Sculpture Details: Making Some Revisions

A Perfectionist's work is never done...

The left hand, holding the sketchpad, felt awkward once I really paid attention to the gesture line from wrist, past the radius, through the humorous, and up into the front lean of the shoulder. I tried sitting in the position while holding the pad. It just wasn’t natural. So, as I’ve done to most pieces of the sculpture, numerous times, I melted it down to try again.

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What’s funny, is that most of the hand is hidden by the pad and leg of the piece. No one will easily see it. It still matters, though. Everyone knows what a human looks like and will process something is off subconsciously even if they can’t put a finger on it.

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I looked at a lot of photos of Victorian men in vests. I wanted to see how they pulled and draped. What I kept seeing was 5 button vests. The 7 button vest was not very common. The more I looked at the torso, the more I felt the 7 buttons were too regular and busy. It felt more like a washboard than a soft vest. I cleaned off my pallet knives and jumped back in, filling in all of my vest work to build out his torso, re-evaluate the pull of his coat, and help the flow.

A little bit of details about the process...

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The first photo is just a shot of how I cool my wax for hand building. It’s kind of like working with chocolate. All the work I was going to do on the coat and sleeves would require rolling the wax into soft bars to lay out fold lines. I lay out the line in the flow of the fabric, and press it into shape with my fingers.

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At a certain point of the process I take down all of my photos and drawings of the model I use for figurative dimensions. I have pages of measurements, angles, thicknesses, etc. I put it all away, along with a lot of the fear and anxiety I work with for months, trying to correctly represent the anatomy and mass the subject will take up in the world. I let go of all of that, and just work from the piece relating to itself.

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I keep photos of Bannister on the walls to keep me company, and I print up some of his paintings to look at while I work. This is the most enjoyable and exciting time for me. Now, every little nudge and addition has big effects. I can just start to see Mr. Bannister looking back at me.

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An Annotated Bibliography on Edward Mitchell Bannister and Christiana Carteaux Bannister

This annotated bibliography is the result of a collaboration between the Providence Art Club and historian-teacher (and owner of the blog "Historia Magistra"), Michael McGuigan. What started out as a simple partnership to prepare some teacher resources about the Bannisters and the time period they lived in, ended with, not only teacher resources, but this detailed and constantly-growing bibliography.

You can access the bibliography on Providence Art Club's beloved founder and his wife here.

Sculpture Details: The Clothing

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Time to dress and accessorize!

With armature fixed, I began to bulk up the cores, and prepare for clothing. Chelsea boots went on. I began to set a base lines for end lines on appendages. I realized that I would need to start working on the sketch pad now. How it would sit in the hands, and what space it would occupy would be effected by the mass of the clothing. I knew for the casting process it would be better for the foundry if the hands and pad were removable to be cast separately.


I used 1/8 deep silicone baking mats to make separate layers of wax sheets. I pressed these together into the sketchbook, adhering the top, curled section to the main body with a sheet of wax dipped fabric. Otherwise, it would always be falling off. It looks like I will need to attach the left hand to the sketchbook as one unit, which will slide past the left leg, and into the left cuff. The right hand will be by itself, and slide into the right cuff, to rest on top of the sketchbook.

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I would need to figure out how the wrists would join with the cuffs without getting bound by the legs or clothing.

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I am attaching a second cuff to the wrists. I thought it was a neat detail to show that men's shirts would button a starched cuff over their shirt cuff to be seen from their coat sleeve.

The Victorians were full of layers.

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Still working on the vest... I'm blocking out the lines for the sack coat, and bulking out mass of the pant legs. The literature describes Bannister as slender. The only almost full body images I’ve found of him back this up. He was fit, an avid sailor.

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Still, walking around the piece, I start to see a need to build up his torso. The challenge of full bodied, clothed figures, is keeping the gesture of the form while you pile on layers of clothing. You have to keep your lines, carry the tension of the fabric throughout the different relating forms, and maintain a feeling of the clothing’s material. But first, before you fiddle with details, you need to get as much mass on the figure you can, make sure it flows, and keeps up with the feel of the portrait head.

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Sculpture Posture: The Body

Remember, trust the process...

Expanding foam is a great option for sculpting; minus the curing time.

Once the welded steel armature is set, I cover the whole thing in layers of expanding spray foam. Over the years, I've tried lots of different "fillers" to cut down on the weight and cost of a wax sculpture.

By building layer upon layer, the foam works as the mass and "muscle" of the sculpture itself.

Expanding spray foam has been the best performing option for me, so far. It is light. It has a fine enough bubble structure to be sandable, and cuts very easily with a sharp knife. It sticks to almost anything, and reaches a consistent mass when allowed the full time to cure. The only annoying part is the long wait for it to fully cure. If you cut into it early, you discover just how well it sticks to everything. I call this phase the mushroom carving stage. It is a tide of building  the foam, and carving it away, over and over again that lasts for many weeks.

I constantly draw on the shape with a sharpie pen, compare dimensions with measurements and my calipers. I go back and forth between the numbers I got from the model, and the life-size prints I made of the model's photos. Ideas change as soon as you begin to give mass to fantasy. What worked in your head doesn't quite work in broad daylight. This phase becomes the bedrock of the sculpture.

Even throughout the built up layers, we want to clean this foam up with our tools and make it look more body-like.

The hardest part is having faith in your experience, and vision. Your eyes tell you the form is too long, too thin, too awkward. Your brain tells you to leave room for the wax, which will be the actual muscle mass and clothing thickness. If you don't trust the steps you take now, because of the mistakes you had to correct on work in the past, you will have to fix them again.

Continuing this process over and over until a realistic density and mass is achieved.

You can really start to see the shape of the statue come together at this stage...

It's a good idea to use die-cut cardboard for body features such as the nose, feet, ears, etc...

All of the surface details will be different, but the gesture and feeling of gravity will remain in the finished piece. You want the flesh to sit on the bench. You want the clothing to hang on and caress the form. If the skeleton/armature floats with an awkward gesture, so will the finished figure. Take your time and get it as close as you can before you commit to the wax. It is awful to have to make major changes to the armature once you've done great things in the wax phase.


Some pictures of the work on the hands...


A wire armature helps me keep proportion, and allows me to easily change positions. I kept the pieces on a heating pad to keep the wax at a workable softness.


Depending on the firmness of the wax, my tools range from my fingertip to a small hammer.

Working in 3D, you constantly have to move your point of view. It is very easy to get drawn into a zone or angle. If you concentrate too much in one area, it warps the gesture and form of the whole. What looks wonderful head-on, looks deformed from the bottom right. In my process, I end up re-sculpting the portrait head several times. To help me with symmetry, and to save parts of the piece that I like, I cut and paste pieces from failed attempts. The wax makes this very forgiving.


In this case, one eye was too deep, and the orbital warped.


I removed the eyes, worked out their symmetry separately, balanced the orbitals, and reapplied them.


Once I got the head, feet and hands to a certain level, it was time to attach and evaluate the body. Of course, once the first coat of wax goes on, and things are sitting relative to themselves, the game plan changes. Weeks and months of planning go out the window, things need to be shortened, raised, bent, etc. And the process continues as a tide of creating and destroying, not a straight path. From every angle.


Friction causes small fires in the foam, and smokes out your studio. The usual.


Due to the state of the world right now, getting the special blend of microcrystalline wax I use has been difficult and expensive. Silver lining, it has slowed me down to better refine my work as I go.


In order to keep working regularly on the piece, I’ve been cannibalizing older wax pieces.


I’ve also been scraping my drips from the floor to melt down and filter through a window screen to reuse. I do this anyway, but usually wait to the end.


As I move forward with the piece, and see it growing in front of me, ideas from its inception evolve and grow. Where I once had Bannister looking down, sketching in his own world, new information and experiences have inspired me to open him up, and have him engaging with the subject of his sketch instead. This small change in intent echoes into a host of little changes in his gesture and composition to reflect this new energy. Therefore, yet another incarnation of the portrait head ensues.


Something didn’t feel, or look right one morning. I’d been looking at lots of photos of Victorian and Edwardian men sitting with legs crossed. It became clear that they really didn’t “spread out” as much as men would now.


Normally their legs would be touching with knees crossed over each other. I toyed with that image in my head, taking into account needing to balance a drawing pad.

I took a bit of artistic license, and compromised by bringing his right leg in more, to let the person sitting next to him enjoy their space uninterrupted.


So, I had to tear down the legs and lower body to get to the armature so I could cut it, re-weld it with an additional two inches of height, bend the legs into the correct positions, and readjust all the gestures. Of course, the arms needed to come off and find new positions.


While the head was removed, I found other angles that needed adjusting as well, leading to head 6. This is the process.