Using Paint and Plastics to Make Realistic Fake Cow Grass


A few years ago I wrote a series of short stories, one of which was about a social contract in which people were allowed to remain in an area if they totally blended in by wearing a camouflage suit. It was based on this story that I decided to make these red-soil-with-cow-grass ghillie suits:


In this city, all private land parcels exceeding the specified size must allocate at least 10% of green spaces on their land as a “permitted camouflage zone”. People who wish to use parts of these private gardens for their own leisure are legally permitted to do so, so long as they are in camouflage. Special camouflage suits are manufactured and sold to suit every type of urban space. Members of the public blend seamlessly into the private gardens, private landowners are unable to see the public in their parks — the suits rendering them invisible on first glance.

Some entrepreneurial individuals have been trawling through the streets collecting soil and plant material, sewing the organic material into suits for would-be park goers. In particular, homeless people have been taking the most advantage of this scheme, devising the most ingenious ways of producing a camouflage suit at almost no cost, and becoming virtually invisible within some of these parks. Many people in this city have mastered the fine art of blending in and remaining unseen whilst still in plain view.

It turns out that a clod of recently deposited soil isn’t really a realistic clod of soil unless there is a bit of grass poking out of it. The mound of soil must have grass because soil is the surface through which things intersect (light, buildings erupt from its surface, shards of greenery, etc), and without the eruption of grass from the surface it is hard to appreciate the continuity of the surface.

Like this…

So it turned out that my attempts to make a landscape work soon became a totally ridiculous painstaking endeavour to produce the most realistic cow grass by hand in artisanal small batches……

When I began conceptualising this new work, I originally intended to digitally print everything, but then as things turned out, I wasn’t quite satisfied with the quality of the digital colour once it was printed on fabric. Often digital print on textile has the odd, dullened sheen of ink deposited on the surface, dependent very much on the base that it is printed on. Mainly the fabric texture getting in the way. But colour is so important in this. As someone who has done a fair bit of digital painting, I consider myself quite knowledgeable about how digital colour or colour on screen works, but paint has always been a whole other territory. I don’t know so much about all the different mediums, or why there are so many different types of whites available in the shops, or why I should buy one brand of paint over another. So it wasn’t my first choice to work directly with colour or paint… its not a medium which I’m 100% comfortable with…

Fortunately, what I found is that one’s understanding of digital colour addition can be easily translated into real-life paint colour addition. And as it turns out – boy oh boy do I enjoy painting! I didn’t even think I would enjoy it so much! I don’t want to just paint abstract or random things, but I want to gain total mastery over the medium. To me, if I haven’t become good or precise enough to paint something ultra photorealistic at the snap of a finger, then I don’t think I could allow myself to generate any ol’ random paintings just yet. After this project is done, I think i’d like to try to master photorealistic painting. You know, obsessively painting images of thin-film interference or iridescence or something totally ridiculous like that. (But since I’m working towards a deadline, I’ll leave my idle dreams of painting images of tempered metal for another time…)

To the left, the paint, and to the right, the colour sample (some actual soil collected from outside)
It was easy to obtain an accurate colour sample for the red soil I wanted because I just kept a bowl of soil in the house for reference. However, I realised that the red of the soil was not necessarily recognisable as a familiar sight to Singaporeans – unless accompanied by a sparse smattering of grass, in particular, the grass known as “Axonopus compressus” or “cow grass”. But since grass is living material and not mineral, keeping a colour sample was harder.

Here was the grass in situ… (on a grassy mound in Buangkok)

First attempts at making a colour reference failed because I am a monster and I actually tried to laminate the fresh green grass to preserve. Not a great idea because grass obviously changes colour when COOKED, like any other plant or vegetable.

I iteratively improved the colour until it was as close as possible to the real thing. I don’t really like painting on paper. But I really LOVE painting on a transparent plastic medium. The ease of painting on smooth plastic, the way you can overlay it onto other things. I’ve tried cellulose acetate (aka OHP transparency) but that is a medium known to be vulnerable to yellowing and warping over time, breaking down into acetic acid or the plasticisers migrating outwards to the surface leaving a weird white powdery deposit. Now I’m trying Dura-Lar film which is supposed to be a mix between Acetate and Mylar – supposedly archival grade material which is partly made out of the resin Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET).

Finally, here is the colour reference I made for the plastic grass that I seem to be making in a very tedious fashion BECAUSE I HAVE TO DO THINGS THE HARD WAY.



I ended up putting some of the grass (that I hadn’t inadvertently cooked through lamination) into a dish of water and now it appears I am also growing grass at home. Maybe I will put it in the snail tank, so the snails can feed on it, and then the cycle will be complete?…

My basket of realistic fake cow grass

You can come to see the grass on the work I produced for the President’s Young Talents 2018 show!

8Q @ Singapore Art Museum
8 Queen St, Singapore 188535
Gallery 3.12 (Level 3)
4 Oct 2018 – 27 Jan 2019

Snails of the Soil

If you have ever shopped at Poundland, you’ll know those bags of soil which they always start selling in the summertime. They also sell those tiny plant pot kits with tiny portions of soil of unknown provenance, all of which look a bit like crushed mica and is often very terrible at holding water. I’ve always wondered where on earth the bits of soil came from, and where they had travelled from. But of course the answer is probably something very mundane, not at all the reveal of a big soil secret, and more the result of a logistical business decision: what is the most expedient way to run a business selling a discount bag of soil for a pound?

Over here in Singapore the only pot of soil that had been in my house for some time was actually the remains of a plant that Han had given to me (SORRY FOR THE BAD NEWS, HAN). Whilst I’ve liked keeping potted plants for many years I also know that introducing new plants to a collection of potted plants can result in you introducing new plant diseases or bugs in that will wipe out all your other plants. I think every single attempt of mine to start a high-rise garden has ended this way. I also have a problem of underwatering and overwatering my plants, despite knowing full well that the key to keeping the plants alive is finding the right level of water and nutrient for the plant. I looked into gaining more control over the feed through hydroponics, or something like rock wool, but I currently lack the space and equipment to do more.

Anyway I had the feeling that the soil I had in the pot from Han did not seem to be the optimum potting medium for the plant, because it kept drying out more quickly than I could water it (within a day). Perhaps because I kept the pot on the scorching windowsill here where the temperatures were insane.

When it dried out, the soil turned light brown instead of the black-brown peaty colour it used to have, almost with little white flecked crystals on top. I began rehydrating this pot of soil recently and upon being wetted it instantly went back to being black-brown in colour like this:

Strangely, this rehydration of a dried pot of soil appeared to have triggered something.

A day later I was looking at my pots of soil when I noticed that something was moving on top of it.

Five little snails had crawled to the surface of the barren pot…




“Tanah Goreng”: Residual granite soil sample

This weekend I wanted to conduct an extremely controlled and orderly soil sieving and drying process to obtain the raw material for the work that I’m currently building. (I mention orderly and controlled, but as you will see, it was anything but orderly in the end…)

You see, earlier this year I decided that I would build a work about soil. Long has soil been a material used in art as pigment, or in the production of clay and sculpture. It is depicted in landscapes as the all important horizon line, it is so ubiquitous that it is almost invisible, and for some reason we hardly have any reason to handle soil directly today. Everything is about sand sand sand. No one talks about the soil. So I wanted to study more about soil.

So I read up on the process for the wet preparation of soil samples. Got all the gear ready, collected and measured a cup of residual granite soil (ie: that ubiquitous red soil which you see everywhere in Singapore), added clean water to it, and sieved the material through a food sieve into a stainless steel bowl (which was somewhat disturbingly similar to the same type of stainless steel bowl I used to eat my food). After that, I heated it on an infrared cooker which I placed at the end of the “yard”.

I used a food sieve although I had spent quite some time researching on test sieves – I really wanted to use a set of sieves of different sizes to enable me to determine the particle size within the residual granite soil I had collected and I had even gone as far as investigating whether I could build my own sieve shaker rig with a stepper motor. But then I fell off my chair when I looked at the prices of scientific grade test sieve sets. Perhaps I was looking to the most expensive brands (eg: Endecotts) but I hadn’t realised how pricey the equipment would be. I know they are important for determining the size of particles, and that the type of weave and small details about how it is made and tested are also reasons for it retailing at a very ‘specialist’ price – but can accuracy of sieve size truly justify the over-tenfold increase of the price of a single scientific grade test sieve as compared to a domestic flour sieve/food masher? I mean, is the test sieve made of gold??

Anyway, as an approximation – here I have used a discount flour sieve I bought from the humble AMK Fairprice. In any case, my main purpose here was to sieve out large rocks and other organic material from the collected soil, in order to obtain a fine dry sifted soil material.

Aaaand after I mentioned that I was reverting to using kitchen equipment in lieu of lab equipment… Zaki joked that it sounded like I was making “Tanah Goreng”. WELL THEN FOLKS, HERE IS RESIPI TANAH GORENG:


287g Tanah (soil)
500ml Air (water)

Add water and agitate with a spoon to loosen smaller sediment from larger sediment.
Strain different sized sediments into different pans.
Cook separate pans over low heat until completely dried.

Soil mixed with water forms a liquid which has a high viscosity meaning that when the water underneath reaches boiling point, the steam pressure begins to build up. First the steam pressure begins like a murmur on the surface, like a fluttering heartbeat; the soil slowly showing signs of life on the surface.

For quite some time the muddy soil soup simply sort of quivered in the pan, as if it were a blob of congealing Teh C in giant custard pudding form. Thoughts such as “AW, HOW PRECIOUS” and “Should I be photographing its first moments of life?” came to mind. But because it was taking so long to come to a boil I lost interest in watching it. I was not about to spend all evening watching a pot come to a boil. So I went away.

Next thing I knew, it had progressed to a whole new other level of horror…

What the…

What is this, splatter gore horror?…

Certainly a key lesson to be learnt from this is either to use a deeper or bigger pan – or boil a smaller quantity of mud if you do not wish to return to a red splattered scene like this (and a lot of cleaning work to be done).

The wild mud cook out continued the next morning, this time in more manageable smaller batches.

The soil was heated until it was dry and could be collected in large flakes.

A miniature martian landscape naturally emerged on the surface of each dry pan of soil.

For a moment I imagined that maybe Mars had also secretly boiled over when we weren’t looking at it, in order to get all these craters.

About 175g of material was recovered from an original 287g of collected raw material.