Portrait Course: Mark Richards

Spent a lovely 3 days in Stanton Lacy, near Ludlow, in the Victorian village school room that now serves as Mark Richards‘s studio.  Kick started my portrait sculpture again. Mark’s son, Gil, was our model. Sadly, 3 days isn’t enough to finish a portrait and he isn’t as fleshed out as he should be.  Looks like Gil at 28 rather than Gil at 18, bless!

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I was hoping to come away with a technique where the sitter’s face gently morphs out of the clay.  Instead it’s confirmed that I have to go through the ‘slasher movie’ stage to get my structure right.

But Mark has given me a process to follow.  Although he now concentrates on large scale statues, he used to be a ‘jobbing portrait sculptor’ – his words – so he devised a method that is fast and reliable. I really like his idea of ‘5 primary measurements’ that have to be 100% accurate for a good likeness.

His favourite sculptor in clay is Brian Taylor.  Mark has worked with Brian, and says how slowly Brian seemed to work.  He measured meticulously, and would amble over to the sitter with sculpting tool loaded with a dab of clay, observe intently, amble back and apply the dab of clay.  The process of walk, observe, walk, dab would be repeated until the piece was finished. However, Brian was the tortoise who won the race.  Because he considered every dab of clay, every dab counted, and his method was very efficient.

Brian’s finish is what I call ’20th century lumpy’. The hair is impressionistic and not defined from the head.  He gets over the eye problem by not having any – eyes closed or heavy lidded.

Mark, by the way, either hollows the eyes, leaves them blank, or does a traditional eye without the highlight.  He says he generally hollows dark eyes, but this isn’t a hard and fast rule. His ‘formula’ portraits are generally smooth textured.

He doesn’t like the way I apply clay, saying that hands/fingers create concavity which is anti ‘life’. He says that all living things are made up of cells which are convex, so adding convex clay adds life. I continued by using a tool to apply clay, but it still didn’t work.  Groovy rather than lumpy.  Not ‘groovy’ enough, apparently. Perhaps I could swirl the surface to make it more interesting, he suggested.  Trouble is, I don’t feel ‘lumpy’ or even ‘swirly’ is very me. I admire it in other people’s work, and I can see that my clay isn’t ‘alive’ in the same way. But does mine have to be like everybody else’s?   18th/19th century clay portraits were smooth – did they lack life?  Perhaps I’m confusing process and artifact, here.  If my process lacks life, does this mean I can add life to my artifact in other ways?  If so, then my process is just perfect for me.

He does like my method, though.  It’s accurate and it works. Just wish it looked prettier.


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