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Sean Cooper Interview

Originally Published in Prehistoric Times (2015)
Sean Cooper, Paleoartist
Interviewed by Dan Liebman,

Q. Tell us a little about how “Paleocraft” came to be.
A. First Dan, I want to thank you and Mike Fredericks for this opportunity. I hope all the PT readers find this interesting and informative.

The ground work for what would later become "Paleocraft" the business goes back about 20 years ago in the mid 90's. At that time I was making fantasy, sci-fi, and prehistoric themed sculptures, mainly because it was just something I was interested in and enjoyed doing, rather than for any commercial intentions. The internet had just recently exploded and through that I had discovered Super Sculpey. Prior to Super Sculpey any sculpting I had attempted had always been with either plasticine clays or waxes. Super Sculpey was a game changer, being able to make something that could be easily solidified was fascinating to me. Also through browsing the internet, I learned there were entire websites, magazines, and industries devoted to this. Among those, our very own "Prehistoric Times" Magazine, where the earliest of my prehistoric themed sculpts can be seen in the "Reader's Art" section. And it was through PT where I became acquainted with Mike Evans at Alchemy Works. Being able to network with the right people is what allowed me to turn a hobby into a business.

Before utilizing Mike's professional mold making and casting skills I was attempting to do it myself with mixed results. Without The Alchemy Works there probably wouldn't be a Paleocraft because although I could fumble through the casting process I was never able to do it efficiently. Mike and I have developed a good working relationship over the years and continue to work together to produce models.

Q. You have some amazing Mesozoic models, but it seems you are uniquely known for other prehistoric fauna, predominantly mammals. How did this come about?

A. Well it's true I'm usually associated with the prehistoric mammals and that's okay. As I mention before they're not my sole point of interest, but to me, they're just as interesting and I believed under represented in the prehistoric model genre. At the time I was getting started with Paleocraft there were already several really good sculptors producing dinosaur models. The mammals were something I decided to focus on partly to distinguish myself and partly to just add some variety to the industry. Producing mammal models was risky at first because I wan't sure just how in demand they'd be. Some are more successful than others but most have done well and I don't regret focusing in on them.

Q. It’s probably safe to say that you’ve mastered the hairiest and scariest of beasts. Do you have any general tips for sculpting fur, and do these abilities translate well when developing feathered theropods?

A.  That's very kind of you say, I don't know if I'd say "mastered" though, I have made some breakthroughs over the years that lend themselves to creating a successful sculpture, at least in regards to fur texturing. Sculpting fur is one of those things thats hard to make convincing at small scales, I mean its impossible to sculpt every single hair so at best you have to just try and create the illusion of fur.

There's lots of different types of fur, low shag, high shag, course, fine, etc. to name a few. I just recently sculpted a Musk Ox, which is probably one of the hairiest creatures to ever existed. They seem to have every type of fur texture  there is on some point of its body and is a real challenge to sculpt. For anyone looking to hone their hair sculpting abilities the Musk Ox would be a good one to practice on. When making the different textures, I used a tool made from a bent stick pin. If I had to give any general tips, I'd say use the tool to make tiny impressions rather than dragging or raking it. Ultimately it just takes practice and a lot of trial and error to get the look and technique down.

In regards to feathered therapods, I do think that being able to sculpt fur does often translate to sculpting feathers. At least at small scales, especially proto-feathers or the type of feathers you see on ratites like emus and ostridges. Of course flight feathers and tail feathers are different all together.

Q. Your models show a great deal of attention to the musculature of the animal. How do you develop the body of an animal that is quite different from extant species, such as a ceratopsid?

A. Well a lot of it is just educated guess work. I think its important to pay close attention to the actual skeleton when creating the armature and make note of where muscles would attach. Fortunately, Ceratopsian skeletons are widely represented in the fossil record. However, since we know some extinct animals from only a few bones, maybe a skull if we're lucky, I find it important to reference related species that we have more fossilized evidence of. And it's also important to reference an understand the musculature of modern animals. Then at the end of the day, since there's no photographs or actual living specimens to go by, the best I can hope for is a plausible, believable reconstruction.

Q. Are there any animals or features that you find especially interesting or challenging to work on?

A. I guess that would depend on the day and just just how interested I am in the subject matter. There's good sculpting days where I'm focused in and everything sort of goes the way I want and I make great progress and then there are other days where I can't get seem to get anything to work and look right. Symmetry is always a challenge when sculpting, trying to make the left side match the right can be daunting. Getting a unique and interesting pose in the armature stages can also be a struggle. Sometimes I find myself backtracking to change the pose in later stages of the sculpt, having to redo work is no fun but if that's what it takes to make it look good then that's what I do.

Any tiny, highly detailed features can be a challenge, like rows of tiny teeth or a hand or paw full of tiny claws. My eye site isn't what it use to be so I have to wear optivisors to help see when sculpting, especially when sculpting the fine details. I think pterosaur wings, or bat type wings can also be difficult. Making the thin wing membrane look smooth and uniform over a large span isn't easy.

And sculpting any features of modern animals can also be challenging. There's usually lots of reference material to work from but at the same time everyone is familiar with how, let's say, an African Elephant looks so it's easier to be more critical of how accurate the sculpture is. Prehistoric mammals can be the same way since many of them have extant relatives we're all familiar with. With dinosaurs there's no actual images to go by so its just a matter of whats a more believable or plausible reconstruction.

Q. Do you have any favorite resources or artistic influences, perhaps even specific art that you feel strongly about?

A. Not specifically, I tend to appreciate most art on some level, I'm not usually critical of other's work and find value in not just the successes but also in stuff that falls short. And in regards to influences, I think I'm influenced in one way or another by everything I see and I try to learn through the endeavors of others, even if its just what not to do.

In regards to resources, I'm a long time subscriber of periodicals like National Geographic, National Wildlife, Amazing Figure Modeler, and of course Prehistoric Times magazine. I find taxidermy catalogs to be very useful, all of the images of eyes, ears, noses, etc. are great to reference. I'm also an avid browser of the internet and like to look up the latest Paleontological discoveries and theories. I find search engines very useful, being able to quickly find specific images to reference when sculpting is invaluable. I use to spend hours scouring books and magazine to find just the right image, like the foot of a rhinoceros for example or the horns of a musk ox, a task achievable in a matter of seconds through the internet.

Q. I sometimes hear from collectors who are exclusively interested in your work. Aside from your obviously high standards, why do you believe you have so many devout followers?

A. I've been very fortunate over the years to have gained support from several collectors, I try to be as loyal to them as they have been to me. If given the choice between doing commissions, I'm probably more apt to choose a project for one of my collectors. They've come to know what to expect from me and that they can trust I'm not going to send them something I'm not happy with. It's good to work with that kind of familiarity, it's a lot less stressful once you've already established that kind of trust. I also have some commercial clients who have been great supporters of my work and always try to give them equal time.

Q. The market of garage-kit hobbyists and artists is sometimes tricky to navigate, yet you’ve become known as a beacon of professionalism and reliability. What advice would you offer to other sculptors who may struggle with managing the business end of things?

A. When dealing with modelers, collectors, or other clients I believe it's always important to conduct oneself professionally. I would suggest to anyone wanting to enter the industry that its very important to maintain good communication, especially when making transaction from afar. Whether through the mail, phone or internet, just a simple message saying you received their order or payment to reassure them their money didn't just disappear into the oblivion. And if its going take longer than expected to complete the project or fill the order, send a quick status update. When something comes up and there's a delay most people are understanding as long as you keep them in the loop.

It's important to always keep improving or honing your skills, produce a quality product and you'll gain repeat customers. And moreover its very important to self promote and get your name out there, advertise where you'll reach the largest audience. The Garage-Model business is sort of a niche industry, so it's important to utilize the resources available. The internet is invaluable so create a user friendly website that showcases your work, follow the online forums and network with related site.

Another thing I'd suggest, in regards to shipping, is to make sure to pack everything extra good. There's an art to packing things to ship and not everyone does it well. There's nothing more frustrating to a modeler or collector than to received their item or items damaged, frustrating on both ends. I've had pretty good luck but every now and then something I've sent will get broken. And when that happens I'd say be prepared to replace or fix it at your expense. I'd rather lose a little money having another cast made, or spend time fixing a sculpt than to lose a customer.

Q. Are there any species or subjects that you’ve wanted to sculpt, but have yet to tackle?

A. I have been threatening to sculpt a Short-Face Bear for some time now, I've had many requests and inquiries in recent years of its availability in model form. I've started to sculpt it a few times but always seem to have other more pressing projects come up so I keep pushing it back. There are a lot of Pleistocene mammal fans out there that would like to see that model produced. I'd also like to eventually sculpt a Mastodon, another common Pleistocene mammal and maybe some other prehistoric elephants as well. And although not a species nor even a real creature, I'd like to maybe sculpt and produce a dragon model since I'm also a fan of the Fantasy genre.

Q. You have become a particular favorite for commissions, not merely for commercial producers, but for personal collectors who just want a single original sculpt for themselves. What should people know before they contact you, if they intend to commission a piece from you?

A. I feel very fortunate that my sculpting work is often desired by both collectors and commercial producers alike. Time and energy is always the biggest factor when deciding to take on new projects. Sometimes I just have to clear my plate and finish up existing projects or honor prior commitments before I'll agree to do more. I like to take short breaks between projects so as not to get burned out and I try not to work on to many projects at one time. I like to focus in on individual sculpts and give them the time and attention they deserve to be successful. I tend to stay away from the really large sculpts, sculptures that are difficult to fit into an oven and have to be made in segments, or projects that are really heavy and awkward to handle. And equally I'm not particularly interested in the really small scales that require magnifying lenses and tweezers to work on.

Fortunately at any given time I seem to have several projects either in the works or in the hopper. And as far as future commissions go, we just have to evaluate those as they present themselves. For anyone serious about a commission they can always email me so we can discuss it, I try to answer any and all emails as quickly as I can.

Q. I am surprised whenever an artist is ambivalent to the idea of keeping a personal casting of their own work. Are there any models that hold a special place in your heart?

A. In regards to keeping castings or copies of my work, that's really not that important to me. Over the years I've accumulated so much that my work room is just littered with stuff, I have no place to put it all, my shelves are full. The idea of hoarding more things, to collect dust on the shelf or inevitably end up in a box in storage, just doesn't appeal to me. I'm a bit of a minimalist at heart and am usually content just knowing copies of my work exist in the possession of serious collectors.

Every now and then I'll sculpt something that I really like or feel would be good to have as reference for future projects. A few years ago I sculpted a Coelacanth fish for a commercial client in Japan, it was heavily detailed and took me several attempts at the scales to get it to where I thought was right. Once it was finished I was very pleased with the outcome and was happy to receive a complimentary copy to hold on to. I also have T-rex/Triceratops model painted by Steve Riojas that I'm proud of, I sculpted the original about ten years ago and and it still remains one of my more popular models.

Q. What should we do for a future commission? Have you been getting any specific requests lately that we should consider?

A. Well that's always the question, what should we do next, what's the latest and greatest subject matter that modelers want to see? I mentioned earlier that I occasionally get the short-face bear request but I'd think you're probably more in tune with what hobbyist want since you sell a much wider diversity of models than me. I know you can't go wrong with the predators, modelers love teeth and claws.