All a part of the process

January is sometimes a slow season for photography or creative sales. This month, I have been working away on a commissioned sculpture of a loveable coconut character named Smishie.

smishIE® stands for "stop making it so hard -IT'S EASY." smishIE believes in using "in ya face" positivity in order to teach people of all ages to find their inner palm trees - to learn how to bend, don't break, even in the worst of life's storms.

This adorable character is a coconut with sunglasses. The amazing messaging, along with several books and merch on the website is the brainchild of my cousin, Jennifer Grunin. I created the original character design for Smishie along with his friend Palmy the palm tree, which you will see was reinvented in the illustrated graphic novel.

If you haven't heard of smishIE®, check out the website and see the trailer posted on Youtube of the cartoon in the making based on the graphic novel, Bend, Don't Break !!

I wanted to take you behind the scenes on the creative process of taking a two dimensional drawing to a three dimensional polymer clay creation. First a little bit of background of when this became an interest in my life, and who has inspired me along the way.

Blast from the past

Since I was very young (6-10 years old :-) ), I made sculptures and figurines. I used to watch a lot of cartoons and I loved drawing and creating my own characters. I remember watching gumby on Saturday morning cartoons and loving claymation. I would use playdough and my imagination to create things I saw on a regular basis, you know, like lizards (owned two anoles named Ren and Stimpy), dragons, dogs, cats (always had a kitty), and even turkey dinners. I remember being really proud of the turkey dinner because I made it with the bones in the drumsticks to make it look more realistic. I also made sure I decorated the edge of the turkey with green playdough garnish. None of my dolls ever went hungry for Thanksgiving with the delicious looking turkey ;-).

When I was older, my parents bought me a designated toaster oven and polymer clay basics to create my sculptures. I remember not being able to make anything without burning it. I couldn't seem to get the temperature or the timing right.

My parents thought, for everyone's benefit, I should visit a local artist and clayologist, Ruth Breitenbach for some pointers on making clay figures. She lived up the hill in Altamont and owned a business making clay earrings, charms and pins. I attended school with her son Travis and my sister is the same age as her daughter Tuesday. Ruth often sold her jewelry at the elementary school craft shows. I always made sure I visited her booth to see her new charms. Ruth was kind enough to show me around her work space which was in her castle of a home. I was in awe of her creations and I couldn't fathom that someone could make a business having fun making what they loved. Ruth is still making clay creations and is the owner of and sells her charms in-person and online today.

I always loved seeing the "behind the scenes" documentaries of a cartoon or claymation movie set. Going to Ruth's house, for me seemed like a dream. I think a lot of people take a talent like hers for granted. I am always floored when claymations movies are produced using the older method, without CGI, and that a two and a half hour movie can sometimes take five years to become a reality.

So, for your reading pleasure, I decided I would do my best to draw back the curtain and see the process handmade artists go through to perfect their craft.

Process of making smishIE® the loveable coconut:

To make any clay sculpture, I use a visual reference. In this case I used this photo below to create the look and feel of smishIE®.

I started with a foil ball, about the size of a golf ball. The foil becomes the skeleton of the figure's body.

To condition the clay and make it soft enough to use, I kneaded a combination of darker brown clay colors with my hands. The darker brown clay I used is a little on the older side and needed a massive amount of conditioning to be workable again. I could have used a pasta machine to continue to blend the layers of brown together, but often times old clay can crumble and I lose a lot of stray pieces to the carpet in my art room. My thumbs received the brunt of the beating as they became raw and dry from conditioning the clay, but I try using everything at my disposal first before buying new products.

I rolled the thoroughly blended brown clay into a 1/2" sheet on a tile piece I bought from Home Depot, and draped the sheet over the foil ball, cutting off the excess. I then rolled the clay into a ball so the clay sides completely covered the foil underneath.

I put the body of the figure aside, and started work on the feet and flip flops.

I sculpted the feet, kneading the brown clay (again) with some white clay to make a slightly lighter shade of brown for the arms and feet. The feet were made from quarter sized ball of light brown clay, split down the middle (by eye) to ensure both feet would be about the same size when completed. I cut lines to make toe separations and shaped the edges and ends with some tools to make them look "toe like". I left some extra space between the big toe and the rest of the piggies for the flip flop piece.

I created the flip flops by rolling the light blue clay into a very thin piece. I then took each of the completed feet and placed them on top of the blue clay. I used the feet to cut the sandle shape with an exacto knife. I then made a dowsing rod shaped piece in light blue clay, and put the shorter piece in between the big toe and the other toes. I trimmed the edges of the toe separator to the edge of the flip flop pieces, and blended the edges with a tool to the sole.

Onto the arms

I made the arms, similar to the feet, by splitting some lighter brown clay ball in half and rolling the clay into short cylinders. I bent the cylinders at the elbow area and flattened one side for the hands. I made two cuts to create three fingers on each hand and used some sculpting tools to shape and round the fingers. I placed them on each side of the brown clay body, and gently placed the body of the feet. I placed a small amount of pressure to ensure that the body stuck to the feet when it left the tile.

I cut out three curved triangular shapes out of a light yellow clay mixed with white clay, mimicking the style of the blonde hair on the character drawing and used a needle like tool to join the clay hair to the top head. It kind looks like an 80's surfer cut don't ya think?

I used pieces of the brown clay to cover where the arms connected to the body at the shoulder because the Smishie character image has hairy shoulders :-D.

The next day, I created Smishie's sunglasses. I used a rectangle clay cutter and trimmed the shape and rounded the edges of the lenses to look like the sunglass lens. I added a blue rim around the lenses by rolling the clay into thin strands and wrapped them around the rim of the blue lens. I then made the nose piece by cutting a similar shape to what is in the drawing out of the light blue clay. I trimmed the nose piece to fit the size and space between the lenses and positioned and fixed the lenses to the face with liquid clay.

Oye the mouth

I had so much trouble making the mouth. I am notoriously bad at drawing teeth and I tend to I shy away from making mouths with teeth. This time, I was up for the challenge and I embraced my inner palm tree ;-) (smishie reference).

I created the mouth by carving the shape into the body like a jack-o-lantern. The mouth is a tough shape and it's deceiving because the edges of Smishie's mouth, in the photo of the character, are turned downward (like a frown) to accommodate a cheek. This it tough to capture in a three dimensional sculpture. I did my best and I think it came out really close to the picture. I then added a strip of black clay and pushed it inside of his mouth to cover the interior.

After getting the mouth situated, I added the tongue (had to measure a few times) and the teeth. The teeth really stressed me out, but I think after several cuts, measuring and remeasuring, and cutting some more, I finally got them in the mouth.

I added the the sunglass arms on the side of the face and attached them to the frame of the glasses. I noticed that I needed more contrast between the face and the rest of the body. So I ended up mixing some paint up and painting the face, arms and feet with a lighter color brown. I also added texture to the hair as well.

Almost done

I painted the lenses of the glasses and inside of the mouth with black acrylic paint to make them pop and waited for it to dry for a few minutes. I then placed a reflection in the lenses of the glasses with a tool that has a smallest round setting on the end. I baked the figure on the tile for an hour at 200 degrees. I baked it a second time for 1 hour when I noticed the paint on the face, arms and feet was still tacky. After two hours I was ready to put a couple coats of matte polyurethane all around the figure, making sure I got into the cracks and creases, but maintaining the look of the furry texture.

Then is was picture time!

I like to think of the sculptures as living models when I photograph them. I used to use a tripod, but I have more fun with positions and angles when I don't use one. After getting the initial photos of front, back and side views, I can get a little more creative with some of the background shots.

All of the above steps was part-time of about 20 hours over 7 days and the sculpture is a little larger than a golf ball. Crazy right!! It's funny, but when I work on these projects, time disappears, I miss meals, and find myself thinking of all the things I could make and what I'm going to make next. I can't think of any other craft where I find myself completely immersed in what I am doing and I fully enjoy all on my own.

This craft has saved me from the COVID depression that has haunted me and others. Making clay sculptures has become a wonderful escape from life with limited social interaction. I encourage anyone reading this to pursue what you love whether it be drawing, painting, knitting, or fixing old cars, whatever you can get lost in time doing. These are the hobbies and interests that will help you through tough times when you need it most (like now).

Want to see the final result of the glamourous Smishie photoshoot? They are here on my website:

Thanks for reading!!

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