How to sculpt a head from life

The observation distance for sculpture is much closer than drawing. At times you will need to get uncomfortably close to the model to observe the form of their face. Standing up to sculpt allows you to move freely. Ideally you need to establish and uninterrupted line of sight from your sculpture to the model. The model will rotate at regular intervals to allow different members of the group a different view.

Using your fingers build up a structure of chocolate cornflake-like pieces, leaving air spaces to allow room for compression where needed. Never fear, your head will not explode in the kiln – the grog in the clay and a slow firing will guard against it. Shrinkage does naturally occur as part of the firing process, but this will intensify your sculpture. To sculpt a portrait head there’s no need for an armature, just a post base and a big bag of red marl terracotta. (There’s no need for tools until much later when you add details).

Working up from hollow of the neck, build the profile one angle at a time; imagine a light behind the sitter to help you focus on the negative space. In a way, you will be working in 2D. The neck and chin will form an anchor for the rest of the head, so it’s important to get right. The angles of the neck will vary greatly depending on the stance of sitter, their gender, age and health. I did find after sculpting I look at people differently, seeing the basic shapes that make their head individual to them. When sculpting, look just at dominant planes and ignore details, you are looking at dating points. If you are struggling to look closely enough, I find drawing helps to focus the eye.

Be aware, your mind will imprint familiar faces onto the sculpture, in my case, my mum’s bone structure always wants to immerge from the clay. When sculpting it is best to calm your conscious mind and become absorbed in looking and sculpting, and looking again. Before you realise it you will have been standing and sculpting for some time.

There are two approaches to portrait sculpture: the approach I describe here is visual, but there is also the anatomic or forensic approach, which is knowledge based, but sometimes lacks the expression of the sitter. After all, death masks lifted directly from the face of the subject are totally anatomically correct but frighteningly lacking in the essence of the individual.  

I did a quick drawing of the model to help me focus and observe her profile correctly.

Once you judge your head to be complete, and it has dried over night, the crown should be sliced off using a wire, like lifting the top off a boiled egg. Scooping out the head using wire tools saves clay and also makes it easier to fire, but does feel rather macabre – like dining with Hannibal Lecter.

Once fired, I will mount my head using a wooden block. Am I pleased with the results? Ultimately, this method has a density and weight to it which I struggle with; I natural err towards lighter more fragile mediums. Also the tradition of commissions and idealisation of the sitter jars with my approach – there are enough sculptures of notable politicians in the world without me adding to them.  As for my sculpture, I don’t fancy having it in the house watching me watching TV or eating dinner, I think once fired it might be relegated to a hedge somewhere in my mother’s garden to scare unsuspecting visitors.  

UPDATE: Fired and finished:


  1. Awesome description and cracking(no pun intended) transformation from beginning to end! Coal.


Post a Comment