Introduction: Leda's Study: My Mystery Build 2013 Entry

About: I'm known as Glindabunny elsewhere on the web. (silly name, I know... it was based on a former pet) Everyone is born with unique challenges and talents. Find yours and share with others. We can't have a ba…

If you had a box of random materials, could you make a piece of art using nothing but those materials and paint?  That's the premise behind Mystery Build.  Once I heard about it, I knew I wanted to participate.

I didn't have much notice this year, so hopefully my entry next year will be a bit more like my plans.  I've detailed how I made this year's entry because it was so much fun, and I'll bet other people would love to enter something like this.  I also wanted to show the techniques I used to alter the materials in the kit.  The Mystery Build website encourages creative use of the materials, so I figure any altering makes a person's entry more unique and impressive.

Plus... I intend to go all out for next year's entry.  I want some fierce competition, so I'm turning to the instructables community.  Pay attention to my methods here, because I know a lot of you can take some of these and make them ten times more effective.  Next year, there's a new rule that you can also use your own adhesives, so keep that in mind.

In this instructable, I'll explain the inspiration for my piece, then go over the different parts in different steps.  There were a lot of things I'd hoped to do but didn't have time.  I'll mention some of those, but they don't deserve a separate step since I didn't get to try them.

Step 1: The Theme

Mystery Build's theme for 2013 was "Re-Invent a Work of Art."  They wanted people's unique interpretation of a work of art, not merely some reproduction.  MB posted a video showing an example, reinventing The Scream in sculptural form.  Since the video showed materials inside the kit, it wasn't made available to people until they'd purchased a kit.

Considering the fact that one can no longer purchase the 2013 kit, hopefully the MB folks won't kill me for posting a link to their example video.

I had a hard time choosing a work of art.  I considered doing something by Andy Goldsworthy for quite awhile, but decided I really wanted to try to sculpt a human.  I've sculpted a hand once before with polymer clay and had been pleased with the result, so I figured it was time to also try a head and torso, and maybe even some arms.

I wanted to choose an artist to whom I could relate.  I needed someone with a whole lot of interests, who had a hard time finishing things because of all those interests, but I still wanted someone who was famous enough that the work of art would be easily recognizable.   Often, people with multiple interests and skills are called renaissance men/women.

Of course!  I needed one of the originals, someone from that actual period of time... Leonardo da Vinci!  Just look at his sketches of machines or anatomy, and it's obvious how nerdy he is.  Read a bit of his history from various accounts and there's more than a hint that he likely had what would today be considered ADD.  I can relate.

I'm not overly fond of most of his paintings of women, though.  His sketches are great, but the paintings that came from his sketches seemed... odd, as if they'd been pulled slightly out of proportion.  I chose one of his studies of Leda.  It turns out they were done for his painting Leda and the Swan, which was destroyed.  Do a google image search for da Vinci's Leda and the Swan, and you'll find more than one version of the painting.  A couple artists tried to replicate his work after the original painting was destroyed; the backgrounds are quite different.

I decided that if I chose a sketch, I'd have a whole lot of space to interpret it... especially since the resulting painting no longer existed.

The myth of Leda and the swan is disturbing, especially if you've seen Ze Frank's "True Facts about the Duck."   Swans, for the record, have similar anatomy to ducks.  My version of Leda would be the type to resist a swan, even one disguised as Zeus, and possibly get revenge on the overly amorous waterfowl.  

I wanted to incorporate a fair amount of references to other da Vinci concepts and sketches in my piece.  I wasn't able to include most due to time, but I did finish a couple.

Step 2: Sculpting the Figurine

I had originally planned on making the figure move with a few wooden mechanisms for which da Vinci was known, including the cam hammer.  This obviously didn't happen, but this is why I made the figure hollow.

I knew from the "tips and tricks" videos posted on the Mystery Build website that chavant clay would melt at warm temperatures, so I used it as a core and wrapped polymer clay around it.

I decided halfway through sculpting the head that the polymer clay was too soft.  I rolled out the remaining polymer clay and pressed it between two sheets of paper, waited a couple days, and continued sculpting.  I hadn't wanted to peel the clay off the head, so I just let it rest on the paper while the clay softener slowly leached out of the clay and into the paper.

This step has lots of pictures, yes.  There are some things you really need to see - not everything can be put into words.  Look at the head and hands specifically as I slowly shape them.  They start as a really rough shape.  I push indentations into the clay to mark where the eyes, cheeks, and chin should be - or, with the hands, I slice the clay to make fingers.  Slowly, I refine the shapes by pushing a bit of clay to build up the nose, or remove it to make a hollow around the eyes, or shave it off the sides of the fingers to narrow and refine them. 

I use the side of a beading awl to press lines into the clay.  If you drag a sharp object through clay to make lines, it'll leave little bits of clay on either side of the line.  Pressing, rather than dragging, gives a smoother result.  You can see in the pictures that I don't have very many clay tools; two tools have metal ends with a small, round tip, one is the beading awl, and another is an xacto knife.  I'm sure other people swear by more clay tools, but I'm not an experienced sculptor, and I can't really justify buying whatever tools actual artists use.

Step 3: Finish the Figurine

Polymer clay can be sanded and/or carved after it's baked.

I lightly scraped an xacto blade over the surface of the baked clay to clean up some of the ridges left by my fingerprints, and to remove traces of the chavant modeling clay.  This left a fluffy white dust that made it look like I was removing much more clay than I was.

I painted the figure with acrylic.  Let's first talk about my first "OH CRAP" moment in this project.  I'd dumped out most of the chavant clay from the figure's head when it first came out of the oven, so it was mostly hollow.  Later on, I decided I should put clay back in the head so I could attach the hair.  I shoved some clay in and put the face in the oven.  I had already painted the face with acrylic.

I had intended to leave it in the oven for just a couple minutes to soften the chavant clay, but... I then forgot about it.  That, in retrospect, was not a wise move.

I had carved the face awfully thin, especially near the eyes.  It cracked, and gray chavant clay was oozing out of the face when I remembered to check the oven 30 minutes later.  Fortunately, the modeling clay is sticky when hot and stiff enough when room temperature.  I pressed the cracked face to re-form its shape, burning my thumb a bit on a drip of molten chavant clay in the process... but it worked.  I smoothed the chavant clay around the back of the head, then realized the acrylic paint on the face was peeling off.  Crud.

I carefully scraped the rest off with a blade (some of the paint had stained the white polymer clay a pale peach color - which was fine, because I still intended to paint it).  It's probably easier to paint the rest of the body to match if I start with an almost bare face the same color as the rest of the figure.

If you look, you should be able to see the crack above the bridge of her nose and over her left eyelid.  Lesson learned:  don't make the face too thin with the polymer clay, and don't dump out the chavant clay from the head if you still need a base for adding hair.

I decided that it'd be easier to match the skin tones of the different parts of the figure if they were strung together already.  I planned on inserting wire later, but I used cotton string (pulled from the canvas included in the kit) to keep the hollow pieces of the figure attached, and secured the ends of the string with bits of chavant clay.  That stuff is really handy.

Acrylic paint should be applied to baked polymer clay in many thin layers.  I find it easiest to start with a really dark color, water it down, and coat the whole thing, pressing paint into all the crevices and cracks.  Then, I take a bit of paper towel and wipe most of it off.  The paint that remains is in the deepest areas of the sculpture, emphasizing the texture.  Next, choose a lighter shade, and lightly brush it over the figurine - don't worry so much about pressing it into the deepest corners, unless you've decided the dark areas need to be lightened slightly.  Wipe it off, but just a little bit - leave the slightly lighter shade covering more of the clay than the darker one was when you wiped it off.  I kept adding watery washes of acrylic paint, sometimes making the figure pinker or yellower or darker or lighter, depending on what I figured would balance her tone a bit better.  This sounds time consuming, but the whole process of painting (if we skip the earlier mishap and the peeling painted face) only took about 30 minutes or so.  Properly watered down layers of acrylic can dry pretty quickly, especially in a dry climate.

Step 4: Make the Hair

This is where having naughty kids puts me at a bit of a disadvantage.  There's no absolutely safe workspace at my house, and little fingers LOVE grabbing whatever I'm working on.  I don't even want to talk about how often I had to chase Benjamin or Lilith after one of them had grabbed the figurine and ran like heck.

As a result, the final pictures of the project don't really illustrate the detailed curls the figurine could've had.  They were mussed up pretty well by then.  Oh, well.  The concept still works.  Just try not to handle your figure too much after the hair is styled, if you do this method.

I placed a section of canvas threads over the top of the head and pressed them down with the dull edge of an xacto blade.  That served to anchor them to the chavant clay in the scalp, and to form a nice part in the hair.  Leonardo da Vinci's sketches of Leda show some pretty ornate hair with several parts, and I think this was a relatively efficient way of making the hair (although it might not work if you were going to show the back of the head... I didn't bother trying to work out how those braids were intertwined back there and left it bare).  I added a bit more clay to the sides of the face so there was enough for the cotton strands to adhere.

Do you know how to braid?  It's just a simple thing with three strands, right?  *sigh*  Leda's braids are herringbone braids.  They have more than 3 strands.  A braid made with three strands would have fewer crosses per inch than the braids in da Vinci's sketch.  Herringbone braids take longer to make, but I wanted to be accurate for this.

I took 14 strands of cotton and paired them up so that I used two strands each time I brought a section from one side of the braid to the other.  As long as you remember to take your section from the very back of the braid and keep crossing one section to the other, it's pretty much like 3 strand braiding (just slower).  I made two braids, one for each side of the head.  I made sure that they were long enough so I could wrap them around the sides of her head.

I painted the cotton strands and used white glue to stiffen the ends near the knot so it wouldn't unravel once I snipped the knot off.  I used the beading awl to shove the ends of a braid into the clay at the figure's scalp, poking any loose strands into place and brushing on a bit more glue.  I secured the braid with a pin stuck straight into the figure's head so it wouldn't pull out while I was fiddling with the rest of the braid, trying to wrap it around her head.

I kept securing the braid with pins as I curved it around.  Once I was at the end of the braid, I wrapped the loose sections around a pin so they'd be curly once the paint and glue had dried.

I wrapped a couple other strands of painted cotton around pins, then snipped them short once they were dry and unraveled.  I poked those strands into the figure's hairline to frame her face, and secured them in the clay with a tiny dab of white glue.  If I'd wanted larger curls, I would've used a toothpick or some other stick-like device with a slightly larger diameter than the shaft of a pin.

The curls did get messy and flattened from the repeated handling, but the braids and parts along her scalp held up well.

Step 5: Clothes - Planned and Last Minute

I hadn't originally intended for the figure's lower body to show at all, so I hadn't planned on clothing other than a shirt.

I tried hard to find a surface on which I could spread white glue that would allow me to peel off a thin, dried sheet later.  Most surfaces slick enough tend to cause the glue to bead up.  In the end, I stuck with what I knew worked:  human skin.

I spread some glue on the back of my hand and let it dry, then peeled it off.  I used another area of skin for a larger sheet of dried glue. Keep in mind that you'll need to find skin that's hairless or almost hairless, or this doesn't work very well.

I discovered that if I was quick, I could paint the dull side of the dried sheet of glue with black acrylic ink and it looked a bit like leather... and if I put it on the figure before too long, it wouldn't dissolve into goo and lose its shape.  If you're careful, you can get a bit of stretch from an ink coated film of dried white glue, which is particularly helpful if you want a tight leather look on something tiny and can't use actual leather.  The heat from my hands was enough to soften the sheet of glue just slightly so that I could get a form fitting shape and cut it into a tank top without too much cracking.  I didn't want to try cutting the glue film after it was coated with wet black ink - that'd be way too messy, and it'd be too stiff once dried.

Later, with about an hour left before the Mystery Build submission deadline, I was frantically trying to put together a cohesive piece.  (Look... it wasn't all about poor planning - my kids got sick, and it's a much bigger deal for them than it would be for neurotypical kids with fewer needs)

I made a quick wire frame and tied it with some rope strands (I'd taken apart a piece of rope that had come with the kit).  I stuck the figure onto the wire frame, using a bit of the clay still hanging from her torso to hold her steady.  I used the wrapper from the polymer clay and a piece of painted canvas I'd torn from the art board, spray painted them black, added a bit of grayish oil paint (I didn't even have time to wait for the spray paint to dry), and slapped them onto the wire frame.  I secured the skirt in the back with a dab of hot glue, grateful that I'd saved the one small glue stick for last minute structural "uh oh" moments like this.  I have a hotter glue gun too large for the glue stick, but perfect for melting the plastic wrapper from the polymer clay to add a bit of gathering, holes, and structural interest to the top layer of the skirt.  I also used the hot glue gun nozzle to melt the bulky folds of the plastic against her torso, to make them a little more form fitting.

Step 6: Leda's Portrait

The 2013 Mystery Build kit came with shredded newsprint.  I put some in a blender - actually, in my magic bullet that Instructables sent me from a smoothie contest way back... thanks, guys!  I still use it all the time.  :)

I added some water and blended it up into pulp.  I then put it in a pan with more water, dipped a piece of screen in the slurry, and pulled out a layer of pulp.  I turned the screen over onto a piece of silk (from my bin of dissected thrift store silk shirts - so handy for lots of things), which was on top of a towel.  I then covered the screen with another towel and pressed most of the water away, flattening the wood fibers into a sheet.  It took a couple attempts to get a piece of paper that I wanted to use for the portrait, but the other pieces were good for practice.  I'm not skilled at copying da Vinci's style of face.  I get the shape of the nose and the shading of the eyes all wrong.  Maybe if I took time to draw every couple months, I'd get better.

Once I had ironed the large piece of paper dry (I'm impatient), I coated it with a thin film of olive oil and shellac.  I wanted the paper to be slightly translucent.  Its translucency was going to play a larger role in my finished piece, back when I thought I'd have time to do everything I wanted... 

I realized it was easier to refer to da Vinci's sketch if I had it printed on actual paper in front of me, near the paper I was painting on, than if I had to keep glancing at a computer monitor, which was at a different angle.  At first, I used watered down paint and a very thin brush to "draw" the face.  I added a watery color wash to the face and hair.

Later on, I noticed that I hadn't gone back over the portrait with black ink to clarify the shadows and emphasize the sketch-like quality, so I did that.  I added shimmery touches to her hair with gold ink, but it looks silvery white in a lot of the pictures.  I'm fine with that, though.

I don't know how to instruct someone on drawing.  The last art class I took was in high school, and that was many years ago.  I know absolutely nothing about technique.  The way I see it, though, is that art can never really be wrong.  If you keep that in mind (especially if someone tells you that your drawing sucks) and just keep doing it, I'm sure you'll end up with a piece you like.  If not, come to my house and I'll help you draw it.

Step 7: Mini Sketchbook

By this time, I knew I wanted to make a small book, so I also made some smaller sheets of paper.  The smaller sheets also had some cotton fibers in the slurry.  I have learned that cotton fibers from a piece of canvas aren't best distributed into a paper making slurry by a small blender.  Even if you boil the dang things for an hour with some added baking soda (and rinse the cotton later to get rid of the baking soda) and THEN put the stuff in the blender... the fibers will still get tangled on the blades.  I added a couple drops of bleach to the second slurry so the pages would be slightly lighter in color.  I used a smaller piece of screen and folded the edges to minimize the number of painful aluminum splinters I was getting in my fingers from handling the screen.  I wanted the papers for the book to have deckled edges, so I made sure the makeshift deckle (screen) was the size of two pages laid flat as if the book had been open.  I didn't want to get rid of the feathered edges by having to trim the paper to size

I cut a piece of thin wood from the kit to make a front and back cover, then drilled very small holes to accommodate the stitching.  The book has four signatures, each signature containing three sheets (which, folded, make six pages).  I poked holes in the signatures using a beading awl, then used a coptic stitch to bind the book.

I had taken two of the long, folded cotton canvas strands and plied them together by twisting each strand clockwise, then wrapping them around each other counter-clockwise in order to make string strong enough to bind the book.  I was concerned that a single strand of cotton from the canvas would fall apart if used to bind a book.

Step 8: Da Vinci Bridge

I cut cardboard into thin strips and wrapped them in most of the chavant clay I had left.  I ended up needing to slice thin strips of veneer (also in the kit) and shoving them inside the "logs" to make them stiff enough to hold the bridge up.

I decided that the bridge didn't look very good, so I added some wood-like texture to the clay.  I first dragged the awl in wavy bark patterns, then smoothed some of the lines and smooshed/roughed up some others with one of the ball tipped clay tools.

After I'd textured the whole thing... which took way longer than it should have, I added some color.  Chavant needs oil based paint if you're not fond of the peeling look.  Once in a high school art class years ago, we tried oil painting.  That's the extent of my experience with oil paints - one painting when I was 17 years old, and I'm pretty certain I remember it looked awful to me.

The art store near our house had a kit of "beginner's" oils for only $10 - score!  It's not like I need to buy real art supplies if I'm not an actual artist.  These worked just great for adding color to the clay bridge.  I used some turpenoid thinner with the oil paint to make sure it was adding thin layers of wash to bring out the texture I'd made in the clay.  I discovered that it made the clay REALLY soft and smeary.  That effect didn't last, and I suspect the VOCs from the turpenoid evaporated from the clay, leaving it as stiff as it had been before I added the paint wash.

I added a few more layers of lighter and lighter paint, similar to how I painted the figure (but with oil instead of acrylic).

Step 9: Book Stand

The MB kit included some pieces of hard wood.

I couldn't just ignore the wood!

I made a stand for the book.  I finished turning the column for the book stand on the micro lathe at the Transistor at 3am on a Sunday morning, less than 24 hours before the project was due.  I spent a good portion of Sunday afternoon carving the rest of the stand with a dremel.  In retrospect... I probably should've set up the rest of the display (including the figure's skirt) before spending so much time with one piece of wood.

I made the base of the stand too small.  It cracked when I was trying to jam the pedestal in so it wouldn't tip over.  I used my last bits of chavant clay to secure the stand so it wouldn't tip over for pictures.

Josh helped me shellac the pieces because I was really short on time by then.

Step 10: Cardboard Background

The main box that the Mystery Build kit came in served as the base for the background.  I'd already cut off the lid and had been planning on using the cardboard frame for another feature that I hadn't added.

I'm not sure what drove me to paint on the canvas art board when I'd been up way too late, but the cheap acrylics weren't covering like I had hoped, and I got frustrated pretty quickly.  The morning after I'd painted the atrocity, I decided to rip apart the art board and use it for something else.

It had lots of dense bits of compressed cardboard.  I tore the pieces into jagged chunks, dipped them in water, crumpled them to make sure they had lots of interesting wrinkles and structure, then let them dry on some creased screen (to make sure they wouldn't somehow flatten).

I used white glue to attach them to the cardboard base, making a hopefully mountainous or rocky background.  Once that was dry, I spray painted the cardboard black, then added a bit of white spray paint.

After that, I added oil paint in layers (just like on the wood textures in the bridge and on the figure) to bring out the texture.  Hopefully the cardboard now looks a bit like craggy rocks.  If you squint.  And maybe if you've had a pint of vodka first.

I wanted to use the wire from the kit to hold the portrait over the mountains.  Fortunately, the steel wire came annealed so it was easy to work with.  I twisted two long wires, making sure the length wasn't floppy, and leaving a leaf shaped loop at one end so it could fit into the cardboard column in the back of the mountains.  I bent the ends of wire at the top to echo the curly shape of Leda's hair.  I then took both wire support pieces to the small anvil in the basement and pounded the steel so it flattened in some places.  It made the wire stiff (and more brittle, but I was careful), and added a bit more interest to the curly pigtail details.  I secured the portrait to the wires with a couple very small dabs of hot glue (I didn't want the hot glue to bleed through the paper or anything), then carefully arrange the wires without bending them too much, so the portrait was hanging in the right place.

Overall, I think the project turned out satisfactorily, despite the challenges of time and curious little ones.  I think I'm going to have even more fun with this next one, due about 11 months from now.  I really hope I see other instructables community members enter the next Mystery Build.  Maybe my 2013 entry is easy to shrug off, but just watch out for 2014.  Come challenge me.  ;)