Rebecca Dudley's HANK HAS A DREAM - Guest post

Making Real Look Real -
- The Material Challenges of Three Dimensional Illustration

by Rebecca Dudley

      Just last week I was wracking my brain, trying to think of a modeling material that had some mass to it, something like clay, but flexible and light. I tried metal mesh but it is awful -- the edges are sharp, it was like trying to make origami with a ball of pins. Chicken wire has the same problem, and it fights your efforts to make mounds with it, it wants to be flat. I returned to my old standby, clay, but making masses with clay is not ideal because it is expensive, takes a long time to dry and solid clay can be quite heavy, even when completely dry. I was staring at a heap of mangled wire mesh I realized I had something in the kitchen that was better than all these materials: aluminum foil. It is light, inexpensive, abundant, it can be stretched, squeezed and punctured. I have been using it for a week now and it is my new favorite material!

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      All the materials I work with are easily available – everything in my pictures is clay, wire, cloth, wood or paper. I built Hank’s little blimp from bass wood. I drew the frame directly on the bass wood sheets, cut it out and covered it with ‘silkspan’, a paper that tightens a little bit when spritzed lightly with water. It is an old technique, the same technique my father used for making model planes in the 1930s. It takes patience, and just a little skill.
      For everything that appears in my scenes, every tree, stream, stone, leaf, and character, there are dozens of failed prototypes. I make things that look good by first making a lot of things that look bad. I experiment a lot with materials, which means there is going to be some waste. I can usually find a use for the rejected prototypes. I have a big bag of dried clay which works great as “landfill” when I am building mountains.

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      The trees are made from lightweight, air-drying clay. I made so many awful trees before I came up with the technique I use now. After dozens of attempts to make clay look like bark it occurred to me that bark is a record of movement and, specifically, a record of stretching. I realized I needed to make the tree bark using a method of stretching, so I found stretchy clay and it worked really well. All previous clay bark attempts showed my finger marks which gave away the scale of the model trees and ruined the illusion that the whole set is larger than it really is.

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      Hank is sewn from three different fabrics. It took about a month to make him. I made four prototypes before I made the Hank you see in the books. Hank has a “stand in” or understudy so he doesn’t have to spend the entire day on set. I use the understudy for scale. As I am building a set I need to see where Hank is going to be in the final image. I may change an entire set if Hank’s head is not hitting the horizon line the way I want it to, so I need a version of Hank on the set constantly as I am building the scene.
      I use Photoshop to remove the little supports that hold everything in place, pins and wires, but I try not to use it for anything more than that. It would be easy to add dramatic light and shadows in Photoshop, but when I am tempted to tweak the overall image that way I know it is a sign that the picture is not good enough and I need to re-take it. Children are exposed to so many Photoshopped images and I want them to be able to look at my photographs and trust that the scenes are real.

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Click the image below to watch the book trailer for HANK HAS A DREAM on YouTube - FABULOUS!

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