paint were the best ones, so I brainstormed a great deal and filled my notebook with more than enough ideas. I ended up with a few extra ones that were pretty good, ones I would have liked to have painted, but there just wasn't enough time (the show opened on 11 November 2014)...and I already had 100.

One of those ideas was a big cake adorned with toy soldiers...

Cupcake sketches.

In the course of my research, I discovered that another term for the colourful sprinkles often decorating cakes (and cupcakes) is "hundreds and thousands," and, since that's about how many men died each year in the war, I quickly came up with a way to put that idea to use in the form of my four cupcake paintings (one for each year of the war).

The painted cupcakes.

Immediately to the right of the four cupcakes is a painting of a young girl celebrating the end of the war on November 11, 1918 in Toronto (the last painting completed for the project, hung –still wet– the day before the show opened), which served as the "happy conclusion" to my endeavour seen here on the final and bittersweet "Remembrance" panel. I wanted to make the cake (sketched below) to firmly close out my project and act as a centrepiece, but there wasn't any time left.

Original cake sketch from 2014.

Making that cake now, four years after completing my World War One project, and approaching the hundredth anniversary of the end of that war, I feel I've achieved some kind of proper closure.

For the main project, I had done a painting of a soldier's skeleton underneath a field of pretty poppies under a sky of pretty clouds. This cake combines that element with my initial idea of a cake with white icing (a snowy field) covered in "hundreds and thousands" of plastic army men (dead soldiers).

And that brings us to Wilfred Owen's poem "Dulce et Decorum est" (translated as "It is Sweet and Honourable to Die for One's Country" and the original title of this piece before I decided on something more descriptive). The poem's title takes on new meaning here: the buried skeletons are intended to undermine any glibness that may be construed from the ironic twist of the title coupled with a faux confection (just as the buried skeleton in "Asleep in a Foreign Soil" is meant as a Memento Mori of what we're really remembering on Remembrance Day, dismissing the prettiness of the floral landscape and underscoring what lies beneath the poppies we wear on our lapels).

Serendipitous find.

Before I started any work on this I needed to see if I could acquire appropriate army men –not too big, but not too small– and just about any kind would have served my purpose. Having recently become accustomed to figuring out relative scales of miniatures for my modelling projects, I felt 1/72 scale soldiers seemed like a reasonably manageable size to work with. As luck would have it, there happened to be WWI Canadian Infantry sets available, and, once I'd made that discovery, having found the most appropriate figures possible, I knew I had no choice but to go through with this project.

Multiple sprues like this.

The figures were a soft plastic, which made it easier for me to trim off all their bases so I could have just the soldiers and their gear. Still, it was quite a challenge to avoid slicing their feet off.

Map of contents.

There was a good variety of poses to make things more interesting, but identical poses wouldn't have been a problem. I couldn't figure it out when I took this shot, but that sole soldier lying down at bottom left holding a round ammo thing should actually go with the Lewis Machine Gun guy at bottom right.

420 soldiers cut and cleaned-up.

It took me a very long time over multiple sessions to trim off all the bases and extraneous gear, but they look pretty sharp and I'm happy I made the effort.

Lined up...

...and grouped for counting.

I needed to know exactly how many guys there were so I could determine how many colours to use.

Pile of men (B&W).

They look terrifying all piled up like this and, for a very brief moment, I considered just having this as a project and ordering more guys for the cake...but doing the cake is enough; I am now done with World War One.

Pile of men (colour).

Even in colour, this is kind of a horrific image to me.

Surface area test.

After I got a proper head count I spread them out to get a rough idea of the size of cake I'd need to make (yes, I took into account the side surfaces, as well).

84 x 5.

I bought five packs of 84 figures and that seemed like a good breakdown of colours to create the "sprinkles," so I just rearranged them (pretty much) back to their original groupings.

Medicinal or recreational?

I started this project in the winter (2017-18) and, with all my other projects going on, I never really knew when I'd get a moment to work on the cake, so each phase had to be compartmentalized, able to be set aside for an indefinite period. Here, the soldiers are bagged in their groups, waiting for me to find some time to paint them.

Ready to paint.

I had suitable blue and green Tamiya rattle cans left over from my Fence Truck build and we had some other good, useful colours in the workshop, so I put 'em all together for when I had time (and warm weather) to paint out in the workshop.

Painted and mixed.

They look great all painted up like candy. Though not as terrifying as the earlier monochromatic pictures of the pile of soldiers, I still find this one dark and twisted in a different, disturbing way.

Cake takes shape.

I was thinking of using insulation foam for the cake but Krista said she had a bunch of styrofoam left over from another project and that I should give that a try. I was hesitant because I know how messy this stuff is with all those pebbly particles compared to the more uniform pink foam, but I gave it a shot with a very sharp blade and it worked well. Here, two pieces have been glued together with Weldbond and taped until the glue cures.

Sponges added.

I thought I'd have to carve/dig/poke holes in the foam to replicate the cells of an actual cake but then I saw a few tutorials on YouTube where the crafters used sponges. Perfect! It's so realistic that I was glad I took so long to get to this stage because this saved me from putting in a lot of unnecessary (and, likely, inferior) work.

Painted sponges.

Indeed, regular dish-washing sponge is the perfect material for making fake cakes. I used brown acrylic paint for the chocolatey goodness. I cut a channel in the middle of the sponges to make it look like there are two layers of sheet cake (and allow for better spackling adhesion).

Spackled sponges.

I tried masking off the brown parts to protect them from any spackle disaster, but the tape didn't hold, so I had to be extra careful doing something I'd never done before (when I put icing on cakes it's not like this!).

Sponges attached.

It was easier to spackle the sponges while they were still separate from the main cake, but, when that was done, a little Weldbond and some weight later, the cake takes shape.

Spackled cake.

When I posted the above picture to Facebook, a lot of people thought it was a real cake, so that indicated I was on the right track. Keen observers noticed the Home Depot flyer underneath the cake and correctly suspected shenanigans were afoot.

Soldiers and candles added.

I pressed the soldiers into the spackle while it was still pliable and it held them in place perfectly. They're a little spread out, but that's just the first round, more will be glued on once the spackle cures.

Tiny skulls and bones.

I actually tried sculpting little skulls with Super Sculpey, but the scale was just way too small for me to do anything even remotely acceptable (I even tried carving up a soldier to look like a skeleton, but that was a disaster...I did manage to save him, though, and he's included on the cake). I looked around online and found the above set, which is not only great, but way better than anything I could sculpt at that scale with my current skill level (or ever).

Painted bones.

I used all the bones in the set, but picked only the smallest skulls (which were still slightly larger than 1/72, but that's okay) and gave them some paint and a black wash to bring out the details.

Embedded bones.

I kind of tried to replicate the skeleton in my painting, but there weren't enough parts (a rib cage, a spine, or a pelvis would have been nice) so I did what I could. But I like how it turned out and I think it gets the idea across fairly clearly.

Test fitting on base.

I used a 12" x 12" wood panel from an art store for the base. After applying cherry wood stain, I sprayed most of an entire can of clear gloss varnish on it to make it as shiny as possible. I made sure to locate the position of the plaque (containing the Latin inscription "DULCE ET DECORUM EST PRO PATRIA MORI," inspired by Owen's poem) before any staining or varnishing took place. Holes were carved into the styrofoam for the candles which were then glued into place.

The second round of soldier application had me tilting the cake at extreme angles, on side at a time, to make sure the guys didn't fall off before the glue cured. Those three guys in front are like "crumbs" left after a "piece of the cake" was cut out.

Piped and done.

All that was left to do was the final piping of "icing" along the top and bottom edges. I initially started out using the same spackle that covers the rest of the cake, but it just would not come through the piping bag no matter how much I squeezed (and I gave it a LOT of force!). I decided to then use caulking with the icing nozzle held at the tip of the caulking gun...and it worked perfectly (although my cake decorating skills clearly need improvement).

My far-fetched dream of having my 100-painting project go on tour (locally, provincially, nationally, whatever) never came to pass due to lack of interest, and many of those paintings have since been sold. So, not having anywhere to publicly display this piece come the actual hundredth anniversary in November, I decided to get this done in time to submit it to the annual Art in the County juried show here in Picton, mid-June, just so people can see it in person (and, to my immense surprise, it got in the show).

Dulce et Decorum Est 

   Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
   Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
   Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
   And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
   Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
   But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
   Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
   Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

   Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
   Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
   But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
   And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
   Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
   As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

   In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
   He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

   If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
   Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
   And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
   His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
   If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
   Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
   Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
   Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
   My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
   To children ardent for some desperate glory,
   The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
   Pro patria mori.


This was almost a job for the Small Pond Special Projects Division (which takes care of weird things and food items –especially cakes), but this ended up with the Small Pond Shipyard, since it drew heavily on that particular skill set, being closer to a model than anything else.

24 April 2018

Bata Headquarters (1/144 scale), Part 1

It's been almost a year since I built my cardboard study model of the now non-existent Bata Headquarters, a fine example of Canadian mid-century modern architecture designed by John B. Parkin, and I'm now just about at the painting stage with my proper scale model. This build has been frustrating at times, but always interesting and a great learning experience. I'm having lots of fun with this and I'm pleased with how it's coming along.

View from Eglinton Avenue.
(just east of Don Mills Road)

This is pretty much the view I had of this beautiful building each time I went to St. Clement's or the Science Centre in the 1970s and '80s (yet somehow completely ignored it/took it for granted when I worked next door at The Radisson in the summer of 1989). Because this was the only angle from which I'd ever seen the building, I had no idea there were six, three-storey-high tower blocks on the opposite side where the main entrance is.

My model will have some of that landscaping (and I'd like to include that Bata sign), but I want to keep the base size to a minimum as the long side of the building itself is 16".

Cardboard prototype.

I made the study model above to get a sense of the scale I'd be using, get my measurements in order, and get some much needed practice with scratch building architectural miniatures. I built that model pretty quickly and it came out okay, all things considered (one of those things being the mistake of having two rows of eight (instead of nine) windows on the long side).

Cardboard (in this case, cereal boxes) is a good practice/study material, but I knew this was a project I'd want to build more definitively using a sturdier and easier to paint material like plastic (I ended up using wood as well).

I couldn't get ahold of (or find samples of) the original architectural drawings (they might be at the Bata Shoe Museum (maybe even a model or two), but I never got around to checking), so all my measurements are pure conjecture based on the height of the doors (presuming they're standard 7' tall commercial doors). So, while my model is probably not technically accurate, it's as close as I could get (I'm no architect –I'm barely a model builder).

Drawings for laser cutting.

Because the upper floors had many oddly-angled (not perfectly squared) windows, I was doubtful I'd be able to get the consistent precision needed to depict this building properly if I made them by hand. I looked into some laser cutting options and decided Toronto Laser Services might be able to make me the parts I needed. I imported a good elevation view into CorelDraw, drew my best-guess plans over it, and made a file compatible with TLS's specific requirements.

The top box was top priority, but there was so much room left on the workspace that I decided to draw components for the rear towers and the posts as well. The posts were the most complicated shape in the whole design of the actual building and I was intimidated a bit by them, thinking I'd never get them looking right. I thought simplifying them might help and designed an interlocking system where I could get some semblance of the actual thing.

Laser cut bass wood.

These were the parts I got back from TLS and it's all really good, except everything's twice as thick as I'd like it to be (not their fault; I knew the thickness of the wood they'd be using, but I thought it would work). This thickness slightly changes the dimensions of the upper floors, but I can manage –however, the interlocking posts are now too thick and weird, and not elegant at all. Again, all my fault, but I carried on...

Assembling the top floors.

I used my 1-2-3 blocks to get the walls as square as possible but still screwed it up (the short walls were vertically square, looking directly at them, but they were at slight angles when viewed from the side), so I broke them apart and tried again.

Vincent helps put the pressure on.

I got some balsa wood for the floors and ceiling and this picture shows the newly-aligned walls getting glued to the floor with the help of an impressionist. I should have cut the wood to fit inside the walls rather than underneath them as this adds to the height of the building, but I'm still figuring out how to build stuff (I'm not used to this kind of precision).

Test-fitting the posts.

After assembling all the posts I lined them up and delicately rested the upper floors on them to check their height and how they'd look, considering my design simplification compromise. This was my first real look at the model and I'm glad I had the windows laser cut.

Inspected by Han and Chewie.

The figures helping with the inspection are 1/144 scale Han Solo and Chewbacca from my Factory Stock Millennium Falcon build. They were helpful in determining whether I got the heights of the posts right since they're the same scale as the model and they could fit in the colonnade.


Inspection not going well...

While the overall headroom added from the floor's thickness looks correct, the vertical pillars of the posts look too short (even accounting for the base he's attached to). Deciding how to proceed held up construction for too long (I should've been building the main floor or the rear towers while deciding the fate of the posts).

Rejecting the laser cut posts.

These simplified posts didn't do any justice to the beautifully designed tree-like shapes of the originals and the rectangular (rather than square) vertical posts (due to the thickness of the wood) looked not only wrong, but bad. So all these guys had to go.

Also rejected were my laser cut tower blocks, the measurements of which were totally off with the rest of the model. It was a good try, and these were bonus elements anyway, the windows being the main reason for laser cutting.

Base frame jig.

The main floor of the real building sat on a concrete base and I figured I should start that portion with a base, in scale, made of square rod styrene. The C-shaped form was supposed to be the underside of the upper floors, but, again, my measurements were off, and the new dimensions kept changing as I put things together, so I couldn't use it for that, but it did come in handy as a jig for the main floor base as it was precisely the right size.

Reinforced base frame.

I reinforced the frame in case it went out of alignment, something I didn't really need to do since I'd be attaching a floor on top of this, but stronger is better, I guess.

Base floor jig.

That's a single styrene sheet attached to the frame, but I now realize I didn't really need a floor on top of that frame (plus, it adds even more to the overall height of the model). I really don't remember, but maybe I thought I'd be using clear plastic for the main floor windows, rather than building opaque plastic walls which I will then paint to simulate windows. Maybe I was vacillating between these options and installed the floor just in case. Either way, the base is very sturdy, now.

Building the base box.

I used just about every tool at my disposal to build the walls of the main floor and make sure they were as square as I could make them. There's machinist squares, 1-2-3 blocks, magnetic clamps, rulers...and lots of patience and concentration (not depicted).

Taller and thinner posts.

My solution for the posts was to saw off the vertical pillars and attach longer pieces of square rod styrene to the old bases (which are still too thick).

New posts!

They're not great, but they'll do. I'm hoping that the eventual paint job will mitigate or obscure the inaccuracies.

Posts attached.

I hope the Weld Bond and super glue keeps all this together during all the building, painting, and assembly to come. Note the rear tower block reference photo of the actual Bata building on the laptop (the title image I shot of my model for this post closely matches that photo).

Main floor with Bondo.

The completed floor got some gap filling treatment with colourful Bondo instead of white Tamiya putty because it's easier to see on white plastic. The next step for this will be a coat of primer and then it'll get painted as though there are vertical blinds behind glass on all sides. I then need to add "steel" mullions and doors, and paint the base I started with as though it's concrete.

Post eveners.

Since the interlocking bases were shorter on one diagonal than the other, I cut some styrene to beef up the outer (more visible) angles to better match. Slightly better, albeit slightly awkward since they're squared at the bottom (I couldn't find the patience to finely shave down 13 tiny pieces of plastic to make the joins seamless). It's another compromise I'm just going to have to live with.

Chopping triangles.

As long as I was adding slightly better, albeit slightly awkward elements to the post bases, I decided to add the second cross by cutting little triangles (four for each of the 13 posts)...

So many tiny triangles.

Slightly more accurate posts.

I'm still hoping all these slightly-better-yet-slightly-awkward details will be mitigated by the paint job. I had an idea of building one, good, as-accurate-as-I-could-make-it post out of plastic, making a mold, then making duplicates, but that idea didn't get far. I did try building these things in 3-D using SketchUp (to eventualy have them 3-D printed), but I had no success since I have no experience with that program and the shapes are very complex...I mean...JUST LOOK AT THEM:

Actual posts.

They're probably really simple to model for an experienced 3-D modeller (they're just four intersecting triangles), but I didn't stand a chance without months of learning and practice. I just wanted to get on with this project, so I did, and started building the rear tower blocks...

Building the towers.

Moving on to simpler forms I started building the rear towers blocks in assembly line fashion which worked very well. I made 12 right-angled walls, reinforced them with square rod styrene, then attached them in pairs to make the six towers.

Test fitting the main masses.

Since this photo was taken, I cut plastic to close up the tops of the towers (the only thing on this list not visible in the title image), cut an opening in Tower #4 for the main entrance, built the portico over that entrance, and built two sets of stairs for the side entrances.

Now I just have to wait a bit for warmer weather to apply primer to all the parts. The upper floors will be spray painted, but I think I'll use my airbrush for the rest. I also have to figure out what to use for and how to apply the glazing on the upper floors.

All that to follow in PART TWO...