Model behaviour We may live in a digital age, but fantasy sculpture is proving more popular than ever: meet the artists leading the charge
Jarrod and Brandon Shiflett’s hugely successful careers as sculptors began with just one book: Creature Core by Yasushi Nirasawa.
Yasushi and his contemporaries were the Japanese sculptors who plucked characters from the pages of the Shifletts’ favourite comic books and brought them to 3D life. Their work had a profound influence on the young brothers. But more than this, it showed sculpture – specifically sculpture tied to comics and video games – could be a serious and credible artistic endeavour.
“We still look up to those guys as masters of the craft, and a couple of pieces were
Yasushi’s book Creature Core drove home the point that what we were doing could be a great art form
hugely influential to us,” reveals Jarrod. “They were an Incredible Hulk sculpture by the late Japanese sculpting icon Moto Hata, and Venom, from Spider-Man, sculpted by the great Taishiro Kiya. Then we came across Creature Core, which included sculpts from Yuji Oniki and Takayuki Takeya, and it was a revelation to us. It drove home the point that what we were doing could be a great art form.”
When the brothers began working in wire and clay, the current commercial statue market didn’t exist. They recall going to San Diego Comic-Con in the early 90s and seeing very few mass-produced models.
There were “a couple of years of gruelling trial and error” between the early figures they created and the Marvel characters that eventually cemented the Shiflett’s reputation as industry leaders. But they still use the same materials: “Super Sculpey Firm clay, aluminium alloy wire, floral wire to hold it all together, and a whole lot of super glue.”
It’s with these materials that Jarrod and Brandon took gold in the dimensional art category at Spectrum Fantastic Art Live 3 for their piece The Vertical Man-Tank, 1892. “The Shiflett Brothers are to sculpting what Frank Frazetta is to painting,” said John Howe, concept designer on The Lord of The Rings trilogy. So how do they do it? The key is to sculpt what you love.
“We love comics and sci-fi and fantasy stuff,” Brandon says, “so that's what we sculpt.” The brothers’ top tip, for novice sculptors,
centres on anatomy reference: you can’t have enough of it. Use fitness magazines to study how muscles look and move under the skin. For creature anatomy – real or otherwise – use biological animal forms. As Brandon puts it: “Once you start faking anatomy, it becomes immediately obvious.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the Shifletts say they’re not particularly proficient at drawing and painting. If a client asks for a rough sketch of prospective work, they prefer to create and present a smaller model showing how the final piece will look.
Sculptor Forest Rogers – as deft in two dimensions as she is in three – says those with a drawing or painting background are at an advantage when it comes to sculpture.
“To my mind,” Forest says, “sculpture is much like drawing in 3D. An engaging thing, working to have all lines from all sides interwoven harmoniously and mindfully.”
The American describes herself as a creator of “critters, both 'fine' and commercial.” Her fantasy pieces are mostly one-of-a-kind, while commercial work focuses on “the dinosaur, wildlife and weird giftware markets.”
“One thing that strikes me as a common problem for the novice is proportion. It’s just not possible to cover up weak proportion with great detail. It will always undercut the hard work laid over it. Not necessarily realistic proportion, of course, but the rightness of it, that it works.”
Forest also studies similar crafts – from jewellery makers to metal workers – to pick up new materials and techniques. “It’s a great time to get involved in this field. If I were starting out, I’d gather samples of a lot of these materials and play with them. Have some fun with no pressure or commitment; see what suits your ideas.”
John Fleskes, Spectrum art director, editor and publisher, isn’t really interested in
Dimensional work will thrill and surprise us for the foreseeable future
the materials used by sculptors, but rather how the artists have expressed themselves through their media. John says: “When it comes to Spectrum submissions in the dimensional category, we encourage works that are created using clay, ceramic, wood, props, paper, cast resin, epoxy, fibreglass… anything that can be used to express the artist's vision and best resonate with an audience.
“This year we had life-sized creations by Joel Harlow included in Spectrum, which are made with silicone, acrylic – flesh, blood and bone! Dimensional work, I expect, will continue to thrill and surprise us for the foreseeable future.”
Tim Bruckner’s 40-year career has seen him work on everything from album covers to special effects. But sculpture is his speciality, and always has been. For those hoping to make a living from the art form, he has some sage advice: be strong in voice and shrewd in business.
“I admire artists like the Brothers Shiflett and Forest Rogers. Their voice is so strong and individual and the quality of craft is inspiring. If you’re making art for fun – that’s one thing. But if you hope to make a living from it, you have to learn the business of art. Ask advice from professionals. Learn the processes of other sculptors. Learn how to mould, to cast, to finish, to paint.
“Explore different materials. Know what they can do; know what they can’t do. The more you know, the more you’ll be able to accomplish. You may not use half of the stuff you learn, but knowing gives you the option of not using it. Not knowing it can make you vulnerable and can narrow your vision. And steal from really good dead guys: someone infinitely better that you’ll ever be has already solved every design or compositional problem you’ll face.”
The legendary Slavic witch Baba Yaga comes to life in the hands of
Deal With the Devil by the Shiflett brothers, who John Howe describes as the “Frank Frazetta” of sculpting. Spring Fairy shows how Forest Rogers develops a “conversation” between her and the materials.
J Anthony Kosar at Spectrum Fantastic Art Live’s collaborative project Scult-O-Rama, which was co-organised by John Fleskes.
The Shiflett’s Komodo King was turned into a painted model and a limited edition bronze sculpture. He Who Laughs Last by Tim Bruckner, who feels most at home working in three dimensions.
Tim’s Marley is an example of the “strong voice” he says is crucial to successful sculpture. East of the Sun, West of the Moon is a clay piece indulging Forest’s love of folklore.