It should be so easy to make figures, right? You are one, from the inside out and you see them all the time! But it totally isn’t.
Studying the figure is used to train all kinds of artists exactly because it’s so challenging to what we think we ought to know. The extra skills a painter or sculptor needs to create figures so they can be used expressively are very different from the skills used to get to know people. And through the training we learn all sorts of amazing, beautiful things about how forms merge and flow into each other in nature, how to look objectively and how to understand the tricks and twists of human perception. And that opens doors to all sorts of other knowledge. It’s very rewarding work!
Portrait and Figure skills need a system that cuts across the fact that when an image goes in through your eye-balls your brain grabs it and interprets it according what it already believes. The system helps you relearn and re-interpret what you see in a way useful for making figures. And it breaks up the massive amount of information into manageable sections.
The more you practice these invaluable skills the more you will see improvement in all your artwork, your general concentration and your ability to see. Like a pianist ‘doing scales’ you will build up the small muscles, motor-skills and neural pathways involved in this challenging, rewarding activity.
It is not rocket science and you can do it.
The key to all sculpture is this:
1- Block out the form: decide the dimensions (height, width, length) including the base.
2- Work in rotations refining the whole sculpture at each turn (by adding or subtracting in the case of clay).
Working on a Small Scale.
Starting small will allow you to get your head around the issues and get results quickly.
Ideally use a clay with lots of grog in it because it will sag less, crack less, fire better or be stronger as self-hardening clay. Here I used Scarva ES50 Crank, an outstanding sculpture clay.
All Pottery Suppliers online will be happy to recommend clay if you tell them what you want to make. Clays are made from recipes so there are endless kinds. You want a Hand-building clay with fine-medium grog ( pre-fired grit). Throwing Clay for the wheel will resent being a sculpture and be hard to handle. Many ‘Self- Hardening ‘ clays are over-priced and difficult or unpleasant to use.
Bath Potters Supplies are really kind and helpful, have a lovely new website and a great selection of clays and tools for fair prices. And they are still open and delivering during the Pandemic.
How To Make A figure
Dry your sculpture slowly or the limbs may crack as they will shrink faster than the rest of the form. A cardboard box placed over the top is ideal to slowly allow moisture to escape. Self-hardened this will be delicate but last forever so long as it doesn’t get wet. Firing will make it stronger and water-proof. When it is dry/fired paint/wax/stain the surface : a simple all over bronze colour always looks great.
Genuine joins are formed when the chains of platelet-shaped particles from each section of clay inter-lock. Picture a magnified image of tangled hair.
‘Score marks’ do not give the surface ‘tooth’; they allow water into the clay-body. On vertical surfaces they hold the water in place to give it time to sink in and swell the clay so that the clay platelets are able to link with other platelets.
Slip is not ‘glue’, it is clay particles spread out in water and has little strength, especially when it has dried . It is ideal for holding a lot of water in place to give it time to be absorbed to soften the area of leather-hard clay.
Once both edges are softened put the pieces together and move them back and forth until you feel the edges lock together. Manipulate the softened clay at the join to encourage further integration of those particle-chains and to disturb the straight line of the join; cracks love to zing along a nice straight slip-weakened join during the firing when the pull of shrinking stresses the sculpture.
How thick the clay can be to fire well depends on the amount of grog (the gritty bits of pre-fired clay ground to specific sized grit/dust that gives improved structure and resilience to your clay), the denseness of your modelling style, drying time and the speed of your firing.
Air bubbles trapped in the clay will expand with the heat. Grog and/or a loose surface will allow the air to seep through the clay. The same is true with water but steam expands fast. If your piece breaks into big bits during the fire it was trapped air and you will be able to see where the bubbles were in the shards. If it blows up into a trillion smithereens it wasn’t properly dry!
I dry thick sculptures slowly under plastic which I turn inside out ( to avoid condensation pooling) daily for 4 weeks minimum and then 1-2 weeks in a plastic tent with a dehumidifier. A card-board box makes a great, slow, draft-free drying chamber. A long dry allows the water to level out, as water loves to do, and that will enhance the structure of the clay within it’s new sculpture shape. You will get less cracks or distorting in the fire.
I fire very slowly with an 18 degree C rise until 600 degrees C. then onto full power up to the desired temperature.
Generally 3cm is a fair maximum thickness for a well grogged clay.
How To Make a Head looks more closely at Portraiture and you will find it helpful. It talks about human heads but of course is relevant to all heads apart from the handy option of being able to measure with calipers from your own.