It’s a beautiful fall day — the air is crisp, the leaves are turning vibrant colors, and you’re taking a stroll though the park. It’s nice and wonderful, but there’s nothing to see here mixed media-wise, right? Wrong. Pick up a few sticks and branches … we’re going to show you how to turn them into a one-of-a-kind twig sculpture. This tutorial from artist Rebecca Ruegger first appeared as the cover story for our September/October 2015 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine. In the article, Rebecca shows you how to use wood, clay, and fabric leaves to create a unique assemblage; a delicate stick figure, if you will. Let’s get started!
Stick Figures by Rebecca Ruegger
I walk the forests and fields daily with my dogs on the rural property that surrounds my home and studio. One of my dogs, a huge black lab named Max, who passed away recently, would always select a special stick to carry home and deposit on our back porch. One night I was gazing at his collection and realized that one of the twisted branches looked like a little leg. I’m primarily a painter, but on this evening I felt like I wanted to try doing something with Max’s sticks and bring a small creature to life. That was three years ago, and I’ve had a lot of fun figuring out how to put these imaginary creatures together since. Although this project requires some time and patience, I hope you’ll enjoy the process.
- A base: a chunk of old wood, flat rock, scrap of metal, or something similarly heavy and sturdy
- Adhesive (I used Elmer’s® Carpenter’s Wood Glue Max.)
- An assortment of sticks and branches, various sizes and shapes
- Handsaw, small
- Wood carving knife
- Sandpaper, 60- and 100-grit
- Air-dry clay (I like Activa® Premier Light Weight Stone Clay.)
- Fabric leaves
- Acrylic matte medium
- Paints, oil or acrylic, an assortment
- Paintbrushes, various sizes, including a fine detail brush
- Electric drill
- Wire, any gauge that you can bend with your fingers
- Super glue
- Artificial flowers
- Fabric scraps
Prepare the base and components
1. Prepare your base, combining materials as desired with the appropriate adhesives.
NOTE: If you’re creating a standing figure, wood is the best choice for a base, since it allows you to drill holes to secure the feet. If you are creating a seated figure, anything goes. I’ve even used an old shoe for a base.
2. Look through your collection of sticks and choose ones that will make an interesting torso, arms, and legs. Try to find sticks that have intriguing curves and perhaps knots for joints. If you are planning a piece that will have branches extending from the back, as in my standing figure, make sure the stick you choose for the torso is at least 1″ thick. This will allow you space to drill holes to insert the branches later.
NOTE: Don’t take sticks from a living tree. Green wood will shrink over time as moisture evaporates, possibly creating cracks in your artwork.
3. Use the handsaw to cut the sticks to your desired sizes. Have fun playing with the proportions of the figure. They don’t have to be realistic. Shape the sticks a little more with the carving knife, tapering them to more closely resemble body parts. (FIGURE 1) Use the sandpaper, starting with the roughest grade first and going to the finer grade, to make final refinements to the various body parts.
TIP: As you shape the pieces you can round and taper the hands and feet, or create more detailed hands and feet from clay and affix them to the sticks with glue later.
CAUTION: Always cut away from your body when using a carving knife.
Assemble the body
1. Join the pieces together with wood glue, starting with the smallest ones first, such as the upper and lower arms.
TIP: Joining the pieces sometimes requires a little creative engineering to ensure they’re attached in the correct position. I use any household object that works to keep things propped in place until the glue dries.
2. Form a solid egg shape for the head with the air-dry clay, checking that the size is in proportion to the rest of the body. Shape the head and features, creating slight indentations for the eyes, and tapering the chin. Create a nose and ears from clay and attach them to the head. (FIGURE 2) Use wet fingers to get these added pieces of clay to stick to the existing surface. At this stage, just think about creating basic shapes. The clay will be too wet and soft to get much detail now.
NOTE: If the clay feels cool to the touch it’s still wet. It should feel room temperature when dry.
3. Create a small 1/4″ deep indentation in the back of the head with your finger where the head will be affixed to the neck. (FIGURE 2) This will make it easier to attach the head in the final stages.
4. Once the clay has dried, remove any lumps and bumps with the fine sandpaper. Fill in holes, divots, or depressions in the sticks with small pieces of clay. Let dry, and then sand them.
5. Draw the eyes and mouth on the face with pencil. (FIGURE 2) Adding the face helps me figure out what I want my figure to look like.
Creating the Embellishments
1. Cut the fabric leaves into shapes and sizes that fit the proportion of your figure. Because I almost never find the colors I want, I brush a layer of matte medium over the front and back of the leaves to stiffen the fabric, allow the matte medium to dry, and then enhance the colors of the leaves with thin layers of oil or acrylic paint. Let dry.
2. Attach leaves to the branches, (FIGURE 3) and perhaps a few to the arms or torso if you like, with wood glue. I squeeze a few drops of glue onto a disposable surface and then use a toothpick to apply the glue where the leaves join the branches. Look at the piece from various angles to see if there are areas that need to be filled in with leaves or other decorative items.
TIP: If you run out of fabric leaves, create more from lightweight watercolor paper. Cut out the shapes, coat them with matte medium, and then paint them as you did the other leaves.
3. Make a few little apples, or other small items, out of clay to use as adornments. When the clay is dry, paint them. (FIGURE 3) It’s much easier to paint the adornments now than after they’re attached to the art piece.
4. To create a wreath for the head, shape wire into a circle and use super glue or wood glue to attach it to the head. Add a few beads or fabric flowers to the wire for interest. (SEE OPENING IMAGE)
Finish the body
1. Form the neck and shoulders by gently applying a small amount of wet clay to the top of the torso, using wet fingers to smooth out the shape. (FIGURE 4) Place the head on top of the neck and fill any remaining gaps between the head and neck with a little more clay. Smooth those areas and eliminate any excess clay using wet fingers.
NOTE: If you want to add branches to the back of the figure as in “Early Morning October,” carefully drill a few holes into the back of the figure about 1/4” deep. Push a small amount of wet clay into the holes and insert the branches. Smooth any excess clay with wet fingers.
2. Use small pieces of wet clay to fill in any gaps where the body parts have been joined. (FIGURE 5) Let dry. Paint over the joints so they match the rest of the sculpture. Apply a light coat of paint over the body parts to bring the colors into harmony.
3. Paint the face, adding details with a detail brush to bring out the personality. I like to give a little color to the cheeks and lips, and add a stronger line at the bottom of the eyelids. (FIGURE 6)
4. OPTIONAL: Add fabric to your piece if desired. To add a cape as in “Early Morning October” (FIGURE 7) or a little blanket as in “Resting Place,” (SEE FINISHED IMAGES BELOW) paint a layer of matte medium over the fabric. The matte medium will add stiffness once dry and allow you to retain the shape. Position the fabric where you’d like it and find some hidden locations to add spots of super glue to attach the fabric to the figure. Allow to dry.
NOTE: The fabric will be stiff once dry, but it will still be easy to form folds and shape it to the figure as desired.
5. If making a standing figure, drill 2 holes in the base a little larger than each foot. Fill the holes with wood glue, insert the feet, and wipe off any excess glue with a paper towel. Prop the figure in the desired position until the glue has dried. A wealth of found objects and ideas can be incorporated into your figures. Whatever you decide to do, make sure that your work is permanent. Whether your piece is created for a collector or yourself, it’s critical that it holds up over time by using quality materials and tested methods.
Rebecca Ruegger lives and works on a small farm in rural Tennessee that she shares with three dogs and a cat. Visit her website for more creative possibilities and inspiration for your figures. To see more of Rebecca’s work, go to rebeccaruegger.com.