Julian Jardine - the making of a Leafy Sea Dragon.
I last made a Leafy Sea Dragon way back in about 1995. At the time it was a real challenge but the final piece was nowhere near as intricate or as complicated as the piece I was aiming to undertake now. With the internet now being an excellent source for highly detailed images to work from and a lot more experience I set out to revisit this fabulous animal.
The leafy sea dragon, Phycodurus eques, is a marine fish in the family Syngnathidae, which also includes the seahorses. It is found along the southern and western coasts of Australia. They have become endangered through pollution and industrial runoff as well as collection by fascinated divers who are entranced by their unique appearance. In response to these dangers they have been officially protected by the Federal Government of Australia.
To start off with I am building this piece directly on to a kiln shelf so that it may be placed into the kiln to dry safely and without the need to move it. The Sea dragon is very brittle when drying and the less it needs to be moved the better. I started with a body made from a tube of hollow clay, attaching a coil for a tail and the head. The initial spines are then added. The whole piece will rest throughout the making and firing on a shaped wedge of clay that remains detached and is purely there for support.
I have then built wedges of clay to rest the delicate fins on when adding to the lower half. On the table in this image you can see two fins in creation. A coil is first flattened and then the fronds drawn out on it with each leaf shape overlapping the next to help with support. They are then cut out and cleaned, rounded off and left to go leathery hard.
While making this piece I had the kiln firing so to speed up the process I simply laid fins on top of the kiln, flipping them every few minutes to firm them up for adding to the body. Each is then attached with slip clay to the body.
In this close up picture you can see the upper fins are supported with rough coils of clay while drying. The two large back spines sit out at an angle, to prevent them from sagging I attached them together using a loop of sticky tape. The tape is cut away once the clay is hard enough to remain in place.
With all the spines finally in place I gently rubbed down the entire piece with a soft sponge to remove small tool marks and soften off the edges. As the piece dried I steadily removed the various supports and checked that the dragon was still free of the base support. The original hollow tube making the body up is pierced with a pin tool to allow steam to escape durig the firing process. Once dry the dragon was fired to 1150c
With the piece safely through the firing I can now start the lengthy process of painting the piece in acrylics. Undercoat colours are painted on in watery washes to cover all the buff clay colour. Each area is undercoated in its deepest colour.
The next step is to dry brush all the areas in a lighter colouring. Dry brushing involves using the paint directly from the tubes, adding no water and wiping off surplus paint on a newspaper before dusting the piece with the brush gradually building up lighter colour.
Another couple of coats gradually builds the sea dragons pastel colours. Each coat steadily involves wiping more paint from the brush and then painting only where the light strikes the piece to create highlights.
Adding the stripes to the sculpture had its own set of problems. I wanted to avoid harsh edges but could not dry brush this stage as the paint also had to sit in the crevices. The solution was to paint in a stripe then bleed the edges like watercolour using a clean wet brush.
The final step is to once again darken up the splotches on the fins. This like the stripes is achieved by bleeding the edges of spots with a wet brush, regularly washing in clean water after each spot.
The sea dragons eye is painted in using a variety of orange colours fading to bright yellow. Once this dries a black pupil is added and softened with a damp clean brush at the edge. A small highlight is added followed by a layer of gloss acrylic varnish.