Over the weekend I attended Toby Froud’s rod puppet workshop in the basement of The Fernie Brae (aka the Fernie Brasement…lolllzzz.) I had been looking forward to the workshop for months! Here’s that Facebook event image for the workshop that I posted before with some examples of Toby’s rod puppets:
If you know me at all, you probably have heard how the Frouds are my favorite family artist trio of all time. I’ve been really into fairies and goblins since a very young age, but I first learnt of Brian Froud’s artwork when I was about middle school age and it forever rocked my world. I started collecting his books and would lie on the floor of my room and just study his illustrations, because his imagination, use of color, and technique completely fascinated and inspired me. I definitely learned a lot from him.
Later I found out that Wendy Froud was a doll maker who makes beautiful sculptures out of polymer clay, which has always been one of my most favorite art mediums. When I was a kid I used to spend my free time after school making little monsters and fairies out of polymer clay and household junk–Dad’s leftover tool scraps from the garage, used dryer sheets for fairy wings (because they develop and interesting crackle pattern only once they’ve been through the dyer) or pieces of Wal-Mart shopping bags back when they used to be blue and other colors if I wanted a tinted translucent material. When I first discovered Wendy Froud’s artwork it taught me a lot about polymer clay sculpture. Brian and Wendy live in England so I have not yet had the chance to meet either of them, but I do have one of Wendy’s sculpture workshops on DVD about making a faery figure.
I’ve wanted to attend a Froud workshop for quite a while, but it wasn’t until I realized that Brian and Wendy’s son Toby also lives in Portland now and also occasionally teaches workshops that I ever thought that it really could be possible. Toby’s main contribution to the family business is puppets. He’s a puppet maker and puppeteer who works at Laika as a sculptor. Through Wendy’s workshop and my all of my other self-taught knowledge I already know a thing or two about doll making, but I really didn’t know a whole lot about making puppets. In this workshop Toby taught us how to make a rod puppet, which is a fairly simple type of puppet that has more complex guts inside to make it move than you might initially think. An example of a rod puppet is Kermit the Frog and most of the Muppets, although a lot of them are hand-rod puppets because they are controlled by rods and the puppeteers hand inside of their head sock-puppet style for additional movement and facial expression. Rizzo the Rat is actually a better example of the kind of rod puppet we were making, and Toby even brought in the rod mechanism that was inside the one of the original Rizzo puppets to show us! In this workshop we were learning how to make rod puppets with polymer clay heads and hands that had controls for head, neck, shoulder, arm, and hand movements.
I didn’t take nearly as many photos as I should have because the workshop was incredibly intense. It was about seven hours long on Saturday and Sunday of almost nonstop, breakneck pace work! We had an hour break for lunch but many of us (myself included) continued to work on our puppets during lunch break just to catch up. On the first day we sculpted the head and hands. It all started with this block of polymer clay:
I brought some extra clay with me to mix together with the one that Toby provided us because I decided before the workshop that I wanted to make a creature with a ghostly pale skin tone. It was also Fimo brand clay and a sort of translucent white color called Nightglow–glow in the dark! I had never used a glow in the dark clay before but had always wanted to try it. I also had some beautiful pale pink and red albino glass doll eyes at home that I picked up at an online clearance sale a while back. They were too big for most of the sculptures I make at home but about the perfect size for a puppet, so they were my main inspiration to make an albino creature. This is the quick idea sketch that I drew the night before the workshop and brought with me to class; sort of an albino witchy goat girl:
First Toby walked us through sculpting a generic human face so that we would have a starting point to work from. We crumpled small sheets of aluminum foil around wire and covered it with masking tape to form the underlying skull structure. Then he explained blocking out the basic proportions of the face in clay. He had us make something that looked like this:
We added more clay shapes in what he described as “table sausages” and “standard pea shaped balls” (tee-hee.)
Terrifying, I know.
Although almost all of us ended up distorting these proportions and making more fantastical creatures of our own design, I think it was a nice way to start as well as a pretty good approach to teaching figurative sculpture within a short time limit. When I start teaching polymer clay sculpture for Vine Gogh I might use a similar method. Part of reason that I really wanted to take this workshop (besides working with one of my art heroes and learning how to build a puppet) was to get ideas on how to design my own classes and how to be a polymer clay instructor. However, since I won’t have two days to teach something I will have to come up with something REALLY simple that we can do in just a couple of hours!
Even the seven hour class was barely enough time to make something this complex. Since I decided to use my nice glass eyes I wanted to at least make something that I felt was good enough for them. Toby also gave us a quick tutorial on how he likes to sculpt hands, which was pretty in line with what I had learned from Wendy’s DVD. I had to rush mine quite a bit but I still think they are among the best that I have ever made. I didn’t take any more work in progress photos while I was sculpting because I was too busy to think about it, but I did manage to take a couple of pictures before Toby put my piece into the oven to bake at the end of the day.
I decided to add the horns on a whim at the last second. They are made of pure unmixed Nightglow Fimo.
The next day we started with assembling the inner puppet mechanism. There were a lot of steps and by the time I finally found my pencil Toby was already halfway through the first bit, so I just gave up on trying to understand the technical name of each and every little thing. The supplies we used were all just little bits and bobs that you can get at any hardware store. Here’s some examples:
We cut all of these different sized dowels and rubber tubing to the appropriate lengths, drilled, pinned and taped some things together, and eventually ended up with these funny pitchfork looking things.
This was what would eventually become the spine, shoulders, and controls to our puppets. Toby showed us two options in which to position the controller and the spine so that we could either have a puppet with a lurching, hunched over stance (good for creatures and creepy old men) or standing in a more upright position (good for the more humanoid critters.) I opted for the upright configuration. When I first started to assemble my puppet she looked like this:
Even creepier, right? And so out of focus–my phone really sucks! You can see in the background of this picture that the other people in the workshop had already moved on to next steps, which was painting their puppets and padding out their bodies with batting so that they could start on the costuming. I was meanwhile still trying to envision the proportions of my character when all I had to look at as a guide was a mess of wires and dowels.
Toby brought a ton of beautiful scraps with him for the hair and clothing fabrication, which is always my most favorite part of the process. He had lots of exciting stuff–piles and piles of fabric with interesting textures, thread, hair, and fur in just about every color, even some leftover animal fur scraps from when he worked on the movie Where the Wild Things Are. I had brought lots of stuff with me too since I had already kind of figured out a color palette for my character when I drew that initial sketch before the workshop. I also brought my mega bag of colorful leather trimmings to share with the class, my mega bag of old-school wooden spool threads that I found at Goodwill one time, and a bag of dried moss that was leftover from some other project I did in the past. It was wonderfully nerdy and awesome discussing good craft supply stores with Toby and the rest of the class, exchanging some valuable tricks of the trade and general crafty advice from people who are all into making the same kind of things. I never even got to really get into the clothing fabrication part before the second class was over for the day; I was still sewing the body stocking that holds all of the batting together and goes under all of the fancy clothing. Most people didn’t finish their puppets completely so it wasn’t like I was the only one, but everyone at least left with an assembled piece that they could finish up at home. For some stupid reason I never even took a picture of my puppet at the end of the workshop, but overall it was all such an overwhelmingly fun experience and I am so glad that I did it!
*PS: I also showed Toby my children’s book at the end of the workshop and he really loved it, so I couldn’t think of a whole lot else at the moment besides, “Holy Hell, that is so frickin’ cool!”