Automata, puppets and clocks

Storytelling through automata with Rachel Larkins

Ref: S3D09474



About this course

Consider the potential of automata to tell a story through drawing and making inspired by antique and contemporary moving toys. Develop an idea for a moving sculpture from two-dimensional sketch to three-dimensional realisation.

Course Description

This course aims to introduce you to automata by looking at historical and contemporary examples using slides and the tutor's personal collection. Drawing can be used to explore the relationship between storytelling and automata and as part of the design process, with the end goal being to create an automaton which exploits simple mechanisms and incidental movement.

The emphasis is on a playful approach where drawing skills are beneficial but not essential as an experimental approach can be employed when communicating ideas in two-dimensions. You will make a simple moving toy/prototype using drawing to express ideas and develop character designs. Initial mechanisms will be created from a standard template using wood and students are welcome to bring found objects if they wish to remodel or adapt. The decoration and refinement of pieces will also be guided as individual projects progress.

Through presentation, discussion and demonstration, we will consider the potential of automata to tell a story. You may wish to bring stories or treasured personal objects which contain a hidden meaning as we begin to explore our unique attachment to objects through drawing and making. These drawings may simply inspire ideas or become a more prominent feature of your project. If you have a sketchbook, please bring it. Otherwise, paper will be provided by the tutor. Highly developed drawing skills are not essential, but a willingness to experiment is.

First evening's teaching session will be an outline the intriguing historical development of automata, looking at some key mechanical spectacles and introducing you to some of the themes explored by modern day makers.

On our first full day, we will look at a collection of antique and contemporary examples of moving toys. We will reflect on aspects such as the use of materials, construction and experiment with simple moving mechanisms, using drawing to underpin our investigations. You will be introduced to available equipment and media, and begin working on a moving object with a standard mechanism which you may choose to repeat or adapt.

Day Two: As a group we will discuss potential ways to develop moving sculptures from two-dimensional rough sketches to three-dimensional realisations and consider how materials such as printed ephemera, collage and paper can be used within your automata. You are also welcome to bring your own materials which may supplement those provided by the tutor. The tutor will provide wood, paper, collage materials, wire. For the remainder of the course you will work on your own individual project with support and guidance.

Day Three: We will develop and refine your final model(s). You may wish to focus on honing your mechanism or the decorative treatment of your piece. As the course draws to a close, we will gather together as a group for a mini private view and to discuss possible future projects.

By the end of the course, you will be able to create a simple moving object which reflects an element of storytelling and will leave with an awareness of historical and contemporary automata makers. An understanding of the ways in which individual pieces could be developed further independently will also be increased through peer feedback and tutor support.


Arrival Day - this is the first date listed above

Courses start early evening. Residential students to arrive from 4pm, non-residential students to arrive by 6.45pm.

6.45pm: Welcome, followed by dinner (included).

8 - 9pm: First teaching session, attendance is essential.

Daily timetable

Classes 9.15 - 5pm, lunch is included.

From 6.30pm: Dinner (included for residential students).

Evening working - students may have access to workshops, but only with their tutor's permission and provided any health and safety guidelines are observed.

Last day

Classes 9.15am - 3pm, lunch is included.

Residential students are to vacate their rooms by 10am please.

(This timetable is for courses of more than one day in length. The tutor may make slight variations)

Course Materials


  • A supply of useful materials to make your piece are included, including some plywood, wire, greyboard, paper (including tissue), dowel, nails, paper, glue, string, limited collage materials, paint, some drawing materials.

What students need to bring

  • Useful hand tools such as scalpels, scissors, pliers, paintbrushes, rulers, which you may have
  • Any favoured drawing materials, sketchbooks, if you have them
  • Bring ideas for your own stories, found objects and unfinished projects to develop or use as starting points if you wish. These can include:
  • Any objects you would like to draw or use for inspiration
  • Collage material/ printed ephemera for your automata
  • An idea of a narrative (this could be based on the object you bring or a favourite story)

Available to buy

  • Available from shop:
  • Drawing materials, including pens, pencils, charcoal, oil pastels, sketchbooks and cartridge paper
  • Paints and paintbrushes
  • Scalpels and craft knives
  • Available from tutor:
  • A limited supply of those materials which are not available in the shop

"The tutor was knowledgeable about her subject, friendly and welcoming.  The course had been carefully planned and well resourced with enough structure to allow those with little experience to flourish whilst also enabling those with some experience the freedom to refine techniques and develop creatively. The group size was perfect."

Sarah, 2019


Rachel Larkins

FDAD Core Team Tutor and Short Course Tutor

Rachel Larkins is a tutor on the FDAD program and has been teaching short courses at West Dean since 2017. Rachel holds a distinction level Masters in Sequential Design/ Illustration from Brighton University following an early training in Textile Art (BA Hons). Rachel's work encompasses drawing and narrative sculptures and is held in numerous private collections.


Residential option available. Find out accommodation costs and how to book here.

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