Here’s Greyfur the Kangaroo from Alan Marshall’s Australian fairytale Whispering in the Wind. I drew some sketches of her a while back as a beginning to my concept for a puppet for Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ Puppet Challenge.
I always imagined my Greyfur would have a moving mouth but also needed moving front arms so that she could pull things out of her magic pouch. It would also make sense for a kangaroo to have prominent hind legs. Since a marionette is beyond my technical skill without the investment of many hours of learning, I was a bit stumped as to what kind of puppet she might be. I love shadow puppets, but they’re not right for this character. Glove puppets generally work by concealing or omitting the legs… hmmm
My stumped feeling, along with my other work demands have made postponement the only thing I’ve come up with for this challenge. So during a recent stay with my parents-in-law in Camperdown in the school holidays, I decided a now-or-never approach might be best (especially as the first instalment of the Puppet Challenge had already been published on Clive’s site!) So I threw myself into a crumpled paper concept that had been lingering in my head for months but which I had never properly thought out.
I am always attracted to working with paper, especially if it’s not pure white and pristine. Paper is forgiving and fixable and as my approach has by choice a rough-finished aesthetic, many tearings and glueings would not matter. I have also always loved the floppy, rough expressive quality of an ordinary sock puppet, that comes to life in the hand of anyone, no matter how young. My vague thought was that the puppet would be a crumpled paper sock-puppet with personality rather than anything else.
Gail kindly lent me the use of her sun-filled studio and I set to work with no kind of method at all.
The first thing I found was a kangaroo nose in a corner of the paper. I coloured it black below and then folded.
I painted her eyes as per the portrait.
made a couple of ears
Nose in a very rough shape. I could see this was going to be interesting to shape without any underlying structure. I didn’t want too much shape (the sock-puppet floppy roughness was what I was after) but I didn’t want total shapelessness either. She had to have a kangarooishness. A Greyfurness.
I glued on the eyes. I knew this would be the clincher in the end. The eyes are everything to me. They make or break any character I am creating.
Ears next. Greyfur has no brow. No ‘stop’ as the dog people would say, and this doesn’t work for her. I’ll need to find a way around this.
Attempting to add a separate brow. A new plane to change the direction of the puppet. In the meantime I noticed that she was getting too big for a glove puppet.
I added an internal strut from eye to eye to see if this would hold her head and eye position to keep her from flattening out.
The strut did work partly. Here it is holding the width of the head roughly in shape but she still had no brow and no narrowing muzzle. I’m aware that anything can be fixed with cutting or tearing and re-gluing, but it will all be pretty random, as I don’t have pattern making skills!
Still not the right shape. The eye shape and position was the biggest problem. At this point, Greyfur was pretty wet in a range of areas and needed to spend some time toasting in front of the fan heater, so I turned to the paws.
Here we go! Paper, glue, bits of paper towelling, adrenalin, cup of tea.
Four claws. Looking ferocious.
Curl the paper and glue. stuff with a little paper wadding. Paint the nails.
The second paw I painted beforehand so that I could paint flat. I really love this distressed dry-brush effect on the paper. It is great for suggesting the fur on marsupials. Often the fur has black roots and grey tips so where the coat parts a downy darkness shows.
A finished paw from above. Although the outer claws and toes are longer than the middle ones which is not ideal, I like the overall effect.
Finished paw from the side. One thing I like about this is that it looks so Australian. The black-dipped toes are characteristic of our mammals but also suggestive of the look of trees after a bushfire, with burned branches at the top of partially charred trunks.
Well, I can’t show you a finished puppet, because we left for Melbourne when I got to that point. I’m not sure whether to try to finish this one or start again with a smaller one. I’ve also thought about how I would operate the puppet. I had some idea that I might need two hands to work it, one for the mouth and one to operate one or two paws, but it would be a little awkward.
However I could do this.
One hand could operate the mouth, and the paws could be operated by rods inside the pouch. They could be drawn down into her pouch to retrieve something, and a fishing line suspended above could draw out a silk handkerchief as a distraction, or indication of magic in operation whilst a new puppet is quickly brought onto the scene apparently pulled from the pouch. With the aid of a child’s imagination, this might work.