Jordan’s maquette, day 2

It’s got to be said that over the decade that I’ve been building and using maquettes as studio aids, I’ve got damned ingenious at making constructions that have an enormous degree of pose-ability. Where once they were simple, the backs of the figures are now bewildering layers of levers, double-elbowed joints and sliding bars, the better to help me get the most expressive movements out of the components. The maquette of Jordan is coming along beautifully, and had I not other things to attend to today, it would have been finished this evening. The jacket alone is a fluid shape that can sit snugly on him, but convincingly mimics what occurs to the shoulders of such a garment when the arms within it are raised. Here are some images to show how it looks.

Adding marks and texture to the jacket in green pencil

Tonight I will be adding his hands, clad in tight-fitting lavender gloves!

Mini Me: a post about puppets


Actor, Gary Cooper

French singer, songwriter, pianist, film composer, poet, painter, screenwriter, writer, actor and director, Serge Gainsbourg

Entertainer, Liberarchie

Theoretical physicist and philosopher of science, Einstein

Contemporary artist, Philippa Robbins. Her Devon Rex kitten is called Racket, and soon there will be a puppet of him, too.

a slow-cooking puppet-project

For months I’ve been contemplating a little hoard of pleasingly worn-out household objects that I felt might one day evolve into something interesting. Today a tired pot-scrubber and a bathroom nail-brush I’ve been meaning to replace for months (and still haven’t), formed the beginnings of this little chap. As you can see he’s far from finished, and I’m not going to rush him.

Sometimes you just have to wait for the right things to turn up, and in this puppet the materials need to be consistent, or at least give the illusion of consistency. I looked at the pot-scrubber for weeks before adding Milliput to it to make nose and eyes, because I’d been loathe to make an intervention that would compromise the patina of the handle. In the end I just went for it, patching the join with paint to match. The mouth is a cut made with a fretsaw. It’ll probably be months before I find exactly the right things to make the rest of him.

He’s quite small and so the scale must be right.

I’m a great admirer of graphic-designer/artist Isidro Ferrer, who in my opinion is peerless in his use of found objects. (See below)

spartacus performed with puppets

Claire Dancoisne is the Co-Founder of Théâtre La Licorne and the creative force behind a wonderfully inventive production of Spartacus that mixes actors, singers and puppets to enthralling effect.

Tiny metal figures of gladiators go head to head with wild beasts that tower over them. Marine battles and arena chariot-races are recreated in miniature.

I offer these evocative images of the production, plus this LINK to a short promotional film, in the spirit of encouraging those of you who are already planning your puppets for the Artlog Challenge. I know that just a glimpse of these creations will inspire you to start thinking about puppets in ways you hadn’t previously dreamt of.

a guide to puppetry 2: the shadow-puppet

Of all the puppet arts, shadow-puppetry, conjured out of light and darkness, is the most mystical. Even the origins of shadow-puppetry are rooted in tales that emphasise the art as being one in which the screen represents the thin membrane between the spirit and corporeal worlds.

In the Javanese shadow-puppet tradition of Wayang Kulit, the word for the shadow-screen is Kelir, and just as the puppet-master is obscured from the audience by this fragile veil, it’s believed that the ‘mover of the world’, the Jagatkarana, is hidden from mortal sight by the screen that separates the planes of existence.

Wayang Kulit puppets are fashioned from skin or parchment, intricately perforated so that the characters appear to glitter, and beautifully decorated with paints in rich colours that are not transferred to the shadow images. Traditionally the puppet-masters greatly valued their puppets, and the painted decoration was an expression of esteem for the figures.

Above: behind the Wayang Kulit screen.

The Chinese tradition of the shadow-puppet is similar to the Indonesian in terms of hide construction, though the material is shaved thin so that it’s translucent and can be stained with colours to enhance the shadow-play. The faces of the Chinese puppets are often cut so as to be presented as outlines, with the features delicately delineated.

Much attention is given to the cutting of complex patterns to represent lavishly woven textiles. The Chinese shadow-puppet tradition is said to date from the reign of the Emperor Wu in the Han Dynasty. When his favourite concubine died, he ordered his court officials to bring her back to life. An articulated ‘puppet’ in her likeness was made of donkey-skin, and the concubine was conjured for the Emperor by means of moving lamps projecting her puppet-shadow onto a screen.

Shadow-puppetry is an enchanting medium. Performed outdoors at night, with music and the soft glow of lamps, the performances can be mesmerising as the shadows shimmer and waver, coalescing and vanishing in an abstract blur of shape and colour.

Above: Lotte Reiniger’s pioneering feature film The Adventures of Prince Achmed. (1926)

In the West the film-maker Lotte Reiniger (1899 – 1981) drew inspiration from eastern shadow-theatre traditions, using the medium of silhouette-puppetry to produce animation for the camera.

Above: Prince Achmed on his flying horse.

In 1926 her film The Adventures of Prince Achmed was one of the first animated features, and it’s as fresh and imaginative today as when first released. (This extraordinary woman invented a multi-plane animation-table a decade before the Disney Studios followed her lead.)

Above: Reiniger’s hands at work moving one of her shadow-puppets between shots.

Reiniger’s filmography is impressive. Working mainly with fairy tale as her subject matter, she was active up until 1979. Today her work is clearly referenced by the new generation of paper-cut artists who look to her as the greatest of the silhouette-cutters.

Above: contemporary shadow puppet using textile to embellish a wonderfully creepy yet elegant apparition.

Contemporary artists and shadow-puppeteers continue to draw on rich traditions that have survived the centuries and are still enchanting and mystifying audiences. Here are just a few images of contemporary shadow-play that I hope will inspire those who have signed up (or may yet sign up) to the Artlog Puppet Challenge. Get cutting!

cyclops glove-puppet


Enthusiasts for all things puppety, Phlippa Robbiins and I are in the early stages of our first collaboration as artists. To kick-start the process we’re both making some glove-puppets. My first effort is a cyclops, begun in Philippa’s kitchen last week, and finished yesterday here at Ty Isaf. He’s made of gessoed papier-mâché and painted canvas.

No special reason for making this particular character, beyond the fact that I produced a ‘pop-up’ paper-engineered cyclops for my folding-books project last year (see above) and I liked him so much that I thought I’d make a glove-puppet version.

Above: drawings for the puppet.
Above: gessoed papier-mâché marked in Conté pencil to see if the shape needs any adjustment before being painted in shades of grey and black.
Above: once the head has been painted, the fangs are added.
Above: the head and hands are fitted to the painted canvas body, and chest hairs are knotted in.
Above: finally, a one-shoulder garment is made from a loose-weave textile painted to look like animal skin.
This was just a little project to get myself into the swing of ‘making’. The cyclops may not appear in the exhibition, but I’ve enjoyed thinking my way into the various processes required to produce him.

Philippa and the puppet from Palermo

Artist Philippa Robbins and I are in the early stages of discussion for a project we’re undertaking together. This is the first time I’ve worked collaboratively with another artist toward an ‘art event’, and it’s an idea grown out of our joint interest in puppets. Earier this year together we visited the Toone Puppet Theatre in Brussels, and Philippa has just returned from a research trip to Sicily, where she’s been exploring the tradition of Sicilian marionettes. On Friday evening we met at her home in Penarth for a de-brief of the trip, and she presented me with a vintage puppet head acquired in Palermo.

This little chap has clearly been used in performance (there are signs of wear and tear to his paintwork) and I would imagine he’s the result of the tradition of changing a puppet’s head and costume when time is too short to create a new figure from scratch. He appears to be sculpted from a composite… something like ‘Milliput’ I think… and though small, the head is quite dense and heavy. He’s now ensconced in the puppet cabinet here at Ty Isaf, sandwiched between some vintage Pelham marionettes and the head used in The Mare’s Tale to transform a Mari Lwyd into an apparition of Jane Seyes.

The face is hawkish and saturnine, though rather noble, and it’s interesting to speculate about what sort of a character he was when intact. Clearly stern, but not I think an out-and-out villain.

Thank you, Philippa, for this wonderful gift. I love it.

Rima and Jane at Ciliau

The Sunday after the preview of The Mare’s Tale, Rima Staines and Tom Hiron, who had travelled far to be present for the performance, came to see Ciliau. Emma, who had loaned us her beautiful house while she was away on an adventure, had returned for the last few days of our stay in it, and Peter Rima, Tom and I had a ‘Farewell to Ciliau’ lunch with her in the garden before heading for our own homes, Rima and Tom to Devon and Peter, Jack and I to Ceredigion.

Tom is a mask maker and storyteller, and Rima is an artist with an interest in animation. (There are wonderful things to be found at her blog.) I unpacked the puppet of Jane Seyes from her box, and in an instant Rima was creating life in the little figure, all her energy and focus conjuring a performance of the utmost delicacy.  Back in Devon Rima will soon be working on a puppet project of her own, and judging from her skill at bringing Jane to life on the kitchen table at Ciliau, she’ll be creating something rather special. When there is more news about Rima’s project, I shall post about it here.

Jane Seyes

Above: Jane Seyes on-screen during rehearsals. The puppet and puppeteers were onstage and clearly visible to the audience, but the video streaming brought her into luminous close-up.

When I first read the libretto for The Mare’s Tale, I was concerned that Jane Seyes appears so briefly in the drama. She has just two scenes, though both brim with information that help us understand her character and plight. In the early stages of rehearsal the creative team noted again and again that while her on-stage appearances were relatively brief, her presence suffused the entire work, putting her at the heart of it.

People have been kind enough to say that it was a brave act, having her represented onstage and onscreen by a puppet. In fact it was nothing of the sort. There is only one actor in The Mare’s Tale, and in our case that was Eric. He conjured Jane through the sensitivity of his reading of her, and the puppet was originally a notion I had to conjure another person on stage to help the audience leave the physical Eric behind. But puppetry is a magic art, and between them, Eric, Ann and Diana produced a completely plausible presence. Three into one brought Jane compellingly to life, and aided and abetted by Harriet Wallis’ sensitive camera-work, she tore people’s hearts out.

‘For me, almost the most moving part was early on, and the first appearance of the puppet/wife: the puppet was quite exceptionally beautiful and expressive, and the sense of her positive identity and individual existence, ignored and misunderstood by her husband, and her complex awareness of this, was both powerful and subtle. Here everything worked together brilliantly.  I found what it did do, though (the feminist in me perhaps?), was break much of my sympathy for the husband, making him appear more selfish and unthinking than was perhaps intended. So his own disintegration was less emotionally engaging.’
Frances Mannsaker

Jane Seyes puppet, backstage…

… on her death bed…

 … and in the form of an apparition.

coming down from the mountain

Post-production blues have me in their grip, and I feel hung-over (even though there’s been no alcohol involved), wasted, wiped out, simultaneously over-wrought and anaesthetised to a state of dullness. All the tensions of the past weeks make my stomach churn like a washing-machine on full load. Ho hum.

I need deep, uninterrupted sleep, but my brain won’t quit. Back home at Ty Isaf I wander about like a lost soul, arranging and re-arranging the puppets of The Mare’s Tale in a glass-fronted apothecary cabinet, where they look so forlorn after their adventures at the theatre with the puppeteers who brought them to extraordinary, tender, sinister life. One day they will hopefully play their roles again, but until then they’re safe behind glazed doors, reminders of this wonderful, if exhausting adventure.