AKA the year I created Seònaid, hands down the best custom I've ever done in my life.
Just FYI there are literally hundreds of photos in this post so if you have slow internet, consider yourself warned! 😅
Seònaid's story began with a conversation about a shared love of the Eriskay pony breed. These hardy little ponies hail from the Western Isles of Scotland though now most are found solely on the island of Eriskay, hence the name. There are fewer Eriskays in the world than Giant Pandas; their current numbers range in the low hundreds, if that and I've only had the pleasure of seeing a handful in person once at the Royal Highland Show.
Due to their rarity, there really aren't any models of them in the hobby that I know of, and even their larger and more well known cousin, the Highland Pony, is poorly represented. I'd long wanted to do some customs of these enigmatic little creatures, but struggled to find the right base model to work from. My friend Sofie and I were having a conversation about this a couple of months ago, and I mentioned that I'd always really wanted a couple of the vintage Breyer Classic scale Mustang models so I could turn them into Highlands or Eriskays as they had exactly the right kind of build and sculpting style I liked. Sofie then very kindly offered me a body and my plans turned from a pipe dream to an impending reality!
I hadn't come up with any real ideas for NaMoPaiMo this year, so this seemed like the perfect project.
By itself, the Mustang Stallion is a cracking wee sculpture. Maureen Love captured so much expression in her sculptures and this is one of my favourites. Not conventionally handsome or refined, but functional, with a short stocky frame and a kind face. I already knew I wanted to hair this model, so the mane and tail would have to go, and I disliked the high set neck and raised head, so some surgery was required...
Being a vintage model, this one being at least forty years old, the amount of rough and dodgy seams was ridiculous. He'd obviously been repainted at some point too, so that needed to be sanded off as well.
I did a quick photo-edit to see what I wanted the finished pony to look like. I wanted to resculpt the neck and give her (I'd already decided on making it a mare, so some extra surgery was required there too!) a more relaxed stance. A lot of the Eriskays I'd seen had a pretty undeveloped topline, without the lovely arched crest that Highlands so often exhibit, so I took that into account. Colourwise, I decided to push myself and attempt a dapple grey - something I'd only ever tried painting twice before with varying degrees of success. I'm used to painting smaller models, so I wanted to challenge myself with a colour I wasn't experienced with in a scale I don't often work in. It's NaMo, it's what you do!
I got the dremel out to cut the tail off and err...
...turns out a lot more of it is attached to the body than I thought! 😅
I wanted to keep the head as it was so lovely, but most Eriskays have quite long heads and this one was decidedly too short, so out came the hacksaw!
|The snoot, it droops|
|'why, human, why?' 😭|
I hot-glued several strands of wire into the head cavity to form the basis of a new neck, and drilled holes in the muzzle and head to extend the face the same way. I wrapped it up in tinfoil to pad it out so I wouldn't need to use as much apoxie sculpt to cover it all up.
It's possible I may have been having a little too much fun with this stage. 😆
Having the tail end open actually made it much easier to anchor the new neck wire in place, so once that was nice and secure, I used masking tape to block out the basic shape of the neck.
I filled most of the body cavity with more foil and hot glue, though I also stuck a paper straw in there as well, because I'd be doing something a little different with the tail. I sculpted a dock using the exceptionally cool CosClay, a polymer clay that retains full flexibility after baking; my idea being that I could reposition it as needed later on. I didn't want to try to apply the hair while it was attached to the body, so I thought by leaving the straw inside it would be much easier to insert the tail later on. In the end it turned out a little wonky as it shifted position while the hot glue dried, but the idea behind it was sound.
With a handful of references on my laptop next to me, I got stuck in with the apoxie sculpt. I'm not hugely knowledgeable when it comes to anatomy, so it's a side of customising I've tended to avoid in the past. I learned a lot from this project, and one of the most important aspects was not to be too precious about things. I was initially really happy with this neck, then decided it would look better tucked, so I squished it down before the apoxie sculpt cured.
I let it cure overnight and the next day took one look at it and immediately started hacking at it with a scalpel and sandpaper. There was just too much going on and the musculature, which at first I thought was pretty good, looked really off, so off it had to come.
I also chopped off much of the muzzle at this point too because I'd made the head a little too long and it was far easier to shorten it and resculpt than try to dismantle what I'd done earlier and retain the plastic nose.
Because the apoxie sculpt was in a relatively thin layer over the tinfoil and masking tape, it didn't take long to end up with some serious 'wounds' as I carved away at it. At this point I just got rid of the plastic muzzle altogether, just leaving some of the supporting wire sticking out. I decided I'd just roughly sculpt a vague muzzle shape that I could carve into afterwards, so that's exactly what I did, as well as refining the neck and taking off some of the topline which was really throwing everything off.
She then got a quick coat of primer as I was struggling to sculpt correctly with the Apoxie being such a drastically different colour to the plastic.She still had a long way to go but she looked much more proportional.
Once that was cured I went in for a second pass with the epoxy. The neck looked considerably better now, and the muzzle was taking shape. My best friend Tomás (who makes the most incredible needle felted horses you should all go and ogle right now at Needle Neddies) was exceptionally helpful during this stage as his knowledge of anatomy far surpasses my own and he was able to point out exactly which bits needed improvement. Because I'm not well versed in the anatomical side, there were many moments when I knew something wasn't right, but I just couldn't put my finger on what, so being able to just shove photos at him and go 'help!' was a great advantage!
Suffice to say, the feedback made a huge difference in the sculpt.
Once cured I daubed on some more gesso primer to even out the colour, and right away realised that the head was now a bit too coarse and bulky. I was really pleased with the muzzle, but the mouth and the bridge of the nose still needed work.
So, out came the sandpaper and more epoxy as I built up the cheeks and forehead and tried to soften the nose a little more.
In hindsight, I wish I'd left the mouth alone as it looked much better before I added to it.
|*sad pony noises*|
As much as I loved her original ears, they were a little uneven and I decided that it would be far easier to just make her new ones than try to improve what was already there, so the dremel came out again and...whoops.
Yeah, I just wasn't happy with her mouth either so off that came as well. I made some new ears from apoxie sculpt which turned out remarkably good! In hindsight I think their placement on her head is a little off and they really ought to have been a little further forward but you don't notice much on the finished pony.
I still wasn't 100% happy with the new mouth, but it was a lot better than the previous two, and by now I just wanted to get her prepped for painting so I was happy to leave it as it was. Ironically I think her very first muzzle actually had the best proportions of all! 😂
I did a little more tweaking here and there, adding some bulk to her jowls and eye sockets. It struck me at this stage that the only visible part of the original head were the eyes, and I really wish I'd known I was going to do so much resculpting so I could have just sculpted a head from scratch and left the original one for another custom one day! 😅
When I wasn't working on the head, I refined her feet and coronets, added a few wrinkles here and there and bulked out her belly and back. The neck wrinkles ended up much too deep which I regret, but overall everything else turned out really nice.
I primed her with gesso again, but there were still a few rough patches I hadn’t noticed earlier, so I tried out a tip I saw on Instagram the other day (courtesy of @horraw_studios whose work is just fantastic) where you paint everything with watercolours, then scrub it off after it’s dried, and all the little rough areas are nicely highlighted for you. Because the watercolours are water soluble you can just wipe it off with a damp cloth and it won't clog up any fine details. It worked really well, almost too well in fact, as I discovered waaaay more flaws than I anticipated! 😅 She was then sanded to within an inch of her life (she was so smooth she felt like silk, it was amazing, lol) and finally hand primed with Pebeo Acrylic gesso because the grey spray primer I have doesn’t actually give much tooth. Normally I only use brush on primer for models with textured coats as they hide any potential brushstrokes, but I found applying it, letting it dry and then going over it afterwards with a sanding sponge worked wonders. It retained the 'tooth' of the primer but got rid of any uneven textured areas. There were still a few wee rough bits here and there, but I didn’t mind. I wanted her to be a pretty grubby looking field-kept mare anyway, so a few scrapes would only add to the realism, hopefully. 😂
Finally, after what felt like forever, she was fully prepped, primed and ready for paint!
Well, almost. Nothing like a few last minute tweaks before NaMoPaiMo! 😅 I ended up taking some bulk off the top of her neck, shaved down the throatlatch and defined the ears and nose a little more. She was still a little bulky in the head department but the tweaks to the neck really helped to disguise that. I also forgot to mention that when I sculpted the neck I also added in a trench so I could insert mohair later on. It isn't obvious in any of the photos so I thought I'd just point it out in case you wonder why she's suddenly got a great big gap in her neck later on. 😆
Eventually the 1st of February dawned and I could finally make a start on the paintwork.
When attempting a colour I wasn't really confident with, the logical solution would be to look up tutorials on how other people managed it, right? Yeah, if you were sensible, but when has that word ever really described me?! No, I jumped in feet first with no plan, throwing caution and various other idioms to the wind and pulled out my brushes and box of pastels. Most people keep all their pastels separated to avoid contamination with other colours, but I, in my wisdom, keep all mine in a single box, sorted only by vague colour, so all the browns are in one section, then the yellows, then the blacks and greys etc. It creates a lot of random dust at the bottom, which I tend to use almost more than the actual pastels themselves as it's a nice mix of lots of different shades. This probably isn't advisable by the way, especially if you're using really expensive high quality pastels! 😆
The ugly stage had well and truly begun! She had her first layer of pastels roughly smooshed on with an old brush to block out her grey base. I decided I'd pick out the beginning of her dapples with a kneaded eraser, then seal that layer in and repeat after it had dried. I intended to do the majority of her dappling and details with watercolour pencils, so I wasn't too bothered if the pastels went on unevenly at this stage. (Which was just as well because my prepping was Not Great 😅)
Using a kneaded eraser that I formed into a point, I gently dabbed it on, using multiple references to make sure I was getting the dapples as accurate as I could. At this stage I didn't need them to be particularly neat or exact, I was really just blocking them in. The reference I used had a lot of very distinctive 'star' dapples, so I found just crossing a few lines in a kind of * shape the most effective technique.
I'd taken a photo of a Highland pony at the RHS a couple of years ago that had the most magnificent dapples, so that ended up being my best reference material. I had it up on my laptop so I could zoom in and out as required. (Feel free to use it yourself if you like! I'm happy for anyone to use any of my RHS photos as references! -link-)
Once both sides had their first layer of pastels I took her outside to get her first coat of Testor’s Dullcote to seal everything up. I couldn't quite believe how quickly she’d progressed in such a short space of time! 😱
(On a semi related note, when I went outside to spray, it was pitch black so I didn’t notice that there was a CAT ON THE BENCH OUTSIDE! 😭 She got a fright and ran away and no amount of pspspspsps could tempt her over. 😩😩)
One of the benefits of having a removable tail was that you could stick a kebab skewer up there in its place which made an excellent pony handle! (she'd had plenty of 'bute first though, fear not 😆)
I knew I'd be doing all the hair detail later with watercolour pencils, but I couldn't resist adding a little on her face with pastels just to see how it looked and I absolutely loved it.
Next I darkened the hindquarters and legs, and began adding in hair detailing with a light grey pastel pencil. Unfortunately most of this disappeared after the next layer of sealer but that was to be expected. I ordered up a load of pastel and watercolour pencils to play with later on which thankfully arrived a couple of days later. I really wanted to create a lot of texture with this custom, so the pencil work was essential. One of my pet hates is seeing dapples that just kind of float on the surface of the horse and look really obviously painted on. I wanted these to look like they were formed by actual hairs.
On that note, being aware of the direction the hair grows in is super important and is one thing that can turn an otherwise brilliant custom into a bit of a mess. I found the best way to make sure you're on the right track is obviously paying attention to your references, but also spend time looking at photos of roans and fleabitten greys because their distinctive fleabites and ticking make it really obvious as to how the hair grows.
Some of the details look incredibly stark at this stage, but each layer of sealant softens them down so in a weird way you almost want things to look really over the top because if you aim for subtlety you'll just lose everything once you've sealed it.
The watercolour pencils are Faber Castell Albrecht Dürer , in Black, White, Warm Grey IV, Warm Grey III, Dark Sepia, Nougat andVan-Dyck Brown if anyone's wondering. I used the Warm Grey III the most, and added shading with the browns towards the end to create a bit more warmth in the darker areas.
As soon as I started adding in all the hairs, I just knew this was my new favourite medium.
I used the toilet rolls to lean the horse against so she wouldn't get damaged, btw. XD
Blogger doesn't let me embed anything from Instagram any more for some reason but click -HERE- to see a little clip of me adding in some hairing details and talking about the process.
Here's another one of me demonstrating the best way to cushion your pony with loo rolls so you don't
smudge any of the pastels. -HERE-
Customising paused briefly that evening while I enjoyed a frankly delicious pasta bake I made.
(the secret ingredients are a generous dollop of caramelised onion chutney and a pinch of rosemary 👌)
As much as I'd enjoyed the earlier stages of detailing, this was by far the most satisfying and I honestly just want to do this on every custom forever now. While you couldn't blend the pencils in the same way as you could with pastels, you could do what's known as 'burnishing', a term I only learned after I'd already finished this custom. It's basically when you apply a lot of pressure using coloured pencils and force the pigments to blend. I found that going over areas with a lighter colour really helped to tie it all together. After a while the colour just stopped building so you knew that was the time to seal that layer.
I'd been looking forward to starting on the face for ages, and I was absolutely thrilled at how easily it came together. All grey horses look a little different - some grey out quickly, others take years and years, but my favourites are the really contrasty ones, and especially those with a lot of pigment still clinging onto the face. I noticed that in many of my reference ponies, the darker hair seemed to be concentrated most around the cheekbones and along the bridge of the nose - natural contouring! This worked out really well for me because the cheekbones were one part of the head I was really unsure of in my sculpting, so being able to essentially fool the eye into making those areas more or less prominent with a few strokes of the pencil was very satisfying.
I couldn't resist painting in her eyes and immediately fell in love with her even more than I thought I could. I used acrylics, mostly varying shades of brown, but with a little hint of 'Warplock Bronze' Citadel paint to give it a little metallic sheen. It's subtle, but I really love it. The pupil is just black, but with a tiny line of dark blue in the middle. It sounds really weird, but it instantly adds depth to the eye, and it's a technique I think a lot of people have missed out on!
Watercolour pencils are obviously water soluble, so you can't use any kind of brush-on sealer, just spray. While the spray doesn't smear any of the pigment, it does soften it a little, which I really loved.
I had great fun doing the legs, but it wasn't as satisfying as the face, so I'm afraid I rushed them a little bit.
After a few hours, I gave her a final coat of sealer and well...she was done.
I prepared the mohair in advance, knowing that it would take a while to dry. I couldn't tell you where I got this exact fibre from as I have a whole drawer full of the stuff from varying sources over the years. I picked this type in particular for its slightly more coarse texture and lovely variation in colour.
If you've ever worked with mohair you'll know just how messy it can be. No matter how careful you are, you'll definitely end up with hair all over you, your desk, your carpet, in your mouth and hopefully also your pony.
I carefully pulled chunks out of the original hank of hair, and holding it in the middle of the fibre, used an old toothbrush and a comb to get rid of all the extraneous fluff. There was a lot of this, but since I've been dabbling in needlefelting recently, I just stuffed it all in a bag so I can use it to help pad out future projects. Once I had a good number of nicely combed out hanks, I cut them in half, and glued the cut end down onto a plastic folder using Mod Podge, making sure that the glue fully saturated the hair. I used a paintbrush to smoosh it down as flat as possible, then left it all to dry overnight. The next day I peeled them off the plastic and trimmed down the glued ends which left me with a massive pile of mohair wefts. Because this particular fibre was quite rough and very pouffy, I went over all the glued tabs with copydex to make them semi-waterproof, then took the whole lot into the bathroom for a little beauty treatment. I combed through each one with warm water and a little conditioner, making sure I didn't let the water get too close to the glued areas, then rinsed them thoroughly. This wasn't completely necessary, but I think one of the reasons so many people dislike mohair on customs is because so many people use the fibre and forget that it's real hair and needs to be treated as such. You just need to look at Julips before and after this treatment to see what I mean!
I decided to do the tail first, so I took my CosClay dock from earlier and painted it dark grey to match the skin colour of my pony. It didn't need to be perfect as most of it would be entirely covered in hair, but I wanted to avoid any of the original clay colour showing through.
Next, I started applying the wefts to the tail using Copydex glue. Copydex is pretty much just liquid latex which has both pros and cons. Normally for haired customs I use tacky glue or fabri-tac, but I just fancied Copydex on this occasion. One of the downsides is that it will very probably go yellow eventually, but hopefully it won't be too obvious and if it is, I can just peel it off and start again.
I applied some blonde hair to the bottom of the tail first, as most light tails are never pure white or grey but have more of a yellowish tinge.
Next I overlapped it with a darker colour as I worked my way up the dock. I forgot to take photos of the rest of the tail's process but basically I just overlapped each layer with more hair, transitioning to the mixed grey as I reached the top. I also switched to tacky glue for the very last couple of layers so hopefully the yellowing could be avoided. Once the tail was completely dry I just stuffed it into the er...tail...hole, and that was that. It fitted snugly inside with no need for glue.
Eriskays generally don't seem to be as hairy as their mainland counterparts, the Highlands, but it's winter right now and she needed to keep her tootsies warm, so I gave her some feathering. Again, no decent progress photos for this I'm afraid, so a description will just have to suffice.
I didn't use the premade wefts this time, instead chopping up small hanks, dipping the ends in the glue and pressing them into place, using a paintbrush to blend the glue upwards. It's important to start from the bottom when it comes to adding feathering, so I put the first layer on at the fetlock, then the sides, then another layer on top of that. The final couple of layers I teased out the hair and damn, I really wish I'd filmed this part as it's really difficult to describe! Basically I laid the hair onto the leg and used a paintbrush to pull the hair strands up the leg with the glue, like I was dragging the fibres if that makes sense. I didn't want there to be an obvious line where the plastic met the mohair, and doing it this way worked really well. It's also worth noting that when I was painting the legs, I was sure to add lots of hair detail to the lower limbs, which really helped the mohair to blend in later on.
While the feet were drying, she gained a beard! For this, I cut one of the glued wefts short at the tab end and glued it underneath her jaw. Once that was dry I used Mod Podge to affix loose hair to the sides of her jaw and up her cheeks using the same technique I just described for the feet.
Once it was all dry I trimmed it with sewing scissors, being careful not to take off too much at once. It's generally a good rule of thumb for these things to cut upwards into the hair rather than across as the resulting trim looks much more natural.
I couldn't have a hairy pony without ear floof now could I?! There wasn't much technique to this part, I just took two small hanks of hair and glued them to each side of her inner ears, then trimmed them afterwards.
At this point I just had to stop and stare at her for a bit, I was SO unbelievably happy with how she'd turned out.
Next up was the mane, and honestly, there's not really much to say about it really. I doubled up and glued the wefts together with copydex, applied more glue to the tab ends and just stuffed them into the neck trench, using a cocktail stick to make sure all the gluey parts were well hidden inside the body. Once dry I gently combed through the hair with an old toothbrush and water to style it. I added a little hair mousse to try to keep it tamed but she's a true pony because it didn't really work. 😆
She was so tantalisingly close to being done, having gained a leather headcollar while I was waiting on her hair drying, but she just needed one final detail...
This nightmare fuel was a true experiment. I folded over a few strands of embroidery floss and brushed it out with a toothbrush until all the fibres had separated, then added a little tacky glue to the end and fixed it into place before trimming. Looking back, I probably should have done it a little differently, but they're only held on with tacky glue so I can easily take them off and try again at some point.
|*insert tacky advert about extra volumising mascara here*|
I honestly don’t have the words for what this custom means to me. For years I’ve looked at other people’s customs that are so realistic you could mistake them for real live horses and thought ‘I’ll never in a million years be at that level’ and yet, here in front of me is a pony who is just that. As a chronic procrastinator, NaMoPaiMo is the one month a year I absolutely 100% know I’ll be customising, and the community spirit and support that has sprung up from it is unbelievable. I’m pretty sure if it wasn’t for this event I’d never have dared push myself to do such an ambitious custom, so I owe Jennifer Buxton and all the NaMoPaiMo team a huge debt of gratitude for starting it all up in the first place and creating such a fantastic event.
Another huge thank you goes to Sofie of course for donating the original Mustang body I’d been pining after for years, and also to Tom for swooping in with much needed anatomy advice! Sorry/not sorry for the now inevitable pony spam, but I am just absolutely blown away by how well this little pony has turned out. She’s definitely the best work I’ve ever done and is a 100% never sell.
I just love her so, so, much, and I never in a million years thought she'd turn out as well as she has.
Ponies are demanding little things, and apparently she wasn't satisfied with only a headcollar, and wanted a saddle and bridle as well. I made the straps on the bridle a bit too wide so the buckles are too close to her eyes, but the saddle turned out incredibly well. I usually hate making tack, but this set came together with no issues! I used Anna Helt's fantastic stablemate saddle tutorial as a basis, though I made all my own patterns. I also used Jennifer Buxton's ingenious technique for making fully adjustable stirrup leathers.
The saddlepad was made from the lining of the same wallet I liberated much of the leather I used from.
So there you have it! That's NaMoPaiMo done for another year...well, almost. Max has her own ponies to paint and she and Juno have demanded I make them a dedicated craft room so they don't have to keep using the kitchen table and well, what are you going to do? As I write this it's the 15th of February, so I've still got plenty of time to make an entirely new diorama, plus *help* with painting...right? 😅
On that note, if you're still painting right now or haven't even started and feel really unaccomplished because I painted and haired this pony in the first week of February, know that I literally have nothing else to do with my time right now; I don't have a job and live at home, plus we're still in lockdown here, so I really can just sit and paint ponies all day long which I know is a huge luxury to most people who have jobs and other commitments. Besides, NaMoPaiMo isn't a race, it's not about finishing your model quickly, it's about learning and enjoying the process, no matter how long that takes. 💗
Also, if you made it to the end of this post in one go, well done! I know this is probably one of my longest blog posts to date! 😆