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:

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.

Play & Learn: Part 5

I finally had an idea for my outcome, but I needed to research different games to better find game mechanics that better conveyed my message. I originally looked at Kalaha and other Mancala games, since they are both very simple and offers loads of different strategies. I also wanted to make game tokens that represented teeth, so that the players would literally handle other people's teeth while they played the game. I also looked at Operation and Crocodile Dentist since you are encouraged to remove parts from the patients. I even played with the idea to make a disembodied face to collect the tokens from, but it felt way to grotesque and disrespectful.

This is another quick sketch on flimsy newsprint, but this wireframe helped me to structure the rules and visualize what kind of game elements (boards, cards, tokens) that I needed to produce for the mock-up. Since the rule system itself conveys a message, I realized that I needed to playtest it several times with friends and other students.

This mock-up is made of three thin MDF boards that were laser-cut into 9 mouths and 126 tokens, which were used to estimate roughly how many bricks should be collected each turn and when the game should be considered finished. I wrote the first draft of the rules based on these tests and designed 11 kinds of cards the player would use during play. I have played it several times against other students and it seemed fairly well-balanced. Some suggested that I should add some sort of consequence for removing the last token from a mouth, but otherwise it was fun. Way too fun. Honestly, I was not prepared that it would be so fun to remove teeth tokens from minimalistic mouths!

How do you make a game less fun to play, but not making it preachy or boring? I did not want to change the game system too much since it was rather balanced and enjoyed by all test players. No, my approach was to work more on the visual identity of the game. After discussing my problems with tutors and other students, I decided to make the game boards separate and more human-like to create empathy and compassion. Another aim was to emulate the graphic design from the time period in the rules and cards, as well as adding trivia about the experiments. Finally, I also decided to add images of damaged teeth to visually emphasize the consequence of the experiments. Some of my discarded ideas include red ID number on each board as well as forcing the players to wear surgical masks during play.

Play & Learn: Part 3

University started with a group project, where I collaborated with Auguste, Ev, Molly, and Sophie. The first task was to present your research and ideas to the others in your group. We had less than 10 min to prepare, which explains the extra sketchy sketchiness of my wrinkly newsprint sketches.

Since most of us have chosen the same theme and Sophie actually had some ideas of a potential outcome, we decided to expand it. The first meeting was fruitful, but I think we left with very different ideas of how we wanted to expand it. I got really frustrating during the next meeting since it suddenly felt that people wished to redo the process entirely rather than polish it.

Photographs by Ev Laguë

After discussing the different points of view, we came around and decided to focus on how much work was needed to process sugar. The users had to cut down sugar canes with a machete to reach the sugar chest, which they needed to unlock with a small key. They then had to withdraw a piñata sugar loaf with some sugar nips, before they smashed it. When they broke the loaf open, they would find 12 sugar cubes with some educational illustrations that correctly arranged describe the whole work process. My task was to design and make the sugar chest and lock mechanism.

I originally wanted to make the chest in wood, but we felt that it would take too much time. I therefore switched to 3 mm and 5 mm foam panels, which were cut, glued and painted with acrylics to look like wood. I also used some mirror cards that was left from earlier projects to create nails and hinges. The design was comically exaggerated  and yet simplified, without the drilled bottom and drawer that was commonly used to save every grain of sugar.

However, the thing I am most proud of is the padlock, which I designed based on ancient Iranian locks as well as an interactive display from the Science Museum. The lock is simple yet functional and could really be locked with a key that Auguste designed and laser cut.

Most elements came together rather nicely when we prepared for thedemonstration. The sugar canes were colourful, the tools were functional, the chest was stable, the piñata loaf was beautiful, and the sugar cubes was graphically clear. I thought our work was one of the most engaging pieces, but we still discovered several areas we could improve on. It was for example unclear for the people testing it to understand that they were supposed to cut the canes and smash the loaf. We should also have reworked the loaf so it would be possible to reuse it, perhaps by using Velcro or something? I also thought I should have made the lock bigger so the key would be more in scale with the other tools we had. Overall, it was a nice project and I am very happy with the end result.

Independent State: The alienated Flânuer of Peckham

The current project I work on had a slow start. There were to many things I worried about: I had an IPS and dissertation presentation today, assessment next week; I struggle with my finances and am looking for a new room to rent in September. I also started research my IPS, which was more fun but it also took precious time from the project.

I had several tutorials for this project. In my first tutorial, I discussed ideas and decided to do something based on masks and identity. My intention was to create a mask that reflects how communities create identities through celebrities and folk heroes. However, I was criticized for deciding the project's outcome before doing a proper research during my second tutorial. I listened to the criticism and did life-drawings in Peckham to generate ideas. This was very useful! Not only did I clear my mind, but I also found interesting places and objects that inspired me.

I went to my third tutorial this Monday, this time with another tutor. I showed her my sketches and discussed my previous idea. A dirty mirror turned out to be a turning point! Instead of trying to make 'the mask of Peckham', I would make a mask in mirrored card. After all, we use mirrors to reflect ourselves, to enforce our sense of personal identity. Today this role is taken over by selfies and social media, which both connects and alienates us: Even though I live in Peckham since October, I have only explored around 20-30% of the streets before I did my life-drawings.

I take masked selfies all around Camberwell and Peckham at this stage. The mask shows the alienation through hiding my face, my source of identification, while also highlighting my dependence of social media as a potential source of this alienation. Internet seduces me to chat with old friends, consume pop-culture, and plan for the future, rather than focus on the present and spend time with my classmates. If you look carefully, you may see my smartphone and/or the closest surroundings reflected in each photograph.

How can we break this isolation of the self? My personal solution lies in the act of walking. I often take a stroll when I hang out with my friends, chatting about everything that cross our mind while our bodies navigate through space. The act of walking also gives me a sense of power: Not only do I exhort my will and power over my body, but also over my surroundings. It feels that i de-mystify it in order to define it and ultimately control it. One of the first things I did first time I visited New York was to go for a 3 hours walk, just so I could get to know the city.

I plan to work more with this piece before our exhibition. I want to make a short video of the photographs like the auto generated Facebook videos, but I do not know how I should end it. Should I tear, cut, and break the mask every passing day, to show the gradual decrease of alienation? Or should I keep the mask intact since we cannot simply back away from internet and social media at this point?

Independent State: Workshops

We had a ton of theoretical lectures, visits, and screenings when school started. One of the most important things we did was to discuss what a state should provide and divide ourselves into smaller groups or ministries. I joined the Cabinet of Curiosity, a ministry that combined school, museum, research, and philosophy with a local focus. Check out our tumblr for more insight into our work process!

Our first major workshop was to organize appropriate activities and present ourselves in Peckham Square 1st May. We decided to have two activities: a hidden-objects-trail and a question generator. The trail consisted of ten objects, each chosen by its relevance to the area, which we hid in the square earlier. In the question randomiser, the participant took two words at random and stuck them to a question template. They then had to answer the question as best as they could and give us the result. Both activities were way more appreciated than we thought and we got more than 30 answers when the day was finished!

The banner workshop was less successful. We had great discussions and came up with several good ideas, but we were quite disorganized: It took us a while to get started. We might also have been too optimistic about the main banner, since the pole was too long and unstable for the wind. It eventually broke and had to be carried like a jousting lance! At least the eye-shaped pattern is reused in the book that we are currently printing.

You can see our kite-like banners popping up around 0:57.

Edition: Final Piece

This is the final result of several weeks of sketching, discussing, and making. The boxes are made from cardboard and wood that has been reinforced by glue, paper and sawdust before they were carefully sanded down to create a smooth surface. The instructions/edition cards, as well as the sole templates, were designed with Illustrator and InDesign. The soles – bubble wrap, carpet, coir, and gutter mesh – were found, donated, or bought in a pound shop. The sole template was based on a design from a foam insole that I bought in another pound shop.

One of few things that really proved a challenge was InDesign and painting the boxes. You can create unique text boxes with help of vector graphic, but you cannot import shapes made in Illustrator to add text to them: they must be created within InDesign. If you copy and mirror a box, you also mirror the text. I believe you can override that (or at least revert the text), but I never managed to figure it out during the project, which lead to unplanned work.

The boxes were first covered with a layer of white acrylic, than covered with two layers of light grey spray-paint. However, I was unprepared for how long the surface remains sticky until it finally dries up. Because of that, part of the protective paper got stuck onto a box and needed to be repainted one day before our Edition fair.

I did not manage to sell any of them during the fair, but I will sell them in my Etsy shop in the near future. If they prove to be popular, I might produce a second edition with simpler (and cheaper) packaging!

Buy our edittions!

My course will sell artwork at a small fair called Signed & Numbered the 28th March. Come and visit us at The Pelican Peckham, from 12 noon to 7 p.m. I will sell a limited edition of the Barfuss Preparation Kit ™, which also happens to be one of my coming updates. See you on Saturday!

PS: The drawing was made by Sarah Davies. You can find her blog on

Author Genesis: Part 2

Then we had to actually create the costume. It was really fun, even though I had to skip some of my extreme ideas (like moveable fingers and an extra set of arms)and I had to travel by train since the Metro personal was striking. Anyway, I am really pleased what came from fake fur, cardboard, chicken wire, cable ties, branches, newspaper, styrofoam, hobby clay and acrylics.

All photos were taken by Emma Denby. Check out her website!