Tim Bruckner is one of the best commercial artists on the scene today. He’s worked for years in the toy business and has an incredible portfolio of toys in his catalog. He recently announced his retirement, and we approached him about doing an interview. He quickly jumped at the chance and offered to answer some questions. As I reread the answers, there was a part of me that wanted to have this interview in the setting of podcast or Charlie Rose-style video. There are so many questions that I want to continue to ask, but it’s impossible to cover in this format, and I think we’d end up with a small book.
That also led me to wanting to drop everything and move to his house and become an apprentice. Rereading this, there is so much that Tim has to offer to up and coming commercial artists. I hope you all enjoy this as much as we did! On to the Q and A.
Fwoosh: You recently made an announcement to retire from commercial sculpting. What was the reason for that?
TB: After completing the Hush Batman/Catwoman statue for DC, my wife and I went on a mini-vacation. I didn’t actually think about, specifically. But it must have been churning away in the back of my mind, because, when we got home, I knew it was time. I’ve been at this for forty-four years and have been lucky to work for some amazing companies with some of the best Art Directors and Product Mangers in the business. Over the years, the most enjoyable pieces have always been the most challenging. Enjoyable because they were challenging. But you don’t come across them very often. Whenever I had some down time, I worked on my own stuff. I’d set myself up a series of problems and see if I could solve them. Often, that personal work helped inform my professional work. Green Lantern vs. Sinestro, DC Dynamics came out of things I’d developed in my personal work.
Companies seem to have become more cautious in product design. The chances of being able to influence a commercial design these days seemed much less likely. So, rather than wait for those opportunities, I decided I’d create them on my own, for myself. There’s things I can do with my own stuff a commercial company is not in a position to do. So, it just seemed like the right time to pursue my own work and accept commissions. A commission is a great way to open up design possibilities in collaboration with a client. The Green Lantern commission for Don Bohm is a perfect example of a collaboration that pushed the design past what would have been possible as a commercially created piece. I guess I’m at a place where I want to see if I can surprise myself. Design myself into a corner and see if I can find a way out.
Fwoosh: You’ve been in commercial art for a number of years. My first exposure to your work was through DC Direct, and I know you worked on the Toy Biz 5-inch Marvel figures. When did you start working as a commercial sculptor?
TB: I started sculpting professionally at eighteen. The guy across the street from us had a jewelry store in Beverly Hills, California. I was deep into my Renaissance period at the time and was working on a set of buttons that could, in my imagination, be used as cloak closures for Pope Julius X. Bill had come over to visit my folks. I showed him the sculpts and he offered me a job. I spent almost two years with him. It was the best education and young sculptor could have possibly hoped for. I learned how to work with wax, make molds and chase and finish metals. I learned casting theory, design and the pragmatism of art as product. Art in the service of its application. Aside from being aware of various materials and their limitations, understanding what a job needed to be, what it needed to do and then design art into it was invaluable.
Fwoosh: My favorite sculpt of yours is still the DC Direct Modern Superman. Both Superman and Cyborg Superman. Did you enjoy working on that line?
When we did the Modern Superman action figure, points of articulation was a big deal in the action figure business. The more the better. It didn’t matter if they made the figure better. It mattered how many you could list on the box. That figure had 22 points of articulation and I think they really did add up to it being a highly poseable and credible figure. Any point of articulation compromises the sculpt and the trick is to construct the articulation to impact the visual as little as possible. I did about 142 action figures for DC and the goal throughout was to maintain the integrity of sculpt as a full unarticulated figure. There were a number of figures all around that same time that I enjoyed working on. When DC started doing artists specific figures, it got a lot more interesting. Some translated easily, Alex Ross, for example. And some, like Frank Miller and Ed McGunniess were more challenging. Its always more fun to work on something with a higher potential for failure. Keeps you on your toes.
Fwoosh: A number of years ago it was discussed on clubhouse.net forums that you had your own sculpting wax formula. Why make your own formula instead of using Castilene, Super Sculpey, or Azbro?
Whatever works for you is whatever works for you. Often, the material we’re first introduced to is the one we end up staying with. But just as often, as we work, the longer we work, the more we understand what we want from a material based on what we want to accomplish. Same with sculpting tools. I used a form a wax in conjunction with a wax pen when I first started out. Castilene isn’t wax pen friendly. Super Sculpey, for me, and my experience with it, is way too much work and isn’t a material given to alterations. Azbro is a hard wax which necessitates a lot of scraping, and tool finish. I never want my sculpting material to dictate what I can and can’t do. I don’t want to compromise my vision because of the limitations of my material. The wax I use is very user friendly, works great with a wax pen, allows me tight detail and a clean and easy finish. And almost more importantly, it allows me to change my mind up until I go to Master Molds. And I have the control to modify its nature based on my needs. If I want a wax that’s more clay-like, I can alter the formula to produce it. If I need a firmer wax for crisper sharper detail, by adjusting the quantities of the ingredients, I can make that happen as well. It all about control and, as a hands-for-hire sculptor, the ease to make alterations to a piece as per my client’s desire. There’s a while section devoted to wax and wax methods is my book, Pop Sculpture.
Fwoosh: Did you ever think about making the jump to digital sculpting?
Nope. I’m old school. For me, the material is a collaborator. And to be honest, more times than I’d like to admit, the clay or wax I’m using turns out to be a lot smarter and a lot more intuitive than I am. Light affects a sculpture more than anything else. A change in light can change the way a sculpture looks, the way it feels, the kind of emotional response it can create. You get to walk around it, in real space, see it at different angles, different perspectives. That’s impossible with digital modeling. You also get to evaluate it within it environment. And traditional sculpture lets the process become an integral part of the look of the piece. The way your thumb pulls or pushes the clay, ties the piece to its physical creation. Digital modeling does some things remarkably well. It can mimic things that would take a traditional sculptor a huge amount of time to accomplish, if at all. What it seems not to be able to do, as it is now, is to create a sense of life. To invest a touch of humanity to a work of sculpture is hard enough with traditional methods. I think its almost impossible using a monitor as you reference point.
Fwoosh: Do you also paint your prototypes?
Yes. It goes back to control. Because I paint my own stuff, I can design and sculpt a piece knowing what the paint will do. I make my own molds, cast my own resins and do my own paint masters because I need to know that whatever I give my client is what I mean for them to have. If they don’t like what I’ve done, they’ve not like what I’ve done. The buck, as is said, stops with me. And that’s the way I like. I don’t ever want to be at the mercy of someone else’s interpretation of my intentions. And, the more I control the process, the more time I have to sculpt, rather than push a deadline trying to fit into someone else’s schedule. Again, there’s a whole section about painting in the book. Kat Sapene, a remarkable painter, gives some great advice in that chapter.
Fwoosh: I’ve seen you post pictures of album covers that you worked from the ’70s. In addition to sculpting, you can design. What kind of education experience do you have in design?
For better or for worse, I’m self taught. I wasn’t smart enough and my folks weren’t rich enough to send me to art school. So, I learned on the job. And each job informed the next and the next. There’s no greater teacher than panic and poverty. There’s also the advantage of coming up when 99% of what you did went un-credited. If you turned in a turd, it sunk to the bottom of a commercial well. You were able to construct your portfolio with only the work you wanted your AD to see. You had room to fail and learn from your failure. These days, everyone gets credit for everything, which ain’t necessarily a good thing. I worked at DC for three years before I got credit. If it hadn’t been for Digger and his push to credit his talent, we still might be trying to break down that barrier. Its been a long time since I’ve done any real 2D art. Its something I’m anxious to explore again.
Fwoosh: Have you enjoyed your time as commercial artist?
I have and I haven’t. Its allowed me to hone my skills, work with some amazing people and produce some pretty good work over the years. To be able to support my family for this many years as an artist is a pretty rare thing and I’m pretty damn grateful to have been able to do it. But there are down sides, as there is with any profession. Because my job, for the most part, has been to interpret, to mimic, I have virtually no personal style. People have told me they can recognize a Bruckner at first glance, but I don’t see it. You look at a Shiflett Brothers piece and there ain’t no mistaking it for the work of anyone else. And there a number of sculptors working today whose style is so recognizable, it gives them the freedom to do whatever they want and still be true to who they are. And, as a freelancer, the time you get to invest in your own work has to be sandwiched in between paying gigs. I’ve started dozens of pieces with the intent they’d become one in a series only to finish one, maybe two, before I had to go back to work. The only series I’ve been able to compete was the first four figures of my Christmas Carol Collection. And that after forty plus years as a professional. Both of those issues I hope to investigate in my semi retirement.
Fwoosh: What is one of your favorite works?
There are a few pieces I’ve done over the years I have a fondness for. Time is a great healer. Pieces I thought I could have done a better job with don’t seem quite as flawed as when I first did them. Most of the pieces I still like are personal pieces because, well, they’re personal. They mean something to me in a way contract work can’t. Having said that, of my commercial work, they have a tendency to mean more because they were pivot points in my career. The Brian Bolland Wonder Woman because I got to design the back of the piece on my own. After several back and forths, Brian wasn’t sure how to resolve the reverse and so let me come up with the design for the back of the statue. A lot of the Alex Ross action figures turned out pretty well. Green Lantern vs. Sinestro was a turning point for me. But I suppose I’m most proud of the DC Dynamics pieces. I was given a lot of freedom with that line and got to do some things with those sculptures I can’t imagine being able to do today. As far as personal work goes, I’d have to say Belle et la Bete still holds up for me, as does the Christmas Carol pieces, Major Marjorie, He who Laughs Last and Water Nymph.
Fwoosh: Which sculpt would want back for a redo?
There’s nothing I’ve done I don’t think I could have done better. Would I go for a redo? Probably not. Everything piece is a record of where I was at a certain time in my career. It reflects what I understood about what I was doing when I was doing it. Would I tell you which ones I think could benefit from a second pass? No.
Fwoosh: What is your opinion on how the industry of action figure toys has changed in the last decade from the business perspective?
I have no clue regards a business perspective. My impression is, neither do the companies. It’s voodoo science. When was the last time you saw an action figure and thought, wow, that’s amazing! They got bigger. The sculpts became highly detailed. The paint apps much more sophisticated. But have they gotten any better? It feels like a numbers game to me. Produce X-amount of product per quarter. As long as they meet their production goals, the assumption is, people will buy. But maybe that assumption isn’t as true as it used to be.
Fwoosh: Retail toys have increased steadily in price over the past decade, do you attribute this to how much more expensive they are to produce?
There’s that to be sure. Ever since China hosted the Olympics and scavenged statue and toy companies to help build infrastructure for the games, fewer workers returned to their previous jobs. I think factories are still recovering. But everything has become more expensive. More expensive everywhere. For everything. Toys are no different.
Fwoosh: What do you think about the rise of expectations from collectors over the last decade?
I don’t think collectors expect enough. I think they have a right to better, more inventive deigns. I think it would be helpful for toy and collectible statue companies to actually create product with collectors in mind, rather than dump time and resources into movie related properties that no one really wants and will end up in the sales bin at Wal-Mart. It looks to me like a lot of copy and catch up. There’s almost no difference between companies aside from maybe character or size. But there is a mind-numbing sameness. It doesn’t have to be that way. Some of the shortcomings are due to deadline scheduling. There are some Japanese companies that spend a year on a particular product and it shows. The designs are inventive and the workmanship is amazing! I haven’t seen a single American company that can compete. Its not that we couldn’t, its just not the way we approach the art of it. And there is art in it, if given the time to produce it.
Fwoosh: Where do you see the toy and statue industry going in the future?
Beats then hell out of me. I truly believe that the first company that puts design and invention ahead of product schedules will have the edge. Seriously, a company previews its next quarter’s offerings and there might be two or three pieces worth as second look. The balance of the stuff is meant to bulk up the numbers knowing someone will buy it. The only way there’ll be better product is if collectors demand it. Nothing speaks louder to a company that a descending sales sheet.
Fwoosh: If I remember correctly you enjoy whiskey tasting. What’s your favorite?
I still enjoy a good beverage now and then but my discerning pallet has been dramatically compromised. I lost a large portion of my sense of smell through the use of a certain cold medication. Most of what we taste is the result of what we smell. I don’t think I could tell the difference between of a Glenmorangie from a Macallan. These days, a nice palatable whiskey, a splash of bitters and some soda and I’m a happy man.
Fwoosh: Now that you are retired, will you take time off, or will you continue to sculpt?
I plan to take more time considering what I want to do. I’m going to explore returning to 2D work, just for the fun of it. I’ve got a couple of detective novels scheduled to be published by ProSe Press this year and I’ve got some 3D projects lined I’ve wanted to try for years. There are a few commissions on the schedule I’m looking forward to getting into. Mostly, I hope to take more time enjoying the little treasures of everyday life. When your life is tied to the constant crush of deadlines, its hard to carve out enough time to let your mind wander. We don’t leave ourselves enough time to ruminate. Its when we give ourselves the time and space to consider nothing in particular that inspiration arrives. So, that’s the plan. I’ll keep you posted.