Photographing ‘Robert Newton’

Robert Newton view 1

‘Robert Newton’ is ready for the final stage. He needs to be photographed. I want to submit this sculpture to the Society of Portrait Sculptors’ FACE2012 exhibition, along with my portrait of ‘Adam Kirkham’. These photos will also be part of documenting my artistic practice. This includes being part of my Flickr photo record of this portrait from armature to final piece, and to my new website at www.hazelreeves.com.

‘Robert Newton’ is not the usual life-size, face-on pose of most portrait sculptures. My aspiration with this portrait was to make a sculpture with presence, hence going for a larger scale (1.25). I also wanted an interesting and evocative pose. This makes photographing it effectively more difficult. However, I was willing to give it a go in my makeshift photography studio  in my living room. The confidence to do so came from an excellent session with the photographer Jerry Lebens. One of his strengths is to work with artists to help them photograph their work – sculpture, paintings, crafts – to show it to best advantage.

Must admit I took over one hundred and fifty photos of ‘Robert Newton’ before I was happy with three for the Society of Portrait Sculptors. The height and angle of the light and from which direction, changed the feel of the piece significantly. I finally opt for a high side light from the right which enhances the ancient feel and the mood of contemplation I was looking for. I submit the photos to the Society and get through to the next round with both ‘Robert Newton’ and ‘Adam Kirkham’ portraits. This means a trip up to North London. Three days later I hear that this sculpture of Robert has not been accepted. The disappointment is offset by excitement that my sculpture of Adam has been accepted.

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Robert’s Head: the mounting

Robert in the vice

Well, Robert’s head has made it out of the sink. It’s been buffed a little. Next step is to mount the sculpture – but easier said than done.  This pose is complex. His head is turned to the left and tipped downwards. This helps evoke a certain feel but makes it more difficult to mount. It is also very large (1.25 life-size) and heavy.  Andrew Brown, the caster, has already set into the plaster (inside the neck) the studding (a threaded metal rod), which protrudes from the bottom. This is what will attach the head to the base. If this is set at the right angle, then all we need is a suitable base.

Checking the angle – by eye, it looks quite good. However, I cannot physically hold it up and step back to view it properly. So I need a vice and another pair of hands to help with this. Once in the vice I can see that Andrew has in fact done a great job at replicating the original pose. This means that the metal rod just needs to go into a base vertically. That makes things easier.

Getting a suitable base – what I mean by ‘suitable’ is a combination of factors. It needs to be heavy enough to bear the weight of the sculpture, and broad enough to take the distribution of the weight. With Robert’s sculpture a lot of the plaster weight is quite far forward given the head is tipped downwards. But aesthetically, a base needs to show off the sculpture to maximum advantage. This is often the proportions in relation to the sculpture, and the material it is made from including the colour. I have decided that I want a sizeable lump of wood that can either be stained or painted black: the hunt begins.

Robert in the vice
Robert in the vice

I scour the house and shed, then pay a visit to the Wood Recycling Centre in Brighton. I have a few options, but am unsure which would look best. So while Robert’s head is in the vice, I hold the pieces of wood in front of the sculpture, positioning them as near as to where the final base will be attached. I finally settle on a large lump of oak. It is a good size and weight, but needs some TLC first. Time I visit the woodworking specialist (okay, my father).

After some planing and sanding-down we work out the position of the hole, for the studding to go through. The hole is drilled from the top, then a ‘counter-sunk’ hole is made from the bottom. I’ve decided that I want the base to be black. So I use a black spray with satin finish. After several coats I put the studding through the base and secure with a washer and nut from underneath. Finally, I lift Robert onto the plinth ready for photographing.

So what’s been happening to Robert?

Robert - the final rub down
Robert - the final rub down
Robert – the final rub down

Robert is back in the sink. The application of tea means the surface of the plaster has turned cream and the crevices are nicely stained tea-brown. I first pour water over his head, ensuring he is soaked. Then use the finest Wet and Dry sandpaper. It helps to have a bowl of soapy warm water next to you. I soak the paper before using it then rinse the paper back in the water. This final rub down enhances the contrast between the high points and crevices. Must say that as Robert’s head is so large and heavy, it is quite hard to work on. But it is still engrossing. The radio is on in the background, but I couldn’t tell you what I have been listening to. The high points of the sculpture, such as the cheek bones, are feeling silky-smooth. Nice. Time for bed. Next step? Mounting and photographing.

Tea with Robert

Next stage? Time for tea. Robert’s head is still in the sink on that beanbag. Have done the main wet sanding – from coarse grain to the finest grain. The surface of the sculpture is now ‘responding’. Not sure how to explain this. But gone is the matt glare of the fresh plaster. But there is still too much white light bouncing around, making it difficult to ‘read’ the face.  I want to take back the brightness of the plaster a little. People use different methods. I like using a cuppa tea. Making sure the plaster head is wet, I use a paintbrush to apply the tea. And no, I don’t know whether different types of tea make a difference. I just use what I have to hand. This time, nice organic decaf tea. One bag thereof. Boiling water. Once the tea has soaked in, the surface of the plaster yellows and the nooks and crannies take on a deeper tone. I love this look – it ages the piece, giving it a more traditional demeanour. The next stage will be to rub this back a little with the finest Wet & Dry paper, to exaggerate the difference between the depths. Now time to start dealing with Adam’s portrait.

Robert with his cuppa tea

Robert Newton breakfasting

"Robert Newton"

Up working on Robert Newton’s plaster head until 11pm last night. Head still wedged in the sink on the beanbag. Most of the clay clinging to the plaster has now been scrubbed off. Been sanding down the head with Wet and Dry sandpaper. Where the two halves of the cast have been joined there is a bit of work needed to smooth down the ‘seams’. But Andrew Brown has done a great job. Chatted to him last night. The size of the sculpture was a bit of a challenge – but the main problem was the looseness of the sculpting at the lower-end of the sculpture. Getting the rubber into the nooks and crannies. Last night I focused on looking for holes and cracks. Mixed small amount of plaster in the lid of a jar. Applied with a small paintbrush and/or my finger. So this morning, with improved light, I have been inspecting my work. Just spotted another crack at the corner of the mouth so filled that. But as you can see from the photo – I was multi-tasking.

"Robert Newton"
Robert Newton breakfasting

Plaster cast of portrait – ready for clean-up

"Robert Newton"

Whenever a plaster cast of a sculpture emerges from the mould it always looks unprepossessing. Lifeless. Pitted. Dull. Dirty. But you know it can only get better. Here is Robert Newton’s portrait just out of the mould. Andrew Brown – the caster – has attached ‘studding’ (or a threaded metal post) to assist mounting it on a stand/plinth later. As the piece has been loosely sculpted the mould had retained lots of bits of the terracotta clay. Which means this clay has been transferred to the plaster cast. So the clean up begins. The head is very heavy given 1.25 life-size so I have made a ‘beanbag’ out of a black bin liner filled with the ‘right’ amount of polystyrene beans. It took a couple of attempts to get this ‘right’ amount. I’ve placed this in the sink and rested the plaster head on top. Means I don’t have to bend down too low when working on it with plaster tools and sandpaper. Bit of a problem though – this is my kitchen sink. The joys of waiting to move into a new studio.

"Robert Newton"
In the sink, ready for cleanup

A journey of a portrait sculpture – start to finish

"Robert Newton"
"Robert Newton"
Final clay sculpture ready for casting

The journey started in October 2011 with my first sitting with Robert Newton. In his eighties, his face tells the story of his life and loves. I have documented the portrait in pictures – from the initial sketches in clay, to the starting of a much larger portrait. The final is 1.25 life-size scale. For the Flickr photo journey: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hazelreeves/sets/72157627811656748/