Ploughshare Tortoise Sculpture, Stage Two


The ploughshare tortoise that I started a week ago has been progressing slowly. I blame the rain. Everything seems to slow down at my house when we have unending clouds and rain – it just seems like the best time to curl up with a mystery novel and hibernate for a while.

However, I have now started on the fun part of the tortoise project – the textures. That’s really why I wanted to do this sculpture in the first place. Before adding any paper mache clay I did some more pushing and squishing on the crumpled paper armature, because I found out that the top and bottom shells are attached differently than I thought they were. Then I added a thin layer of paper mache clay and let it dry.

Once I had a nice solid layer to work on, I started in on the bottom shell. Last week Xan found us a photo of a baby tortoise upside down. I intended to use that photo for a model, but I read a bit further in my book by Jane Goodall and found a color photo in the center showing an adult male ploughshare tortoise upside down. It looked very different from the lower shell of a baby tortoise. (One thing I’m learning is how much I don’t know about tortoises). I used the photo in Jane’s book as a model and added clay to the bottom shell of my sculpture:

Ploughshare Tortoise, Upside Down
Ploughshare Tortoise, Upside Down

I added some clay to form the head details, and then started working on the bumpy leg textures. I used plastic film over a thin layer of clay, rubbing the clay smooth through the plastic. Then I used a tube from a ball-point pen, which I took apart, and used the ends to make circles in the clay. I used the plastic again, just to smooth out the texture a bit, although this probably wasn’t necessary.

Ploughshare Tortoise, Adding Bumps to Legs
Ploughshare Tortoise, Adding Bumps to Legs

Then I drew the geometric pattern on the top shell, and added clay to each raised area, one at a time. I used the edge of a knife to press the lines into the clay. In the photo below I have just a few of the raised areas finished. You can see in the photo at the top of the post how the shell will look when it’s all finished. I should have all the shell’s texture finished today.

Ploughshare Tortoise, Adding Texture to Shell
Ploughshare Tortoise, Adding Texture to Shell

I may spend a bit more time on the face, to make it a little more realistic. I know it isn’t quite right the way it is now. Then I’ll let the entire sculpture dry for at least a week to make absolutely sure it’s dry before I add the color. I intend to finish it with marine varnish and let him sit in my flower bed near the pond during the summer – this is an experiment to find out if the varnish will protect the sculpture. We should know by the end of summer if it’s a reasonable thing to do or not.

Ploughshare Tortoise, Adding Textures
Ploughshare Tortoise, Adding Textures

Next week I’ll show you how he looks when he’s all done. I know my tortoise wouldn’t win any prizes at a science fair, but I can see that creating accurate sculptures of rare species would be an exciting career choice for an artist just starting out. There must be people working in museums who do that sort of thing – what would a job like that be called?

See how the tortoise was painted here.

17 thoughts on “Ploughshare Tortoise Sculpture, Stage Two

  1. Hello it’s me again! The tortoise is finally complete and we are ready to paint! I know we talked about acrylic paint but we were wondering if regular wall paint could work? We need a ton! If that could would, could you recommend a type of paint? We can use acrylic for the small parts and accents but we need a paint we can buy a lot of that isn’t going to cost a fortune. Thanks!

    • Hello! Just wanted to show you our finished project! The boys had a lot of fun putting it together! Thanks for your guidance!

      • Hi Jayme. The photo didn’t come through, and I really want to see how the project turned out. Please try again – the image probably needs to be edited to make it smaller.

  2. One other thing…his neck is dropping a bit because the head weighs too much. Any suggestion for how to support the neck better? We thought about a hanger and covering it with newspaper and then masking tape, basically making the neck thicker. Does that sound like a good plan to you? Thanks!

  3. Hi Jonni! We’ll, the 4 foot long turtle is coming along! We’ve had a couple bumps in the road and it takes a LONG time to tear up enough toilet paper for such a huge creature! We are almost ready to start painting and were wondering if you could recommend paint type for us? Should we use acrylic? What have you found to work best? Hope the project turns out well enough to share with you! Thanks for your help!

    • Hi Jayme. I always use acrylics, because it seems easiest. Dan Reeder uses wall paint, I think, for his big monsters, but if you have to buy several colors you probably wouldn’t save much money over the acrylic craft paint. (I can’t wait to see your finished turtle! What a project. Is everyone having fun?)

      • Yes it’s been fun for the most part. Definitely very time-consuming but the clay works so well. I would say the toilet paper shredding is the worst part. We’ve found if you tear it dry and then soak it in water it cuts the time in half. We let it soak for days to break it down. Thanks so much for your help!

  4. Hi Jonni! My son has to do a science project for school and has chosen a tortoise. We are going to use your suggestions for making the tortoise. My only problem is the tortoise has to be 4 fee long! Any suggestions for making the body? Should we still use newspaper and masking tape or can u offer another suggestion? I’d really appreciate it!

    • Four feet? That’s huge! You can make the armature with crumpled paper, or you might try making it hollow, building up the shell and underside with cardboard cut and bent to the right shapes, and then make the head and legs with the crumpled paper and masking tape. A four-foot long tortoise made completely with crumpled paper inside could weight 25 pounds or more.

      Another alternative is to use chicken wire, but that’s never my first choice. The cut ends hurt when the stab you, and they always stab you.

      May I ask how old your son is?

      • Thanks for the reply! He is in middle school. We started the project and ended up putting the newspaper in a biodegradable plastic lawn bag because crumpling up that much newspaper would’ve never worked when it came time to put the masking tape over it. The “belly” is a little over 3 feet wide. I figure by the time we do the shell and extend from head to tail, it’ll be 4 feet easy. We bought bubble wrap to make the shell and we’ll cover that in masking tape. We’ll use newspaper to make the legs and head and I bought a thick flat piece of styrofoam for the base. Do you think they should do the traditional paper mache strips or the clay? Any other suggestions you can offer would be greatly appreciated. This is very foreign to us, but fun so far! Thanks again!

        • The plastic bag idea is great – that should cut down on a lot of the work, and the weight. It sounds like you have it under control – be sure and let us see it when it’s done!

  5. I haven’t learned how to make a website but it would probably be with my gourd art and egg art that I carve and paint on. I’m an old Country Gal and love animals of any kind. As a country kid they were my only toys. I just love your turtle and would so like to make an atempt to make 1..2..or 3 of the little darlings. Can you give me a tip on how to start ?
    GrandmaJoyce Shasta Lake, CA

    • I always suggest that you start crumpling up some old newspapers and use them to create your basic shape. Cover with masking tape, and then use either the traditional paper strips and paste or the new paper mache clay to finish. If you can wad up some paper and stick masking tape on it, you can make a tortoise (or anything else you like).

  6. Very cool. Love the texture on the pyramid shapes on the shell, and the legs look great as well. One question about the pyramids — have you built them up entirely with clay? And how deep would you say they are in the thickest parts? I’m curious about how depth effects the drying — tho perhaps that’s part of why you’re going to give it a whole week to get entirely dry.

    Also, I heard an article on NPR a couple of weeks back about the retirement of the last Smithsonian taxidermist. They’re not replacing him because there’s not enough work in taxidermy anymore. I’m guessing that’s because museums use other methods for realistic models these days? Here’s a link to the story in case you’re interested.

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125914878

    • Interesting story. I wonder how they intend to preserve the specimens they have in their collections, if they don’t have an expert on hand. They were probably busier back when it seemed like a good idea to shoot rare animals for the collections.

      The clay did get a bit thick on the tortoise shell, about 3/8″ at the thickest part. We’re having very wet weather (another inch of rain last night) so I want to give the clay plenty of time to dry. It probably won’t take that long, but it’s better to be sure.

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