The Process of Making Art: Painting & Sculpture
Updated: Oct 5, 2022
It is useful and valuable to develop a routine with painting, but this can become formulaic. Many of my favourite contemporary artists are those who have a background in painting and drawing from life, and often some training in realism, to give them the skills and competence to then push the boundaries into more experimental, even abstract works.
That said, when painting, I mostly use oils, as these allow me the most flexibility and scope for continually editing a piece as it goes along. They can also be used to paint quickly (‘alla-prima’) so the versatility is amazing. This portrait of Rea was painted in oils over many weeks. Each tiny edit and layer over longer time periods combine to create a entirely unique pieces. Oil paints can be much more expensive than water-based media like acrylic and watercolour, but I think their range is worthwhile.
Watercolours in particular are particularly challenging for me if I’m aiming for any type of realism. I therefore use watercolours when I'm looking for a less literal representation and more imagined or emotional representation of a place or person. I greatly respect watercolourists who achieve accurate representations of life.
Sculpture is a comparatively new medium for me. I spent most of my time at London Fine Arts training to see the three dimensional world and translate into an optical illusion in two dimensions. Sculpting from life requires similar techniques – such as looking and judging both the gesture of a subject and its relative proportions – but then translating it into another, smaller version, in three dimensions. Scott Pohlschmidt’s studio is a constant source of inspiration – full of 3D artwork at all stages of finesse, from tiny experimental ceramic fragments to complex multi-figure bronzes.
I usually work in clay, building up and removing mass over many hours, working with a variety of textures. My figure pieces are all made with inspiration from a life model in the studio. Some pieces end up completely smooth and polished, others rough and loose. The comparisons to brushwork in painting, or finesse in music or writing, are unavoidable. As ever, it is just as much about what is simplified or ‘left out’ of a representative piece that says as much as what is there.
Once a clay piece is ‘finished’, there are broadly two options for me:
o Fire it into ceramic
o Make a mould and cast it – into bronze, plaster, resin etc.
For ceramics, the clay has to be completely dry. This can take several months, and the risk of cracks appearing is high. This can be mitigated to an extent by only allowing the piece to dry extremely slowly – gradually removing plastic coverings over many weeks. It also depends a great deal on how the clay was ‘put’ down in the early stages of sculpting. Air bubbles and cracks, often caused by impatience early on, cause trouble down the line. Once dry, the clay is ‘bisque’ fired in a kiln overnight at 1000+ degrees Celsius. If it survives this process (far from given, especially if a complex piece) it’s now ceramic, and much less fragile than the dried clay version.
An option then is glazing. I vary between painting the glaze onto a bisque-fired sculpture, dipping pieces into the glaze, or even spraying it on. Once the glaze is dry, the piece goes through the kiln again, and a glassy layer appears, fused to the ceramic. This process is as much science as art, and I’ve enjoyed working with Scott, exploring different glazes and experimenting with the kiln in the last couple of years.
If I choose not to fire a piece into ceramic, the other option is to make a mould of the clay piece and have it cast. The benefit of this option is that, although the initial clay piece is usually lost, I can keep the mould forever and make many copies of one piece, in many different materials. The most permanent and beautiful is certainly bronze, and the variety of different patina and finishes that can be achieved is astounding.
Mould-making is a whole other process and skill which so far I have outsourced to specialist mould-makers and foundries. I’m fortunate to work in London where there are many skilled technicians in this area. If time and circumstance permits, mould-making and sculptural technical knowledge are skills I am keen to develop in the coming years.
The downsides of sculpture as opposed to drawing and painting are the increased barriers to creation of a finished piece – namely more time, more knowledge and skills, and materials/tools required. My sculptures require more than just myself – they are often a collaborative effort between the artist, models, kiln technicians, mould makers, and often a team at a foundry with skills in casting and finishes.
The upside is the creation of solid, multidimensional pieces. Bronzes in particular are so incredibly beautiful and quite addictive. Their weight and permanence, and the range of creative possibilities is incomparable.