Sculpting from Life...


My friend Carron had a little bit of time and stopped by my studio last week. She is an educator studying for her PHD and offered to let me model her while she studied and graded some papers. I jumped at the chance to have a life model in the studio so put my ceramic clay aside, grabbed some plumbing pipe and a board and quickly built and armature and started working. Carron is originally from South Africa and has a unique blend of ethnicities including African, Indian and Dutch. It's fun to think that my friend and I may share common Scandinavian ancestors.

The first few hours were spend building up the general forms and shapes. Since I hadn't been warming clay in a clay warmer I opted to use a very soft clay from Chavant called Clayette (soft). I do love the buttery feel of this clay and I can quickly warm up cubes of it in the microwave (high for 2 minutes) for a fast application. When it cools back to room temps it is still quite soft so for me it only works for larger works - much too soft for small pieces. It will also require a light touch when it comes time to apply the rubber mold as it is fairly easy to impact this clay and distort with the brush application of rubber.


When I first start a portrait I am putting the clay on deliberately with my hands. Once the bulk of it is one I start working on planes using my largest wood tool. Think of construction your portrait bust like you would a house and use your tools in the same order: large to small. Start with bulldozer types of tools like blocks of wood and large wood tools like the one shown below (available at Sculpture Depot or Sculpture House). As your work progresses you can use medium tools and only when nearly complete should you pick up a detail too. Train yourself to use the biggest tool possible for the job - doing so early on in your work will ensure that the forms and planes are strong, making the entire work better.



Of course you should never be afraid to so some 'surgery' on the work either. If you find an area that needs removing or refining it often works better to take a knife and slice and carve the work. The benefit is that you are automatically creating strong planes that you can later soften...but if you use a wire tool or rake it is easy to fussily scrape away and loose the strong form and at the same time create a mess of crumbles and hills and valleys that are visually distracting at best and misleading and form-reducing at worst. The wonderful thing about clay is that you can ruthlessly slice and carve clay off your work but add it back if you need too!


When working I find it extremely helpful to go back and 'draw' on the surface. I'll often draw areas of muscles to reinforce to me where the muscles are working or relaxed. It is also helpful to draw geometric representations of areas you'll be working next. I new that the there were areas of bone and cartilege in the nose and brow bone areas that were in need of definition and refining. Since I want to continually move around and work on all areas of the head at one time I didn't want to dwell on these areas and get them too refined yet. So drawing onto the surface of the clay reminds me of what needs to be worked on next and also gently tricks my eye into 'seeing' these improved forms while working on other areas. You can 'draw' and 'erase' these geometric reminders as many times at you need while working and often gives you a roadmap as to what to tackle next.


You can see the 'drawing' in place on her nose. I'll follow this around the head and draw in other areas that need tending too next as I continue in blocking in the masses. I can't overstate how important it is to keep moving around the sculpture and trying to bring each area up to the same level of finish. It's so seductive to get noodling away on an eye - fall in love the work that you have done only to find that it isn't right. It happens a lot, especially to beginning student who discover something they hadn't noticed or mastered before and get excited about that part of sculpting. Their enthusiasm carries them away and they work hard on something only to find that it really isn't the right size, depth or even the correct proportion. Then they'll try hard to make the rest of the sculpt fit this one element. Trust me, it will never work. It is best overall to destroy that which you fell in love it. Sacrifice that 'perfect' eye or nose and start it over, correcting those problems and reining in your temptation to finish one area rather than work on all areas together. You won't really have lost all that hard work, you did it once, you'll be able to do it again. Lucky for you, in this digital age you can take a photo of the prize before you rip it off - reminding you of what you did right.

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