Fundamentals Of Portrait Sculpture
The Fundamentals of Portrait Sculpture
(Bust, Figurative, Relief, Monumental & Medallic)
by James J. Nance
The thoughts and discussions in this essay are based on my 35 years of experience and humbly offered as my personal opinions only; they are not intended to be the final authority on the subject. Although, I believe that most of my observations will be shared by other artists; some will undoubtedly find opposing and valid viewpoints. I offer these opinions, techniques, and discussions so that a prospective portrait client will know beforehand my sensitivities, philosophy, and techniques on the subject of portraiture. My goal is to offer a client the best sculpture possible while also tying to satisfy their desires and intentions.
A life size bronze portrait bust is the most dramatic and effective artistic medium for honoring a loved one or for expressing our respect for an individual’s contribution. Unlike a painting hung and forgotten on an invisible wall, a three dimensional bronze sculpture will always command attention and will elicit a strong emotion from the viewer. While a painting must be viewed from one angle, a sculptural bust has unlimited viewpoints which makes it more intimate and immediate.
Leaders in business, military, government, sports, philanthropy, entertainment, and civic affairs have all been memorialized with sculpture. The permanence, flexibility of placement, public exposure, and powerful message of a bronze sculpture make it the perfect medium to honor a person’s contribution to society. Unlike a painting, a bronze portrait bust or figure can be effectively displayed anywhere, indoors, or outdoors.
In the family, a husband and wife will often commission a pair of self portraits as a mutual gift of love and respect to the other, with the added benefit that the portraits will eventually be passed on to their children and grandchildren. A sensitive, timeless bust will become a cherished family heirloom and will provide pleasurable memories, comfort, and continuity to the family for generations to come. Most people who have never considered commissioning a portrait sculpture for themselves freely admit how wonderful it would be to have such a portrait of their departed parents or grandparents. Commissioning a self-portrait is a generous, priceless, and meaningful gift, which will become more and more appreciated and treasured as time goes by.
Another popular subject for family portraits is a small child whose parents wish to capture the innocent beauty for future memories. Not only does the portrait allow the parents to freeze and forever enjoy this fleeting age, but the child will eventually inherit the portrait and pass it on in turn to his or her own children. The most common commission is from parents who wish to have a sculpture of their grown children depicted when they were young.
If a portrait is not sculpted during a person’s life, friends, family, or associates may commission a portrait Posthumously. The main requirement for a successful posthumous portrait is the existence of a sufficiently large photograph collection, which shows different views of the subject’s head. Armed with this information an experienced sculptor who posses the skill for interpreting a collection of two-dimensional photographs into a three-dimensional sculpture can sculpt a posthumous portrait.
A portrait is far more than a photographic likeness. For a portrait to be successful it must capture the spirit of the subject. A portrait can be a bust, a full figure, or a relief of any part of the body as long as it fulfills the requirement of giving the viewer a glimpse through the artist’s eyes into the soul and personality of the subject. No two artists will create the same work of art even if the subject is the same. When we admire a work of art we are really seeing and appreciating the subject through the eyes and sensibilities of the artist. This is especially true of a portrait; it is essential that the artist be familiar with the subject in order to capture that sensitivity. In the creation of a portrait an artist will subconsciously and consciously reinterpret the subject and in that process will include as well as exclude the forms, composition, and details that hopefully achieve the goal of capturing a spirit. A portrait therefore represents the subject’s likeness and spirit as well as the unique vision of the artist.
The Portrait Bust:
The traditional concept of a portrait sculpture bust should include the head and shoulders and a portion of the chest. A portrait of a head only has serious drawbacks and should be avoided due to ghoulish effect of a disembodied head, like the result of a guillotine, which distracts from the overall impression of the portrait. In addition, the shoulders and chest of a subject support and the head in unique way specific to each individual and therefore contain important information on the personality of the subject. Personality attributes such as pride, sadness, pensiveness, defiance, happiness, etc are all related to the situation of the head on the body. Also a full shoulder and chest portrait will allow the artist to model appropriate clothing, which adds to the understanding of the subject. Without shoulders and chest to put the head in perspective, a disembodied head portrait may lack conviction and appear to be the result of a shortcut. With these personal opinions made, there are of course always exceptions. A few exceptionally talented sculptors have created sensitive portraits of heads and necks, but generally these have been monumental in size, and the skill of the sculptor in creating a captivating face has overcome any potential distractions caused by an absence of a chest and shoulder.
The Portrait Figure:
All figurative sculptures, which are designed to capture the spirit and likeness of a specific individual, are Portrait sculpture. This is particularly true of monumental sculpture. The challenge for the artist is considerable; in addition to capturing the subject’s spirit in the face, the artist must do the same for the figure. It is not enough to simply sculpt an anatomically correct generic body and add a recognizable face; the figure itself must convey the pose, stance, bearing, and presence of the subject. We are able to identify loved ones from a distance even without seeing their faces, because we subconsciously know the shape of their bodies and the way in which they stand and move. We also accept the reality of “body Language”, which conveys emotion and attitudes. For a figure portrait to be successful the artist must capture these elusive figurative portrait attributes; this skill requires a deep understanding and mastery of the human form combined with the subtleness of portraiture.
Portrait Relief Plaque:
A relief portrait sculpture can embody the figure or bust of a subject as well as selected background elements, which might reflect the person’s accomplishments. Relief sculpture is often used for memorial plaques on gravestones, architectural memorials, and historical dedications. In “Halls of Fame” the large number of inductees often dictate the use of relief plaques to prevent the floor space from becoming overcrowded with portrait busts. Although a relief sculpture appears to be a two-dimensional view, the sculpting process still requires a firm knowledge of three dimensional portrait interpretation by the artist. Although a live sitting is preferable a relief can be accomplished with a collection of photographs. Successful relief sculpture is considered a step beyond normal three-dimensional sculpture in difficulty.
There is a great deal of difference between a true sculptural relief medallion, which is a work of art, and a modern, mass produced, commercially etched coin. The 4 inch portrait medallion was first developed in Italy in 1436 and has enjoyed immense popularity ever since. The size is large enough to allow a detailed portrait sculpture yet small enough to be intimate and personal. Originally medallions were worn on ribbons or chains around the neck as the Olympic medallion is today. However, today medallions are more cherished as works of art and are typically displayed in a display box on a desk or curio cabinet.
Originally commissioned by the state, royalty, or wealthy clients, medallions were typically given to friends and associates to commemorate an important event in the life of the person or the nation. Usually medallions depicted a head on the front (obverse) side and a figure, architectural design, or allegorical image on the reverse. In more modern times medallions are still used by private individuals, business, or governmental agencies to commemorate an event but have evolved as works of art to tell a story between the two sides.
To create a personalized portrait medallion, the artist would first sculpt the relief of the subject desired by the client in a 12 inch round size. When the clay was complete, the relief would be cast in plaster for a final finishing. The plaster prototype would then be turned over to a minting company where it would be used to create a 4 inch hardened steel die (or any size desired). The medals would be stamped out of molten hot bronze ingots and then hand finished. Any number of medals can be ordered however the larger the edition the less the price per medal charged by the mint.
Composition in Portraiture:
We are all familiar with the concept of composition in figure sculpture or painting especially in work with more than one figure. The concept of composition in portraiture is just as important but far more subtle. There are hundreds of subtle decisions the artist must make which affect the overall credibility and composition of the portrait, such as the tilt and angle of the subjects eyes, facial expressions, turn of the lips, tilt and angle of the head, shift of the shoulders, stance, pose, posture, and the way the hand and fingers are held, just to name a few. In figurative portraits the pose is traditionally relaxed and the artistic focus should be on the individual instead of what the individual is doing. The goal is to achieve a figure portrait, which captures the subject’s likeness and allows the viewer a deeper understanding of the subject’s personality and spirit. Occasionally a restrained action pose may be appropriate if it serves to depict the subject’s personality.
Generic Faces and Figures:
In today’s art world, most sculptures comprise generic figures and faces of the artist’s own invention which are created for personal taste of the artist and the over all intent of the composition. Even though an artist may use a model, since there is no particular reason to make the resulting work recognizable as a portrait of the model, the artist will typically take artistic liberties and usually the end result will not be identifiable as one specific person. Many artists have naturally developed an identifiable style, which appeals to the artist’s clientele, and all of the artist’s work will bear this common look. The main purpose of these types of work lies in the composition, feeling, or message, which the artist strives to represent.
Fantasy portraits also fit into this category. Since we do not know what Adam or Eve, or King Arthur, or a Greek mythological character looked like, the artist is free to invent a face and body. The same applies to “Allegorical” figures, which were popular in the 19th century, for which an artist might have sculpted a figure to represent “Justice” or “Freedom” or “Victory.” Today allegorical figures are often used to honor and represent a generic professional like a “Solider” or a “Policeman” or a “Fireman.”
While the knowledge of anatomy and composition is important for generic figures and faces, it is not the same thing as creating a sensitive and credible portrait. The portrait artist must go far beyond the aspects of human anatomy to find the spirit of the subject both in body and in the face. This is an important distinction; just because a particular sculptor may be popular and successful, display great imagination, and create wonderful fantasy figures and compositions, that artist may or may not be able to create a recognizable and sensitive portrait of a specific individual. Although related, there are two distinct skills involved. A prospective portrait client should therefore be more concerned on the depth of an artist’s portraiture ability instead of the body of their generic work.
Portrait Impostures 1: (Life masks):
There are two methods, which are sometimes used to create a likeness, that do not qualify as a portrait: a Life Mask and a Computer scanned and laser cut replica. The Life Mask has been legitimately used for hundreds of years by artists to create a stand in for a subject who cannot be present during the progress of sculpting or painting a portrait. During the first sitting, the artist will make a mold of the subject’s face and from it create a plaster cast, which is later used by the artist to verify bone structure and general dimensions, augmented by scores of photographs and the artist’s personal observations. A cast is not a portrait for many reasons. First the process of applying mold material to the face will artificially compress and distort the fleshly features. Secondly the subject will be sitting very still eyes closed for several minutes during the process resulting in a cast, which will look lifeless and emotional less. Finally and most importantly there is no opportunity by the artist to interpret the subject’s personality into the clay; this interpretation is the main criteria for an artistic portrait. A cast therefore is a tool and an interesting craft, but not a portrait.
Portrait Impostures 2: (Laser scans):
The second imposter portrait method involves using a computer scan and a laser-cutting machine. Developed for industry to replicate and scale industrial models, a few artists have adapted this process to create what they claim are “portraits”, which although are technically accurate in form, lack any sensitivity or credibility. The subject will sit in a chair motionless for an extended period while a laser scanner will rotate around them taking thousands of precise measurements. The measurements will be complied in a computer and fed to a laser-cutting machine, which will cut the scanned image in a block of foam. A mold will be made from the foam and a bronze cast. Once again this method does not allow any input or interpretation by the artist, which is absolutely critical for clay to come alive and be classified as art. A scan verses an artist-sculpted portrait is the equivalent of a Polaroid photo compared to an oil painting. The resulting product will look stiff, artificial, awkward, cold, and completely lack any human emotion; it is a novelty not a portrait.
Scans are often legitimately used by artists to scale up a completed sculpture to a larger monumental size. However, the foam enlargement must still be covered in clay and resculpted to fit the specific demands and sensitivity of the new size.
Scans are used to scale a work to a smaller size, again a final re sculpting is required. Scans are also used by movie industry special effects artists.
Due to the many variables in any sculpture commission, it is not possible to quote a price, which will cover every project. Please call or write with your requirements and your project will receive a detailed all-inclusive bid based on a personal sitting or photographic work, bronze casting, finished and mounted on a standard marble and wood base, crated, and shipped. James Nance’s studio is in Loveland, Colorado USA. He will travel for a sitting any where in the USA or world.A mutually agreeable contract will be tailored to each specific commission.
The normal time required for creating a portrait bust is 10 to 12 months from the date of the first sitting to delivery of the final sculpture. A figure might require up to 18 months.. While this may seem lengthy, it is not. It can easily take 4 months for a foundry to make a mold and cast the bronze once the clay is sculpted. Actual time will depend on the artists previous commitments and the foundries casting schedule. It is essential that the sculpting phase not be rushed. The artist must frequently step away from the work, sometimes for days, to reset his mind and obtain a fresh perspective. Inevitably when he returns, he will see new things in a different perspective and be able to improve on his work. This is a very subtle and gradual process and it needs to progress naturally one step at a time. In fact, it is better if the artist is working on several sculptures at once, because each different work will help clear his mind from the other work.
The best chance for a good likeness and a sensitive representation of the subject’s spirit will come from a live sitting. Not only can the artist take numerous specific photographs from the necessary angles, he can make a life mask and take important measurements. More importantly the artist will have the opportunity to get to know the sitter so that hopefully some of the sitter’s personality will find its way into clay. Ideally the subject can sit many times for the artist, but that is difficult in our modern time and the requirement for travel makes it almost impossible. If possible and convenient for the client, a second sitting is often helpful when the clay bust is completed to make final refinements and address questions and requests. However the first single sitting is all that is really required since the final approval can be handled by photographs and mail.Sculpting a posthumous portrait from a collection of photos supplied by a customer is an extremely challenging undertaking and should only be attempted by an artist who has extensive experience in live portraiture. Lacking the normal references from a live sitting, the artist must be able to draw on his experience to interpret three dimensions from a two dimensional photo. Essential to this task is the existence of a large collection of photographs of the subject from a variety of poses and angles. It would be impossible to sculpt a recognizable three dimensional portrait from only one photograph.
James Nance is experienced in posthumous portraits and photo interpretation and has developed his skill over many years. If a posthumous portrait is desired or if the subject is unavailable for a sitting, please review your collection of available photographs concentrating on the head and shoulders. It would be best to have your photo collection scanned onto a CD or DVD using as high of a pixel density as possible and provide this copy to the artist. However if a client wished to mail a box of appropriate family photos to the artist then the artist can copy the best photographs onto a computer for printing. The artist can then review your photos and objectively advise if there is enough material available for a successful portrait. Before beginning a portrait it would also be very helpful for the artist to read material about the subject and speak with family members and friends. Home movies copied to DVD would also help illuminate the subject’s personality.
Generally speaking the size of a portrait or any sculpture should be compatible with the surroundings in which it will be displayed. The most common size for a portrait bust is life size; and the best setting for a life size sculpture is indoors in a reasonably sized room. In an outdoor setting such as a park or in a large indoor setting such as a sports stadium or large office-building foyer, a life size sculpture may be overpowered by the setting and may appear small and weak.There are exceptions for outdoor sculpture location, such as in an intimate garden setting, but generally life size outdoor sculpture does not always work well and therefore the outdoor sculpture should be monumental in size, usually a range of 150% to 200% of life size, sometimes larger as the environment and subject dictates.
The concept of volume is an important consideration in designing a monumental sculpture and will help explain why the cost and time increases as the size increases. As a three-dimensional sculpture increases in height it will also increase an equal amount in width as well as depth, which creates a cubed volume increase. In other words a six-foot high figure, which is doubled in size to twelve feet high will encompass 8 times more volume and eight times more work. (Width x 2) x (Height x 2) x (Depth x 2) or 2x2x2=8. However, due to economies of scale the cost will only increase by factor of about 5.
Of course the subject of the sculpture is an important consideration in choosing the appropriate size. A sculpture of a pet dog or young child in monumental size would be very extravagant and overdone even outside, but one of a great leader in an outdoor setting elevated on a pedestal would be appropriate sculpted in monumental size to match the person’s reputation or contribution. Therefore subject and placement will dictate the size and conversely the size will dictate the subject and placement.
Smaller than life size can also create an intimate successful sculpture or portrait but care should be taken to scale the work small enough so there is no confusion in the mind of the viewer that the work is indeed a cabinet bust and not a bust of a really small person. The cabinet size should be no larger than 75% of life.
Nothing is more distracting from a cabinet portrait bust than for the viewer to be wondering if this person was really that small. When considering a sculptural commission therefore, one needs to give careful thought to where the art will be displayed and then decide with the artist on the proper size.
If a smaller cabinet bust is desired, it is better to first sculpt a life size bust and then follow with a smaller cabinet bust. Generally a more sensitive portrait is obtained in this manner. The smaller cabinet size is far subtler and if it is sculpted first it will require as much or more time and effort by the artist to achieve a good likeness and sensitivity, and even then it may fall short artistically of the life size. However if the life size is created first a more sensitive cabinet bust can be created since the subject’s face is already ingrained in the artist’s mind and the artist can be guided by the completed life size work. Prior to the popular use of photography in 1836, many individuals would commission both a life and cabinet size bust. The cabinet size would be copied and recast many times to give to friends and relatives.
After the clay portrait is nearly completed the artist will begin to model the appropriate clothing. The subject of clothing should be decided between the artist and the subject during the initial setting. Some portraits are very effective unclothed but most should be clothed. The choice of clothing should serve to enhance the impression of the subject and fit with the individual’s personality. It would be a mistake to clothe the world’s greatest surfer with a business suit and tie or to drape a Wall Street banker in a t-shirt. Modeling effective clothing is an important aspect of any portrait.
Modeled clothing should exist to enhance the figure beneath, not to show how clever the artist is by blindly and obsessively replicating every minute fold and crease. When cloth is sensitively rendered in clay it should be subtle and capture the spirit of the fabric desired, flow naturally, enhance the figure beneath, and not be to busy or too simple. Clothing should always take a second seat to the personality of the subject. Poorly rendered fabric will always distract the viewer’s eyes from a portrait and will destroy the composition.
Hair presents a unique challenge to a sculptor. Men’s hair is usually a fairly straight forward matter to represent in clay, because even when it is long in length it is generally styled in a manner that still reveals the shape of the skull beneath and therefore the individuality of the subject. The same applies for a woman who has a long hairstyle which closely adheres to her head. However when a woman has a large, poofed-up, full styled hair arrangement it is not conducive to modeling in clay. If one looks closely at a full style on a woman it will become apparent that the arrangement contains far more empty space between the individual hairs than there is hair itself.
A full hairstyle might extend six inches or more away from the head; but when it is compressed with the hands, the hair will be no more than a fraction of an inch thick. Our eyes and brains subconsciously interpret the large hairstyle as a light and fluffed up space instead of a solid mass. We can see light shinning through the hair and understand its luminosity and character. Look closely at a well executed painting of a woman’s hair and the same light airy effect will become apparent.
Unfortunately when a portrait is rendered in clay there is no way to model this lightness in the clay and any attempt to try will result in a clumsy, heavy lump of clay surrounding the head like a immense solid mass. Often the attempt at massive clay hair will be several times larger than the head itself and will totally overpower and ruin the portrait. You might as well model a face sticking out of a solid wall. There are many different effective techniques in modeling the surface of hair, but that does not change the sheer size of the mass, so it will still have the same unpleasant result.
To find an answer to this dilemma we only need to consult the true portrait experts, ancient Roman sculptors. In every example we have from this period the women are wearing their hair in a classic ponytail or in a fashionable pulled up style. This of course is the answer to our problem and it is exactly why ancient sculptors represented the women in this fashion. The Greeks and Romans understood that a large mass of hair couldn’t be artfully represented in clay. Another consideration is that hairstyles change over time and the personality does not. Even with advancing age a person is still uniquely identifiable and still retains the same inner beauty, presence, and spirit. We look at ourselves in moldy, old high school yearbooks and laugh at our outdated clothes and hair.
If that old yearbook photo were a bust, is that how we want to be remembered for all times? By therefore modeling a woman in the classical style, a portrait will be created which is eternal, always recognizable, and will celebrate an individual’s beauty instead of a soon to be outdated fashion. Smiles:
We all want to be happy and so we value smiles. They make us feel good and it seems logical that a happy person or a child would be best represented with a smiling or laughing portrait. This is a mistake. Once again if we consult the Greeks and Romans we will discover a distinct lack of smiles in their portraits, which is intentional. The value of a smile is that it is not always present; it is a transient expression. When we give or receive a smile it is like a spontaneous happy gift thrown to the recipient. It may indicate contentment, flirtation, excitement, amusement, satisfaction, or anticipation.
A smile is wonderful because it is a change of expression and mood, like a sudden rain after a hot dry day. However, if the smile stays too long it becomes old, forced, boring, and unnatural. If someone always had a smile would we not be suspicious of their intentions or wonder if they had a physical or mental affliction or a knife held behind their back? How about a beauty pageant? Some of the women look downright exhausted holding the same forced smile for hours on end. How do you think a sculptural smile would be received after a year, 100 years, and 2,000 years? It would be downright creepy and it would definitely get on everyone’s nerves.
Another consideration is that a big smile, however nice, distorts the facial features, which is destructive to the whole idea of a recognizable portrait. Frequently small children are represented in clay with big toothy grins. Unfortunately, no matter how well the portrait may be modeled, the distortion of the face makes some of these portraits look unnatural and strained. The Greeks and Romans believed that the soul was the most obvious in a sculpture when the face was relaxed in repose. Do you not believe your children are beautiful and angelic when they are sleeping? Of course this does not prevent a sculptor from modeling a very subtle, pleasant, almost a smile, closed mouth expression, if it would fit the subject’s personality; but big face distorting toothy grins for portraits are a big, big mistake. A face is the most noble in repose, and a portrait should express that nobility for the people 2,000 years from now who will be looking at your bronze portrait in a museum and considering your character.
Stance for figurative sculpture:
Generally speaking a more elegant and personal portrait sculpture will be created if the figure is given a relaxed, restrained, and sustainable pose. In the same way that a sculptural smile would get old after 2,000 years, a rigid or intense action pose and stance will also create unnatural prolonged tension. Few people will stand at attention for very long. Even military troops are at put at ease by their commanding officer before an address. When assuming a relaxed standing pose, a person will usually put his or her weight on one leg with the non-weight bearing leg bent and slightly in front, rear, or to the side, and then occasionally shift to the other leg. This stance subtlety affects the hips, shoulders, head, arms and the rest of the body and pose and profoundly affects the presence of the sculpture. Allowing the sculpture the same privilege of a relaxed stance will create a better portrait work, which becomes timeless, more personal and human, and therefore intimate to the viewer. Once again the ancient Greek sculptors understood this and all of the figures from the classical age in 460 BC onward possess relaxed stances. Of course there may be an occasion when a subdued action pose or one standing at attention might be appropriate if it truly expresses the intent of the sculpture and the personality of the subject.
If the intent of the sculpture is to commemorate a famous event, such a hometown football player’s superhuman feat in winning the Superbowl, then an exaggerated action figure, flying horizontally through the air with arms outstretched catching the football would be appropriate. However even if the face on this action figure was modeled after the subject, the focus of the sculpture will be on the event or action not the individual, and the resulting sculpture no matter how well modeled, will do little to express the subject’s personality. This type of sculpture might be perfect for a figurative limited edition or a monumental size in front of a new football field but it would not be an effective portrait.
On the other hand if the football hero’s hometown decided to dedicate a high school in his name with a monumental portrait sculpture it would be more appropriate to depict the subject in a standing relaxed pose so that his personality is the primary focus. If his primary contribution was in football then consideration might be given to clothing the figure in a football uniform minus the helmet. However if this subject was well known for humanitarian causes and his personal contributions to the community (as is often the case) then it might be more appropriate to cloth the sculpture in a business suit and have him unobtrusively holding a symbolic football at this side.
To capture these subtle qualities a sculptor must possess a solid understanding of anatomy, classical art, and composition. This attention to detail will make the difference between an unsatisfactory figure, which looks like a stiff department store mannequin or an elegant, personal, and evocative, sculpture.
In the important first live sitting, the artist will make some preliminary measurements, make a life mask, and take a large number of digital photographs from many different specific angles. This sitting will last approximately 3 to 4 hours. Equally important will be the opportunity for the artist to visit with and get to know the subject so that important aspects of the client’s personality may find their way into clay. James Nance lives in Colorado but will travel to the client’s location to complete this important first step.
Once the artist returns to his studio, he will make a metal frame armature to support the clay, and begin to build up the clay form. The first goal is to interpret and develop the pose and composition and model the portrait in a general form. This is why a personal sitting is so important. If done correctly, the featureless form will be recognizable as the subject just from the bone structure and the way he or she holds the head and shoulders
As the work progresses the artist will consult the plaster mask casting for bone and skull structure. Masks are not a work of art but simply a reference to assure the underlying bone structure is correct. Features on a mask are of little help since the eyes are closed and the flesh is compressed and distorted by the mask material. Nevertheless a mask is indispensable to the artist
After the artist is absolutely sure of the correct form and pose, the features are gradually worked into the form in a holistic, overall, general to specific manner. It is essential not to over develop any one feature before the others. All features are related to the others as well as to the form of the skull and neck and shoulders. Change one and they all must change, so they must all be sculpted together. As an example if the artist realized the nose was too long. Once the nose was shortened, the lip between the nose and mouth is now too long, etc, etc, etc. If the features are roughed in together, changes such as these are relatively simple. If however, the artist had jumped ahead and spend hours modeling a perfect nose and mouth before the form was correct, then the mouth would have to be started over and valuable time lost.
To aid in this process the artist will utilize the photographic collection taken during the initial sitting. During the modeling, the artist will take frequent breaks, sometimes for several days, to rest his mind from the portrait and obtain a fresh perspective. Inevitably when the artist returns to the work, he will see new things and the work will improve, naturally, subtly and gradually. This is a very important concept and should not be rushed. Generally three months is a reasonable time for the modeling of the clay portrait.
If the artist has easy access to the subject, a second meeting is generally helpful at this point. The subject can review the work, ask questions and make suggestions and requests. Viewing a portrait of oneself is a enlightening experience. When we look in the mirror we often see what we want to see or remember, instead of how we truly look to an objective stranger. In addition everyone we know will see us differently. Our kids see us as old relics. Our parents see us as little kids even when we are 60 years old. Our spouses see us in a wide variety of roles and incarnations. Our friends….well you get the picture. It is of little wonder that when a portrait has been completed some will think it is a perfect likeness and others will not because of their preconceived mental filters. Ultimately the artist will try to sculpt a portrait, which shows the subject’s true personality and inner beauty interpreted by the artist’s vision. Of course, certain leeway is available to the artist to omit a few old age wrinkles or a disliked mole or other minor changes, but for the most part if an artist tries too hard to satisfy every demand of a sitter, the final product will become an unsuccessful fantasy bust and may be unrecognizable pleasing no one.
In the final sitting the artist can critically compare the bust to the subject to refine certain features and forms and possibly improve the portrait’s intimacy. However in our busy lives it is often difficult to arrange this final meeting and the work can be successfully completed using the photos and masks alone. If this is the case the artist will send the subject a series of photos of the work for final approval. Once approved, the clay will be consigned to the foundry for a three month long process of mold making and bronze casting.
For figurative sculpture there will be an additional step. After the first sitting, the artist will sculpt an eighteen inch high Maquette or model of the figure to work out pose and stance. After the figure has been approved by the client, and any changes made, the full size figure and bust will be sculpted.
When the portrait has been cast and finished it will be shipped in a wooden crate to the client.
In the preparation for a portrait commission an artist will typically make a mask of the subjects face using a modern pleasant, comfortable, and easy process. Masks have been used for hundreds of years by sculptors and painters as stand ins for subjects who were unavailable. A mask is not a work of art or sculpture in itself, only a tool. The early mask casting process required the subject to endure a long period of discomfort with burning plaster applied directly to the skin. The weight of the plaster applied an unnatural compression to the skin and facial muscles which often resulted in a severe, deathly look. Many people have mistaken the 1865 life mask of President Lincoln made by sculptor Clark Mills for a death mask. Looking at the severe mask one can easily understand the confusion and imagine President Lincoln’s stoic discomfort. Even with these major limitations, masks were and still are a very useful reference tool, which can guide the artist in proper proportion and skull structure when not in the presence of the subject.Fortunately today we have modern materials, which allow us to create masks in a safe and comfortable environment. The subject will sit in a chair wearing a barber’s smock with hair wetted down or wearing a bathing cap. The artist will then prepare a mixture of seaweed powder called alginate. This is the base material for cosmetic masks and is also used in dental offices to make molds of teeth. The material is safe, non toxic, with a pleasant smell and taste, and will create a soft fragile rubber like coating which can be easily torn by hand. The artist will spread this fast setting mix on the subject’s face in a depth of about one fourth of an inch. The alginate will set in a few minutes.
Next the artist will apply plaster impregnated gauze bandages over the alginate to create a more solid outer shell, which will retain the shape of the mold. These bandages are the same used by doctors to make a cast. The main difference is that the shell of plaster bandages will be relatively thin. This is completely safe and pleasant and at any time the entire alginate and plaster mold can be easily removed by the subject by simply pulling it off. After a few more minutes the plaster bandages will be set the artist will carefully remove the delicate mold from the face and immediately pour wet plaster into the mold to create the face casting. This cast must be made immediately after removal because the mold is very fragile and the alginate will deteriorate as soon as it dries.
Once the artist has an idea of the sculpture’s composition, before an artist can build the sculpture up with clay there must first exist a solid support to which the clay will be applied. This is especially important when the sculpture has an open composition with outstretched limbs. This solid support is called an “armature.” The most typical armature for a portrait bust consists of a cross arrangement to support the head and shoulders.
Clay can be very heavy and for a life size adult figure can easily weigh 600 pounds. This mass must be internally supported by a solid framework, usually welded pipe and wire, mounted securely on a modeling board. The size and shape of the armature is dictated by the size and complexity of the sculpture. In preparation, an artist will often prepare a small clay or wax model of the future sculpture called Maquette which will lack detail but aid in deciding composition and the resulting construction of the armature.
If the armature is not constructed properly or if the artist changes his mind about the composition after the work has begun, the completed sculpture may have pipes sticking out of the surface and the work must be torn down and the armature rebuilt correctly before starting again. This is not an uncommon occurrence even with the most experienced artists.
Types of Modeling Material ( Wax, Water Clay, Oil Clay ) Wax: A specially formulated modeling wax has advantages when creating small figures. The lightness of the material and its pliability and workability offers the artist the ability to work in fine detail to create tiny features such as fingers. Wax is often worked using wire tools, which can be heated over a flame. The finished product has a rough rugged vitality and shows the marks of sculpting. This is a perfect material for creating small western sculptures such as cowboys or Indians or animals. The lightness of the wax does not require a heavy armature, which can be built with wire and moved as necessary as the work progresses and the artist changes the composition. An artist who works in heavy clay will often create a first draft maquette from wax.
Water based clay is essentially pottery clay and until recent years was the material of choice for sculptors. One advantage of water clay is that its consistency can be adjusted by the artist to fit the circumstances. As the sculpture is initially modeled, the artist can keep spraying the clay with a water mist bottle to create a smooth slick feel. I personally prefer this type of clay for portrait busts. The wet surface of the clay allows the artist’s hands to easily glide over the form, feeling the composition. Between sessions, the work is covered with a plastic bag to preserve moisture. As the work progresses and detail is finally modeled into the sculpture, the clay can be allowed to gradually dry with less and less moisture applied. A wet or dry paintbrush becomes a valuable tool and can be used to blend detail and surfaces.
One limitation with water clay is that the weight of the water and clay can be massive and be very difficult with which to work. With large figures with outstretched limbs, a catastrophic collapse of the armature and work is possible. The best use of water clay today is in busts and small figures which are destined for firing into terra-cotta.
Oil based clay presents one of the greatest advances in sculpture technology in modern times. This clay is much lighter than water based clay and can be purchased in a variety of consistencies to suit the project. A sculpture modeled with this clay will not dry out and will remain supple indefinitely. Fine detail is much more easily modeled in oil clay and surfaces can be blended with a paintbrush containing lighter fluid. Further, the clay can be temporarily rendered into the consistency of soft butter by simply cooking it for a minute in a microwave (as long as it is not your wife’s microwave).
Limitations include the fact that the finished sculpture is fragile and can be easily damaged. This requires that a mold must be made to cast a permanent copy, destroying the original in the process. However until the artist decides to cast the sculpture, it can be carefully preserved in the clay state indefinitely with out fear of drying out. Most artists recycle their oil clay using it over and over again for each project. Oil clay is the material of choice when a sculpture is created which is intended to be cast from a mold into multiple copies.
Procedure to Model a Bust ( Sections, General to Specific, Tools )
After deciding on the important composition of a bust, the artist will first model a rough featureless head and shoulders from clay on a simple cross shaped armature. On that framework the sculpture will be gradually modeled using the concept of “sections.” Since sculpture is three dimensional an accurate three dimensional representation of the subject cannot be created by simply considering one or two views; an unlimited number of sections must be considered.
The easiest way to visualize the concept of sections is to imagine a cut through a clay bust with a long sharp knife from top to bottom at any angle dividing the bust in half. The outside outline of the cut section will form a silhouette, which is called a section. It is this silhouette which the artist observes when modeling and duplication the subject in clay. One section, however, is not enough; there are an infinite number of sections that can be mentally cut (and observed), each revealing a different silhouette. The artist then will literally turn his subject and clay bust around hundreds of times each time searching for new and revealing sections.
Sections need not be viewed vertically either. In portrait modeling, some of the most useful sections are viewed from the top down or bottom up. It is not uncommon to see an artist lying flat on his back on the floor looking up or perching on a ladder straining to look down on a subject. By continuously modeling the edge of many, many sections, the three dimensional form will accurately and naturally develop. Of course this is an approximation of the actual process. In practice the observation of sections blends subconsciously with the artist’s intimate knowledge of the facial form and sensitivity to the subject. An experienced artist can model for long periods after a brief view of the subject retaining the forms of the face and sections in the memory.
General to Specific:
Another equally important concept in modeling sculpture is to begin with the general and end with the detail. This may sound obvious, but it is the most critical skill a sculptor must master. Each individual has a unique shape and presence to his head and body, so that it is not unusual for one to recognize a loved one from the rear without seeing features of the face. The artist must resist the temptation to begin individual features too soon and concentrate initially only on basic structure and the subtle form. In fact, a skillful sculptor can create an excellent and readily recognizable bust which posses few features. On the contrary perfectly formed individual features on a misshapen head will be totally unrecognizable. Only after the artist is absolutely sure the subject is captured in form, should features and detail be gradually and carefully added.
Many people ask what kinds of tools must be used to model sculpture. Despite the claims of tool manufactures, all that is necessary is the artist’s brain, eyes, and hands. An expensive and full sculptor’s tool chest will no more make one a better artist than the latest laptop computer will make a better novelist. I know one very famous sculptor who uses only an old kitchen spoon, fork, and butter knife. The best tool available is the hand and thumb, and a bust can be 80% completed using nothing else. The important thing to remember is that it is not the tools, but the artist.
The original portrait will be modeled in clay, which will not usually survive the mold making process. There are however choices for the final casting material.
The most common and desirable medium for casting is bronze. A bronze portrait has high collector value, can be finished in a wide variety of patinas, and is virtually indestructible. It is the sculpture material of choice.
A unique one of a kind portrait called a “Terra-Cotta” can be created from the original water based clay sculpture. This process is tricky and requires gradually allowing the sculpture to dry to a leathery state. At the proper time during drying, the artist must actually cut the work in half and hollow out the clay bust to a thickness of about 1/4 of an inch. Finally the hollowed out work is reassembled using wet clay slush and allowed to dry very gradually over several weeks. If the work is allow to dry too quickly or without being hollowed out, it will simply crack and fall into hundreds of pieces. When the 19th Century French sculptor Auguste Rodin was called into the army, he wrote home daily imploring his lady friend Rose to keep wetting the burlap covering his unfinished sculptures.
Finally the completely dried sculpture is slowly fired in a pottery kiln to create a durable terra-cotta original. While a fragile wet clay sculpture would be destroyed in the mold making process, a fired terra-cotta sculpture would be undamaged, so it can always be molded later for a bronze copy. However, a terra-cotta sculpture is most desirable if the artist is not interested in a bronze casting or does not need to create multiple copies from a mold.
The primary limitation is that the “Terra-Cotta” process requires practice and finesse and if not done properly, the original can be lost. Also during the process of drying and firing, the clay will shrink almost 12% so if the artist is attempting to create a life size work, the original must be pre-scaled up 12%. Although there is no bronze casting involved the artistic labor involved in creating a “Terra-Cotta” is far greater than for a bronze, so the cost will be the same.
A beautiful porcelain portrait is a perfect choice for a young woman or a child. After the original clay bust is sculpted a rubber mold is created from which a plaster copy is made. A skilled ceramic mold maker will then use the finished plaster bust to create a complicated plaster piece mold for the porcelain pouring, which will be done by a porcelain factory. The overall cost for a finished porcelain copy and the complicated mold will be equal to a bronze bust.
Although this is an option, it is a lengthy and expensive choice. The artist would complete the portrait in clay and after making a mold would cast a copy in plaster. The plaster would then be shipped to either Italy or Greece where an experienced marble sculptor would copy the work in stone. The second artist copying process will inevitably lose some of the original interpretation by the original artist, but if the stone sculptor is well qualified, a respectable copy can be made. The cost will be considerable and will take at least a year.
This process involves mixing a resin with a finely ground material such as bronze powder, marble powder or wood powder. The mix is poured into a mold and rotated until the mixture is set up. After it is buffed, the casting has a close feel and look of the base material. This process is usually reserved for figurines and large edition sculpture, and is generally not a good choice for large sculpture, a life size bronze portrait with one exception, cast marble.
Cold casting would make an ideal substitute for a life size marble bust. A respectable “cold cast’ marble casting can be created, thus avoiding the need to subcontract a portrait to a second stone sculptor overseas and endure the lengthy delay and high expense. The bust would look and feel like marble, retain the original spirit, and be completed in the normal amount of time for the same cost as a bronze.
A variety of unique castings can be made using a poured clear acrylic. The portrait would be sculpted in the same manner as with a bronze through the mold stage with the final casting in resin. The portrait can be cast in either a clear solid or can be etched and embedded in an outside covering of clear resin. There are several companies, which specialize in Acrylic. As with the marble the artist would ship a plaster copy to the acrylic caster to create the final bust.
Special request metals:
Any metal from gold to bronze can be melted in a foundry and poured into a mold to cast a sculpture. Past special requests have included using metal from melted down hand guns to solid gold. Ask us about your needs.
Subtractive sculpture is the oldest form of sculpture and involves removing material, as in wood carving or stone sculpture, to create a finished work. Subtractive sculpture is by far the most technically difficult and due to the nature of the medium is the most restrictive in expression. Early Egyptian and Greek sculpture prior to the Golden age of the 5th century BC were all similar in their frontal, stiff, and formal composition, which were dictated by the limitations of the medium.
Eventually stone artists began to compose their sculpture first in clay and then used a variety of mechanical devices to transfer the three dimensional coordinates of the clay surface to a block of stone. In this way, stone subtractive sculptures of the Roman era began to take on a new mobility and grace. Another reason the Roman Marbles were more expressive than their earlier Greek counterparts is that many were copies of Greek bronzes; bronzes which were created without the limitations of stone.
During the Renaissance, the greatest stone sculptor ever known, Michelangelo, created his works first in clay. The clay would next be cast in plaster and a three dimensional pointing device would be used by a staff of assistants to transfer the dimensions, scaled to the desired size, to a block of marble; countless hours would then be spent drilling into the marble in thousands of spots to the proper depth required by the pointing device. The raw shaped marble was finally finished by the hand of the master himself. Only in Michelangelo’s last few years of life did he began the incredible feat of actually carving figures directly out of stone without the aid of a preliminary work and pointing devices.
The greatest drawback of subtractive sculpture is in the excessive demand of time and the one of a kind results. Editions are not an option, so today it would be difficult for any artist to make even a meager living dealing exclusively with stone. Another limitation of stone subtractive sculpture is the relative fragility of the stone itself. This particular limitation prevents the artist from creating open compositions with outstretched arms or legs. This necessity for tight composition led Michelangelo to explain that a well composed marble figure could be rolled downhill without anything breaking off.
To avoid these drawbacks an excellent substitute for a marble sculpture can be made using cold casting techniques with resin and marble powder.
Additive sculpture describes all other forms of sculpture and the process most commonly used today. Simply put, additive sculpture is the process of creating sculpture by adding material to create the work. Although artists have worked in every medium from butter to cement, the most common material is typically wax or clay, which is modeled by the artist to create the form desired. The term “modeling” is used interchangeably with the word “sculpting” to describe additive sculpture, especially appropriate when dealing with clay.
Unlike the finality of each step in the subtractive process, clay can be removed as easily as it is added, which affords the artist the unlimited ability to keep working until the final product “looks right.” This flexibility allows the artist great freedom, expression, and experimentation. Once a sculpture is “modeled” the artist will create a mold and cast the work in a more permanent material such as plaster or bronze. It was the additive modeling process that allowed the Greek artists of the Golden era of the 5th century B.C. to make a huge leap forward from the stiff subtractive stone poses to a new fluid grace found in later Greek bronzes.
Before any work of art can be undertaken the artist must feel a personal inspiration for the subject. This may sound obvious, but it is an essential first ingredient if the artist hopes to capture the subject’s character; it will separate good art from mediocre. For example, an artist who loves dogs and is intimately familiar with their anatomy and behavior can also create an anatomically passable horse with little study; but that horse may lack the conviction and passion present in the artist’s dog sculptures and may be unmemorable and mediocre. Further, that same artist who has sculpted his favorite old soul mate dog will most likely produce a work of such feeling that every one who views the work will feel the love. This is not to imply that an artist can not embrace many varied subjects; but each subject must be of such personal interest that the artist is passionately motivated to become an expert on the subject through intimacy and insight. This is the major reason that many artists will spend a career exploring one type of subject.
For thousands of years, since the sculptures of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, mankind has attempted to identify and reduce to a set of codified rules a definition of proper composition. Ultimately what we have learned is that memorable and meaningful art can not be codified without stifling individual inspiration and expression. While societies and movements have been quick to embrace these codified definitions, individual artists have continually rebelled and broken those rules and moved forward into new styles and techniques, often with dire personal consequences such as burning at the stake or at the very least ridicule and derision by the art establishment. When one admires a work of art, one is really experiencing the view of the subject filtered and defined through the eyes, sensibilities, and soul of the artist, and that artistic soul must be free to explore new horizons.
The lesson for artists is not to slavishly adhere to any particular ideal defined by someone else, but to yield to his or her own personal artistic vision. Certainly an artist’s personal tastes can and should be molded by serious study of past art, making conscious and subconscious personal decisions about what he or she likes or dislikes about other’s art. Each individual can then filter and interpret those experiences into his own work. In other words, good composition cannot be learned or mimicked; it must flow directly from the artist’s personal sensibilities. This is not to say that the first stoke of the brush or smear of clay will be to the artist liking, or that every work will be successful and to the artists own satisfaction; however a work that is successful will be the end result of many, many additions and subtractions, trial and error until the final result “looks right” to the artist and hopefully to the viewer.
Composition is a complex concept and is intertwined into every aspect of a sculpture. A successful portrait bust has just as much reliance on composition as does a sculpture group of several figures. A successful bust is far more that a collection of identifiable features such as a mouth eye or nose. Each individual has his or her own unique presence, the way the head is held, the slope of the shoulders, the gaze of the eyes. In fact most people can recognize a loved one from behind without even seeing the face. This is an element of composition. A successful portrait must capture a person’s character before the features are even considered.
Other aspects of a well-composed bust would be the decision of how much of the shoulders to retain and the position of those shoulders, how the clothes are presented, and how large the work should be. Often the different personalities of the subject will require different approaches to these questions. Is the subject meek or bold, angry or jolly. These personalities must find their way into clay.
Style is closely related to composition and deals specifically with the recognizable individual approach of the artist to the medium and subject. The level of realism, abstraction, surface texture, implied motion, repose, emotion, and general feel of a work of art are all elements of style. The most important consideration of style was best expressed by Cornell University English Professor Will Strunk Jr. (1869-1947) in his timeless book Elements of Style: “To achieve style, begin by affecting none.” Although Professor Strunk was addressing creative writing, his words are immensely profound and apply equally to all forms of artistic endeavor from music to sculpture. In other words, if an artist follows his own vision, and makes every decision for his own tastes and sensibilities, then his own personal unique style will eventually emerge without consciously trying to affect any particular style. A personal style therefore must flow honestly and naturally from within and not be the result of intentional invention or mimicry of another artist or popular movement.
Draftsmanship is defined by how well an artist can see a subject either in his own mind or from a model then interpret and transfer that mental image to a medium. There is very little difference between mediums when it comes to draftsmanship. An artist uses the same mental facilities to draw a picture or model in clay. Much can be learned by study and practice. One of the greatest myths in modern art insists that draftsmanship is unimportant. The faulty reasoning is that since a work of modern art is non-representational then there is no need to be able to represent. If free artistic expression is
running then skill and draftsmanship are walking. One needs to walk before running. On the other hand, superior draftsmanship alone without inspiration and without sensitive composition will result in a boring mediocre work of art. True believable and inspiring art comes from a sensitive blend of draftsmanship, inspiration, technical skill and composition.
There is an endless array of techniques and skills associated with the production of art and sculpture. Much can be learned from others or from books and refined by the artist to fit his or her own temperament and style, but each artist eventually finds his own way by trial and error. Subjects of importance to artists would include: anatomy, knowledge of the mold making and casting process, manipulation of tools and materials, skill at welding, and knowledge of chemical patina application. Even if an artist contracts many of these jobs to others, a solid understanding of the processes is essential to communicate intent and to supervise.
Craftsmanship can be defined by simply one question. Is the artist proud to sign his or her name to the work?
Mold Making – The first step in bronze casting:
There are two separate molds required to cast each bronze sculpture. The first mold is reusable and is made of rubber; it is used to create a wax casting. The wax casting is then used to make a second, one time use, ceramic mold into which is poured molten metal.
The first rubber mold is created over the original sculpture, which can exist in any material from wet clay to hard stone. Into this rubber mold, hot wax will be poured which will be discussed in detail later. The ultimate success of the bronze casting will depend on the accuracy of this rubber mold, so for that reason and for the expertise and time required, most sculptors will hire a professional mold maker. Typically a bronze casting will be poured in several pieces to facilitate the flow of molten metal, so the original sculpture must also be divided into many pieces and a separate rubber mold made for each piece. If the original sculpture is still in clay, the mold maker may actually cut the sculpture into the appropriate pieces thereby destroying the original in the process.
There are many different types of rubber used in mold making; the exact type used will depend on many factors which include: the material of the original sculpture, the desired speed of the rubber cure, the temperature and humidity of the studio, the type of material to be poured into the mold, the number of pours planned for the mold, and the personal tastes of the mold maker. Typical rubbers used include: Latex, Poly-sulfides, Polyurethanes, Silicates. and Alginates, with many varieties of hardness available in each type. The most commonly used rubber is some form of polyurethane.
The first coat of rubber is the most important for capturing the surface detail of the sculpture and must be carefully applied and blown into all small surface details with compressed air. Next, divisions, called fences or shims, are created for the mold by sticking three inch wide strips of firm, wax-covered paper (made from paper cups) on edge into the surface of the wet rubber. These divisions will allow each mold to be made in two halves so that they can later be easily pulled apart to remove a wax casting. After the first coat of rubber is cured and the fences are secure, more coats are progressively applied to the sculpture and shims by brush, allowing each coat to cure, until the desired thickness is finally achieved, usually between one eighth and one quarter of an inch. The final step of rubber application involves sticking pre-poured rubber bumps about a half inch long at regular intervals into the wet rubber on each side of the shims and at selected locations on the surface of the rubber coated sculpture. These bumps called “Registration Keys” will allow the rubber to be held securely and accurately in place inside the hard outer mother mold, which will be made next.
After the rubber is cured and before it is removed from the sculpture, a solid mother mold is made over it with either plaster reinforced with burlap or with fiberglass; the mother mold will serve to later hold the rubber in the proper position. The mother mold is also made in two parts along the same shims, which divided the rubber. The cured mother mold halves are removed allowing the rubber to be separated at the shims. The first coat of rubber must be cut through at the base of the shims to completely remove it from the sculpture. After cleaning up the rubber halves they are inserted back into the mother mold halves and are snapped into place by pushing the rubber keys into holes in the mother mold, which were made over the keys. The mother mold is then reassembled and secured using clamps or straps. Each half of the mother mold also has its own registration keys along the division to ensure accurate alignment when reassembled.
The method of bronze casting by wax has been in use for thousands of years. In the 18th century, French sculptors coined the term “Cire Perdue” meaning “Lost Wax”; this term is still used today to describe most art bronze castings.
Before the two halves of the mother mold containing the rubber inserts are joined, a hot liquid microcrystalline wax is carefully painted into the inside of the rubber in order to capture all of the detail in the mold. Next the two mold halves are joined and secured and hot wax is poured into the mold, sloshed around, and then poured out. This step is repeated until the wax thickness inside the mold has been built up to approximately one quarter of an inch. After the wax has completely cooled, the mother mold is removed and the rubber inserts are carefully peeled away to reveal a hollow wax casting of the original sculpture. The wax casting is an intermediate step which will in turn be used to create a more durable ceramic mold into which molten bronze will eventually be poured. Each bronze casting in an edition will begin with its own unique wax casting. If the bronze edition will have 35 casts, there must be 35 wax casts made.
Chasing means finishing. The wax pour will create many small imperfections which must be repaired and cleaned up so they are not duplicated in the metal. Examples of imperfections include small bubbles in the wax which cause holes and the seam lines where the mold was divided. Chasing is accomplished with hot wax and delicate, heated tools to essentially re-sculpt damaged areas. At this point it is sometimes possible to reattach some of the smaller separated pieces which were molded separately for reasons of mold function; but the pieces which were separated for metal pouring will be left and cast separate. It is also not uncommon for the artist to add individual additions to each wax cast. The artist’s signature and edition number can also be inscribed into the wax.
When bronze is poured into a ceramic mold, it will not cool evenly or flow to all parts of the mold evenly. This limitation is overcome by creating a series of pathways called “Sprues” which allow the molten bronze to reach the various areas of the casting smoothly and evenly. In addition, air that is compressed in the mold by the flow of bronze will either cause a void in the cast or it will be compressed, superheat, and explode; so a network of vents must be provided to allow the air to escape. Both Sprues and vents are created by rolling up wax into long rolls, the width of a finger, attached between a wax funnel and selected positions on the surface of the wax casting. The funnel will provide for the entry point of the poured bronze. When this step is complete, the sprued wax casting will have a network of wax, tree branches growing out of every surface.
Ceramic Shell Investment:
The wax casting, complete with it’s wax funnel and branches of sprues and vents, is fixed on a hanger and alternately dipped into a large vat of a liquid ceramic slurry and then silica sand. This process is repeated many times with each sand application progressing from fine to course. Sixteen coats are not unusual and reinforcing wire mesh is applied half way through; each coat is allowed to dry before another application. When complete the shell is allowed to dry for about a week. This entire process takes a couple of weeks.
Next, the shell is heated in an oven or autoclave to eliminate the wax, which is why the process is called “Lost Wax.” After the wax is thoroughly removed, the shell is baked in a kiln at 1,700 degrees to temper the shell. All wax is lost. In place of the wax funnel, sprues, and vents is now a series of passageways leading to the cavity of the mold which used to contain the wax casting of the sculpture. The molten bronze will next be poured through the entry funnel, fulfilling the ancient prophesy: “where the was wax, there will be bronze.”
Pouring molten bronze is the culmination of weeks of preparation and is the most exciting part of the sculpture process. This step requires great skill, physical effort, expensive equipment, and some degree of danger; so most artists will contract to a bronze art foundry to do the actual pour while the artist supervises the process.
The most commonly used metal is silicon bronze, which is composed of 95% copper, 4% silicon, and 1% manganese. The bronze is purchased in bars or ingots and is melted in a pot called a crucible in a furnace at 2000 to 2,200 degrees. Prior to the pour, the ceramic shell mold is buried in a sand pit with the pour cup or funnel facing up and exposed. Typically several molds are buried in each sand pit. The sand will support the molds as well as dissipate the heat of the bronze and help prevent fracturing of the mold.
When the furnace lid is removed, the crucible and molten bronze will be glowing red hot. On the top of the molten bronze will be a layer of darker slag formed by impurities in the metal, which is skimmed off the surface. The crucible is then removed by tongs and placed in a pouring shank which is a round receptacle with two long handles on each side. The shank holding the crucible is then lifted by two workers wearing helmets with face plates and full body protection, and the crucible is positioned over the mouth of each buried ceramic shell. The metal is then carefully poured in without turbulence and slow enough to let air and gas escape.
When the metal has cooled, the ceramic shell is broken with a hammer, chipped and sandblasted off revealing the blackened metal casting complete with a bronze funnel, sprue and vent tree. The tree is cut off and the raw blackened casting is prepared for the final finishing. The thickness of the bronze casting is equal to the thickness of the intermediate wax casting, about one eighth to one quarter of an inch.
The first step in the metal finishing or chasing involves welding. If the sculpture was cast in several pieces, the casting will be welded together at this time. This is a critical step and requires the participation of the artist because small errors in positioning of the pieces can result in large changes to the posture and composition of a sculpture. Done incorrectly the resulting cast may be radically different from the artists original intent. Also any imperfections in the casting can be repaired by spot welding bronze.
Next the chaser will use a variety of tools such as powered grinders, rasps, hammers, chisels, files, and sandpaper to resculpt the surface of all welds, seams, and imperfections. Once again either the artist will do this himself or closely supervise the technician in the process. Extreme care must be used to prevent changing the character of the sculpture’s surface texture.
The final finishing step is to thoroughly clean the surface by sandblasting the entire piece. This clean surface can not be touched by a bare hand prior to Patination or the oil in the skin will negatively affect how the patina is accepted by the metal.
Patina describes the coloration of the bronze surface. Contrary to common belief, the early Greek and Roman bronzes were actually painted in bright, multiple colors. Unfortunately, most of these bronzes were later melted down for sources of valuable bronze used in weapons of war like cannons. The bronzes which survived the millennia were hidden; buried by earthquakes, ship wrecks, and other disasters until re-discovered. The resulting long exposure to the elements removed all traces of color paint and created a natural oxidation patina derived from the soil or sea water. The unique chemicals and minerals in each soil composition created a different patina. Since the renaissance, these re-discovered bronzes have become revered for their complex and natural patinas; and as a result, for hundreds of years, artists and collectors have rejected as foreign the concept of painting a bronze and have instead sought to duplicate these natural forces in the patina of sculpture.
For the past several hundred years the accepted patination of bronzes has been restricted to a very small palette of naturally occurring oxidation tints, such as light green or brown. However, in the past several decades, thanks largely to the progressive influence of western and wildlife sculpture, a new spirit of experimentation has developed in the artistic community which has resulted in an exciting explosion of patina colors. Fortunately for the artists of today, modern technology does not require us to wait thousand of years to achieve a patina. Thanks to the processes of chemistry, a rich tapestry of oxidation coloration can be created in a few hours. These chemical processes will actually oxidize the surface of the bronze into the desired color. This color is actually part of the metal and is not easily rubbed or scratched off allowing the feel and texture of the bronze to remain intact and uncovered. Different colors require different chemicals and methods of application. Some are applied cold while some are applied to a surface heated with a blow torch.
The final step in patination is to seal the sculpture. Large outdoor sculpture will typically be sealed in acrylic varnishes while indoor sculpture is typically sealed in hot wax or oil which is buffed out to a luxurious luster. In designing a patina for a sculpture, the artist must take into account the setting and what the effects of age will do to the patina. Typically a patina will darken somewhat after the first few years, so the newly cast sculpture needs to have a lighter initial patina so that time will mature it to desired result.
Creating the proper base for a sculpture is like selecting the right frame for a painting. The base should compliment the sculpture; not too big and not too small. A base can be made of bronze, wood, or stone any any combination. The artist needs to have some idea of basing when the sculpture reaches the metal chasing stage so that any necessary nuts or threaded rods can be welded to the bottom to allow attachment to a future base. Thankfully, for the artist, there are a number of expert basing shops located near any major art foundry.
As in all portraits, proper research is essential. Most monuments of individuals will be posthumous commissions, which will involve collecting photographs, materials, and clothing to aid the artist in finding the subject’s spirit and physical attributes. “Allegorical” monuments of a generic subjects will also require research and material collection for clothing or work equipment.
The first step of a monumental project will be to sculpt a small model or Maquette of the figure to help refine the stance and pose with the client. A simple 12 inch tall maquette works well to define a pose, while a slightly larger 18 inch works well to further define detail. The primary goal of the maquette is stance and pose; and most detail can be delayed until the working figure phase.
After the pose has been settled with the Maquette, the artist will then create a life size portrait bust in a proper pose for the planned stance of the monumental figure. This facial study is a critical step, which has been accomplished by all major monument sculptors of the past; it is the only way to ensure the final monument posses a sensitive likeness. During the sculpting of the figure, as the spirit of the subject becomes better understood, the artist will often return to the bust to make refinements.
Working Figure, Nude:
Next the artist will create a larger figure sculpture approximately 36 inches tall. Although the 36 inch figure is based on the pose of the smaller maquette, there will be differences since the artist will be able to refine and improve the composition as it is resculpted in the 36 inch size. As an aid, the artist will locate and hire a model whose physical attributes fit the subject of the monument, and sculpt the figure in the nude. Even though the final sculpture will be clothed, the nude modeling is essential so that all anatomical bone and muscle landmarks are accurate for the chosen stance. The head of the working figure will be approximately 4.5 inches tall, so a good likeness can be sculpted since the artist has already become intimately familiar with the subject by sculpting a life size portrait bust.
Working Figure, Clothed:
After the nude figure is completed, the clothing will be modeled over it using different color clay. Since the purpose of clothing is to enhance the body underneath, careful modeling over a nude will ensure a believable sculpture with natural flowing clothing, which properly reveals the hidden figure. If the artist is unable to acquire a set of proper clothing, a seamstress will be hired to create a custom set of clothing made to fit the model. The clothed 36 inch figure will be finished with as much detail as possible.
A mold will be made of the clay working figure, and a plaster casting will be made to use in the enlargement process. The original clay is too fragile to survive the enlargement process.
In this step the 36 inch working figure will be enlarged to the final monumental size using one of two enlargement systems. The first system uses a large mechanical “pointing” device, which literally takes physical measurements from the plaster working model and transfers it to the larger armature. The pointing device uses a proportional arm, which can be preselected to the correct scale. In preparation for the enlargement, a large metal armature will be manufactured to which clay will be applied as the pointing device dictates.
The second type of enlargement uses a more modern method of laser scanning. The 36 inch plaster model will be shipped to a scanning company where it will be scanned for thousands of three dimensional points by a laser. This information is then tabulated by a computer, which controls a laser-cutting device to cut the enlarged shape into a block of hard foam. The foam is then cut into several sections and shipped back to the artist. In the studio the artist will reassemble the foam with an internal support and cover the foam with an inch of clay and erect a scaffolding. Both methods will cost about the same.
The enlarged clay sculpture is not a complete monument. A sculpture will have its own unique presence in different sizes, so it must be resculpted by the artist for each different size. Generally a sculpture should not be enlarged by more than 400%, For example, a small 12 inch high figure might look very good, but if it were enlarged 1200% to 12 feet tall it would look simplistic and awkward so the intermediate step of sculpting a 36 inch working figure will allow for a better more lifelike enlargement and stay within the 400% guideline. However, the full size clay enlargement is still a starting point, which gives the artist a roadmap for resculpting the full size. The life size portrait bus, which was completed earlier, can also be enlarged to replace the head on the working figure. The enlargement will be completed finished by the artist to the desired final level.
Basing and Installation:
A monumental sculpture needs to be installed on a substantial base, which is compatible in size, design, and material to the overall vision of the project. As the size of the sculpture increases so does the size, complexity, and resulting cost of the base component. Included in this basing component would be the base material itself such as a polished marble or granite block as well as the excavation, foundation engineering, poured concrete sub foundation, landscaping, transportation, crane rental, and mounting.
In the 18th and 19th century monumental sculptures were often installed on huge and elaborate bases, which often cost many times more than the sculpture. Many older cities possess examples of these types of monuments with bases over forty feet tall dwarfing a monumental figure installed remotely on top. Although these bases are beautiful works of art in themselves they are so elaborate that they tend to overpower the sculpture and make it difficult to clearly view and appreciate the monument.
More contemporary monuments tend to be based on more subdued and intimate bases, which bring the sculpture back down to earth and reconnect the sculpture with its intended viewing audience. It is important to raise the monument on a base to honor the subject’ position of achievement, but care should be taken not to get carried away. For example a 12-foot tall figure might be tastefully based on a block of polished marble or granite four feet square and three feet tall.
Fundraising Options for a Monumental Sculpture:
Many monumental projects begin with a steering committee, which develops the plan, seeks artist bids, and decides on the method of funding. Often monument projects are successfully funded by a donation program, which relies on incentive awards. The most effective incentive awards are smaller bronze castings of the monument, which would be created and cast by the artist during the sculpture process. Typical sizes of incentive awards are an 18-inch figure, a 36-inch figure, and a life size bust. The donation level of the award would determine the edition size of each casting. The artist will request a management fee for the supervision of each incentive casting which is usually equal to the foundry cost. This wholesale cost will provide the incentive castings at a price one half to two thirds of retail. Typical incentive award donations may range from $3,000 to $20,000.
Another successful method to subscribe donations for a monument would be to use paver stones set in a sidewalk surrounding the monument’s base. The bricks, which are perfect for donations in the $100 to $500 range are available in many sizes and can be inscribed with the donor’s name, which creates a personal connection between the donor and the monument. A larger paver for the higher levels of incentive award donations should also be included.
The most ethical and fair approach to a portrait commission copyright is for both parties to agree on a contract which awards the use of the face, name, and reputation of the client, solely to that client and the underlying work of art to the artist with strict restrictions on use. In this manner no one can ever copy and distribute the portrait without the approval of both parties. This protection will prevent an unscrupulous artist from trying to capitalize on the client’s face, name or reputation, and will ensure client privacy and exclusivity. In fact the contract should forbid the artist from owning or publicly displaying a copy of the portrait without the express written permission of the client. Generally unless the client desires additional copies, the contract will direct that the mold be destroyed to ensure exclusivity.
Of course the portrait is the sole property of the client and it can be sold or displayed at his or her discretion. However should the client or heirs ever decide to copy and mass produce the portrait for sale through a manufacturing source other than the artist, the dual copyright would require the artist’s approval, thereby protecting the artist’s intellectual efforts and ensuring a rightful royalty. This concept is based on the assumption that if copies of the portrait were later saleable and commercially successful, it would be due to two equally balanced attributes: the personal reputation or face of the subject and the artistic success of the sculpture. Therefore the rights of both parties should be protected.
Copyright James J. Nance 2009