How Do You Do That?

When someone sees one of my figurative sculptures they inevitably ask many questions.  Typical questions include:  “How do you do that?”; “What is it made of?”; “Is it dipped in some kind of metal?” Maybe they are thinking about bronzing baby shoes); “How does a sculpture start out?”; “What kind of clay do you use?”; “How long does it take you?” These are all great questions and once the answer is known one’s appreciation of sculpture can’t help but to grow exponentially. 

The obvious first task to accomplish when my goal is to create a sculpture is to come up with the concept.  Once I have the concept, I need to develop the pose, the gesture, the action, and the expression. All of this must be well thought out and planned before starting. A good sculpture must have either motion or emotion - preferably both.  Paintings and drawings use color in a way that bronze sculpture cannot.   Sculpture uses gesture, expression, and action in lieu of color.

All figurative sculptures that will eventually be cast in bronze begin life with a wire armature.  An armature is a framework that is made out of wire in the shape of a human skeleton - it provides the structure for the piece.  Without an armature, the clay would have nothing to adhere to, and would not have stability.  Armatures can either be purchased readymade or can be made by the sculptor.  Over the years I have done both.  However, at this point I prefer to make them from scratch.  I usually use aluminum wire, but have also made them out of solid copper wire.  Before making an armature, you have to develop a plan for your sculpture.  You need to decide on the sculpture’s size and the proportions of the arms, legs torso and head. You also have to set the pose.  It helps to have basic math skills – specifically with ratios and proportions.  Sadly, I have never been a particularly adept mathematician. To compensate for my deficit of math ability I use a computer program.   Once my calculations are complete I construct the wire skeleton.   The next step is to fasten the wire skeleton to a steel rod that is positioned in the middle of the torso.  The steel rod is then attached to a vertical metal pipe that is mounted on a board. Presto, you are now ready to begin sculpting your piece!

I want to stop for a minute and talk about clay.  There are a number of different types of clay that are used, and they serve a wide variety of purposes:  oil-based, water-based, air-drying, and polymers. I am going to focus my discussion on oil- based clay as this is what is best suited for creation of a bronze figurative sculpture.  Oil-based clay lasts literally forever and does not dry out or crack.  You can even reuse it after your mold is made.   When I first started as a sculptor, I actually made my own oil- based clay.  Making one’s own oil-based clay is a very involved, labor-intensive process, but it is also economical. There are a wide variety of oil-based clays on the market, and I have used many different types.  Through trial and error I have found the one that I like best is Roma Plastilina.

After setting up the framework provided by the armature, the next step is to form the clay around the armature.  Even if my piece will be eventually clothed, I always sculpt a fully developed naked body.  This gives me a chance to hone my knowledge of human anatomy and it ensure that the clothes will fit and look correctly once I reach that stage.  The key to success at this stage is two-fold: a strong working knowledge of human anatomy and a lot of patience.  Mastering the human form is very challenging and complex endeavor.   It is literally a journey in which I learn something new from every piece I make. I am not sure that I will ever achieve complete mastery of human anatomy.  Once I am satisfied with the naked body, I construct the clothes. This is my favorite part, not only because of the challenge, but also because it is part of what gives each piece its unique personality.

Every piece is one-of-a-kind, and requires a varying amount of time to complete depending on its sizes and complexity. When I am sculpting I become immersed in the moment, as all of my attention, thought and activity is focused on my art.  I get great joy out of this, so much so that I actually lose track of time. My next blog will explore how molds are made, and the bronze is actually cast.