Sunday, May 27, 2012

Mongolian Death Worm Gaff

This "Mongolian Death Worm" was the result of an experiment using vintage gaff making techniques. I wanted to recreate the process of crafting a sideshow display using materials available in the early 20th century. Except for cheating on the teeth, which were made from epoxy putty, I used traditional paper mache for the entire specimen. It's nothing more than paper, flour, cotton fiber, and glue. The surface finish is acrylic paint with a wash of wood stain.  The entire piece is about 18" in length.

As a proof of concept it's reasonably successful. From five feet away it looks convincing enough to pass for a real mummified specimen, but that's an admittedly low hurdle to jump. In terms of the sculpting it's definitely not up to modern standards. That's a failure of effort, not of the materials. The fine paste I used for the inner mouth is capable of holding the same amount of detail as clay. I simply didn't take advantage of it.

This shot from about two feet away gives a good feel for what worked and what didn't. At this distance the wrinkled texture on the body holds up really well. It was formed using a thick layer of cotton fiber saturated with a mixture of white glue, flour, and water. It would be even more convincing if I had used a thicker layer of fiber to create deeper indentations and sharper ridges.

The mouthparts are where there's the most room for improvement. I wanted a smooth texture for the "gums", and in that respect applying a layer of paste over the paper ring holding the teeth was a success. What's missing is a greater textural contrast between the body and the mouthparts.

This view is a good demonstration of how the specimen could be improved. Building up the demarcation between the wrinkled skin and the gums would give a more convincing impression of the mouth extruding from inside the body cavity. A lot of that relatively smooth finish should be replaced with some fleshy ridges supporting the teeth and running perpendicular to the body rings. It's more anatomically correct and would provide a better visual contrast.

From here you can see that the teeth are kind of bland. The points need to be sharper and their density needs to be increased. There are also some major problems with gluing them to the underlying support ring and then applying the paste for the gums. That approach produces a sloppy finish that splashes on to the teeth and is devilishly hard to clean up. The socket structure for each tooth needs to be applied individually and then glued to the foundation ring. That would solve the splash problem and look more believable, as well as producing some of the much needed texture I mentioned earlier.

Despite validating some of the techniques I wanted to try there's a lot wrong with this specimen.  And that's a good thing.  Not to get all meta, but one of the most valuable lessons in art, not to mention life, is to embrace the suck.  Failure is your friend.  A willingness to recognize it is the only way to improve yourself and your craft.


Jason McKittrick said...

It's definitely an interesting piece. Some more work on the mouth and gums section would improve it greatly. Perhaps even another row of teeth further inside the mouth would enhance the shock factor.

I would absolutely go back and finish it. Embracing the suck is a valuable lesson for sure but that doesn't mean you have to be left with an unfinished piece.

I hope to see an updated post on the improved and finished Death Worm in the near future!

Propnomicon said...

@ Jason McKittrick

I'm definitely going to follow this one up with another attempt now that I have some experience with the materials.

Using epoxy putty or polymer clay for the whole sculpt would make it a lot easier to get a high level of detail, but I rather enjoyed the retro approach of paper mache. One big advantage of using an old school approach is that the specimen itself is incredibly light, but amazingly strong.

Markus said...

I really like this model, and I can only emphasize was Jason already said. Some more details inside the mouth would look really good, perhaps also something proboscis-like. Perhaps I would also add some varnish to the mouth part. What I really like is how the paste formed an organic looking structure which would have needed a whole lot of time to sculpt it in polymer clay. BTW, how much time did you need for the model?
Perhaps an interesting alternative for epoxy spines are real thorns, for example from a rose, as they are easy to remove and comparably easy to attach with glue.
Something what could also look interesting are some bristles. Many worms have small bristles, for example earth wormd. Adding some short bristles - for example from a brush - could give the model a more realistic look. To see what I mean, take a look at this:

This would give the body some more details, and adding such materials as bristles can give a model also a more natural feeling.
I have already made this small sculpey model of a mongolian death worm, but it would be surely interesting to make a larger one from papermaché. How did you make to body, is it made from crumpled-up paper or is there any wire inside?

Phil said...

I've been using paper mache for the covers of my tomes and I agree, it really is good stuff. It wrinkles quite nicely.
And I'm with Jason, I hope you'll go back and add the additional detail rather than toss it in the bin. I quite like it so far.

Good points though about learning from your failures rather than getting discouraged by them.

Propnomicon said...

@ Markus

Actual sculpting time was only around two hours, but that was spaced out over two weeks. The major drawback of paper mache is that it takes so long for sections to dry. Because of the size of the worm I had to work on it in sections.

Some excellent suggestions on possible detail materials, thanks.

The core armature was the same plastic wrap over batting that I've mentioned before for making tentacles. Once the first layer of mache was dry I just pulled it out.

@ Phil

I won't bin it, but I think starting from scratch on another take would be more productive. Now that I have a better grasp of the basic construction techniques I can see a lot of ways to improve things for the next iteration.

Markus said...

Only two hours? Wow, that´s really quite short for such a model. I needed more than 30 hours for my life-sized tatzelwurm (and well more than 10 for my sculpey death worm), which was also mainly sculpted from papermaché. The long drying intervals can be really quite annoying, the very best thing is working with papermaché when weather is good. In the sun it sometimes dries in a couple of hours or even faster, instead of several days. I really like the structures of dried papermaché, because it has such a great organic texture.
It´s not really matching the original descriptions of the mongolian death worms, but I could imagine it would also look interesting to add multiple tiny eyes around the mouth.

Propnomicon said...

@ Markus

The short sculpting time was thanks to the general lack of detail. Once the basic shell of the body was done the wrinkly body texture took about thirty minutes spread over two days. That allowed me to apply the texture to each section and then let it dry before moving on to the next segment.

Stella Anderson said...

Thanks for posting this! I liked it so much it inspired me to make my own:

Dr. Theda said...

Impressive ....I like it ...Creepy too...