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Monday, June 27, 2016

Siddhārtha's Garden - Terrarium Sculpture Tutorial (Updated 06-27-16)

One of the area of art that has always fascinated me has been artistic terrariums. I use a lot of moss in my sculpture work but I've only attempted to use live plants once a year ago. Unfortunately the piece was huge and involved a lot of work that at the time would have been difficult to achieve. But I still have the hanging plant that I purchased for the project. His name is Charlie and he hangs in the studio to this day.

So I've decided to experiment with this area on a much reduced scale. Since this is both experiment and tutorial, I'll trust you to understand if things change as I proceed with the design.
I've already sketched out the basic idea I want to create and found the components I need to achieve it and I believe that the key to making it is to remember that is both sculpture and terrarium. So attention must be paid to the construction of both elements in sync with each other. Terrariums as a rule are not a very uniform construct, where sculpture by its very nature is. So bringing the two together should be a fascinating experiment.

Step #1 Setting the Center Point

I'll be using a 1 foot by 2 foot tile base for this sculpture.The first step is to set the center point in place using a heavy epoxy. The center point I am using was originally an embossed picture frame I found at a thrift store for $1.99. I've removed all the accessory hardware from it so that all that is left is the embossed metal frame itself. Drying time about 2 hours. I've measured it out so that the center point is truly exactly centered in the middle of the 2 foot tile. 

Step #2 Setting the Buddha

This sandstone Buddha will rest on the center point and form the nexus of the garden. He's been carefully measured to make sure he sits exactly in the center of the piece and left to dry overnight. 

Step #3 Placing the Lit Panels

Behind the Buddha I've placed two lit panels in the shape of the sun. They had to be painted first with an undercoat of black and then three coats of a mix of splendid gold, expresso and royal ruby. This color will be used again on later parts. You can see in the first photo what it looks like in regular light and then with the lights lowered around it. It looks great with the Buddha in front of it. Once painted the two pieces were matched to the center and then epoxied to the under tile.

Step #4 Creating the Terrarium

This will take several days to complete. First the two panels facing the Buddha must be placed and sealed with foaming glue and left to dry. Next the front and back panels and finally the opposite sides. Once thats complete then the whole inside will need to be sealed to stop and water from getting out and then filled with dirt. I wish I could get fancier with it, but unfortunately the shape and size of the tiles creates limits on what I can do. I may try adding a second level to it after the first dries though to create a stair step effect. We'll see once this stage is complete. Here are the first two set up photos for them. You'll note I've left the tiles white for now. If I had painted them prior to setting them up I would damage the paint with the glue. So I felt it was better to wait and then blend it into the whole piece later. 

Here you can see the final walls in place for the lower level of the terrarium. I've sealed the inner portion with expanding foaming glue to keep it watertight. It should work well once completed. 

Step #5 - Building Up

So here you see the completed base of the terrarium filled with dirt and the second level starting to be built. Plants will be added to the lower level after the painting is completed and a second higher tier will be built to create two levels of plant growth. The glue see dripping was done on purpose to create the feeling of an ancient overgrown jungle ruin and at the same time seals the terrarium from the outside. 

I've also purchased 5 more plants to be added from Urban Roots our amazing local plant nursery. One of the 5 is actually an air plant which will eventually be placed in Buddha's bowl. Next step will be the building of the second tier.

Step #6 The Upper Tier

So here I've built the pods for the two upper terrariums. Both are sized differently to gain slightly different levels for both. The higher of the two will have a creeping vine in it that after it grows a bit should hang down nicely. Now I can begin some serious design and color work once I seal the upper tier so water can't escape. 

Step #7 Organics

Now I want to remove the hard lines from the terrarium tiers. I call this organics. Its basically creating the effect of wear on the structure to make it look older and more ruinous. But the added benefit is that it will add an extra seal onto the terrarium to make sure its perfectly waterproof. 

The first stage in organics began a few days ago when I dripped the foaming glue down the sides of the tile walls. Not I will take it a step further. Using a combination of natural clay laid over the sharp edges and the overpainting the whole structure with foaming glue, I'm creating a more organic shape to the whole sculpture. I'm being careful to keep as much of the glue off the floor and off the back lit walls. I'll deal with those in a different way later. You can see in the photos that I am doing it stage by stage, slowly adding the clay and then carefully adding the foaming glue to each part of the terrarium. Then I will let the whole thing dry over night before proceeeding to a paint stage where I will match the bronze of the floor and the colors to the back and blend them all together. I've also taken steps to completely cover the base tile at the bottom, removing all the lines originally on the tile surface. 

Organics is a process I go through with many of my pieces in order to create a more natural look that is in tune with nature rather than man. 

Step #8 Black Basing

Now that the organics are complete everything must be black based. This is done so that the metallics shine brighter once they are applied over the black base. The top of the right pedestal has not been covered in paint yet as I am going to add something there and want to make sure it adheres to the surface of the tile and not just to the paint. 

Step #9 Adding Color/Plants

I had to jump a step in this phase. While I was setting the color I noticed several of the terrarium plants were looking like they might die. So while in the midst of doing the detail painting I also added potting soil and put the plants in place. It will be difficult working around them but I'd rather not have them die. In the meantime you can see the difference the color makes to the overall composition. You'll also note that I've now added a large rock formation to the left hand side. This was originally a piece of sandstone gotten in the gulf of Mexico a few months back. I cleaned it and then polyurethaned it to seal the sand. I've overpainted it here to match the rest of the color scheme.

Step #10 Ruins

Now here you can begin to see the true potential of the piece. I've begun to add a series of columns and arches. These originally came from an urban decay sculpture which was damaged. But much of the original work was still in tact. So I've been removing it and fitting it into the new sculpture. Whats nice is I am going to leave just a little of the original undercolor once I repaint them so that it has that ancient quality to it. These pieces are made from dry foam and will have to be polyurethane'd later to make sure they stay strong. 

Step #11 Painting the Ruins

Now here for the first time I can really see my original vision taking shape. This first round of crumbling ruins was exactly the touch that was needed. And because I am using a combination of colors reminiscent to that used in ancient temples in India, China and Tibet, it lends to an air of lost elegance. Once the plants begin to grow a bit and hang, it should give it an amazing jungle quality.

Step #12 Left Side Ruins

Now I'm going to add and ruin work to the left hand side. This is tricky because I want it to raise up over the left side terrarium, so I need to create a framework of ruins beneath it so it looks real. You can see in the first view is looking directly at the side and tricky set of supports. These aren't really needed. That upper area is sealed directly to the backside of the upper terrarium but it would look like it was suspended in midair and wouldn't look real. So I'm basically creating the support beams for aesthetics. In the second view you can see what it looks like from the front. 

Step #13 Right Side Ruins

I am basically repeating the process done on the left hand side to create a similar set of ruins on the right hand side. As you can see in the second piece, there is symmetry to the piece and a truly ancient feel to the whole sculpture.

Step #14 Backwall Aging

The lit backwalls in comparison to the rest of the sculpture looked to new and clean. So I've aged them slightly by adding drips of foaming glue and doing some additional aging to the top ruin. At this point I am nearly finished. The final steps will involve adding some additional ephemera and then adding polyurethane to some areas to strengthen them and give it a glossier look. 

Step #15 Ephemera

I went sparingly on additional details. I added four white elephants to the front of the ruins. A set of crystals in the right hand lower terrarium. A stack of 5 green rocks in the upper left terrarium. And lastly some fallen arch pieces to the left and right of Buddha. At this point other than the polyurethane this sculpture is complete.

For my very first terrarium I am quite pleased with it. I'd like to do something more extensive using bonsai trees for the next one. This tutorial is now complete. A full set of photos will be posted once the polyurethane coats have dried. I hope you found this useful for your own work. Please feel free to add questions to this post or commentary.

Here is the final shot taken with ephemera in place and the clutter removed from the photo area.

Click to Enlarge
UPDATE 06-27-16

Its been a little over a month since I completed Siddhārtha's Garden. One of the things that became immediately apparent was that unlike other forms of art it was important for to give this one time to grow a bit before it was put out for sale. In order for it to reach its full potential some of the plants really needed to be artistically arranged as they grew in order to get them to fulfill my vision for the piece. The other thing that I had not considered was that some of the plants may die in the early stages. Indeed out of the seven varieties I planted, three of those have died. So it is important for this art form that its monitored and components watched carefully. 

I've gone back to the nursery and purchased another six plants and spoke with the specialists on which ones did or did not like being heavily saturated with water. At least one of the original plants really did not like a lot of water so I steered away from another of those. I also found out that a contributing factor may that the sculpture was near to an air conditioner and some plants don't like a constant wind on them. 

So armed with more information I am going to replant the three dead plants, move the position of the terrarium away from the breeze and continue to monitor it for health and pruning and slowly and methodically arranging the plants in a way that compliments the overall sculpture. 

Here is a current view of the piece with the new plants sitting in front of it.


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