Sugar Skulls Mold: Part 1

Today I want to talk about one of my pet projects, or rather the virtue of researching your materials properly when you start working on a 3d project. Ever since I first heard about Día de Muertos, I wanted to get my hands on a proper sugar skull mould. I made one in plaster, but it was obviously cumbersome and a bit impractical. Over seven years later and I suddenly decided to start working on making my own versions March 2015. Since this is a private project, I have not documented it as well as I done with my school projects.

The aim of the project was to create plastic moulds that you could use to make sugar and chocolate skulls. I wanted the skulls to be a bit more detailed than the ones I found on internet and specialized shops. Anyway, during the Edition project I started to sculpt a skull in plasticine, which covered a golf ball core to ensure a relatively round shape. I knew that I needed to cast it in another material before I used the vacuum forming machine, but here came the first problem: you should not use plaster for plasticine, since the former exceeds the latter's melting point during hardening.

The obvious solution was to make a soft mould out of silicon. I went to Tiranti in London and bought some silicon and started to mix it in the plaster room. Unfortunately I was given a huge drill as a stirring tool and was told to hold it still for 20 min. As you could probably imagine, my hand got weak after seven min and I lost control. I accidentally grasped the drill trigger, which resulted in silicon sprays all around the plaster room. Angry and disappointed, I decided to restart the project and sculpt the skulls in clay, which were later cast in a huge rubber cast. This went far better and I managed to produce around 10 copies before I had to return the rubber to the Sculpture department. Here is one of few photos from this stage:

Several of my classmates enjoyed the designed and told me that I should make several and sell them, like blank templates that you could decorate however you wanted. Suddenly I took a huge detour by designing and experimenting with cheap package design, pattern, and logotype. In the end I only used the logotype anyway. While they looks good and all, I have only managed to sell one so far. Furthermore, it also stole focus from the mould idea I had going for me. I put the project to rest during summer, so I could return to it with fresh eyes at the beginning of the final year.

I tried to carefully saw into one of the plaster copies, repair the damage and put the halves through the vacuum forming machine, but the plastic refused to come off. It was painfully clear that I had not designed them properly, so I needed to restart a second time and redesign the overall shape. And since I wanted to work with two halves that were precise, I decided to try 3d printing. But before you can print, you must sculpt. And I have not sculpted anything in 3d since I studied game graphics.

I never managed to download the Autodesk Maya programme, so I settled on something less complex – Blender. It is a decent programme, but you cannot help but feel a bit puzzled when you are used to Maya’s tools and controls. Nonetheless, I managed to make a small model that we 3d printed in a small scale to adjust weird shapes, before I printed the halves in larger scales.

I finally had a model, so surely I could just waltz to the Plastic department and just print a copy? Not really. You see, at the time it was just a handful of students that experimented with 3d printing, which meant that the whole machine needed to be tweaked and hacked, from the brittle filaments to the software and adjusting of the printing area. All this tweaks and failures (including a power shortage) delayed the printing process with several weeks. I did manage to print it though, which was a deeply satisfying experience.

While I kind of like the low-polygon design, it turned out to be a bit problematic when I made some sugar skulls. The jaw was a bit too long and narrow, and the angular shape felt a bit too far removed from the Mexican celebration that started it all. I decided to smooth and sand the 3d-printed model with milliput to remove the angular shapes, which was later cast in alginate to make several plaster references. They would also be used for the vacuum forming.

After three attempts, it finally looked like I found my ideal shape. The question now was what kind of material I should use for the mould. HIPS is quite cheap and common material, but it is not food safe. I thought I had learned from my mistake by doing some material research on polypropylene. It is fairly popular since it is flexible, food safe, cheap, and recyclable. I bought four different sheets at online store Hindleys, which I had to re-cut to better suit our small vacuum forming machine. The problem was... None of the 3-4 books I consulted mentioned the slight trivia that polypropylene sags drastically and should almost only be used with aluminium-mould on an industrial level. This unfortunately lead to several costly mistakes later, one of which you can see below:

IPS: Part 5

I finally started to make images, but the initial idea of making a 3D magazine was long gone at this point. For several weeks I thought of making a large interactive installation, but I never put my heart into it and drop it later. During this time period, I researched narratology and storytelling through object making, the cultural importance of the photo album, as well as the cultural politics of body modifications. I visited an open lecture at Konstfack regarding norm criticism, intersectionality and postcolonial perspective. Another thing I did was visit a transgender activism festival in Stockholm and listen to panel talks about trans identity and contemporary Swedish art.

All of this gave me some valuable input in visual portrayals and made me realize something quite oblivious: the best way to portrayal people in a dignified way is to imagine how they would portray themselves. I finally discarded the idea of painted banners and carte de visites, to focus more on emulating the look and feel of vintage photography. However, the idea of making deeply personal images, which resonated with my dissertation, went against the interactive installation concept, which almost demanded plainer and more archetypical designs that could be reorganized in several different ways.

At the start of the summer term, I tried to collect my thoughts and concerns about the project. I interpreted the story about failure and how we live with it. Maybe I was cynical at the time, but I felt that stories that focus on success and improvement overshadow a reality where bad things happen and we have to cope with it. Maybe it is several years of intense study, my loneliness, or my place in Swedish queer activism, but I suddenly realized that I miss a moment or place to mourn, to regret, to be non-productive, and these things are okay.

I wanted the story to show people making bad decisions, tensions that are left unresolved, with an underwhelming and uncertain end. I wanted the final piece to be incomplete, intentionally damaged, just like the characters portrayed within it. However, this realization stands against so much of my personality which has always pushed for being as productive, nice, and perfect as possible so I have still not fully accepted it.

IPS: Part 4

After the painting workshop with Rob Nicol I decided to make some small thumbnail paintings in watercolours and gouache to get a better sense of what colours I wanted to use. The colours were inspired by American artist Edward Hopper, who was active during the time period, as well as Swedish concept artist Simon Stålenhag, whose brushwork I really admire. At this point I had not yet decided if I wanted a monochrome colour scheme, or if I wanted each image to have muted colours. My external mentor Charlene Man suggested I could use both, making key images stand out with colours. The thumbnails also inspired some of the final images that focus on landscapes.

Painting Workshop with Rob Nicol

Somewhere in the middle of the spring term, after the interim show, we had the opportunity to sign up for a painting workshop. I still thought about making one of those sideshow banners, so I happily joined in. We had to prepare by choosing a few colours and objects to work with, which would be related to our IPS. I did not really have any good objects at the time, so it ended up with some parts of my trash collection. The paint was also kind of trash, in form of test samples and leftovers I wanted to clear up. However, I still enjoyed the workshop and think some of the images are pretty neat. It also helped me think more about colour and colour scheme, which you can see in this post.

IPS: Part 3

I managed to fill out an entire sketchbook at the beginning of January for my IPS work, but most of my attention went into my Play & Learn project. I also worked on two personal projects that started out as foot notes but gradually took over my spring. This resulted in a sketchbook where the reference photos and moodboards almost surpass all the sketches. Most of the images were collected from library books and internet searching.

While the previous spreads focused on carte de visits and/or postcards, this spread was inspired by the “Moroccan Moments” and “Oriental Magic” banners, which suited the scorpion girl imagery that I already started working on. These references come from Abderrahman Slaouis book “The Orientalist Poster.” (Casablanca, Malika Editions) from 1997. I imagined that the two main characters agree to change their scene costumes to fit an orientalist theme. And since the sideshow was used to enforce racial stereotypes and eroticisation, I decided to look at oriental stereotypes rather than researching authentic fashion from Morocco. The sexualized depictions of women were later combined with a fantastic pulp cover to make a burlesque outfit in one of my final images.

These are the first thumbnails and/or quick sketches I did for the IPS, which feels like something I should have done earlier. I do not know why I have that gut feeling since I only used them after my primary research are finished, which it was at this point. I guess it was because my research were so vast and hard to define – I wanted my imagery to be quite realistic and follow the characters across US in the 1930s. Even though I’m slowly working to the finish line, it still feels like I have not done enough research.

These thumbnails also functions as the loose storyboard for the project. At this stage I imagined the final result to be a large interactive installation, a culmination of the experience I learned from the Play & Learn project. The images, as well as some short letters, would be presented in a cigar box. The audience would then pick up these memorabilia and put them on the wall, which would have different dramatic curves according to Kurt Vonnegut’s lecture about the shape of stories. Because of the interactive aspect, the images would not have to follow a strictly sequential storytelling but rather to stand out and be memorable on their own.

It took my at least one full afternoon to make all these thumbnails sketches. I focused more on realistic imagery and compositions rather than playing around with stylized or abstract image making. Main sources of inspiration was Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange for realism and Edward Hopper for compositions and level of detail. I also referred to Ransom Rigg’s book “Talking Pictures: Images and Messages Rescued from the Past” (New York, HarperCollins Publishers) from 2012.

At this point I decided to quickly go through all the thumbnails and redo them with ink splotches. The idea was to trim down the imagery and get a better sense of the graphic shapes. I did not put so much effort into it as you might guess, but it helped me come up with creative compositions that were later used for the final pieces.

External Project: Part 3

I sat in front of a lightbox for several hours the day before final presentation to make these refined sketches. They are primary made with pencil outlines and markers to add shadow and textures. I imagine that they would have different textures that could be mixed and matched, which would add extra flexibility for the game artists. The details are mostly based on Moroccan, Ethiopian and Nigerian designs, with a reoccurring motif in the form of an inverted drop-shape. It represents the rising sun as well as the comet the original tribes follow when they left earth thousands of years ago.

I made a building entirely out of four different kit-parts I designed to show how they would work practically, as well as a ruined version to show what the player would encounter. This version was without doubt the thing I struggled most with, mainly because it was difficult to decide how intact the ruins should be. Too little and there would not be challenging enough for the players, too much and the challenge would be to hard. I solved it by removing the outer walls, opening up the ruin like André Bloc's sculptures, or a damaged beehive. You have a pretty good idea of the foundation, but you do not know how far the middle tower stretched, nor how it ended.

The team was quite impressed by my work and thought there was a good balance of simplicity and details. The only complaint I got was that one of the designers really disliked the idea of tiled roofs, but that can always be changed in the future. I personally also felt that I should have made larger building block that suited my previous sketches, like slanted round bases, gates, air wells, wind catchers and more. The main idea is pretty solid though and I really hope they commission me for professional concept art in the near future.

External Project: Part 2

Two sketchbooks later and I had lots of sketches and ideas, but I had no idea how to combine them. I really enjoyed the stone carved churches of Ethiopia, the organic shapes of adobe spectacular in Nigeria and Mali, as well as the geometric shapes and patterns in Moroccan and Moor architecture, but they are quite different from each other. I also felt that I forgot the Byzantine elements, which I wanted to explore and perhaps add in. My first attempt was redraw sketches in the style of adobe spectacular and André Bloc. The result was quite dissatisfying, so I started to add Moroccan architecture to the mix and draw complete buildings.

At this point I felt all my sketches were flat and lacked volume, which was really problematic for designing 3d elements. I decided to switch to markers and make simpler sketches to get the general shape and volume right. This helped me to go through my ideas and find elements that I enjoyed, meaning that I gradually left adobe spectacular and focused more on the Moroccan elements. The designs I enjoyed the most was then redrawn in rough pencil sketches just before my sketch meeting with the studio.

The studio really enjoyed my research process and the work I done so far, but they pointed out that I had mainly focused on towers and building blocks. They asked me to draw separate public buildings, like temples, plazas and markets. During all my research I had also forgot to break down my designs into hexagon blocks, as well as drawing ruins. There was in other words lot of things I needed to solve in just one week. The first step I took was to print a hexagon pattern and block in potential floor plans to see what kind of shapes I could use. This was later made into wireframes that I used for later sketches.

Some of the blocks were taken straight from my earlier sketches, while other expanded on earlier designs as well as new inspirations from Byzantine architecture, as well as older buildings from Tibet and Yemen. Adobe spectacular had at this point been reduced from silhouette designs to windows and portal designs, as well as some convex and concave blocks. Moroccan influences can mostly be seen through textures as well as the rows of arches. I also played with the idea of making larger blocks, like the air well and the large city port, but I had to cut them due to time constraints. The elements I did have was then combined into simple building sketches to see how well they would fit together.

Just a few days before the final presentation I decided to refine four styles of building blocks, three styles of roofs, and some additional elements. Not only did I look back at my previous sketches, but I also added elements from Ethiopian architecture and add the rounded tiled roofs of Hagia Sofia in Turkey. I also did some outdoor stairs without railing, similar to Tunisian architecture as seen in the old Star Wars trilogy. Slowly my final designs started to come together.

External Project: Part 1

The last task we got during final year was to choose one of several external projects, where we either enter competitions or collaborate with professional businesses or organizations. I choose to collaborate with a small indie game studio and produce concept art for an upcoming game. Since it is still under development, I cannot delve into details as much as I usually do. However, I can say that the task was to create hexagon architecture blocks or kit-parts they could use to generate buildings. They also wanted the architecture to be a combination/evolution of ancient egyptian, byzantine and ottoman styles and motifs.

However, I was more interested in African architecture and symbols since that is something we rarely see in video games. My first stop was to watch the first season of the BBC documentary “Lost Kingdoms of Africa,” which explored Nubia, Ethiopia, Great Zimbabwe and West Africa. I got so inspired that I filled an A5 sketchbook with 40 pages over a weekend! Most sketches are from the first season, but there are also some patterns and symbols from library books as well as inspirational photographs that I had to pixelate for the blog.

Before I went into second season, I decided to look at installation artist Ernesto Neto, architectures Frederick John Kiesler and André Bloc, sci-fi artists Roger Dean and Mœbius, organic shapes like termite mounds, pitcher plants, and banksia pods. I also loaned some books on African and/or Islamic architecture, which generated several pages of thumbnail sketches. This was quite good, since the second season of the documentary focused more on folklore and artefacts than architecture, which made it less useful to me. The exception was the episode about the Berber kingdom of Marocco, which slowly became my main source of inspiration.

Play & Learn: Part 7 - Interim stage

The illustration course organize an exhibition in February to showcase the student's work in progress. My intention was to finish the game before the show so I could focus more on my IPS and external project. I spent roughly three weeks making bricks in the ceramics studio, experimenting with the laser cutter, ordering paper samples and working with InDesign. I went pass my initial deadline with two days, but I still managed to hang my work before the vernissage.

Even though I worked really hard, I still did not managed to finish all game elements. The game boards are a bit too anonymous, the information text on the cards suffers from too many hyphenations, and the paper I printed the rules on was too thick. I did address some of these issues for the Kolla! competition, but I suspect it will take a while to fix every tiny concern.

One thing that irritated me about the interim show was the lack of interactive space. I really wanted to showcase my game on a table with stools or chairs so that people could actually play it, but had to put it on a shelf as shown above. I mean, it is not the first year the course had the topic Play & Learn, so you think they would be better prepared for this.

IPS: Part 2

I did not work as much on my IPS during the first term as I wish I had. I planned to spend two days every week just working on it, but in reality I spent more time on the Play & Learn project as well as working on my Sugar Skull molds, a pet project I had since Unit 8. I also spent more time than I originally planned on my dissertation, which put me into a logical thinking mode that made me visually numb. I tried to combat this by watching HBO’s Carnivàle and writing drafts of diary entries and letters that would suit the performers. It did help me flesh out the story and characters, as well as shifting the point of view, but visually I was almost stunned.

I borrowed several books for research during the Christmas holiday. One of the books had an interesting collection of sideshow banners, which really caught my attention. I painted several small reproductions with gouache that was cut and glued into my sketchbook. At this stage I still played with the idea of making large oil-painted sideshow banners myself, but I later dropped that idea.

I looked at feminist erotic comics and literature to ensure that my Tijuana bible would be empowering and sexy without consorting to the male gaze as most pornography does.

The first three weeks of the spring term was dedicated to the Play & Learn project, to ensure it would be finished by the Interim show. I thought I could return to my IPS without any problems, but at this point I had drifted so far from my original ideas, which honestly were quite vague, that I did not know what to do. Should I try to make lot of delicate artworks before I even knew the synopsis of my story? How should I visualize the characters without using harmful stereotypes? Would the Tijuana bible I spent so much time researching really add something, or would it confuse the message? And what message was I aiming for, really?