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Origami Challenge #9: Three Iconic Features

One time I was working at Taro’s Origami Studio and decided to try designing a Squirrel. Actually, I think I was aiming for a Beaver and landed on a Squirrel. I set my new model on display, and a kid looks at it: “I like that T-Rex.”

I still think it looks like a squirrel… What do you think? 

If you’re designing a super complex, hyper-realistic model, you’re working toward including every feature of the subject, down to the anatomically correct number of claws or further down to tessellating individual scales on the body. But what we consider complex is ultimately a whole bunch of simple things put together. Plus, not every origami model needs to be super complex. As I talked about in the previous challenge, sometimes you need models that can be quickly folded, are teachable to a wide skill range of folders, or want to embrace the creative elegance of economy. 

This is the first challenge where we say, “I want to design a [blank].” We’re starting with open space and using the Toolbox we’ve accumulated to help us figure out how to manifest a specific subject. The reason I don’t introduce this challenge sooner is because wide open space can be creatively daunting. It isn’t always – some people are used to letting their intuition fly and following where it leads. Personally, I find it helpful to have a tradition to start from, even if I wind up abandoning it completely.

For this challenge, rather than set out to design the entirety of your subject in one fell swoop, I encourage you to identify Three Iconic Features of your subject to focus on including in your model. Three feels like enough that the model is specific and detailed, but not so many that the task becomes overwhelming. When I first devised this challenge for a student, I was also thinking about the fullness of objects having three dimensions (length, width, and depth). Focusing on Three Iconic Features might give the model fullness and integrity without it becoming cluttered, and balancing economy with integrity will serve you as you come up with more intricate designs. Finally, to quote an old friend, “Three is magic.” 

Let’s start with a Cow Head (animal heads are great subjects for this challenge): What three features does the model need to clearly be a Cow Head? I would say the ears, the snout, and the horns. I’d then work toward the model making sure I have the necessary real estate and points for those features. If I’m able to add other features, the more the merrier! But as we’ve seen before, pre-determining limitations can be creatively beneficial. 

For a full-bodied animal, I find the general body shape is often one of the iconic features. A friend requested an origami Hippo, and I wanted to design a simple one. I focused on the snout, I thought having little ears was important (particularly to contrast the snout), and finally, I thought the body shape was important. I felt the body needed to be long enough to have space between the front and hind legs, and be substantial enough to support the head. The head/body proportion isn’t exactly as it would be for a live hippo, but if the body were too small, it might not be clear what the animal was. Whether it’s successful or not is irrelevant (and ultimately subjective) – determining those three features gave me concrete goals for the design. 

What about a Mouse? If you look at traditional origami Mouse models, I’d say the featured details are the tail, the ears, and the pointy face. Another artist might focus on having feet, or having more realistic proportions between the different parts of the body (head to body to tail). An interesting question would be how do you differentiate a Mouse from a Rat? Designing with that kind of consideration will make your models all the more specific, and the more you illuminate specificity, the more your unique artistry will emerge.

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