The making of Isis

Published in News on 11 December 2013

Early in 2012 an art dealer acquaintance of mine rang to ask if I would be interested in a commission for a life-sized bronze sculpture. I promptly said “yes” before common sense could step in and tell me not to be such an impetuous clot. I had never made anything remotely on this scale before and I only have a small studio. But, whatever the difficulties, this was an opportunity not to be missed.

Seven months later, a group of us staggered into Salisbury library with the completed bronze; I was submitting it to the Army Art Society Exhibition before it went off to become the property of the man who had commissioned it. The Chairman welcomed me with the slightly harassed smile with which she was already greeting the stream of other artists who were submitting work. She made some passing comment about “how lovely” and “that must have taken some doing!” But, as I then launched into a voluble explanation of just what a challenge it had been, her eyes glazed over and she muttered “please just write an article about it for the AAS magazine”. She then moved swiftly on to the next in line!

Creating a large bronze such as “Isis” involves the sponsor, the model and the sculptor – that’s obvious. But what most people know less about are the professional craftsmen who convert the finished clay into bronze. In the case of “Isis” it took seven, behind the scenes people, each one an expert in his or her field, to complete the various stages of the job. Let me explain both my part in it and theirs.

The Pose

A professional artists’ model, who lives locally, came to my house to allow the dealer to select the pose. He had one in mind so this didn’t take long.

And if this causes any reader of this article (who is not a sculptor) to raise a quizzical eyebrow and decide to take up sculpting on the spot, please don’t buy your beret and smock before I explain! Professional artists’ models do not pose in private studios unaccompanied. It is the quickest way to destroy reputations all round! On the first occasion, the model came with her fiancé (who looked like a rugby player) and thereafter always with at least one other person present! She charges at an hourly rate.

The model in the selected pose

Measurements

The next stage is to photograph the model from all angles in the selected pose and to take lots of measurements. I knew that I would have to work on the clay from all angles so I had, in preparation, constructed a sort of wooden gurney on which to build it. I covered the top with a polythene sheet and transferred the measurements onto that.

The Armature

This is the framework around which a sculpture is built. Clay is a heavy material. A life-sized clay head, for example, even if hollow, can weigh as much as a human head. It would sag or fall off unless there were an armature to give it structure and stability. For big sculptures, professional sculptors tend to use tubular steel which they weld into the correct configuration. As an amateur, I made my armature by screwing together strips of wood and encasing them in plaster bandages! Clearly, when designing the armature, the vital thing is always to imagine where the surface of the sculpture is going to be. It rather spoils the object of the exercise to have bits of wood protruding through the clay (like a bone sticking through skin!).

The armature suspended over the gurney

The Clay

I used Earthstone sculpture crank, a clay which I can buy locally. Initially, I slapped it onto my newly-created armature as though it was heavy bread dough. When I got near to the imaginary surface of the sculpture I used what is called a “kidney” to smooth it out into the shapes that I wanted. I found this part utterly exhilarating. Clay is very forgiving. Whenever I made a mistake – no problem: just pull off the offending chunk of clay and try again. The clay has to be kept moist at all times so, during sculpting, a hand-held, spray gun did the job and, between sessions, I covered the work with damp clothes wrapped in a plastic sheet.

The completed clay

At frequent intervals I sent the dealer photographs of progress. When I had finished, I invited him to come over to inspect the result. The model came along too. After inspection, the dealer asked for alterations. For example, he wanted the figure to have a heavy plait in hair thicker than the model’s. I bought a cheap wig and the model plaited it for me! A fortnight later he reviewed the changes and professed himself satisfied. He named the sculpture “Isis”.

It was time to call in the professionals!

The Mould

The first stage is the all-important mould. A mould-maker whom I have used several times in the past and who lives in Guilford came over to my studio to construct one around “Isis”. It took 3 days. In essence, he divides the sculpture (still in moist clay) into two parts by fitting a line of stiff card the full length of the sculpture in a kind of ruff.

Dividing the sculpture with paper ruff then painting with silicone rubber

He then coats one half of the sculpture in silicone moulding rubber. When this has hardened he adds a more robust outer casing in fibreglass. When that has also set, he carries out the same procedure on the other side, making sure that the two halves don’t glue themselves together! He then has the clay sculpture encased in what looks like an Egyptian mummy. When the whole thing has hardened, he peels back the two sides of the mould leaving the clay sculpture more or less intact. He now has an exact “negative” of the original sculpture. He bolts both sides tightly together and his job is done.

The Foundry

I use Talos, a highly reputable Art Foundry near Andover. They produce a completed bronze in a number of stages from a mould which they usually prefer to make themselves. I didn’t have them make the mould in this case because moving the life-sized sculpture, in wet clay, from my studio to the foundry was too risky for me to consider.

Lost wax

At the foundry, molten wax is poured into the mould and allowed to harden. The mould is then removed (and available for reuse) revealing a “positive” of the sculpture - this time in wax. The sculptor is then invited to repair any small defects and make any final improvements that he judges necessary.

The lost wax stage

Ceramic shell mould

The foundry then cut the wax sculpture into a number of portions (they spared me having to watch this distressing procedure!) and painted each piece with a thick ceramic mixture. Each portion was then put into a kiln where the ceramic mixture hardened into something like glass while the wax poured out (hence:“lost wax”). They are left with a ceramic “negative” of the original – this time in a number of pieces!

Casting

The ceramic moulds are part buried in a pit of sand. Molten bronze from the furnace is then poured into them. This is a 3 man job. When the whole thing has cooled and hardened, the ceramic shell is hammered off and destroyed. This leaves a hollow bronze sculpture in several pieces – the final “positive”!

Metal-chasing

The bronze pieces are then welded together. These are smoothed and finished by hand – a highly skilled job to remove any imperfections and all trace of the welds.

The pieces welded together and chased

Patination, waxing and polishing

The sculpture is then painted with a chemical compound which, with the use of a blow torch, reacts with the surface of the bronze to give a patina in the colour selected by the client from a wide range of choices. It is then waxed and polished ready for delivery and, in the case of “Isis”, for her initial journey to Salisbury library!

I hope this article gives some idea of the work involved in creating even the smallest bronze. Only a fraction of the cost is in the metal itself – most is spent in paying the highly skilled people who, with the sculptor, turn that initial concept (the pose) into a finished piece which (metal thieves aside) should have an indefinitely long future.

Isis being painted with the patina chemicals

Isis waxed and polished

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The making of Isis