Adventures in clay..

My third entry for Champions of Lough Devnaree was an unfired Clay (Terra Cruda) grotesque head.  The idea behind this piece was to mimic a common practice where students wishing to become sculptors would work on practice pieces in clay.  I would very much like to try sculpting in a more serious way, but I am definitely currently held back by my current lack of proper appreciation for representing shapes in 3D and how simple shapes can be made to work together and a lack of any sort of training in art, even just classes or at school.

Clay is a more forgiving medium allowing for constant addition and subtraction to the piece you want to work on,  allowing you to experiment with form, structure, movement etc.   The important thing is to make sure you have it consistently worked over (lots of prekneading) and it isn’t too dry (cracks shouldn’t form when you’re working with it) or too wet (it shouldn’t be sticking to your hands and fingers)

That unfired clay practice or concept models were a period practice is evidenced by some surviving late period pieces.  Unfired clay is brittle and easily damaged and, as practice works, wouldn’t have a naturally high rate of survival to modern times.  Those that have survived have probably been preserved as they were worked on by Masters, including for example Michelangelo, who routinely worked through a series of ‘sketch’ pieces in wax and clay preparing for a final sculpture.   I chose as my inspiration piece a grotesque head by the Italian sculptor Giovanni Bologna, also known as Giambologna. He met Michelangelo on a study trip to Rome aged 21, and it was Michelangelo who is reputed to gave advised him that the models of Greco-Roman and Renaissance sculpture on which he was working were of too high a finish before the basic pose had been fully established.  Ever after, Giambologna became a convert to the practice of working through sketch-models in preparing his sculptures and there are several extant pieces of his in the Victoria and Albert Museum.  

2006BK6009_jpg_lFor this project I took as inspiration Giambologna’s “Mask”, made of unfired clay in Florence Italy ca. 1578 currently held in the Medieval and Renaissance, room 62, case 16 x 15 in the Victoria and Albert museum, acquired in Florence from the Gherardini collection.  The mask  “is an unfired sketch model for grotesque masks on the façade of a building for the Palazzo Vecchietti, Florence, which was designed by Giambologna for his patron, Bernardo Vecchietti” – See more at  The original has a broken and unrepaired nose and the ‘fabric’ of his headpiece is a bit indistinct.

In truth I ended up having to enter my practice piece as real life events didn’t give me an opportunity to have another go.  I had old clay in the house that was definitely past its best which I brought back to life with water and much kneading.   The practice piece was to work out what bits went where and to get a feel for what I was trying to achieve, so the finish is especially poor even allowing that pieces like this were not finished to any great degree.   I didn’t use modelling tools and I didn’t clean up the piece at the end, planning to do that with version 2.  

What I would do differently – I was working from a single, on screen, 2 dimensional image, this is definitely not the way to do this sort of work! I would probably create an raised armature to get a better notion of the shape and angle of a face not lying on a table.  I believe  this would probably make it easier to gauge things like the height and curve of the forehead.  It would also allow me to use less clay, which would mean quicker and more consistent drying.   

I’ve just realised I don’t have a picture of my version at the minute.. will have to add it later.


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