It’s been just over a year since my last blog update, but this doesn’t mean that I’ve stalled in terms of my creative output. Much has changed. Gainful employment has given me the freedom to experiment without the pressure of deadlines and the compromises that come with working to a brief and struggling to pay my way. This is also the reason my blog posts have become scarce.
There are a few big projects coming together at the moment, but one in particular that’s now finally complete and worthy of a write up is my mask. It’s difficult to know where to start with this project as it represents the culmination of a lifetime of work and creative development, but I’ve always been fascinated by masks.
We all wear masks in some sense, projecting characteristics we find agreeable when faced with the myriad of situations life throws at us. Masks have been used for ritual and ceremonial purposes for millennia, to take on anthropomorphic forms, for war, to give us protection or power. I’m not about to expound the history of masks, needless to say, they are an intrinsic manifestation of the human psyche and I wanted my own.
I’m no stranger to the casting and mould making process, having worked in a gnome factory at the age of 16, casting and airbrushing characters from The Wind In The Willows and Alice In Wonderland. It’s without doubt the strangest job I’ve ever had! My mum also works with special effects make up, so the materials for casting with plaster and silicone have been readily available for years. We’d often talked about me getting a cast done of my face and attempting some sculpted features to produce in silicone. I’d played around with some clay on a cast of her face, and was keen to attempt something for myself. So, one afternoon I began what was to become one of the most challenging projects of my life, a physical embodiment of the character I’ve been developing for the last two years; The Void Oni.
I use the term Oni loosely to mean demon, as in Japanese folklore the Oni often represents a demon, or devil. The word itself means to conceal, and often describes invisible spirits that were the supposed malevolent cause of disasters, disease and unpleasant events. For me, the Oni was my alter ego, the invisible force that coerces me to create, and something I intended to use to conceal my face when lurking in the shadows painting.
I wanted the mask to fit perfectly, so I first needed a cast of my face. The face casting process is pretty simple. My face was covered in Vaseline to stop the mould sticking, especially on things such as my eyebrows and lashes. A thin layer of silicone was applied to my face to catch all the details, followed by a thicker layer to reinforce the mould. A layer of plaster bandages was then dipped in water and used to create a shell for the silicone.
The first attempt was a bit of an experiment, as is often the case, and having poured plaster into the mould and being left to set for a few hours, I revealed some form of Quasimodo version of my face. Whilst hilarious, it wasn’t something I could use. The second attempt fared much better.
I then wrapped the cast of my face in cling film and started to work clay onto the plaster cast. I used two different densities of non drying plasteline clay to sculpt the mask, beginning with a medium clay to provide strength, followed by a soft clay for the smoother facial features as it was easier to work the contours by hand. Working with the softer clay was a nightmare at times because the slightest knocks meant a lot of tidying up. Finer details like the teeth were worked in the harder clay as I could achieve a much sharper finish using a scalpel. I decided to create the horns and the large pointy teeth separately to make the mask easier to remove from the mould. This would also allow me some customisation options at a later date if I decided to make more than one. I spent a good amount of time trying to make the mask symmetrical and attain the finish I wanted. Any imperfections in the clay at this stage would transfer to the cast, so it was imperative to keep it as clean as possible.
Once I was happy, it was time to start thinking about the casting process. Whilst I knew how to cast, the materials have now developed considerably, so I went for a chat with the people at Bentley Advanced Materials to discuss my options and the process I had planned. They were extremely helpful! Based on a discussion with one of their representatives, it was decided that I should paint the clay with an acrylic paint to seal the mask and prevent any possible chemical reactions between the clay and the silicone. The silicone comes as a two part system, mixing an A and B in a pot to begin the chemical process. After pouring the silicone and waiting for it to cure, I brushed on a layer of Sonite Wax to prevent it sticking, then reinforced the mould with a plasti-paste cover. Again, a two part system that formed a plastic shell for the mould to sit in. Once the plasti-paste shell was cured, I removed the plaster cast of my face from the rear of the mask and made some slight adjustments to the clay before repeating the process on the back.
Once cured, I slowly pulled the mould apart and began to remove the clay from inside, a testy procedure as I would have to destroy the clay sculpture to reveal the success or failure of the process. There were no second attempts. I would only know how well the mould had turned out once I’d cast the mask in resin, which was the next stage.
After cleaning the mould in soapy water and coating the inside of the mould with an easy release spray, I was now ready to cast. The time frames involved with the curing process made casting in resin a little hectic. This was to be the culmination of many hours work, I had limited resin to work with and would only be able to pour twice. Working with a smooth-cast onyx slow curing resin, I mixed the two parts and poured the resin into the mould. The resin leaked quite a bit from a few places, which led to some frantic cleaning operations! I made a complete mess of my mums kitchen, and there’s still resin stuck to the slabs of concrete in the garden. The wait was excruciating! After about an hour, I tentatively pulled the mask from the mould, trying not to damage it so it would be possible to attempt a second pour. I was happy enough with the front, but the back was a little distorted, so I repeated the process. The second mask was perfect! I could now relax a little. It had been a long night …
The mask was nowhere near the finish I was looking for, so I used an epoxy putty to smooth out the imperfections. My only regret at this point was that I went for a white epoxy putty initially, meaning if the mask was knocked you’d see a white mark under the final paint work. [I managed to source a black epoxy putty eventually, and this was a minor issue in the grand scheme of things.] Many hours were spent sanding down the mask with a super fine sand paper! For some reason, I decided to make life just that little bit more difficult by adding LED lights to the rear of the mask in an attempt to light up the inside of my hoodie when being worn. I wanted to do an urban exploration photo shoot at some point wearing my merchandise and thought this would move the mask away from the more traditional look to something more futuristic and in keeping with my style. This brought problems of its own, however, as it became clear that I wouldn’t be able to store the batteries for the lights inside the mask without a very uncomfortable fit. It was at this point that I decided to add neck armour, in keeping with many of the samurai mempo masks I’d seen whilst researching. The mask would become modular, with the batteries stored in the neck armour plates connected by a small power port on the bottom of the mask by my chin.
Channels were carved around the edges of the underside of the mask using a dremel. I then soldered and installed the LED lights, securing them with the black epoxy putty. Attaching the cables to the tiny power port was very fiddly. The connections were extremely close together, which meant lots of time spent making sure none of the soldering short circuited. It was imperative to get this right, as once the LED’s were embedded within the mask, it would be impossible to correct without some severe surgery. The process of installing the LED’s was without doubt the most time consuming part of the whole process, but I was now ready to attach the teeth and sculpt the gums. I was really looking forward to this part of the process, as it felt like I was finally getting somewhere.
I drilled holes into the mouth area and back of the teeth so that I could push epoxy putty through the holes and into the cavities in the teeth as a means to better secure them to the mask. The epoxy putty came through to the rear of the mask, where another layer of putty was used to fill the mouth and tidy up any rough areas. I finally sculpted the gums, which also helped to fix the teeth into position.
Once the LED’s had been installed and the teeth had been fixed, the mask was ready for painting. I used a matt black spray paint and applied a good few layers to both sides of the mask whilst covering the LED’s with some carefully shaped pieces of blue tack. The mask was repeatedly sanded between layers to remove any minute imperfections, then I applied generous layers of matt lacquer to achieve the final finish, or so I thought! A hair had somehow managed to land on top of the lacquer, and as I attempted to remove it, I left a blemish that needed to be reworked. I was vexed! The lacquer had also pooled around the nose area and peeled away the paint from the mask. It couldn’t have happened in a worse place. I had to wait until the lacquer was dry before I could proceed, which was absolute torture. Once dry, I spent about 5 hours sanding and prepping those areas again before I could repeat the painting process.
For painting the mouth and horns I decided to use Citadel Miniatures paints as their colour range is exceptional. I’d just been gifted a pretty extensive set, and I was well accustomed to working with them from my early dabbles with Warhammer. The grimy bone colours were perfect for the look I was trying to achieve and would hopefully contrast nicely with the matt black face. Lastly, I decided to stencil my logo onto the rear side of the mask in the position of the ‘third eye’.
It was at this point, in between waiting for layers of paint and lacquer to dry, that I began work on the neck pieces. For the sake of time I opted against making another mould and decided to render the two pieces in epoxy putty. I cut out the basic shape in paper as a template, then flattened out the putty and cut it to size. I have a climbing helmet I’m planning to use to make a full samurai kabuto for the next mask project which I used to create a gentle curve in the pieces by placing the flat putty across the centre front of the helmet. Using the helmet as a template also meant I could easily replicate the same curve for the second piece of amour. It was important to utilise as much ‘dead time’ as possible as I was working towards a rough deadline for a forthcoming exhibition in a few months. It basically takes a day for the putty to cure and I found it best to leave the lacquer for the same period of time. Hence, whilst waiting for one, I would work on the other from now on.
Once the lacquer had finally taken and I was happy with the finish, it was time to begin sewing together the straps that would secure the mask to my head. This was by no means easy, as the mask had to be fully adjustable and this necessitated the use of sliders and clips that would fasten at the back of my head. Experimenting with different techniques demonstrated that the mask could be easily damaged via the attachments on the straps. I didn’t want to fix anything directly to the mask as the points at which the fixings would need attaching were on the thinnest part of the mask. The last thing I wanted after all this work was to have the mask snap in half, so I’d opted to drill holes either side of the eyes and in the centre top of the forehead for stability, then to find some way of tying the mask to my face.
I’ve been renovating my katana for another project and came across a Japanese silk ito chord used traditionally to tie Samurai armour together, also used for the Sageo and Tsuka wrappings on Japanese swords. This type of chord was an obvious choice for my mask as it gave it a more authentic feel. The chord would also be used to tie the neck pieces together through a series of holes, following from similar designs I had seen whilst researching the project.
I opted for components for tactical webbing [commonly used by the military and on sports bags etc] for the basic layout of the straps, both for strength and style. The plan was to thread the chord through the holes I’d drilled in the mask, then tie them with a butterfly knot leaving two pieces of chord hanging from each knot. I sewed plastic sliders to the ends of lengths of tactical webbing, then threaded the chords through the sliders, sewing the chord to the webbing to create a banded solid strap. I realise it’s difficult to follow this part, and I didn’t really take enough photographs to show the exact process. Just know that it was a pain in the arse and took bloody ages!
I considered using black and red chord initially as it looked incredible, but in the end I had to go with black as it was easier to work with, more flexible, and much easier to thread. Using the coloured chord would mean drilling larger holes into the mask and this was impossible due to the channels at the back through which the cables for the LED’s were embedded. This though, is one thing I regret not spending more time thinking about in the planning stages, as it would have been nice to incorporate some flashes of colour into the straps. Ultimately though, this was a ninja mask, and black would work just fine.
To give the face a bit more character, I decided to add some evil pointy grey eyebrows. I wanted it to look like some kind of evil shogun from one of Kurosawa’s samurai flicks. I layered up and glued together a few pieces of cut out fake moustache hair to give the eyebrows some volume. I probably trimmed them back a little more than I should have, as they looked a little too neat, but being bushy meant the hair fell out much more easily, and by the time I’d arrived to this point, I was willing to allow myself a few compromises. I gently dry brushed the hair with grey acrylic paint, then glued them into position. I used the two part epoxy glue to set them in place, but was worried that this could ruin the finish if they didn’t fix to the surface of the mask properly, or that I might fix them unevenly and destroy months of work. This became an overarching theme with this project. I’d simply spent so much time on it, that every step needed to be carefully managed in terms of meaningful progression and potential damage limitation in the event of an accident. If anything, working on this mask has taught me a level of patience I thought I was incapable of. It was better to solve as many problems in advance as I could foresee and to wait until I was fully confident to proceed, rather than rush in and damage the piece. It was at this stage that the mask itself was now finally complete!! However, this was not the end of the project …
With my mind now firmly focused on the forthcoming group exhibition with the Distorted Minds, it became imperative to display the mask properly. There was no point hanging it from the wall, as nobody would see the LED’s, and I’d spent too much time installing them to then have them hidden. My solution was initially to suspend the mask strapped to a human skull with the spine hanging from it, but I went for something simpler, as many of the materials I wanted to use could only be sourced from China and I had less than a month at this point to finish everything. So, I decided to make a wooden trophy style plinth that would display the skull with the mask attached, including 5 spinal vertebrae. Easy, right?
I managed to locate an anatomically correct skull that had a removable skull cap and jaw from a medical supplies website based in the UK. I specifically chose this piece because the teeth had a slightly glossy finish compared to the rest of the skull and this made it look extremely realistic. Next, I sourced a model spine that broke apart into the top five spinal vertebrae and discs, held together by 4mm threaded bar through it’s core.
By this point I only had two days until the exhibition and I was well on my way to having consumed two full jars of coffee. All of my paintings had been framed and the plinth was the only piece left to finish.
After screwing a wooden plate to the inside of the skull and fixing the first vertebrae to the base of the skull with epoxy glue and a couple of screws, I then fed a length of 4mm threaded bar through the holes that ran though the core of the vertebrae into the skull and fixed it to the wooden plate, securing at both ends with some nuts and washers. Next, I glued the skull cap back into place, and once dry, began to remove the casting lines in the plastic and sanded down the skull to make it look like a single piece. I masked off the teeth, then painted the skull, jaw and 4 other vertebrae with a slightly off white acrylic spray paint. I now had a skull on a stick!
For the plinth, I built up 2 layers of MDF with the bottom piece 2cm square larger to form a small stepped pyramid. I then cut some beveled strips of wood to create a swept design on the base. I nearly killed myself several times during this process using my new mitre saw, as when cutting the thin beveled strips they would often ping around my studio at extremely high velocity. Genuinely terrifying! Needless to say, I wore goggles, and a hat, a couple of hoodies, gloves … safety first!
I spent a very long time working out how best to cut a 3 sided pyramid using the mitre saw. Mostly trial and error, and an incredible amount of saw dust scattered about my studio. I tried and failed more times than I can remember to produce a perfect tetrahedron, only to realise it would be too large to work with anyway. So instead, I cut pieces of MDF to have a 60 degree x 60 degree angle to create one step of a 3 sided pyramid, then placed a smaller piece on top, trimming the excess with the saw to smooth out the surfaces. After gluing the pyramid to the base, I applied a few layers of PVA to areas where there were gaps between the wood, then proceeded to sand down the surface till the top layer of PVA was removed. This meant areas such as the corners didn’t have any unsightly holes and made the steps in the plinth look like they were part of a single piece of wood.
Once painted, I drilled a hole through the centre of the pyramid which would support both the threaded bar with the skull on, and a brass tube I had wet and dry sanded to an almost golden finish to hide the threaded bar from sight. I then fixed the column in position, gluing a washer over the hole for extra detail.
Finally, I threaded the last 4 vertebrae onto the bar at the base of the skull with rubber discs separating the vertebrae, then fixed them with a washer and nut. I cut the bar to be just long enough to fit through the height of the plinth, held in place by more washers and a nut on the underside of the stand.
With that, the project was actually finished! It was a pretty surreal experience, as I’ve never put so much time or effort into a project before. Whilst an extremely challenging undertaking, I could not be happier with the result, but it wasn’t until placing the completed mask on the display stand at the exhibition that I was able to see all the components together and fully appreciate the piece as a whole.
On reflection, one of the most challenging aspects of this project was trying to source the materials I needed at various stages. It’s not that they were difficult to find, but rather that I struggled to discover the names of the materials I was attempting to purchase. From threaded bar to epoxy putties, webbing sliders to cervical vertebrae, my google search history read like a mad mans catalogue of chemicals, metal work and bizarre human anatomy.
This project was an absolute roller coaster of emotions, from ecstatic highs to infuriating bouts of self deprecation. Evolving well beyond the boundaries of what I’d initially conceived, this mask has tested me in every way imaginable. A quick thank you must be said to my poor mum for putting up with me during the casting stages and allowing me to destroy her kitchen.
Plans are now afoot for the urban exploration photo shoot, incorporating my renovated katana, and I’m also beginning to work on the second mask and helmet. For more pics of the exhibition, check out my portfolio from the links above.