I love plaster. I love the way it photographs. I take a large range of photos with different lighting, from different sides, with tracing paper to diffuse the light, and without. I do this over a period of three evenings – for the best contrast it helps to exclude outside light. Some of the shots have really dramatic shadows. These I will keep for my website. Here are my final three photos, chosen for exhibition submission purposes. What do you think?
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.
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.
Up to the Docklands again. It has been under two weeks and Bronze Age Sculpture Casting Foundry has already made the mould of ‘Mercy’ and cast the wax. I am here to do the final work on the green wax version of the sculpture. Everything that I see here in wax, will be perfectly matched in the bronze – down to my very finger-prints. So getting this right, is important. I join their team in the wax room, rummage around for tools and start work. I am always a little nervous when starting to work in the wax but soon forget everything but the wax surface. Are there any holes to fill? Are the eyes even?
The Foundry has cast the whole sculpture, including the clay underneath. I leave them to cut off the excess. My confidence doesn’t run to using hot knives to cut large areas – yet. We work together on getting the pose right. They make a wax ‘lug’ so that it will also be cast in bronze. This will be what we use to fix the sculpture to the base. And what keeps the sculpture at the correct angle, maintaining the ‘pose’.
Before I know it, three hours have passed and I need to stop fiddling and get back on the road. As I am going to cast a plaster version of Mercy this week, I load the mould into the car. The next time I see Mercy, she will be in bronze. Then the fun begins. Time for colouring the bronze.
My last glimpse of the snow-covered Dorich House is in my rear view mirror as I make for home. Sad to be leaving, but pleased to be on my way before dark. As I close-in on Brighton, the snow becomes heavier. No chance of unloading at the studio. The roads will be un-passable en route to Billingshurst. And I can’t risk the sculptures getting snowed-in. My trip to the foundry is in just a few days time. Rather nerve-wracking to unload the three Mercy sculptures. Will I slip on the snow and ice? Such relief when they are all safely in my kitchen.
Over the next few days I spend happy hours in the warmth of my kitchen working on Mercy I, II and III. My final Mercy sculpture, takes most of the time. The last sitting – with the wonderful art reportagist Mercy Kagia – was curtailed due to snow. Normally I only sculpt from life, but there is still work to be done. Mercy needs to get back to her Phd. I need to work on other projects. So the offer of another day at Dorich House has to be turned down, sadly. Reference photos are taken.
Here is Mercy, on the morning I load her into the car for a trip to the Docklands, to Bronze Age Sculpture Casting Foundry.
Dorich House and its grounds are quite striking on any day. But blanketed in snow, they look quite magical. And the light today is quite lovely. The snow is falling and settling, transforming the light in the studio. This is our last day in Dora Gordine’s Plaster Room. It feels like home – I will be sad to leave.
The pressure is on. I only have a few hours with Mercy today, our last day. I must complete this third portrait. There is nothing like a deadline to focus the mind though. The music needs to be upbeat, to assist the sense of urgency. We find an internet-based Reggaeton radio channel – perfect. Mercy is being turned this way and that, is raised and lowered, as I work rapidly across the head. If only I had just one more day.
By lunchtime it is clear that I have even less time. We need to finish early as the snow is becoming rather heavy. The 4.30pm deadline becomes a 3pm deadline. Deep breath. Keep calm.
On go the shoulders and clavicles. I use a long screwdriver, wedged through the armature, to steer the head around into the final pose. The final hour is spent working on the muscles of the neck, trying to get the clear definition that Mercy has.
A head pops around the door to give us our 20 minute warning. This means we have to pack up all the sculpting paraphernalia and get it, along with the three portraits, into the snow-covered car within 20 minutes. I must put down my sculpture tools.
With very welcome help from Mercy, Josie and Machin, the car is loaded and the door is locked by 3.30pm. Phew. Now all I have to do is drive home to Brighton through the snow.
The day starts with some quiet time in the studio alone with Dora Gordine’s plaster portraits. They have such presence. Like Dora, I have a love of plaster and its luminosity. In homage to her I will cast in plaster all of my sculptures created here. One will also be cast in bronze, thanks to Bronze Age Sculpture Casting Foundry – my reward for winning the Society of Portrait Sculptors‘ Masterclass Prize in 2012 with my sculpture of Adam Kirkham.
Mercy arrives, our eclectic music is on, so work begins on the new life-size portrait. I have the maquette to hand, with the pose roughed out. The inspiration for this pose comes from an image of Mercy taken by the talented photographer Nick Kane.
I add the clay to another armature with a wire cage. Using this means I can move the position of the head at a later stage. Only two days left. No pressure. Yikes.
Progress feels slow, but reviewing the photos I take at each break reminds me that we are pushing forward, step by step.
The barely covered armature, at the start of the day, has not yet become Mercy. But it looks human-like, and the bone structure is emerging, albeit a little lop-sided here and there. I want to establish the main planes of the face before bringing in the neck and shoulders. There will be frenzied sculpting tomorrow – at 4.30pm I will need to stop. Double yikes.
A frosty sunny morning, lovely North light, a warm studio, and a cafetiere of coffee – a perfect start to the day. Dorich House is feeling like home. Have I only spent two days here so far? Feels like I was born to sculpt in Dora Gordine’s ‘Plaster Room’.
Nervously I remove the covering from Mercy’s portrait sculpture. Will I like it? Is it any good? Although it has only been a few hours since I last saw it, this rather irrational fear emerges at the start of any sculpting day. As soon as I see the sculpture and dig my hands into the clay, all is forgotten. It is me, Mercy and the clay.
I am so enjoying this pose that I decide to stick with it, rather than starting a new portrait. So much for only spending one further hour on it. But this is my week. I can indulge myself.
Brenda Martin, the curator, comes in to view our progress. She kindly encourages us to visit the roof terrace given it is such a gorgeous day. Stunning views across Richmond Park and Wimbledon Common greet us. The murky weather at the start of the week has given way to clear skies.
Inspired by our time on the roof terrace, Mercy’s sculpture takes on a new life. She starts to gently blow the clouds away, in readiness for flight.
Time now to work further on the small portrait of Mercy. I am using it as a ‘maquette’ ie a model to help set up the next life-size portrait. Mercy and I work on the pose together. Turning the re-worked sculpture around on the turntable helps me realise that this pose has more than one ‘front’. In other words, it works from more than one side, and would work well in the round. I will be in before Mercy in the morning to get some clay onto the armature and get going on this new pose. Can’t wait.
Today was a day of hurling clay onto the armature. My goal was to sculpt a life-size head of Mercy in just one day. Quite a tall order. But this frees me up somewhat. You can’t be expected to get a likeness in only a day. And sculpting Mercy is such a pleasure. There is no client, and hence no imperative to get an exact likeness. I can use her as the inspiration for my sculpture. It is very easy to keep on working on a portrait – sometimes it helps to stop at a stage when a lot is still left to the viewer’s imagination. When there is a lot of movement in the clay. When you can take a flight of fancy and push the sculpture beyond the sitter. My chosen pose today was initially inspired by a dancing pose. As we worked on it, it reminded me of Degas’ ‘Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans’. But in the making it changed, with Mercy’s neck extended forward, her head a little upturned and arms lifted behind. By the end of the day, Mercy was sprouting wings.
Okay, I didn’t manage to complete the sculpture today. But I only intend to spend one more hour on it tomorrow. I will cast it in plaster, and work on it further. Most appropriate given we are sculpting in Dora’s ‘Plaster Room’. Tomorrow we will embark on a longer, different pose.