Casting the Gresley Maquette – the metal and patination stages

The bronze pour has been a success and the follow-up metalwork has been done by the foundry. I enjoy the drive up to Bronze Age, to check the metalwork before the patination (or colouring) begins. After a few tweaks in the metal, we take Sir Nigel to the patination space.

The combining of heat with chemicals is not an exact science. Colouring bronze is a real art. It is always a voyage of discovery. Luckily they have great patinators who really try to understand what you are trying to achieve. I know what I don’t want – I don’t want that traditional, rather dark, brown bronze finish. I want something more subtle.

He takes his time, layer upon layer until we have a rather lovely warm opaque brown with beautiful variations in colour. A final layer of clear wax and Sir Nigel is ready for the drive back down to Brighton to be mounted on a wooden base and delivered to the client.

Two members of the Gresley Society Trust – Andrew Dow and Nigel Dant – come to my studio to pick up the bronze maquette. By now they feel more like friends than clients. We have been on a long journey together. I unveil the bronze. Finally our combined vision has come to fruition. They are absolutely charmed with it. The maquette is whisked away to the Gresley Society Trust Council meeting where it is whole-heartedly endorsed.

But there is no time for Andrew and Nigel to stand on their laurels. Permissions need to be sought from Camden Council, English Heritage and Network Rail for the siting of the 7ft 4 inch bronze on the new Western Concourse at King’s Cross Station. To everyone’s delight, by October 2014, all the permissions have been gained. It is time for the fundraising to begin.

Postscript: In late March 2015 I was commissioned by the Gresley Society Trust to sculpt the larger-than-life figure of Sir Nigel Gresley, but without the Mallard duck at his side.

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Casting the Gresley Maquette – the wax stage

The clay maquette of Sir Nigel Gresley and the Mallard arrived safely in the Docklands at Bronze Age Sculpture Casting Foundry. Their team made the two moulds – one for the figure and one for the Mallard – and cast them in wax. Two weeks later I was presented with the wax version of the sculpture to check. There is always a need for me to do some minor tweaks at this stage. Additions are made in white wax. I use my wax tools to make other amendments. Time also to position the Mallard. One of the Bronze Age team are always nearby to provide advice or assistance – and a welcome cup of coffee.

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Sculpting at Dorich House – postscript 4

Mercy is out of the mould, pretty much intact. The glaring white and pitted plaster does her no favours. Into the kitchen sink with her. I could work at the studio, but my home sink is the right height and has good light and a view onto the garden. Normal kitchen life is suspended once again. First I search out any holes, air bubbles, proud seams, cracks and bits of rubber from the mould. After a dowsing with water I mix small amounts of plaster and do some ‘mending’. Then the refining work begins, using fine ‘wet and dry’ sandpaper. Once I am happy with the surface I take the bright whiteness of the plaster back a little, by applying tea. I love how this ages the sculpture. A final rub-down with sandpaper enhances the contrasts. We are ready to mount her on the black wooden block and get photographing.


Jennifleur – finalising the bronze

The bronze pour is done, the metalwork is done. Jennifleur is ready for checking. I find her glowing gold. Just a few little tweaks needed. My signature needs to be cleaned up and the edition number added. We check how the sculpture sits and adjustments are made. The granite base is drilled in readiness. Next stop is the bitterly cold patination room. Despite the cold, it’s a real pleasure to watch a skilled patinator at work, an artist himself. We talk about the desired colouring – I want a green with a touch of yellowy brown that can rub back to the bronze. This needs a hot patination process. The differing colouring chemicals are carefully applied with a brush, layer by layer, under the heat of a large blowtorch. The golden glow of Jennifleur transforms into a deeper brown. As more heat is applied, the surface bronze blushes red in places. Then the blues emerge, followed by greens, and then touches of yellowy browns. There is something I like about each layer of colour but we push on until we get to our desired patina. The final step is to fix the colour with layers of wax. By now it’s late, and I’m rigid with cold. Jennifleur is mounted on the granite base and packed up for the journey home. Tomorrow the photographing begins.


Sculpting at Dorich House – postscript 3

While ‘Mercy’ is being cast in bronze, I want to also cast a plaster version. I love bronze. But I also love plaster. Not straight out of the mould, but once I have worked on the surface. I’m not so keen on casting plaster myself though. I’m at the studio. I have all the equipment around me. I grow grumpy. Procrastinate terribly. Finally I concede that nobody else is miraculously going to do it for me. I have run out of excuses and time. I have to just get on and do it. True to form I make a real mess – of me, the mould, the floor. Even Kaiser the dog gets a dusting of plaster.

I leave the plaster in the mould overnight. Will I have to re-cast? The next morning I carefully unscrew the fibreglass jacket of the mould and ease out the plaster sculpture still encased in the rubber mould. The moment of truth. Carefully I peel away the rubber. Two ears. One nose. Mercy’s in one piece. This looks promising. Clearly there is work to be done. The effects of trapped air bubbles and some ‘stepping’ of the mould need to be rectified. But no need to re-cast. Phew. Time to clear up the mess I’ve made.


Jennifleur – working in the wax

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA‘Jennifleur’ is loaded into my boot, clay for ballast. We’re on our way to Bronze Age Sculpture Casting Foundry in the Docklands. Thank goodness for SatNavs. The sculpture arrives safe and sound. I say my goodbyes to ‘Jennifleur’. The foundry now make the mould of the portrait then cast wax into the mould. Two weeks later I am back to ‘check’ the wax. I spend an enjoyable few hours in the Foundry’s wax room, fiddling with the wax sculpture. With their team’s help, the sculpture is positioned to reflect the pose. ‘Jennifleur’ is ready for casting in bronze. The alchemy begins.


Why I love bronze

Dance VI
Dance VI
Dance VI, bronze

There is a real freshness and freedom that comes from working loosely in clay or wax as a sculptor. I find inspiration in the rough wax maquettes (or sculptural sketches) found in Degas’ studio on his death. Sculpting with warmed wax allows me to achieve a sense of movement and looseness in my dancing figures. Bronze is the perfect medium to capture this. The casting process is where the alchemy begins. Yes, bronze is a practical choice as it is durable. It is considered a precious metal, and as such has an intrinsic value all of its own. However I love working with bronze for artistic reasons.

The molten bronze picks up every detail of my original handiwork, right down to my very fingerprints. Using bronze enables me to freeze a moment of a gravity-defying dance pose, communicating the joy of dance. But it is also something about the look and feel of bronze, which captivates me. There is nothing quite like the feel of bronze and the incredible colours that emerge in the patination or colouring process. There is something timeless about bronze, yet you can sense the connection with artists of the past like Degas, Rodin and Matisse who used exactly the same bronze-casting techniques as we use today – the lost-wax process.

If you’re interested, over the next few weeks I will blog about the creation of my bronze dancing figures as well as my commissioned bronze sculpture of Sadako Sasaki.

Casting ‘Ibu sleeps’

'Ibu sleeps' - just out of the mould

What happened to the mould of ‘Ibu sleeps’ I was struggling with? Sore point. I try every glue, every tape and sticky thing, with no luck. Finally I decide I just need to try and cast it. As a last resort I use some thickening plaster to seal the rip on the rubber. At least this saves the plaster pouring straight down in-between the mould and the jacket. I make bowl after bowl of plaster. Perhaps I should have tried making a bucket of plaster, but didn’t want to risk it. So I use the same technique as with ‘Elfan’ and ‘Contemplation’.  This time I place the mould in the large black bucket as I am sure the plaster will leak out. Actually, it wasn’t as bad as feared. As I got to the last bowl of plaster, near the neck of the sculpture, I pour it in. But as it started to thicken I scooped it up around the lip of the mould. This was the only way to cover this final section of the mould.

'Ibu sleeps' - rebuilding her back with plaster
'Ibu sleeps' - rebuilding her back with plaster

By this time I am tired, hungry and grumpy. I can’t bear the thought of having to cast this sculpture again. Nervously I wait. Two hours later I finally get up the guts to open up the mould. Takes a while to coax the plaster sculpture out. The rubber mould, despite careful handling, is splitting in various place. But at least the plaster cast is pretty good all things considered. Yes, the back of the neck is concave as expected, but it could be worse. So I mix up a small bowl of plaster and sit ‘Ibu sleeps’ on a bean bag in the sink. Finally the plaster is lovely and thick and I smear it on her neck/back. As it sets I use a metal tool to scrape it back a little.

Even though I had decided to leave further cleaning up of the sculpture until the morning, I can’t resist picking out bits of blue rubber that are stuck to the plaster and scraping off the seams here and there. Will carry on tomorrow with ‘Ibu sleeps’ as well as ‘Elfan’ and ‘Contemplation’. Time now for food and a bath.

'Ibu sleeps' - just out of the mould
'Ibu sleeps' - just out of the mould

Casting ‘Elfan’ and ‘Contemplation’

'Elfan' - half rubber mould with jacket
'Elfan' - half rubber mould with jacket
'Elfan' - half rubber mould with jacket

While I am still struggling with how to deal with problems with the rubber mould of ‘Ibu sleeps’, I decide I have to crack on with casting the other two sculptures. This is when the real mess starts. The patio is set up, with enough bowls, buckets and plastic sheeting to last a lifetime. What I should add here is that I am doing an easy cast ie the plaster is solid. When I pay others to do it, they build up the plaster carefully in layers so it is hollow, and hence lighter.

I so rarely cast that I dig out my ‘documentation’ books. These are where I record everything I learn related to sculpting. I find my notes from spending a day casting with Andrew Brown in 2010. I also find notes from a chat with Alex, a fellow sculptor who works directly in plaster. My notes remind me that I am a messy caster, and should therefore dress appropriately. On goes the ‘artist’ gear – everything has remnants of plaster from previous bouts of casting. I wear the black ‘workplace’ Crocs as I know I will spill plaster on my feet. Every surface is covered in plastic sheeting.

'Contemplation' - half rubber mould in its jacket
'Contemplation' - half rubber mould in its jacket

I have washed and dried both moulds, making sure they are carefully reassembled and tightly secured with ‘butterflies’. I have the black flexible plaster bucket/basket at the ready. This serves two useful purposes. Wish I had bought two now. One: you can place your sculpture in the bucket in case plaster pours through the seams and out. Two: you can pour excess plaster into the bucket, then let it dry. It then pops out in a big plaster disc which can be safely thrown away. Never get wet plaster anywhere near a sink or drain. Hard lesson to learn. I also have an ordinary bucket of hand-hot water. This I use for rinsing my hands when covered with plaster, and for rinsing out the flexible small bowls in which I mix the plaster. At the end of the session, let the plaster settle to the bottom. You can then pour off the water and scoop out the damp plaster that has settled on the bottom and chuck it in the bin. Don’t leave it too long before clearing it out – plaster can bond with the plastic of the bucket. Not many uses for a bucket full of plaster.

I am ready…now for mixing the plaster. That’s one thing that is hard to document – how thick should the plaster be/feel before you pour it into the mould?  I can’t remember. So I follow the guidelines from my colleagues. Fill two-thirds of the flexible plaster bowl with cold water. Sprinkle handfuls of plaster onto the surface of the water. Keep an eye out for an island forming in the centre. Carry on sprinkling the plaster until this island stops ‘melting’ into the water. This should give you a good plaster mix. How thick the plaster becomes depends on how long you leave it. Slowly immerse your hand in the bowl and gently mix the plaster, trying to avoid creating air bubbles. When Alex mixes plaster she uses a bucket and slowly mixes in one direction, with a knuckled hand. When it feels nicely smooth, take your hand out and rinse it off in the bucket of hand-hot water. Gently tap the bowl of plaster on a hard surface to encourage any bubbles to surface (these can be scooped off if needed). As I will be pouring the plaster, I don’t want it to get too thick. I leave it until it is starting to thicken – and when I withdraw my hand my fingers remain plaster-white.

'Elfan' mould in bucket ready for filling
'Elfan' mould in bucket ready for filling

I place the mould at my feet, in a bucket/container, in case the plaster runs out. I bend the plaster bowl so it is easy to pour. The first bowl I make is a small bowl. I follow Andrew’s method, of using a small bowl of plaster first.  I pour the plaster into the mould. I pick up the mould and turn it this way and that so there is a thin layer of plaster in every nook and cranny. I pour out the excess into the black flexible plaster bucket/basket.  I now mix-up a larger bowl of plaster in the same way as before. Once I have poured this second bowl in I again lift up the mould and turn it so that plaster gets everywhere – including the ears, eyes and mouth. Once back on the ground, I tap the mould on the ground for up to a couple of minutes, to help air bubbles surface. The third bowl is just poured in, to the top. Again, I tap the filled mould on the ground to release air bubbles.

Any plaster left over in the bowl can be poured into the flexible bucket, or left to dry and popped out (if you don’t need to immediately use the bowl again). Whatever you do, don’t add water and pour it down your sink. I prop the mould up so that the plaster doesn’t spill out of the top while it is still wet. And leave it for a good 45 minutes, if not more, before opening up the mould. For this, I unscrew all the ‘butterflies’ and carefully ease off the rubber from the plaster. Hurrah! ‘Elfan’ has turned out well, both ears intact, no large air bubbles. I repeat the whole process for ‘Contemplation’.

'Contemplation' just out of the mould
'Contemplation' just out of the mould

Both have come out really well. Just need to spend a couple of hours clearing up after myself. Hmm – spot white footprints on the patio. Hard to blame anyone else. Can’t even blame the neighbour’s cat. Next steps, other than clearing up? Cleaning up the plaster cast, rubbing down and patinating, followed by inserting a ‘stud’/metal thread and positioning it on a stand/plinth. But that’s for another day. I need to check whether my mould of ‘Ibu sleeps’ is any the better for gel Superglue and a bag of sand.

'Elfan' - just out of the mould
'Elfan' - just out of the mould