A clay-sculpted cat plays with a paper moth, diorama for sculptural reference created by Theresa Bayer
Theresa couldn’t find a reference of a cat in the pose she imagined for this scene, so she made her own cat of clay, and her own moth of paper and string. She assembled her own little stage set, replete with twigs and texture, to place her critters in.  After creating her world in 3-D, she felt comfortable recreating it in 2-D as an acrylic painting.

Illustration, diorama, and mini-lesson by Theresa Bayer

When I used to do a lot of clay sculpture, I got to the point where I didn’t need many references. Over the years I developed the ability to sculpt something straight out of my head. When I started painting, I tried doing it purely from my imagination, only to find it much more difficult than sculpting that way. With sculpture, I didn’t have to deal with foreshortening, chiaroscuro (light/shadow), and composition. When I started painting from my imagination, these three aspects of painting confounded me, and I realized I was out of my depth if you’ll pardon the pun.

Conversely, I found painting from life the simplest way to go. Easy enough to find reference by setting up a still life, or going outdoors to paint, or painting from a live model. But how to tie this in with composing from imagination? Photographic reference was good but didn’t supply everything I needed for each project. Sketching from life was good, but it still presented some problems: it’s really hard to draw something that doesn‘t hold still, and I’m not skilled at photographing such things.

My answer came in the form of sculptural reference, ie., creating a little scene, or diorama, and painting from it.

I wanted to do a small, whimsical painting of a cat playing with a moth. I sculpted the cat from sketches of my two cats, plus photos I found of cats. I picked out a moth from Animals, by Dover Publications. This book has copyright free reference for artists– although whenever I am using references such as clip art or photos I always change it around to keep my work original. I made a model of the moth using a clay body and cardboard wings. I set up the models in a box, and added some greenery–the boxwood hedge from our yard had tiny leaves, just the right size. I added a small pan of water for the pool. I painted directly from the diorama; the photo above is strictly for illustrative purposes.

Theresa Bayer's painting from the diorama she created
Here is the finished painting. (Art by Theresa Bayer

There are three kinds of clay that can be used to sculpt from pottery clay, which is water-based, poly clay, and plasticine clay, which is oil-based. The advantage of pottery clay is that it can be kiln fired, making the model permanent. Poly clay can be made permanent too if it is oven-baked. The advantage of plasticine clay is that it never dries out, so the same figure can be adjusted. I use both pottery clay and plasticine clay.

Creating your own models saves time and frustration. Last year I had a 24-hour deadline for an illustration of a hang glider.  The photo references baffled me; I did not see how I could use them without running into copyright issues. I accomplished the task by making a model of a hang glider out of cardboard and wire, with a tiny clay figure of a man. I used several photos for reference for the model and ended up designing my own hang glider (I have no idea if my design would actually fly). The model was fun to make and easy to draw. I made my deadline.

Commercial figurines and toys also make good 3D reference (again, they should be changed for the sake of originality), but there’s nothing like sculpting your own models. Your own style comes through, reiterated in your painting or illustration. You can light sculptural models anyway you want, and reuse them for other projects. To sculpt from any kind of clay, all you need is a book to inform you of the technical aspects of that kind of clay or take a sculpture course or two. Once you’ve made the models, placing them inside a diorama makes it easier to come up with a good composition.

Theresa Bayer Theresa Bayer received her B.F.A. from the University of Texas at Austin.  See examples of her watercolors, acrylics, sketches, sculpture, caricatures, professional illustration, ceramic art, including ocarinas at her website http://www.tbarts.com.
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