From Maquette to Form: Creating Figurative Ceramic Sculptures From a Clay Sketch

I primarily make functional work, so it is always interesting to me to see how ceramic sculptors go about making their work. Maquettes have long been used by artists as a way of planning out a sculpture. They are basically three-dimensional sketches in miniature of the eventual larger-scale work. Magda Gluszek uses them for her expressive figurative work. She says this step is essential to her process because it allows her to get the pose and proportions just right before starting on the actual sculpture.

In today’s post, an excerpt from the January/February 2011 issue of Pottery Making Illustrated, Magda walks us through her ceramic sculpture process from maquette to form. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.

 


 

My clay sculptures investigate ideas about consumption, self-presentation, and societal behaviors versus animalistic impulses. Using the building-solid-and-hollowing-out technique allows flexibility in planning dramatic, performative poses while a combination of ceramic and mixed media surfaces give me a variety of options for referencing confectionary textures and colors. I’m constantly absorbing information about multimedia processes from hardware stores, craft books, and other artists that add depth and variety to my figures.

From Maquette…
Building solid forms in clay is a technique often looked at as a means to an end and not an end in and of itself. It’s traditionally used by artists who take a mold from their sculptures and cast them in another material such as bronze or iron. I strive for a gestural style in my sculptures, leaving my tool marks as evidence of how I work, a style influenced by artists such as Auguste Rodin, as well as my studies of terra-cotta maquettes from the 1700s and 1800s for larger works in clay, marble or bronze.

I begin by sketching and then building a small maquette to work out the positioning of a figure and details of the pose. The small models have a life to them that’s very different from the polished quality of the finished works. It’s important to capture that fresh feeling and liveliness in my figures. Translating the sketches to a three-dimensional model is essential to the building process because it helps me to adjust the pose and proportions of the figure, as well as plan the final scale of the piece. Measuring the maquette and marking out the workspace gives me an idea of the sculpture’s final dimensions, in this case four times greater than the maquette (figure 1). This also allows me to check myself throughout the building process by measuring various parts of the body and comparing them to the model.

…to Form
The mass of the sculpture is built up with solid clay. Wooden dowels are added wherever support is needed and clay is squeezed around them to hold them in place and extend the form (figure 2). These linear extensions are also planted to determine the direction and angle of limbs. The maquette is referenced constantly throughout this process. Wherever possible, dowels protrude beyond the form for easy removal. As limbs begin to extend further from the figure, external dowels are added for extra support. Because the clay dries and shrinks around the internal supports, the strength of each limb is constantly monitored and I remove the dowels as soon as the limb can support itself or be supported externally.

Initially, clay is added and manipulated by hand, but as the form progresses I use a plastic putty knife to direct the material, imply the underlying bone and muscular structure and create gestural marks. Building solid allows me to work the form as a whole and gives me the flexibility to fluidly correct proportions and change direction of limbs (figure 3).

Details
Detailing the sculpture begins once the whole body is roughed out. As the form gains definition, I switch to smaller wooden and plastic knives to make more specific markings and delineate skin folds. Detailed areas of the figure, such as the head and hands, are removed from the body and modeled separately (figures 4 and 5). When completed, they are reattached to the form. Thin and exposed limbs are covered to prevent them from drying too quickly.

A commercial sprig mold and home-made stamps add decorative elements that have an aesthetic quality contrasting my gestural hand and tool markings. I make stamps by attaching decorative mirror findings and upholstery tacks to thick wooden dowels (figure 6).

Cornstarch is used as a release agent in the mold and dusted on the figure, preventing the plastic stamps from sticking and allowing them to make clear impressions. The cornstarch leaves no trace when fired.

Hollowing

After the figure is completely modeled, I allow it to dry to a stage that is slightly soft-leather hard. Extending limbs are wrapped loosely with plastic because they dry quickly. When these appendages reach the right stage, I assess where to make the first cut to begin hollowing, usually starting with a hand or a foot, providing it does not compromise the balance of the figure. I cut with a wire tool, aiming for a spot with minimal detail to repair upon reattachment. Notches are made around the cut so that the pieces can later be matched up to their exact position (figure 7). Various sizes of loop tools are used to dig out the interior clay until the walls reach a consistent thickness of about ¼ inch. A wooden knife is used to compress the inside walls for added strength.

Each time a section is hollowed, it is wrapped in plastic and placed on a piece of foam to prevent distortion. When two sections are hollowed I score the edges with a homemade tool composed of several sewing needles epoxied to the end of a wooden dowel (figure 8). Slip is applied and the forms are rejoined. Fresh clay is worked into both interior and exterior seams. I try to recreate the markings of the initial building process while disguising the connection.

The arms, legs, and head are removed and re-built piece by piece in this manner. They are then wrapped and laid aside on foam. When hollowing the head, I remove the eyeballs, leaving empty sockets. A section is cut away from the back of the head (figure 9), allowing access to install porcelain eyeballs, post-firing.

Next, hollow out the solid torso (figure 10) and reassemble it in the same manner as the head, hands, and legs (figure 11). Begin by attaching the limbs first (figure 12). Appendages that require specific positioning, like the hands, are added last (figure 13). The attachments are often fragile and limbs are propped with various supports and clay. Cover the entire piece with plastic for several days, unwrapping it a little each day and allowing it to dry evenly.


Magda Gluszek lives and works in Panama City, Florida. To see more of her work, visit www.missmagdag.com.

For more information on building figurative work and using mixed media please see the following sources:
The Nude Figure: A Visual Reference for the Artist, by Mark Edward Smith; Human Anatomy for Artists, by Elliot Goldfinger; The Art of Resin Jewelry: Layering, Casting, and Mixed Media Techniques for Creating Vintage to Contemporary Designs, by Sherri Haab.

Comments
  • Hi
    It was so good, I enjoyed it so much, I gonna use out of your tech in my figures and thnx 😉

  • Super sweet! I’m taking a figurative clay class this semester at Massart. I will have to keep this in mind! Hope to see you at NCECA this year.

  • fantastic, this will help me in my figure studies class!

  • I’m sure the tech is solid but these figures make me think of the “Chucky” doll in the horror films.

  • What clay body do you use (i.e. does it have grog, or paper addad)?

  • I agree with Craig and Tracy……I find this figure repulsive.

  • WOW! Really! This fellow artist is willing to share her technique with the ceramic world and Craig, Tracy, and Nancy are rude enough to put their personal negative opinion on the comment board. Grow up! Use what you can and keep your negative personal comments to yourself.

  • I met Magda, from a distance, at a wonderful symposium at Arrowmont in October–never got the chance to speak with her about her technique. Did see her work up close–it’s very different from what I do, but I can certainly appreciate it. This very thorough article was incredibly helpful, both technically and for insight into the artist’s way of expressing an idea. Though I may not use food in my sculptures, I love that she does! (Like Heather, I would like to know more about the clay body.)

    Almost always, I create my work using coils and slabs (hated the thought of cutting up and hollowing out), but am now planning to build my next piece solid. Also, I will try to put more time in the maquette!

    Bill, I love all my professional journals, but seem to use the PMI articles the most and this issue was particularly outstanding! Thank you!

  • Thank you, Magda, for your thorough and detailed description of your technique. I so agree with Tanya that negative comments would be out of place. That said, I too am uncomfortable with the figures– and I suspect that was the idea. So perhaps the ‘negative opinions’ can be seen as positive comments–as in “these sculptures have a powerful effect on the way I feel” (and I don’t like the way I feel either, but I have to admit the sculptures are powerful).

  • Well said, Sally. The artist begins her article by stating that her “sculptures investigate ideas about consumption, self-presentation, and societal behaviors versus animalistic impulses”. This sculpture is certainly a distinct artistic expression of these concepts and the technical expertise used in the execution of this work is inspirational. Thank you for being so generous as to share.

  • hi i agree that the figures a not very atractive but why not think a litle more about the great skill,Knowledge and creativity that the artist put in to her work. well done!! Magda.
    i will like to see a video of your technique one day?
    thanks for sharing with us.
    Claudia

  • There are a lot of great ideas here.
    I have done figuritive scuplpture, and although her techniques leave room for error such as detatching and attatching when leather hard can be difficult for inexperienced people, I would like to try it for myself and see if the end process turns out better. Thanks for the information

  • I am a very inexperienced student and I can never get enough ideas or information on how many create their work. It is so appreciated your willingness to share your techniques! I look forward to trying them.

  • Thank you so much for sharing your process so generously. i cant wait to try this technique on a full figure- ive been putting off doing full figures for a while now, focusing on busts…i love the “societal behaviors vs. animalistic impulses” etc. theme of the work. It is quite beautiful imho and i want to see more! also, if i have a visceral dislike of a piece of art work it usually tells me im faced with some part of myself, shadow side stuff, that im trying really hard not to accept or even not to see. it seems grossly inappropriate that folks would offer up some of the really negative feedback here, particularly on a forum about technique. anyway, thanks for sharing with us. it was really helpful to me.

  • thank you for sharing your work process, i find that it makes me ask questions the colors are warm they draw me in. The surface tactile that i like, the figure is sort of cute reminds me of something a memory or nursery rhyme maybe. And yet, the figure is in a strange pose doing strange gestures with her arms. The work makes me think, makes me ask what is going on.. this is great work, i feel art should make me think and ask. your work does this well done..

  • This is really fantastic work and something to aspire to!! Very unusual pose, ears, colour, techniques etc, and enlightening how you hollow-out larger body and re-attatch, (as a novice ceramicist myself). Love the natural arch of the back and the slightly plump figure. Thank you.

  • Thank u for sharing Magda, as a vehicle for personal expression clay is so maleable and sympathetic. I don’t usually comment however I am constantly moved by the generosity of all who share their methods and motivations. We are all enriched by this environment of goodwill and connection.

  • I find the figures VERY intriguing…thanks for sharing!

  • hmmm, dowels for support…. now my fingers are twitching to get to work!

  • LOVED all of it! Informative and her work is INCREDIBLE! I also liked the wooden dowel idea.

  • Thanks for sharing your techniques, Im going straight to work!

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