Enjoying a piece of art that was created especially for you is a unique experience. The results are a one-of-a-kind artwork full of personal significance and a bond with its creator. In an effort to shine some light on the mysterious work of the artist, I’m going to share my approach on commissioning an original horse sculpture and some basics for getting started.
Finding the right artist
Subject matter is often only a starting point in finding an appropriate creator. For example: If you’re searching for someone to sculpt a portrait of your cherished childhood pony, you’re going to have a lot of options. Each artist will approach a subject differently, and the key is to find an artist whose style and interpretation appeals to you.
My style is quite free: While I do focus heavily on accurate anatomy, I’m not really interested in a down-to-every-vein kind of realism. For me, it’s important that the viewer can really see the hand of the artist (in some cases literally, leaving my finger prints in the clay), and that I capture the essential essence of the horse.
It is possible that an artist may decline a commission because they do not feel it is a good fit, or that the work deviates too much from their regular practice.
You’ve found an artist, now what?
Contact them! Some artists may not accept commissions for various reasons, but it never hurts to ask. While I don’t accept all of the commission requests I receive, I have an outline right on my website to give potential clients an idea of the process.
This is a brief outline of my art commission arrangement:
I want it this way!
This can be a worrying point for many clients – how much control do I have over the final outcome? I very much welcome special requests because often they help shape the sculpture and how it’s executed. For example, in the commission of Lulu the Oldenburg foal, the owner had a particular affinity for a certain photograph and the way Lulu was cantering. It was decided very early on, despite the difficult position, to make the sculpture’s pose in that manner.
"Lulu" coming to life.
I love bringing a client’s vision to life, and I provide regular update photos of the sculpting process so that things can be adjusted if necessary. However, I tell all my clients that I want to make sure I create a unique masterpiece for them, and the more freedom they give me, the better I’m be able to do this.
In the early consultations it’s paramount to address ideas and concepts right from the beginning to help shape the work. Being clear from the start is especially important with sculpture because it can be hard to make large-scale modification once the main body of the sculpture is built. It can also affect the final cost.
It’s how much?!
While it’s often more costly than purchasing a ready-made piece, the commission process itself requires a lot of time commitment from the artist. Not only in terms of communicating with the client, but also designing (and potentially re-designing) the sculpture, as well as ensuring that all the client’s requests on the artwork are met.
What if I’m not happy?
It is a possibility that despite all the hard work on both your parts, you may not be satisfied. This can be unfortunate, and it depends on the agreement you reached in your initial consultation on how to proceed.
In my case, you’re not required to buy the sculpture if you aren’t completely in love with it. I want you to be 100% satisfied with the final work. If you aren’t, you can apply your payments to the purchase of other work by me at any time in the future.
I hope this brief introduction to the commission process was helpful and gave you some small insights when you go and get something special made for yourself.
“No more horses, Susie”, is a phrase often used by my exasperated teachers. I spent most of my adolescence being told that horses were off-limits as the subject of my next project, book report, or art piece. This instruction was so deeply ingrained, that when it came time to do my Master’s degree, my thesis was about Gothic Architecture in Bohemia!
Fortunately, you can’t take the “horse” out of “horse crazy”, and despite these early setbacks, I have managed to recapture and channel my creativity into the one thing that truly inspires me: horses.
I cannot remember a time when I did not love horses, and even from a very young age, they have formed the basis of my creative expression. How I came to be a mixed media equine sculptor is not a straightforward path, but one of persistence and a lasting passion for these magnificent animals.
I started off, as many children do, drawing. With practice my horses evolved from potatoes with legs into elegant creatures. I attended a youth art school where I experimented with various mediums and learned both traditional and innovative techniques. In university, I took diverse fine art courses, including lithography, painting, and bookbinding. I was slowly becoming a jack-of-all-trades.
Throughout my schooling in Toronto, Canada, horses were always involved: I rode and worked at various riding stables in my free time.
After attending the University of Oxford to complete my masters (where I rode at a quaint English stable!), I moved to the Czech Republic with my husband. My art fell by the wayside as I started to work full-time. Worst of all, from a horse-lover’s perspective, I found the Czech Republic an equine desert with very few riding schools and horse ownership reserved only for the exceedingly wealthy. Which, I sadly am not.
After a couple of horseless years, we moved back to Canada in 2012, and horses and art crept back into my life.
I decided that I was going to create art for myself, and there was no question as to what the subject matter would be. After all those years of being denied and denying myself in turn, I knew that all I wanted to do was make horses.
With my varied art education, I knew that in order to pursue my art seriously, I had to decide on a specific medium. I choose sculpture because I knew that working directly with my hands would be the most fulfilling and challenging.
An Akhal Teke foal sculpture called "Into the Sun"
I spent almost 2 years experimenting with various materials before I found something that met my requirements of:
I studied ceramics, polymer clay, plaster, papier mache and a whole lot of air dry clays before finding what worked best for the type of artwork I wanted to produce.
Today, I often use a mix of clays to complete my artwork, but my primary medium is a product called Creative Paperclay, an air dry clay from Japan.
Sculptures made from this museum-quality clay can mimic the look of ceramic, but are lighter and very durable. Over the years I have developed techniques for sculpting and decorating this exciting medium, and it has allowed me to create my unique equine sculptures.
When I really began to concentrate on my art, I was able to start exhibiting in local art galleries in Vancouver, BC and branch out from there. Most recently, I had a sculpture in the Horse in Art 2016 exhibition juried by the Society of Equestrian Artists in Suffolk, England.
If there’s anything I’ve learned it’s that it is important to persevere, in both the horse and art world. There’s a saying that “In order to end up with a little money in the horse business, you have to start out with a lot”. With art it is often the same, and I am very grateful to be able to do what I do without a large trust fund at my disposal.
While I did not expect to end up here, I am very glad it turned out the way it began: with horses and art together.
One of the foals from the "Foals Rush In" series
The following is a brief walk-through of the process I use when hand-building my unique air dry clay sculptures.
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With their painted surfaces, delicate areas, and use of non-standard materials that would not survive the heat of a kiln, my air dry clay horse sculptures differ from a lot of traditional equestrian art.
I often get asked about how air dry clay and ceramic differ, and in response, I’ve prepared this primer as a reference about the the main variations between earthen clays and air dry clay.
In this article, I'll refer to 3 types of clay:
1. No Special Equipment Needed
This is easily the most wonderful feature of air dry clays: Most air dry clays are non-toxic and do not require any special tools or equipment, such as an expensive kiln.
2. Clay Can Be Layered
Man, oh man, do I love this. As you may know, once a ceramic piece is bone dry (prepped for firing) or is fired, no new material can be added. You’re stuck with what you’ve got, even if it’s cracked! With CPC, you can fix imperfections and make adjustments indefinitely because fresh clay can be added on top of dried.
3. Unique Structures Are Possible
Unlike ceramics, air dry clays can (and should) utilize internal armatures to strengthen the sculpture. Using an integrated armature means that I can build very thin structures (like horse legs) while still having them very strong.
4. A Different Kind of Durability
While ceramic is strong, it's also inflexible and has a tendency to shatter when dropped. CPC, on the other hand, dries to the consistency of a soft wood and therefore has a very slight amount of give. As a result, it's more likely to dent or chip rather than break apart. An internal armature gives it added strength.
Case study: A commission for a client was returned to me for repairs when the sculpture was knocked over onto a metal grate from the top of a fireplace. The height of the fall (onto metal, no less) would likely have shattered a ceramic piece with such delicate extremities. However, this CPC and epoxy piece merely had a bent leg and broken ear, both of which were repaired.
5. Can be Combined With Other Media
This is a big one: While ceramic pieces can have other materials added after they have been fired, air dry clay sculptures can have these unique materials integrated right from the beginning where they form an integral part of the sculpture.
Not even polymer clay can boast this because it also needs to be baked in an oven.
A good example is the piece below “Suspending Gravity II” where armature wire provides support, but also defines the shape of the foal.
|Learn about the tools and techniques for sculpting with Creative Paperclay|
When starting a new project, I ask myself:
The need for a base is something that should be decided early on in the design stages, though in some cases it’s possible to add afterwards. Air dry or cured clays, as opposed to fired clays, are often lightweight, and a base provides much needed stability.
I’ve made sculptures with and without bases, and I want to give a brief introduction to the techniques I use, especially as they relate to air dry clay and equine sculpture.
Bases can be made from any number of materials; stone, concrete, plastic, metal, etc. Conversely they can also be sculpted from clay.
For an understand modern look, I find that my Creative Paperclay sculptures are best complemented by a solid wood base. The wood provides enough weight to keep the sculpture balanced without compromising the lightness of the sculpture’s weight.
I have my wooden bases custom cut, often from reclaimed wood and then sealed with tung oil for a lovely and subtle hand-rubbed finish.
How the base complements your subject should be a central consideration when it comes to choosing a material and finish. It should not detract from the sculpture itself.
Here are the facts: horses have thin legs. While they give them grace in life, those lovely legs can cause all sorts of issues when it comes to mounting because they can be fragile, especially when small.
There are several approaches to mounting clay horse sculpture that can help tackle these concerns:
Option 1: No Base
Many air dry clay sculptures don’t require a base if they are well balanced. When making my miniature set Foals Rush In, I opted out of using bases because a base can often create a sense of formality that I felt didn’t fit the sculptures’ spontaneous feel.
Option 2: Rod to Base
Using a wooden or metal rod to attach a sculpture to a base is very common. I use this approach not only when I want to create the illusion of a horse suspended in mid-air, but also when attaching delicate horse legs directly to a wooden base is impossible.
It also works well for portraiture-style sculpture where a horse bust can be raised away from the base and brought to life.
I integrate the rod or pin right from the beginning because by making it part of the armature it will hold the sculpture securely.
Method - A hole is drilled into the wooden base, a 2-part epoxy is put into the hole and the rod (with sculpture on top) is inserted into it and left to dry. When using metal rods, I use the epoxy almost as a formality because the rod is tapped and then physically screwed into the base.
Option 3: Clay Base
Making a base out of clay is an effective way to mitigate the difficulties of thin horse legs while ensuring a sculpture is balanced.
Lulu (below) is a good example of that. Because she is technically only standing on one leg she needed to have a second base built in the front to keep her upright.
This method also means that the armature is integrated right into this clay base, and consequently there’s no movement at the point where her hooves touch the “ground”, ensuring no cracking.
This appraoch also allows the sculpture to be attached to a more solid or heavier base material. If I wanted to attach Lulu to a wooden base, it would only require 2-part epoxy on the clay bases to permanently affix her.
The most important question to ask yourself is, will the final product will be well-balanced and not get knocked over?
I typically decide right from the get go if an artwork will have a base because it helps to structure the entire sculpture. Bases add a sense of formality and richness, but also make sure your sculpture will stay beautiful for many years to come.
All in all it comes down to a personal choice and what is best suited to an individual piece.
Find out how to make a strong armature for your sculpture
I have been chosen to participate in the 25th annual Harmony Arts Festival from August 5th-7th, 2016.
It takes place in Ambleside Park in West Vancouver. I'll be in booth number 16.
This is a juried event, and I am honoured to take part along with many other talented artists and artisans. I'll be debuting brand new sculptures as well as having a few items on sale.
It's a free event, so come enjoy some live music, food, and original art by the beach. Hopefully the weather will be spectacular. Drop by booth #16 to say hi!
You can find more information about the Harmony Arts Festival here.
Susie is a contemporary sculptor who specializes in horses. Originally from Toronto, ON, Susie has lived in the Czech Republic and England, where she completed a master’s degree in the history of art from the University of Oxford.
Her modern equine art appeals to horse lovers and those who simply love beautiful things.
Discover one-of-a-kind equine sculptures
This sculpture started off white (the colour of the clay and then the gesso), then got a black base layer, was painstaking lightened to a chestnut brown, and then tuned to a fine dark mahogany brown.
Good question! And before I answer it, I'll briefly outline how I start painting my art pieces.
After a clay sculpture has dried out completely (a process that can take up to a week), I cover it in a layer of gesso (pronounced: jesso – as in “jelly”).
Gesso is a primer used by artists: it won’t yellow and is designed to cover a multitude of materials. It seals the surface and prepares it to accept paint. Gesso ensure that my paints adhere properly to the Creative Paperclay and won't flake off in the future.
Next, I spray several layers of acrylic to cover the whole horse. I do not use regular spray paints from a hardware store, many of which are solvent based and not necessarily designed for long-term reliability. I use a specially designed artist-grade acrylic paint in spray form by Liquitex. This layer can be any colour, but I often choose dark neutrals such as raw umber, black, or grey.
Once that layer is dry, I go back with a brush and touch up all the nooks and crannies with the same dark colour, except this time from a tube. I do this to ensure total and uniform coverage, so that no white from the gesso is showing anywhere.
Most of my sculptures are painted in a dark solid colour firstBut why?
This approach is similar to “laying a ground” or "toning" in painting. This means to put down a layer of paint on a canvas to give it a tone before starting the actual painting. I do it on my sculptures for several of reasons:
Laying down a toned ground isn't necessary, but it really suits my approach to painting my horse sculptures, and helps to create a depth of colour and emotion.
I'm very excited to be included as an exhibiting equine artist in the art exhibition that takes place as part of the Rocky Mountain Horse Expo from March 11 - 13, 2016 at the National Western Complex in Denver.
This horse-only annual art event is sure to be a great success, and I only wish I could be there to meet with my fellow artists.
If you're in the area, be sure to check out this must for horse lovers.
Stellar is one of the sculptures that will be on display
There will also be a silent auction to support the Colorado Horse Council and their efforts to increase equine welfare. I've donated one of the Foals Rush In series to bolster their cause.
My donation to the silent auction to benefit equine welfare in Colorado.
Last week we looked at some of the tools to sculpt Creative Paperclay. This week, I want to talk about important techniques when working with air dry clay and also THE most crucial tool you’ll need to succeed with this medium.
The most important thing to have in your tools when sculpting with air dry clay is... (drum roll, please) patience.
Shocked? The key to working with Creative Paperclay, or any artist quality air dry clay, is letting it dry. Duh, right? That might seem obvious, but I mean REALLY dry. Not just dry to the touch, or leather hard, I mean bone dry with no moisture left in it.
A typical example of a crack caused by applying a thick layer. Easily filled in with new clay
If you touch your sculpture and
it’s not dry!!!
I emphasize this because the consequences can make the difference between a sculpture that is successful and one that needs to be re-built, or worse, thrown away.
The most effective way to work, and to ensure thorough drying, is layering. I start my sculptures by building a solid armature.
Once that's complete, I put the first layer of air dry clay on this armature. It's important for this layer to be strong because it'll provide the base onto which everything is going to adhere afterwards.
I apply a layer, usually around 1-2cm thick, over the body of the horse (I generally leave the legs and head until the second layer), and let it dry for up to 3 days. I test the dryness generally by touch, but also by using my nail to see how easily I can dent it. If it’s dry, the clay will resist and your nail will only leave a small indentation.
Using your nail to test dryness: if the clay gives a lot it's still too wet
The second layer involves building up the general shape and padding areas where lots of weight is, such as the belly. I also cover the legs in a thin base-layer because when I start to really get into sculpting, the CPC will glide on and adhere flawlessly to itself.
Plus it helps to strengthen the legs in case I work the clay hard (this can happen when I’m working in a gestural way) and prevents cracking in that vulnerable area. This layer also needs to dry for up to 3 days. Did I mention this material requires a lot of patience?
Usually after that I get into the “meat” of the sculpting where I focus on bringing life to the horse I’m working on. The process is made easier because I’ve laid a solid foundation on which to work without fear of things breaking off or deforming.
An example of layers being built up on a horse sculpture. Left - first layer, Right - 3 layers
The biggest complaint I read from users is that air dry clays crack, and this is the biggest barrier in using them. Well, in fact all water-based clays can crack, this includes ceramic, if they are not dried evenly. The cracking is caused by shrinkage because of the loss of the water inside the clay body.
The most common cause of cracking in CPC is:
An example of a crack caused by using too much water to attach a new layer. Can easily be filled in with new material
If you're making a sculpture designed to last, you’re going to have to use an armature. This means you will likely get some cracks. But because it's so straightforward to deal with them it should hardly bother you at all. Unlike ceramic, CPC cracks can be filled in with fresh material.
This advice will help you sculpt effectively with air dry clay and hopefully save you some frustration. The only way to get good at something is to practice, so don’t worry if your first sculpture doesn’t turn out the way you want it to: learn from what you did and keep on creating.
Have fun with it!