Make a Sculpture using the Modeling Method
Sculpture: The Easy Way Note that this is a free preveiw into the modeling process of sculpture which is covered in detail in DVD 1 of the Instructional Video. Stone Sculpture (The Hard Way) is covered in DVD 2. These may be ordered on this site.
by Foot Young, 7\2001
Copyright notice: All rights of reproduction, except for personal use, to the following are reserved by the artist. It is hoped that this treatise will promote sculpture and assist any artist in this endeavour.
Overview: What follows is instruction on building a rather large (will also work on small pieces) sculpture out of two part foam (ordinary styrofoam will work as well). The armature or core created with the foam is then covered over in fibreglass, and then detail modeled over that with bog (bondo), then a coating of bronze/resin applied over that. The result is a finished standalone sculpture, that does not require further moulding unless you want to make copies. As of 2019, the one created here has been out in the weather for 18 years and shows no sign of deterioration.
Most people who attempt any form of artwork are frustrated because they tried the wrong medium, or a few mediums, but gave up in despair with the conclusion “I’m not an artist”. This I feel is a shame because my experience is that every human being is born with a great amount of latent creative talent. We lose it in western society because a developed society requires people to specialize, to restrict and limit their capabilities down to a narrow band of skills. For many years I lived and traveled amongst the third world peoples hardly touched by the modern world, and guess what. They are all creative, every man, woman and child. This is the most important thing to grasp if you are going to take up any art form; that you can do it and if you find that medium that best suits you, and you stick with it, you will eventually learn to do it very well.
Finding the right medium takes a bit of trial and error, for this there is no substitute. Eventually, though, you will get your hands into something which just gives you a buzz to do. Anything creative will give you that buzz, but the one thing that suits you best will talk back to you, you won’t be able to resist being drawn back to it, whereas the wrong one will leave you to go on forever to the next one. Clay has been the traditional medium, but the down side is that it must then be moulded, and a casting out of some material, usually hot cast and expensive bronze, must be done before a complete sculpture is at hand.
Now, assuming that you’ve gravitated through these layers and have tried your hand at sculpture and have gotten so far as to read this, then the next step is what type of sculpture is best for you. Naturally, the art that someone else has done which seems to please you the most is the best place to start. For example if you like welded steel sculpture the most, then get yourself a weldor, pick up a book on welding, scrouge up some scrap steel somewhere and see what you can make of it. That was the beginning of my sculpting career, although nearly twenty years elapsed between when I first played around with a few “wierd looking things” and when I became a professional artist. All those years in between, however, were valuable because I learned a lot of different skills and different experiences, without which I couldn’t do what I do today. Even university studies in mathematics, I feel, contributed greatly to an understanding of the underlying principles which govern shape and time in our universe.
Of course the natives on the South Pacific Islands don’t have the benefit of any of this and they can still do terrific artwork. My point here is that you need to find ways of reinforcing in yourself that you can do it, and not that you can’t because you never have had the training. I have never had any training, ever, in sculpture, but what I have had is a background of accepting and enjoying hard physical work, self discipline, and determination to get a job done without wasting time. Artists, like farmers, don’t get paid for their time, only for a final finished product. If you really like what you are doing, getting paid for it doesn’t really matter, you’ll do it regardless.
Of course it takes a bit more, you need to have an appreciation of beauty, and hopefully the sensitivity to consider also what other people like too. Now if you are just out to please yourself, this isn’t a necessary quality. There is a lot of stuff made, displayed, and even sometimes purchased, in our world today that is ugly, disgusting or even shocking. Occasionally a so called artist who manages to perpetrate his self indulgence upon the public like this will even achieve some recognition, if they are good at attention seeking, but in my opinion that says more about the qualifications of the beholders rather than about the talent of the so called artist. Over the long term of history, if you are open minded enough to look at the truth, you will find that those who history remembers are those who have contributed something of beauty and lasting interest to mankinds culture.
All that being said, I am now going to show you how to do an easy sculpture, using an easy medium, but one which I feel still exhibits some modest significance. Don’t let this statement alluding to meaning serve as an excuse to fall into the trap of substituting ‘meaning’ for real impact. This is often done today, and to me it is the greatest scam of our time, the substitution of symbols for the real thing. The worlds richest man was recently observed on an outing with his family to one of the most beautiful natural wonders of our planet, the Great Barrier Reef. I was told that he kept his head buried in a stack of financial print the whole time. Can you see my point. If you understand this and, furthermore if the sharp edge of the chisel hasn’t put you off by now, then I suppose you have got what it takes, so read on.
Where do you start, OK, first thing is you have to get a shape in mind, and I mean that literally. You must be able to see, in your minds eye, exactly what you are after, or if you are dealing with an abstract form, then a little bit of leeway is acceptable, but if you don’t know for sure what you are going to make, and you start to play with some clay for example, it is possible that you might come up with a nice result, it is also a lot more possible that you won’t. If you are silly to try this approach with marble you’ll just end up with a progressively smaller stone, down to nothing. But then if you put a million monkeys on a million keyboards for the rest of time, some where between infinity and infinity one would type out a perfect copy of any book you can name. But you don’t have infinity, or a million monkeys. It is a lot easier to imagine than to create. We all do it every night when we dream, so do dogs and cats with a brain a fraction of ours. Don’t tell yourself you can’t imagine. If you know what you are after then you will achieve what you are after with minimal frustration.
But what, that is can be difficult if you haven’t trained your mind to stop cluttering up your head with all sorts of trivia. Meditation helps, avoiding noisy places and people, enjoying sunsets, full moons, and bonfires these all help incredibly; but generally if you put a goal in place, and get rid of all the stuff in the way of it, your brain will sooner or later drop a hint. You need to be able to recognize that hint and expand it if necessary. Sometimes natural shapes help to trigger it. Clouds in the moonlight, bones, corals, dancers, wildlife, driftwood, anything that can stimulate your mind to visualize. And be prepared to throw out the first one hundred or first thousand ideas.
Now here is a critical step. You’ve come up with what you think is a good one, and maybe you are all excited about it. But instead of going ahead full steam, Titanic style; stop for a good while and try to view it from someone else’s eyes. Try to see it without all the self fulfilling emotion that you feel, if you can. Does it still have the same appeal that you think it does. If so then you probably have a winner. But I have to warn you, there is a view quite popular at present, that you have ‘artistic license’ to create anything you please with no regard for anyone else except the self satisfaction of the yourself, the would be artist. Please yourself if that is all you want to do, but to me that is what wankers are made of. Here is a little blurb from one of the better known architects of our day, his name is Renzo Piano, among his achievements are the Pompidou Center in Paris, a museum of contemporary art.
“Freedom in art is a stupid idea. Mental freedom, social freedom, political freedom, they are a good idea, that’s for sure. But artistic freedom is something people use as an alibi for bad art”Yes it is deliberately distorted!
Enough said, I was asked to do a sculpture that somehow embodied a flame, a tricky one, because a flame is not a flame when you freeze it in time. A flame is only a flame because it has motion. One thing I have learned from experience, and that is that there is no substitute for having the real thing in front of you. If you can’t do that a video (from all angles) is second best, but the latter, or photos for that matter, rob you of the most essential element of sculpture, it’s form. Putting motion into a static sculpture is a challenge, almost as hard as putting life into it, the two are related. With your eyes squinting nearly closed, look at the left hand image above. This is a good trick as it teaches you to concentrate on basic form and not focus on detail. The right hand image closely resembles the final result, its just blurred here.
In this case the best thing to do was to simply build a fire and watch it until an idea resolved. Now remember that for sculpture you have to have this form in your mind, not just a two dimensional image, but you need to be able to view it from all sides, above and even below, rotate it and even zoom in if you are good enough. In the process of doing this I also realized how it would have to be done, with polyurethane foam. Initially my idea was to cast a block then burn it to shape with a blowtorch, something that works very well with wood. However a look at the safety warning canned that idea, as it releases toxic fumes when burned. It would be necessary to cast it as close as possible, and then to carve it back.
For this I needed an accurate sketch, as the aim was to cast a block as close as possible to the final product, otherwise you are putting (relatively expensive) material on, and then taking most of it back off as waste.. This was done with the help of a digital camera, a lot of images taken at night of a fire, as the one depicted. These frozen images helped to devise a sketch and you will notice that a figure is incorporated, a sort of man made of flames. At the same time I began forming a small maquette, made of clay. This is actually a very important part of the process of forming the image in your mind as you can manipulate the clay easily and see the results. One caution, forget about detail. There will be more on this later, but for now you are just interested in the backbone shape.
With the help of the clay maquette, a shape began to emerge. Note that I used a sketch, but as the maguette progressed, I also changed the sketch, which changed the maguette. This is a good point, you have to maintain your flexibility with art. It is possible to form an idea, and then stubbornly bring this into form, but my experience has shown that you must be sensitive to what you encounter. In marble for example, you start shaping your piece then encounter a flaw which would compromise the integrity of the work. The only smart thing to do is change your idea to fit work, and not the other way around. Of course you always need to study your material before you start.
Figure 2. Oil based clay is the authors preferred medium for all clay works. This is sold in some countries as plasticene, and the better types can sometimes be obtained from outlets that supply to florists, as they use the coloured variety as a base for flower arrangements. The best types are from companies like Chavant, in the US, which comes in a different hardness. It can be worked with any tools, table utensils, or hand made wooden instruments. Another neat trick is that, when finished, you can use a heat gun or hair dryer to smooth the piece and even get special effects, by partly melting the surface. It doesn’t dry out like water based clay, although it should be stored wrapped in plastic.
The maguette was worked until I was happy with it, using the heat gun to smooth it, almost to the point of making it run, this suited the ‘flame’ shape best. Then I made a plaster mould,in two pieces; removed the clay, and sealed the inside with grease. Then I cast the piece using bronze powder and polyester resin as a skin coat, and filled it with polyester resin mixed with marble dust. This is called the cold cast bronze technique. The result is pictured below, on the left
Notice that the maguette is the same as the image given with the flame, just reversed. On the right is the beginning of the actual sculpture. I now have a clear sketch, and if you look carefully you will see lines drawn on the plywood with duplicate this shape but just blown up to 8′ (2.4 mtr.) high. In the below image, on left you will see this clearly and begin to see that I have also duplicated the same shape on another two pieces of plywood. In the right hand image you’ll see that I have fastened the two together, using 2″x 2″ (50x50mm) pine, just outside of the profile line traced of my figure. Also you’ll see that I have completely lined the inside of the shape thus formed with plastic, stapled on, and taped at all seams, leaving only a small opening at waist height in the back. Into this opening is poured the mixed two part polyurethane foam.
At this point you need to realize what is happening here, and it is simply this. I am making a hollow cavity that is as close the the shape of what I intend to form as possible. Into that cavity goes the foam. You don’t have to use plywood, in fact for small works you could use a garbage bag, and somehow hold it into the shape that you wish. Of course you could just fill the bag with foam entirely, but unless your sculpture is very close to being a boring cylinder, then you will end up cutting a lot of it off and throwing it away. Cardboard boxes would also work, you could cut them and tape them together into any shape, but I would advise lining them with plastic, as the foam adheres very well to whatever it comes in contact with, excepting shiny plastic. Below shows the block after the foam is poured in, and on the right is the shape cast, with the wood and plastic removed.
You might be wondering what this has cost. Not figuring the cost of the wood, as that is reusable, and ignoring the cost of the plastic as negligible, this took approximately 60 litres of foam mixed, or roughly 15 gallons. However from this point on you will see the advantages of this material, i.e. it cuts like butter, in fact a serrated kitchen knife is one of the best tools. Put a 4″(100mm) grinder on it and the stuff just vaporizes. If you know the shape you are after, it is possible to carve this entire block down to size in less than eight hours, as shown in the photos below.
The face was added on after, or nearly after, the rest of the shape was done. I made a face using the oil based clay, then made a mould from plaster, and cast a cast marble face from the mould. This was cleaned up, perfectly fair, and a second mould was made, and from this a final cold cast bronze was done, and polished, before it was attached to this foam. In the photo above, the bronze isn’t showing as it has been covered with a masking coat to protect the surface from the fibreglassing that will follow.
One very important point worth remembering. When you mix your foam, unless you are pouring a small block with only one mix, then it will be necessary to mix up several batches. This one was done in about four pours. It is important to mix each batch using exactly 50\50 mixes. If you get your amounts even slightly off, it changes the hardness, or cell size of the resulting hard foam. This causes problems when you work it, as uneven hardness will give you a surface that is hard to get smooth. The above shape was achieved using only a carpenters hand saw to cut off the intial chunks, then a kitchen serrated knife, and then the 4″ grinder pictured, with a coarse (16 or 24 grit) sanding wheel, or a ZEC wheel.. A coarse (36 grit) flap wheel in about a 1 1\2″ (37 mm) diameter was used to clean up the tight radiused inside curves, but this could have been done as well with coarse sandpaper. The latter was used all over to get as smooth of a surface as possible with this relatively soft material. Any cavities or imperfections can be filled with either plasticene or larger ones can be plugged using off cuts of the same foam and glued in using liquid foam. In fact if you find that you need to add a projection here or there you can easily do this with off cuts shaped to suit, then glued on with the foam. A wooden skewer helps to hold it on while it sets. The foam will set in 10 minutes or thereabouts.
One word of caution, two pack foam is great in many respects, it’s single drawback is that the particles which result from cutting, grinding or sanding, are very sharp, and float in the air. If these particles get into your eyes, it is very painful, and you will be heading for the nearest water tap to rinse your eyes without delay. Also they would not be very good for your lungs either, so wear protective clothing, a full length paper suit is fine, a good mask, and eye protection. Also when grinding always stand with your body at a 90 degree angle to your fan, and never with your back, or your face, to the fan. Once you get used to what hurts and what doesn’t, you’ll have a great time shaping with it. Also, for very small works, there is a type of hot cast bronze sand casting which uses a foam model, packed around with sand, and the molten bronze is poured directly onto the foam, vaporizing it and filling the cavity with metal. The author has never used this process to a great degree, but it does have potential for some sculpture. A little lateral research should net you further information. Try foam core, or foam cavity casting as a search word.
From this point on we will be fibreglassing over the shape just carved out above. Fiberglass is a remarkable material that can be worked into just about any shape. It can be added to, and if necessary can be subtracted from, although this is to be avoided, as one of the few drawbacks it has is that it makes one very itchy if the dust which results only from cutting, grinding or sanding, is allowed to get into ones skin. Normal laying up though does not cause this. It is also very strong, and weathers extremely well. A fifty foot (15 meter) yacht typically would have a hull thickness of 1\2″ or 12 mm. One quarter inch or 6mm is more than sufficient for most sculpture of 15′ (4.5 mtr.) height, although it should be stronger in areas around the base or hourglass sections where the shape goes thin then thick again. If you intend to really explore its possibilities you should get your self a proper text on it, what follows here is an overview and any particular points which I feel are either essential or apply specifically to sculpture.
The surface can be sanded smooth and painted or covered with mixtures of powdered metal such as bronze or aluminum. Textures can also be added, by using bog (auto body putty, or home made substitutes). All sorts of avenues are open, as you can adhere almost any material to it using the same resin, although I would strongly suggest that if you start experimenting with unknowns, it is a good idea to test them before selling the product to someone else. Also be aware that fiberglass has one weakness, it is called osmosis, and it results from a combination of bad layup, and not protecting the laminate from moisture ingress with an outer skin of waterproof resin. Normal laminating resin is termed isothalic, it comes in waxed and unwaxed forms. You want the unwaxed variety, you can add wax (2%) to any coat you want to sand, as the wax makes the surface hard instead of tacky, but if you are going to lay down another coat, or a top coat, you don’t want wax in your resin.
Flowcoats, and some gelcoats, have wax added to them, as they dry hard and smooth. Gelcoats are made from orothalic resin, which is completely waterproof. This should go on the outside of your work, under any paint, or if you are applying a resin\metal mix, then the resin should be orothalic. You can buy normal laminating resin in either type, and you can also buy gelcoats made with cabosil which thickens their viscosity to either a sprayable grade or a thicker brush grade, either can be mixed with metal powder. One of the most important things to remember when laying up is to make sure you force out any air between the layers. This will appear as white looking areas, bubbles, or dryness. Use your brush, held vertical, and stippled in an up\down dabbing fashion, to remove air and force resin up through the cloth. Never, under any circumstances paint your resin on like you would paint a wall, with back and forth movements, this only loosens the fibers, and tends to entrain air. The right hand photo below is an attempt to show what entrained air looks like, if you look closely you may see little spots that are lighter. Air pockets will eventually fill up with water, even from atmospheric moisture, which will then creep side ways between the laminates and eventually compromise the integrity of the work. You can buy little rollers that look like a series of washers in a row. These are made specifically to squeeze out any air, compress the glass layers together, and force excess resin out of the laminate. The strongest laminate is one with the highest ratio of glass to resin, as the strength comes from the glass, not the resin, which is needed only to bond the glass into a solid form.
In the above photos, you’ll notice that the left hand shot shows that the base has already been done, by laying the piece over. The base has had about ten layers of the heaviest chopped strand (600 gram) applied, and in addition an extra ten layers, in six inch wide (150mm) strips, put around the corner, forming a angle iron section for strength, and as well to take any abrasion. Also we used alternate layers of the heaviest woven roving in between each layer of chop strand. This gives maximum strength. You need to be aware that woven roving, commonly just called fiberglass ‘cloth’ does not adhere very well to itself, in other words, you need a layer of chop strand in between to get the best laminate.
The sketch to the right shows clearly how the base and corners were built up and reinforced. The base is where stresses will be the worst, and also where water will have the most chance of getting at it. Pay particular attention to getting this area as strong and air free as possible.
Also you should realize that the base is were most sculpture will fail with time, and it is here that you need to put the most thought. We glassed up the bottom 10″ (250mm) or so, then turned him upside down with the aid of a chain hoist, and then removed about 2″ (50mm) of foam. Into the space created we poured cast marble mixed with loose chop strand fibers which you can buy, they are about 1\2″ (12mm) long, and are excellent for reinforcing resin or cast marble. The reason this was done was to make a base that would not puncture if it were ever subjected to point loading such as the tip of a fork lift or a hydraulic jack.   You can just build up the base with a thick layer of fibreglass if you don’t want to use a cast mix, 12 mm minimum
In addition to this, and as a further safeguard against abrasion, and the subsequent ingress of water and ensuing breakdown, there were 1\4′ (6mm) round head stainless steel bolts inserted, using gelcoat as a glue, into the laminate angle section, around the perimeter. All that protrudes from the fiberglass is the round head of the bolt. This takes any abrasion, and also lifts the base off the deck by 1\4″, so the work isn’t sitting with trapped water right on the laminate.
This photo shows one of the things to be avoided when fiberglassing, we call them ‘prickles’ down under. If you look just to the left of dead center you’ll see one or two fibres sticking up. This results from not rolling, or patting all the fibres down. If the resin gels before another layer is put on, these prickles will hold the next layer off the surface, causing an air void. They must be sanded off if they harden. The term ‘prickles’ comes from the tendency to bury into your skin if you are careless.
The entire sculpture was layed up with about 4 layers minimum of heavy chopped strand, yielding a glass thickness of 1\4″ (6mm). The bronze face was overlapped with fiberglass about 1 1\2″ (37mm), to lock it on. Over the entire fibreglass form, barring the face, was spatuled a thick mixture of cast marble, blackened with black oxide, and then thickened up with cabosil to make a bog. This bog is incredibly strong, and is a lot harder than the commercially available material sold for repairing auto bodies, the latter being made with talc instead of marble dust. The texture resulting looks similar to what you get from rendering a concrete block wall with cement. Over the top of this was sprayed two coats of a 50\50 mix of bronze powder and orothalic laminating resin, as gelcoats are two thick to go thru a gelcoat spray gun once the powder is added.
You can get away with 3 layers, 2 at a minimum, using the heavy fibreglass chop strand cloth, IF you are doing a small sculpture, say 2 or three feet high, and only weighing up to 20 kg. Even still, always pay attention to the foundation of your sculpture. How heavy it is determines how strong you must make your base.
This photo shows the piece after the bog was applied to the fibreglass. Note how the bog was carefully applied over the edges of the face and neck, finished previously, to ‘feather’ it in. Also note, if you can zoom in, the texture produced with the bog and a palette knife. The face was masked off, any sharp edges of the bog texture were sanded with a flap wheel or by hand, and then the whole piece was sprayed with the resin, bronze mix.
You might be wondering, or thinking some steps were omitted. Actually, only the making of the face, which was borrowed from another sculpture (Neptune) that Foot has done. Faces are extremely challenging, recommended for advanced sculptors unless you want to frustrate yourself. Usually they are done in clay and honed and honed until correct. Foot prefers to do them directly in marble, and that process is described in fine detail in the #3 DVD.
This image shows the bog being applied and also gives a good view of the resulting ‘streaky’ texture. The outline of Australia is what the author generally uses as a surface on which to place the signature, date, copyright and registration symbols, and the edition details. This was made from a piece of cast marble, cut to shape and attached with bog.
This shot shows the piece as it is being sprayed with the bronze. It is actually supported by two lifting devices, so that it can be rolled. You can spray one section, let that harden, then move your strap, or rotate, and then spray another section. It was also sprayed standing, but to get good coverage on the tips, and at the top, it was necessary to lay him horizontal.
At this point we are on the home stretch, all that remains is the finishing and polishing of the bronze. This is done with a finer flap wheel, about a 150 grit, and by hand, just enough to smooth some of the high spots of the texture. These high spots will then take a bright polish, which against the darker background of the unpolished remainder, will give the flickering appearance which adds that vital element of motion to the overall shape. Note that the bronze layer is only a few millimeters thick, (3\32″) or so. If you are too aggressive with your sanding you will go thru this and you’ll be back into your black bog mixture. Of course this can be fixed with a touch up of bronze mixture, but it is to be avoided.
The surface is sanded first with say 150 grit paper, then 320grit, and then 600 grit. Then a large loose stitched buffing wheel is mounted on a 1\2″ drill, a brown polishing compound called tripoli is applied to the buff, frequently, and the whole piece polished. It should then be wiped down with turps, or petrol (gasoline), to remove any tripoli. When clean it should then be polished again with a separate wheel to which you have applied a fine polishing compound, usually these are white. Some experimentation is necessary with polishing compounds to get the best combination to get the best polish.
This image shows a close up of the same surface after in has been sanded, and the coarse polishing has been started. The blackness comes from a reaction of the metal with the buffing compound. In the bottom left you can see a bolt. There were bronze threaded inserts cast and glassed into the base. These are useful for lifting but they will ultimately be used as tied down anchors for the finished sculpture. The stainless bolts being set into holes drilled into concrete and filled with liquid cement.
When you are satisfied that your polish is what you are after, then again clean the surface with something which dissolves the polishing compounds. Give it a second wipe down with a clean cloth and solvent to make sure, as your last step will be to lacquer the work.. Two pack clear polyurethane is the best, as it gives the longest life. You can also use a single pack lacquer called “Incralac”, a trade name, made by Wattyl. This is formulated specifically for bronze and copper and the manufacturer claims to guarantee it for five years if five layers are applied. It can be purchased in spray cans in some countries, but to the authors knowledge not in the US. We use this product extensively for smaller sculptures, displayed in doors, and it works very well to keep a polished surface protected, although the surface will still dull with time even under the lacquer, as this is the nature of bronze. The two pack seems to give the ultimate protection available out of doors, as it has the additional feature of being just as hard are the materials to which it is applied. One word of caution, don’t apply it to sculpture that has been patinated with cupric chemicals, as a reaction forms which slowly changes the nice greens to reds, this is accelerated by heat or sunlight.
The finished work, although ultimately this piece will be cast in hot cast bronze. To do that a mould must be taken, and due to the convolutions of this surface, this will not be a simple mould.
In hot cast, this piece could be ground into more aggressively, and a lot more polished bronze brought out. Coupled with a varigated green\black background, this would bring the most out in this sculpture. To make a mould for hot cast, one must first do an original master pattern, which was the main purpose of this piece.
Master patterns can be made of almost any material, but it is always best if your pattern is also an end result, and doesn’t have to be destroyed, as it would be in the case of a clay master.
That is the end of this, the easy way, of making sculpture. This process is also referred to as “modelling”, as you are essentially building up your work, in an addition fashion. If you make a mistake, it is easily fixed. The other camp for sculptors is the “reduction” method, whereby you start with a block of something, say marble or wood, and then you subtract bits from it to arrive at your end result. This is more exacting, and mistakes cannot be corrected, in other words, the hard way, and this will be covered in DVD #2. For anyone learning how to sculpt, it is recommended that you develop your skills with the modelling method, and then shift over to the reduction, this will minimize the frustration that causes a lot of people to quit. The #1 DVD covers that in good detail, using a similar method, and also includes a section on both cold cast bronzing, and making a silicone/fiberglass mould of an item.