My History of Portrait Sculpture


Last week we released a video course on sculpting a portrait using air dry terracotta clay from Clay House Art. I didn’t have any hesitation when I was planning out the tutorial. I knew right away that I wanted to show a small scale portrait so the technique wouldn’t be too overwhelming, and I wanted to use air dry clay so that you wouldn’t need access to a kiln or know how to cast to end up with a permanent piece.

I remembered today that as an art school student, what a complete disaster my education was in terms of figuring out the materials and process that would make figure modeling into a smooth and stream lined process for students.

When I was an undergraduate art RISD, there was literally one figure modeling class, and I didn’t get to take it because I was an Illustration major and it wasn’t at the top of my priority list at the time. I did audit the figure modeling class one summer since I knew the professor, but the technique that was taught was using plastilene, creating life size portraits and 12″ tall figures.

Learning to cast the plastilene pieces in plaster was such a nightmare at the time. We did plaster waste molds which can be tricky, and the process is such that you end up destroying your original plastilene sculpture in the process which is incredibly stressful if you’re inexperienced.

We didn’t get much instruction in terms of cast repair, and I was so bad at the technique that my cast wasn’t very accurate and needed a serious amount of repair.


I remember spending time digging up books that looked like they were published in the 1960’s, trying to find any shred of knowledge to help me figure out the casting process.  All I found were textbooks with thick, outdated paragraphs of text with no images or photos to reference.

So when I got to graduate school I had a really negative association with casting, and was petrified of diving back into such a bad experience. I was incredibly lucky that one of my classmates was a master at all types of casting, and so I absorbed everything I could from him.  He was really generous about teaching me and taking the time to fix all of my terrible habits. I was blown away by the techniques he showed me.  Now I can cast a figure in my sleep and I feel very confident in that area.

I was pretty angry with the professors at graduate school for refusing to teach us casting. I asked the professor for assistance in learning to cast and all I got was “Don’t you people teach each other anything?”


Which is why it feels really good to release our video course on portrait sculpture.  If I had this video when I was an art school student, boy, would I have saved myself endless hours of grief and frustration. I do believe that to a certain degree, students do need to learn certain things on their own.

There are technique though, that you really shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel for. It’s so simple and easy explain to someone that you should fill your armature with styrofoam to save on clay! is a free website for learning visual arts which features video tutorials, art critiques, and more.

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