Two Faced

As a child, the textured wallpaper on my ceiling frightened me because I could see faces everywhere in it. This instinct to latch on to any shape which even vaguely suggests a face is fascinating. But then faces are really fascinating. One question occupying me during this project is ‘how much can I take away, or abstract, and a form still be read as a face?’ When I was modelling with clay, I made a head and then cut away at it until there was little left, and still it remained a head, and, if anything, became more powerful. Of course, I am not treading new ground here. William Turnbull wrote:

how little will suggest a head?
how much load will the shape take and still read head?
head as colony
head as a landscape
head as mask
head as idiogram
head as sign

(Renfrew and Renfrew, 2006)

‘head as landscape’ conjures up Joe Orton’s novel ‘Head to Toe’. In my mind mapping, I hadn’t clocked head as landscape.

In this piece I wanted to consider the head as mask, that is not a physical mask placed over features but the mask that we all wear, knowingly or otherwise, as a face to the world. My intention in this piece was therefore two fold; to abstract and reduce the face to a non naturalistic design but which was clearly ‘face’ and to create layers, one possible face over another. This required me to flatten the face and simplify the shapes. I had by this point sketched lots of ‘masks’ chiefly around various themes such as ‘with doctor’ or ‘green man’ but in this context, I liked one sketch and considered how I could then create a three dimensional piece from a flattened form.

flat mask sketch (2 of 5)

Developing the idea in my sketchbook:

flat mask sketch (3 of 5)flat mask sketch (4 of 5)

Initially, I decided that the shapes could all be flat, bas-relief, say cut out of plywood, and then be layered up. This developed into thinking how I could join pieces at an angle so that the interplay of shapes would alter depending on the viewer’s view point. Here I looked back to one of the first works I drew in the course, ‘Mujer’ by Picasso, which features two planes at right angles.

constructivism (4 of 5)

I couldn’t work out how to join the pieces without the intrusion of joining wedges, strips or hinges thus making it less viewable from all sides. I made a maquette in cardboard to try out my idea, refining the shapes and proportions (which are not intented to be realistic). In contrast to the flat surface, all the lines are curved so that whilst the face is stylised, it is still organic.

flat mask card (6 of 4) flat mask card (9 of 4)

flat mask card (3 of 4)

Although the idea  is very simple, it casts interesting and ambiguous shapes and the idea of the mask accumulates as one plane is viewed in relation to the other. The profile side can be viewed over the other which is very reminiscent of Picasso’s paintings such as his portrait of Marie-Therese, ‘Nude Woman in a Red Armchair’ or of Paul Klee’s ‘Old Man Figuring’.

This maquette is simply cut from a piece of cardboard taken from the corner of a box and I realised that I could replicate this fold by using plywood hinged with fabric tape. This linen tape was bought from a theatrical chandlers to make folders for assessment submission. It is very strong and can be painted, which would allow me to render it almost invisible. It would remain flexible which means that the angles could be variable.

To cut my pieces, I learnt to use a scroll saw, practising on scrap wood from a local veneering company. Originally, I had intended to pierce the ear, but this was eliminated as over complex and I feared it would confer an element of style on a face I intended to be very generalised.

flat mask wood (2 of 6)

Having cut my two basic pieces, I had intended to cut further pieces to layer up flat onto them,as in the maquette, but playing around with offcuts, I realised that I could slot pieces together to achieve a more 3d object.

flat mask wood (5 of 6)flat mask wood (3 of 6)flat mask wood (4 of 6)

This would be temporary and reversible so that, again, the final form would not be fixed and could be manipulated (and also possibly posted for assessment). The wood was prepared with a coat of undercoat and then reassessed.

The pieces were photographed and the photos coloured to consider final finishes. I was tempted by adding weathered looking washes but decided that the graphic nature of the image called for strong contrasting colours which would show up against each other as the piece was considered from different angles. The contrasting colours would also represent the idea of a ‘mask’ hiding real feelings; the bully who is internally inadequate or, in my own case, apparent confidence in the face of internal feelings of  self doubt.

flat mask sketch (5 of 5)

Areas were masked up and orange and red acrylic applied. Before adding the intended blue backgrounds, I again photographed and considered. I thought that the blue would be too bold and startling. I decided to leave the ‘front’ side predominantly white. The red, orange and white recalls clown make-up, another sort of mask.

red flat mask (1 of 9) red flat mask (2 of 9) red flat mask (3 of 9) red flat mask (4 of 9) red flat mask (5 of 9) red flat mask (6 of 9)

I also had to consider how to treat the edges. These could have been painted whatever the adjacent colour was, but I chose to paint them in Paynes Grey so that they had the effect of outlining and emphasising the planes and edges in the manner of Julian Opie.

Final sculpture, 20cm x 20cm x 40cm

Final sculpture, 35cm x 38cm x 40cm

I have attempted to make a video but am disappointed with the quality. I need a lot more practice to produce something which clearly demonstrates a sculpture.

The work changes as you view it from different angles with lines intersecting and planes seen through apertures. I wanted to capture this aspect in a drawing, so concentrated on the linear shapes and the apertures.

flat mask drawing (1 of 1)

A2 drawing, water soluble pencil.

Here I have drawn features over each other, changes their relationships and scale, as if you were turning your head to explore the piece. It seems to get more and more cubist…

flat mask drawing (2 of 1)

A2 drawing, pastel

The hard edges and flat planes don’t offer a lot of scope to expressive drawing.

The outcome of this is a graphic piece which references Picasso rather more strongly and directly than intended.  I considered painting the whole thing white again and creating a distressed finish which would also have connotations of someone maintaining their ‘mask’ whilst falling apart inside.

I obliterated the bright acrylic colours with white undercoat and then applied a mixture of tile cement mixed with pva glue with a palette knife. Before it was dry, I played a blow torch over one half to create bubbles and blisters, in contrast with the smoother (but not entirely regular) other half.

heads (1 of 41)heads (6 of 41)

The rough, fractured surface was more interesting than the acrylic paint, although not so graphic. I like the scorch marks but decided to develop the surface with pigment to show the texture more effectively and to suggest decaying flesh.

Having added to the surface, the two addition pieces can no longer be slotted through. I could have filled in the slots but decided instead to file them out, paint the extra pieces in undercoat and then pigments. No texture could be applied to these or they would not slot in.

flat reworked (7 of 9) flat reworked (5 of 9) flat reworked (3 of 9) flat reworked (1 of 9)

Final sculpture, 35cm x 38cm x 40cm (variable)



flat reworked (9 of 9)

I have attempted another video, but again, the camera has under-exposed.

The reworked sculpture does not have the graphic power of the red and orange, and it has lost the connection with a clown mask, but I find the texture and subtle colours of this reworking intrinsically more interesting and I think it speaks more of a duality.

My preferred development of this idea would be to create this in old, weathered, rusty scrap metal, ideally pierced with rust holes which only vaguely referenced a face. If only I had a source of rusty, old, metal sheet.

The idea of the decayed, falling apart mask took me back to my original idea of a papier mache mask cracked, or broken and wired back together. This was an idea which came together from my clay modelling of a skull composite in Part 3 and looking at the work of Villars Rojas, particularly ‘Today We Reboot the Planet’. He imagines a post-human world were our cultural objects are decaying and reused or recycled by nature and whatever may come after us. My original idea now seems more focused in the context of masks and identity, some one just about holding it together.

Initially, I thought of making a mask I could wear and sewed a cotton mask which completely covered my head. My ambition was to create a wire frame over this with points sticking out but the idea was abandonned as unsafe.

death mask (1 of 1)

I had already started making a papier mache face at the beginning of this project because I thought I would be using it in a plague doctor mask. The mask was created by crushing heavy gauge silver foil over my own face, peeling it off carefully and using it as a support for papier mache. The shape was more indicative than realistic, and its contours were developed at I built up the layers. It is, at best, rather crude. I deliberately left the curled rough edges, as that helps to make the mask reference more obvious, as opposed to a model of a face. The  mask was painted white with undercoat, as was a board on which to mount it.

death mask (2 of 6)

When the mask was dry, I cut it into three pieces. I would have liked to smash it apart to make jagged cracked pieces but the material is not brittle enough.

death mask (4 of 6)

The pieces were drilled along the cut edges and rewired together. I experimented with copper wire and iron wire. The copper wire was a little too pretty and delicate, I thought, even doubled up, whereas the iron wire has a naked brutality to it.

death mask (5 of 6)death mask (1 of 3)

Whether to paint the mask was my next consideration, and whether to paint the inside a different colour which would just show through. I don’t want to paint features on the mask but some suggestion of tone might heighten the modelling. An alternative was to paint the iron wire with acid (lemon juice or vinegar) to generate rust and allow this to drip down. I realised I had made far too many holes and about two thirds of them were refilled with filler and painted over again. Photos were used to try out finishes.

death mask (2 of 3)

island (4 of 6)

This exercise helped me decide that I would add a very understated earth tone to the mask using a pastel, lightly rubbed into the texture and fixed with hair spray. A purple was rubbed into the eyes. The exposed edge of the mask was painted in burnt sienna acrylic, as was the base board where the mask would be fixed. This was allowed to run out to the edge of the board, radially. The wires in the mask were secured by twisting to reference barbed wire, and the mask was finally glued in place.

final mask (1 of 16) final mask (3 of 16) final mask (5 of 16)

Whilst very dramatic, the burnt sienna paint looked like dried blood and I did not intend it to look like a severed head, so the background was over-painted and earth coloured pastels again used to ‘ground’ the mask.

part 5 (4 of 11)

Final work 38cm x 25cm x 12cm

final mask (10 of 16) final mask (15 of 16) final mask (16 of 16)

I have also made a video.

My son says that this reminds him of a Victorian death mask. It reminds me of Rachel Horn’s ‘Pencil Mask’. Her intentions were quite different as her mask is designed to be worn for experimental drawing, but the sharp points sticking out of each mask are both threatening and defensive, and evoke some medieval device. This work has become much darker and possibly more disturbing than I originally envisaged but I think that makes it stronger.


Exploring the idea of masks, in particular, social masks, I think that I have found my way through to a powerful, if rather dark, statement. My original double-planed sculpture created some interesting shapes and interplays of line and plane, but was too superficial in its meaning. However, it propelled me on to explore the idea through texture and a more three dimensional form, which produced a much more powerful outcome. The fact that the mask is life sized makes it more disturbing.

My selection of materials in the first piece allowed me to iterate my design but eventually the flat nature of the wood was too constraining. Papier mache allowed me to create a much more organic, textural piece, but because of the time taken allowing the layers dry, iteration and experimentation was high risk. I really enjoyed papier mache as a creative medium, but in future I would make two or three similar models in parallel so that they could all be worked on in different ways and risk reduced.

The final work is a relief which could be hung on a wall or placed flat on a horizonal surface. It is not a sculpture which can be walked around and viewed from all angles, which is a limitation.


Renfrew, C. and Renfrew, L.C. (2006) Figuring it out: What are we? Where do we come from? The parallel visions of artists and archaeologists. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. United Kingdom.


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 5 Developing Sculpture and Imagination and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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