In April 2007 I began to take portrait sculpture lessons from Beth Schoen. Before leaving for New York in April 2008, I had duplicated a skull and done my own self-portrait, both in balcones white, a light grey clay that fires an off-white color. This latter piece is my first and only portrait to date.
It took me many months to complete this sculpture, but I only went once a week for a few hours at a time to work on it at Beth's studio.
Before beginning a portrait, Beth recommends that her students take a series of good photos of the subject from different angles but mainly at eye level. Students typically make large prints of these photos, protecting them in plastic sheet protectors, so that they can evaluate their work.
I decided to take it a step further and created a Flash program for displaying my pictures on my laptop, complete with keyboard shortcuts for making my image "spin" around on the computer screen. I also enabled the up and down arrows for showing the same 360° views from above and below eye level. Click on the following gallery thumbnail images to see larger animations of the spin program in action. These images are taken from day 15 and day 19 out of 20.
This is why you will see my laptop in many of the photos on display here. In addition to photos, portrait sculptors typically work with measurements of the subject, which I didn't bother writing down because I could simply put calipers to my head and then compare directly with the sculpture!
It took me many weeks (20 sessions) to complete this sculpture, but I'm quite pleased with the results. I will make it my goal to do the next one a little more quickly! It's hard to accurately reproduce even simple shapes like lips or a cheekbone, so you can imagine how challenging eyes and ears are! Beth helped me with one of the eyes and I mimicked her technique on the other.
Hollowing, Firing and Finishing
Beth teaches her students to build up their sculptures as one solid piece and hollow them after they're done and have had a chance to dry out and develop a leathery outer skin. They can't be fired as a solid heavy piece or they would explode! So the piece is sliced in two pieces at some inconspicuous point, those pieces are hollowed out, and the joint reassembled. That's why the mirror-silhouette photo at the upper right of this page has my crown missing - it was taken during this hollowing process.
The piece cracked a little below the collarbone when it was fired, but it basically survived the process well. Since I had left the skull the natural balcones white color, I decided to try something new with the self-portrait and apply a faux copper finish to it. Now that I've seen the results, I think this was a mistake — the piece is ominously dark. Now that I have it back, I'm thinking of covering it with a lighter finish. I would sand the faux finish off of it, but I'm sure I would lose lots of important detail in the process, so I'll probably just try to wash it off gently and apply a lighter color somehow.