Now, before anything happens, it is not my utter intention to belittle non-Japanese ways of sculpting. However, to be honest, my intention is to give a much more focused view on the Japanese way of doing things as I try to follow it too, as my way of doing art. Any comparison with non-Japanese ways will try to serve merely as a form of distinction or comparison. So, to put it simple, I’ll be preaching the ways of Japan, while being cold, and maybe sometimes indifferent about what “not-Japan” does instead. Also, I'm very aware that there are Japanese sculptors who make figures in styles completely different, and maybe more realistic in aesthetic; but, I'm just going here with what might be the "mainstream" stuff.
So, to begin with this, let’s talk about materials a little bit. Ever since I got memory, I have been sculpting out of clay, school clay. As an anecdote, my parents always comment about when I was a little less than 8years old, and we had to have a conversation with the supervisor at school due to a “homework” that consisted on me doing some animals from clay. The supervisor’s complaint was in the lines of: “Please, don’t do your child’s homework, there’s no way your son could have made that by his own”. So, in that time I was carrying my favorite toy, a Transformers MindWipe, and my mother had the idea of letting me sculpt good old MindWipe in front of the supervisor. To be honest, I have no clear memories of how the final product looked at the end, but my parents keep telling me: “she was more than impressed”.
So, at the end, clay has been a very difficult material to replace in my life. But, I think we all know the main disadvantage of school clay: “fire to fire, ashes to ashes”; whatever you made out of it will most likely won’t last forever.
Is then school clay useless? Well, if you want to make something to show later and later on, just as you have just finished doing it, yes it’s useless. Some might argue it is a good material to “practice”, and they might be right. However, practice implies you’re rehearsing what you’ll actually be doing, and school clay is a little far from what the materials you’ll be using to make figures actually behave. In short, it’s not useless, but you actually don’t need it to sculpt.
Sculpting starts with what you’ll be doing as a subject for your work, and here, I guess that’ll be “characters from Japanese popular media”. To really begin on this, let’s narrow it to what might be what many expect, “bishoujo figures”. A word about bishoujo figures: from the character of the classic school girl from next door, to the tall and muscular amazon, Japanese media has always the same stamp in expressing the “texture” of bishoujo characters; and that can be summarized in just one word: “softness”.
Yes, to Japanese media, no matter what type of archetype they portrait, bishoujo characters are soft, period. Without going to much in-depth just yet, softness could be simply put as a property represented by well-shaped round curves and very smooth surfaces. Even if the character is evidently muscular, you have to admit that, in most cases, the muscles would still display “softness” to indicate femininity as a basic paradigm.
Now, to translate this into the materials to use, it will not be a surprise later on that I’ll preach about the use of a kind to uncommon over-looked art material in the western countries: Paperclay. Paper-based clay is a soft water-based material with a texture out-of-the-package very similar to ceramic-based air-dry clays. It is not as simple to give shape as school clay, but modeling is just half of the work. The basic paradigm of school clay is add, shape, subtract, add some more. However, this is not entirely suitable when you transport the same paradigm into paperclay; thus, school clay will not necessarily give you practice in your sculpting skills, just the modeling one. The basic paradigm in the case of paperclay would be to add, add, add, carve, sand, sand some more.
Remember what I told you about the “softness”? Well, it is not that easy to get it done with school clay. Oh, there are ways to do it, I know, but, as I said, modeling is just half the work. In order to achieve a “soft” piece, you will need to start considering, besides the shape, the surface of your work. And I’m actually not talking about anything advance here, that’ll be the basic of the basic. I think paperclay is a suitable material to achieve softness as it will remain very well fitted for sanding to give shape and finish to your work.
Now, if you live in a western country, chances are you have heard the brands Sculpey, FIMO, and seen a lot of polymer clays that can be baked in your kitchen’s oven; plaster, and a lot of materials that will dry rock hard when left out of their package. Well, in many cases the non-Japanese approach, focused on realism and accuracy, will represent their textures in regards of the muscles that compose the body. Even, the slimmest super model will show a little toughness in the constitution of her arms and legs because, well, that’s how it kinda happens in real life. That’s why instead of sanding-out round shapes and looking for a smooth surface, artist of non-Japanese popular media will tend to carve-out well defined muscular structures to give accuracy to their work. So maybe a tougher more “rock hard” material is sometimes more suitable to accomplish this type of work.
Of course, this is just perhaps my cold analysis of both ways of doing things; however, it is also my personal conclusion after years of seeing lots and lots of figures made by Japanese as well as non-Japanese sculptors. Also, at the end, I don’t intend to indicate a polarization by mentioning only these two groups. I’m very aware of the variety of styles out there, but this is just for the sake of narrowing it in order to remain focused.
So, this is a word about sculpting, I’ll try to get you another update soon. Feel free to comment with the respect and maturity that is bound to letting us know what you think. Until the next post then, stay tuned.