Scientists and artists share similar attitudes and discipline toward exploring their subjects. Both rely on former research of their subjects, however unlike scientists, artists rarely give prior results credit or citation. Results are often reached incrementally as better techniques are available. Both disciplines force practitioners to think in creative ways. Scientists and artists create their own problems and then solve them. There is a lot of chemistry and material science in origami, just as there is a lot of folding in the natural world.
Step process for creating an origami model
Research the subject. I go to where animals live, observe them, and take notes and photographs.
Determine what elements of a subject best expresses its being, and what elements should be left out of the final model.
Create a basic design to capture the important elements of your subject, with the fewest folds. Often I will come up with 5 to 6 designs and then choose among them. This process can take me an hour or up to several weeks of time.
Add appropriate details. Too many details can detract from the overall effect of the model, just as not enough silence in music can result in noise.
Select paper for the final model. I take color, weight, texture, and stiffness into consideration. Most often I sandwich two pieces of paper together to yield a stiffer paper with a different color on each side for bi-colored models.
For models with multiple folded elements, do several drawings of how the pieces will go together and select the best one.
Fold the model and assemble the pieces.
Folding large models can take hours over several days. Often I dampen the paper with a sponge to make it more pliable (wet folding). This allows me to use thicker paper for a more permanent model when it dries.
Final shaping to breath some life into the model. If I can not achieve the posture I want with a dry model, I wet it, bend it into its final shape and tie it down on pegboard to dry.
I have developed many ways for mounting and preserving my sculptures including casting origami salmon inside a plastic stream.
Exploring the limits of the design. I make new positions and expressions in my subjects by adding extra pleats and/or borders to the original design.
Diagramming. It is one thing to design a model and another to diagram its steps so that anyone can make it. This latter process often forces me to redesign the model. Diagramming a model can take me two weeks.
I like to tell little stories in paper. First I describe in words and drawings the elements that most say what the story is about. If it is a single animal, I research what features most say “this is a polar bear or a kangaroo rat”. Often this discussion revolves around what I can leave out. I then fold a square or rectangle with the fewest folds to achieve this basic body plan. I rarely use recognizable bases. Once the basic features are present, I see how I can alter the design to add features and make the piece more permanent.
Origami solves a scientific query
At the southern end of the Central Valley in California is a community of threatened species that survives in isolated patches of habitat. Some of what has not been sprayed by pesticides or paved is home to the short-nosed kangaroo rat.
This mouse-sized threatened species is more like a squirrel than a rat. It has a fur-covered tail and metabolizes almost all of its water needs from dry seeds. Its kidneys are over 30-times more capable than ours.
After 2-years of trying to get a study permit from state and federal officials, I was allowed to radio-collar 5 individuals, 2.5 of each sex I suppose. When later I was refused permission to live-trap and release individuals, I had to come up with a study plan that relied on passive technology. Origami helped me think outside the box. Just as features that are close to each other are sometimes folded from disparate parts of a square, I needed to connect with other disciplines to solve this problem.
What makes elevators work in the first place? Elevator buttons are passive resistors. There is a linear relationship between the pressure applied to them and changes in resistance of the electrical current running through them. I put three of these buttons under a tray filled with seeds baked in desert soil, and then attached 48 of these trays with kilometers of wire to a data logger that kept track of changes in each tray’s resistance. Every time a kangaroo rat hopped on or off a tray, the data logger recorded the duration and time of this event.
Armed with this data I could vary where I placed trays (in the open or under shrubs), whether the trays had seeds or not, and what happened when owls and foxes entered the study site.
Origami thinking saved my dissertation!