Project 6 – Modelling in Plaster – Second Form

For my second sculpture for in this project, I wanted to make a much more convex, solid form. The sculptures that please me most have, as Chris Stephens expressed it, considering Hepworth’s work, ‘a relationship between line and mass, between the surface of a sculpture and its volume.’ (Stephens, C. 2003). This is a quality which makes a work last the test of time.

Reviewing my sketchbook and previous projects, I considered my clay models. I thought this one of the most successful, but wasn’t sure how I could simplify it for construction in plaster.


This second model would be simpler to make, possibly using spray building polystyrene foam as a base. It has echoes of works by Tony Cragg.

form 5-2


sketchbook (1 of 2)

Simplifying, developing, considering…

To experiment with producing a series of organic rounded shapes in polystyrene using ‘fix and fill’ foam, I prepared a silicon paper covered base board. The foam is in a single use aerosol and is supposed to expand 50 times in volume.  The result was absolutely not what I had hoped for. The foam created a flat pillow which didn’t expand as hoped and which was hollow underneath. It is designed to be sprayed on to a vertical face, so maybe that’s why I had problems. Hey ho.

base (1 of 3) base (2 of 3)

This decided me to pursue the columnar form based on bones, in particular the head of a femur, using blocks of polystyrene.

We are lucky enough to own a skeleton, bought by my husband when a medical student and now in the care of my son, currently a medic. The skeleton doesn’t get used for study much now but he visits local schools occasionally and I regularly draw him. I find the shapes and details of bone fascinating.

 bone studies (1 of 7)

In taking bones as my inspiration, I am following in the footsteps of Henry Moore who kept a collection of bones as references in his studio, including an elephant’s skull (Henry Moore’s sculpture: Bones and skulls, no date). The influence of the shape of bones can be seen throughout his work, for instance in this study for three figures or this study for a sculpture ‘Reclining Figure: Bone (1982)‘.

He said, “One of the things I would like to think my sculpture has is a force, is a strength, is a life, a vitality from inside it, so that you have the sense that the form is pressing from inside trying to burst or trying to give of the strength from inside itself… This is, perhaps, what makes me interested in bones as much as in flesh because the bone is the inner structure of all living form” (Moore, H. no date given).

bone studies (1 of 1)

Feininger, A. Angler fish bone. (Feininger, 1981)

One of my earliest art heroes was Andreas Feininger, and I find myself going back again and again to consider images in his book ‘Nature Close Up’ (Feininger, 1981). He used macro photographic techniques to portray bones and other natural objects as sculptures in a landscape. Of the image above, he says “I came upon this anglerfish bone. With the uncompromising clarity of a computer-constructed, three dimensional model of stress analysis, it gives reality to the concept of function shaping form. Nothing is haphazard or accidental in this structure, which is the result of millions of years of evolution. Now, honed to perfection, it stands before us like the masterpiece of an inspired sculptor”.

Feeling excited about my choice of a bone inspired, large sculpture in plaster, I was also aware that this was going to be very difficult to fabricate, requiring the conversion of rectilinear materials into complex curves. I collected together chunks of pink hard foam (from the local recycling store) and polystyrene packing. The long pink block would be the element which would give the necessary height for the remit but was square in section. A large chunk of scrap iron bar was glued into the base to weight the bottom. The foam was then modified using a hot wire. The hot wire bench did not have a big enough ‘throat’ so an old hacksaw was converted to a handheld hot wire by replacing the blade with a length of resistance wire and connecting this into the bench hot wire power supply. This was a tremendous help carving the large blocks, allowing me to create wide, generous curves. Pieces which were carved off the sides were glued to the top and bottom to widen them, both for proportion and stability.

base (3 of 3)

Scrap iron bar inserted into base.


hot wire drawings (1 of 4)

Heath Robinson hand held hot wire

base (11 of 2)

Subtraction and addition

Having made a basic pedestal, I photographed it and used the photo in my sketchbook to explore shapes and in particular proportion for the rest of the piece.

sketchbook (2 of 2)


bone (1 of 8)

Pieces of polystyrene packing were laminated together with hot glue and roughly positioned. I drew an outline of my basic shape with marker pen and then carved into the blocks.

bone (2 of 8)

bone (3 of 8)

Cut chunks were reused as supporting shapes and bamboo bbq skewers used to position and re-position  the pieces.

bone (4 of 8)

I chose to have three knuckles,  varying the shapes, and aiming for balance but not symmetry. I wanted to achieve an interplay of convex curves and and concave planes which I hoped would create interesting negative spaces between the knuckles and also create a different view from each side.

bone (8 of 8)

The sculpture was photographed again and the proportions and shapes considered in my sketchbook.


sketchbook (3 of 1)

The size and shape of the knuckles was adjusted and I decided to add a twist to the base, as I had for the base of my original clay sculpture. The twist creates life and dynamism, as evidenced by contrapposto in classical sculpture. Archaic Greek sculptures of people where stiff and lifeless because of the straight, square on stance.  Around about 500 BCE (Oxford Art Online) Greek sculptors started portraying the body with the weight more on one leg than the other, with a slightly bent knee and the hips at an angle. Suddenly the figure came to life and the visual effect is far more interesting. I hoped to achieve a similar effect by adding diagonal buttresses to my base. These also reference the ridges on bones where muscles attach and the buttresses would serve to provide a wider, more stable footprint. They also create a curved profile helping the base to look less like a bird bath and improving the proportions.

butresses (2 of 3)

My local builders merchants, who are enjoying being art materials suppliers and are really helpful, suggested that I use cheese cloth as a substitute for scrim. The only suppliers of fabric scrim (as opposed to plastic tape used to join plaster board) which I have been able to find are specialist sculpture suppliers and I had no idea how much to order by post. A roll of cheesecloth cost £1.

The cheese cloth worked really well; much better than my attempts with torn cloth in the previous piece.

butresses (3 of 3)

Having covered the base with fabric soaked in plaster, I then started to build up the surfaces with plaster to blend the shapes. I was careful to add plaster evenly over the piece at the top to maintain balance, and to add plenty at the bottom for stability. It would be very easy to make this top-heavy and lopsided.

smoothing (2 of 8)

The shapes of the ridges were developed to look more like bone and to provide concave planes. A knob was added at the top of one ridge were the end was rather abrupt. This gave a much more organic feel. Other knobs were added to create a rhythm of shapes.

smoothing (1 of 8)

The plaster was then smoothed using a small surform. To minimise dust, which I find difficult, even with a canister filter face mask, I filed the plaster whilst it still retained some moisture, and I found this much easier. The face mask doesn’t fit very well, possibly being designed for a big guy, and I have a very small face. Since I have asthma, I do find dust very difficult and I have decided not to sand the final dry piece.

smoothing (4 of 8)

After smoothing with surform


smoothing (5 of 8)

Also works upside down!


smoothing (3 of 8)

smoothing (7 of 8)

To smooth the surface after surforming, I damped the whole piece and glazed in thinner plaster. I do enjoy the marks of hand making, but here I was looking for some degree of smoothness to reference bone.

smoothing (8 of 8)

With plaster ‘wash’

Finished height 75cm

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I have been considering surface finishes. I enjoy the pure whiteness of plaster. Hepworth said she enjoyed marble because of  “its radiance in light…. response to the sun” (Stephen, 2003) and I feel plaster, derived from limestone, shares this quality. This may be a cultural response; classic Greek statuary is pervasive in Western art culture and  we experience it in an unadorned, white, marble finish. Originally it would have been painted to give a life-like representation which most people would find rather gaudy now.

This article includes images of a classical statue which has been digitally ‘restored’ to its original paint finish as identified by chemical traces. It is interesting that, where relief form is picked out in colour, the 3d effect of the relief is lost. Perhaps we don’t like things being spelled out quite so explicitly; often art succeeds because something is left to the imagination.

The white finish of my plaster also references the subject matter, but is that necessary? Katarina Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock sculpture, exhibited on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, was a gorgeous ultramarine blue, which no cockerel ever was. The single colour emphasised the shape against its architectural background, creating deep blue shadows to mold the form. The colour is richly matte.

One surface which always appeals to me is bronze. It is capable of accepting a variety of different finishes creating lustrous or coloured patina. Bronze also has wonderful tactile qualities; it’s made for stroking. My sculpture would really work in bronze, I think, but cost a fortune to cast. I painted one of my small cast test pieces to see if I could mimic bronze with acrylic paint. A base coat of burnt sienna was brushed with viridian mixed with a little iridescent paint. Finally gold was dry brushed over in places.

The paint worked surprisingly well but brush marks were very evident in some light and the surface scratched or bruised very easily. The paint smoothed out and disguised all surface texture. ‘Truth to materials’ was a tenet of the Arts and Crafts movement (Woodham, 2004) and became a mantra of sculptors in the 1930s such as Brancusi, Gaudier-Breschka and especially Moore, for who it became all consuming (Oxford Art Online). Whilst I wouldn’t wish to make a principle out of it, I am uneasy with the idea of trying to make one material look like another. It’s also seems to me to be impractical on the scale of the current piece; working paint into the texture would be very difficult. I would prefer to keep and celebrate the texture.

On one plaster piece, I experimented with a warmed beeswax and turpentine mix (left over from refinishing a banister) coloured with a little blue shoe polish. This was wiped to varying degrees whilst warm and then buffed when dry. This had the opposite effect of paint; all texture was magnified. The wax created a lovely lustre and added to the tactile natural of the material.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAfinal blue (1 of 27)

Whilst I considered surface finishes, and waited for the plaster to dry, I enjoyed drawing my work.

A3 drawing, overlayed shapes, wax crayon and watercolour

A3 drawing, overlayed shapes, wax crayon and watercolour

A2 painting, gouache on grey paper

A2 painting, gouache on grey paper


A3 drawing, pastel and gouache

A3 drawing, pastel and gouache


A3 drawing, pastel and gouache

A3 drawing, pastel and gouache

Finally dry enough, I painted the sculpture with tinted beeswax.

final blue (3 of 27)

Painting warmed beeswax mixture

The colour highlights texture displaying the process of building which complete smoothness or paint would have hidden. I enjoy the tension between curves and planes and this surface texture.

Viewers have remarked that the work reminds them of bones, mammoth bones, buttocks or O’Keefe’s flower paintings.

Final Analysis

I am pleased to have created an interesting shape with rhythm, mass and line. People read into it different things, which is encouraging, but many have picked up on the original influence of bones. It is interesting and different seen from all angles and even works upside down, creating a new negative space under the work.

There is an obvious lack of skill in the handling of the materials, but I think this second large sculpture is much better conceived and executed than the first. I am still at the bottom of a steep learning curve.

My researches into bones and my background reading mean that I was much better prepared for this second part of the project and much more tuned into my idea. This has certainly resulted in a better outcome.

I think this sculpture has grown stronger as I have worked on it, whereas the previous piece seemed to get away from me, the idea diluted. A test of its success is that I want to draw it repeatedly, at different scales and levels of detail.

The tinted wax finish is more successful that a painted finish would have been, I believe, and does add to the work. I would really like to create this scaled up to about 12 feet and cast in vividly coloured plastic, as a piece of public art, say outside the National Orthopaedic Hospital.


Feininger, A. (1981) Nature Close Up: A Fantastic Journey into Reality. 16th edn. New York: Dover Publications.
Henry Moore’s sculpture: Bones and skulls (no date). Available at: (Accessed: 11 September 2015).
Moore, H. (no date) Henry Moore, Perry Green – Henry Moore, The Arch. Available at: (Accessed: 4 September 2015).
Read, H. (1964) Modern Sculpture: A Concise History (World of Art). New York, NY: Distributed by W.W. Norton.
Sooke, A. (2015) ‘Barbara Hepworth, Tate Britain, review: “frustrating”’, The Telegraph, 22 June. Available at: (Accessed: 10 September 2015).
Stephens, C. (2003) Barbara Hepworth: Centenary. London: Tate Publishing.
Woodham, J. M. (2004) A dictionary of modern design. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



About starrybird

I am mature student studying art with The Open College of the Arts. My passion is printmaking.
This entry was posted in Course Parts, Part 3 Clay and Plaster, Project 6 Plaster Modelling, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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