This week I have the pleasure of bringing you an interview with one of the great portrait sculptors in our industry - Trevor Grove. I first saw Trevor's work on DeviantArt, and I've been a fan ever since. This year I had the pleasure of meeting him face to face at Monsterpalooza - and for those of you who don't know, Trevor is a very young man. So young in fact, it makes me a little jealous of his amazing skill. But it's that skill that has made Trevor a well known name among those of us who are fans of sculpting. Talented yet very humble, Trevor amazes us with every new sculpture he shares. And now, he's sharing a little about his process, his history, and some advice for those of us trying to do what he does so well. So without further ado, here's the interview.
AP: How do you typically start a new portrait sculpting project?
TG: Well, my work tends to be on the smaller side so I like to work in hard wax. Depending on the scale of the piece I’m working on I like to pour a wax ‘buck’ as a basis for each portrait. Sometimes I’ll take a mold of a previous portrait that’s in the same scale and I’ll make a wax casting from it to begin sculpting with. I tend to just need something that’s got the right volume, it’s not important which head you’re starting off with.
I also do a lot of research into my subject before I start. That’s just to say I dig deep for LOTS of photo reference. I’m typically only doing likenesses when I’m hired to do a portrait and in order to do a really good likeness, I feel like you need tons of reference. It’s not good, in my opinion, to guess too much if you don’t have to. I try to find great profile shots, great front on shots, and every angle and every lighting condition you can find. I’ll typically have hundreds upon hundreds of photos that I refer to when doing portraits. It’s an arduous task to seek out that volume of reference, but it’s necessary for me. Along with searching the internet and books I’ll always take screen captures from DVD’s if it’s a movie character I’m sculpting.
From that point I just start carving into the wax. I have some simple loop tools, some basic dental spatulas, and some other metal tools that I heat over an alcohol torch and use for carving. As far as where I start within the face, it really varies. I just follow my gut while I study whatever reference I have. I just try to match what I’m seeing, really. I think it’s important to be extremely patient when it comes to portrait sculpting, though. There are usually about 2-3 points throughout the process where I feel like, “Oh, I’m getting close now!”, when in reality it’s quite off. You just have to be willing to stick it out and put in many many hours searching for the right features.
AP: Do your clients provide reference or do you need to gather all that material yourself?
TG: Well I guess some of that’s answered in the last question, but I am provided with reference for some of my professional work. Depending on the license holder, sometimes the reference provided is pretty nice (more so for outfits than portraits, though). For the most part I have to search out the most useful reference myself. I tend to be the only one who can really determine what it is I’ll need.
AP: What are some common mistakes you see in a beginner’s work? And what are some ways to avoid those mistakes?
TG: Well, it’s tough for me to feel like anything other than a fellow beginner! Even after doing this for about five years, I feel very green. It’s a constant learning process and you’ll definitely make lots of mistakes. The real trick, it seems to me, is to just turn those mistakes into some kind of success. Never walk away from what you’re working on because you feel like it’s going bad. For me, absolutely every sculpture I’ve made feels like it’s going to look like total shit for the first 50% of the project. But, eventually, things start to click and you start to gain confidence.
As far as mistakes I see in portrait work: I think the main thing I see is a lack of understanding in the understructure of the face/head. It’s usually pretty obvious when someone isn’t too versed in facial anatomy. When you know the basic structure of a skull, and the musculature, it gives your work a more confident look.
AP: Have you studied the anatomy of the head? Do you feel it’s important to study anatomy, or rely more on observation?
TG: Yep, I definitely like to study anatomy. I find myself needing to re-read anatomy books just to keep up with how complex the figure and head are. It’s just good to know what it is you’re observing. It helps you sculpt a little more confidently.
AP: Is there any particular part of doing a portrait that you regularly have trouble with? If so, how do you keep that in check?
TG: Oh boy is there ever! :) I always make eyes too small. It’s usually not noticeable in the raw sculpt, but once it’s painted it comes out. My bigger problem is keeping my scaled portraits...in scale! I’ve made quite a lot of 1/6 scale headsculpts that are too big for 1/6 scale figures. Most professional sculptors sculpt slightly large because through the process of production, things shrink a bit (everything gets molded multiple times, and through each molding process, things shrink just a bit.) For my larger scaled work, I usually don’t have a problem, it’s only 1/6 scale...where you have to try and make a likeness fit onto a fairly generic body and neck. If you get things off just a bit, it makes the final figure look ridiculous.
As for keeping that issue in check, I tend to just try to compare my work to other headsculpts that I know are in good scale; That helps some. I still have trouble with it though, and I still make eyes too small in the beginning. Just by screwing up a few times, you’ll start to remember to take special care to consider the things that keep recurring.
AP: Is there any likeness you’ve ever worked on which you felt you didn’t capture well?
TG: Ha! Well, the better question might be whether or not I think I ever got one RIGHT! :) I’m notoriously hard on myself and my work. That self deprecating behavior can be kind of beneficial, since I’m always looking at my work critically.
There are some likenesses that no matter how many times you do them,you just can’t get them looking right. Young Mark Hamill and Viggo Mortensen come to mind as ones I never felt like I got right. I also AGONIZED over Paul McCartney...I kept changing him over and over and over and never got it. Sometimes it just doesn’t seem to work out. :) You never know which one will be tough, either.
AP: Is there any likeness you enjoyed or still enjoy sculpting?
TG: I enjoy seeing the larger Indiana Jones sculpts come together. I’ve sculpted three of the 1/4 scale Indy’s, and surprisingly enough, I’m excited to do it each time. It helps that I’m a big fan of the character, I also really genuinely enjoyed sculpting everything for the 1/4 scale Gandalf statue. I love sculpting women too, but it’s not often I get hired to do girl likenesses. I’ve got a couple going for a line of “Firefly” headsculpts I’m doing in my personal time, and it’s great to get to work with more simple delicate features.
AP: Do you remember who your first likeness was of? Looking back, how do you feel you did?
TG: Yeah, I remember it clearly. It was a Heather Graham as Mary Kelly from “From Hell”. It was done for my brother as a gift. It was the first likeness I did, and it was sculpted in super sculpey...I probably spent a good month on it, and it was a real struggle. Looking back at it, I think it looks terrible! haha! It looked better before I painted it, I really shouldn’t have bothered with trying to paint it. Leave the paint to the professionals. ;)
AP: Now that you’ve been doing this for a while, how often does a client ask for changes to portraits you’re working on?
TG: I’ve been lucky to get very few changes with my portrait work. The biggest changes I get are regarding hair. Either give them more hair, or trim up the hair. Most of my professional work has gotten through without many changes. I tend to find whenever you are asked to make changes, they’re almost always beneficial to the portrait. I’ve never been asked to do something that hurts the likeness.
AP: Do you like to jump from one portrait to another, or do you prefer to finish it all in one shot?
TG: I like to jump around a bit. Sometimes it’s just good to do to keep your eyes fresh. Sculpt a couple of different faces and the problems in each sculpt become more apparent. I don’t usually do anything more than a few at a time and I’m usually only able to really concentrate heavily on one.
AP: On average (if you can figure out such a thing), how long does it take you to complete a portrait?
TG: Man, that’s a question I always find tough to answer. I’m not good at keeping track of the hours I spend on each portrait. If I’m sculpting a full statue, the portrait gets stretched out over the course of the entire project. I’ll gradually build the likeness while I’m building the rest of the figure. When I’m only sculpting a portrait, I tend to find the 1/6 scale ones can be done in a week. My days are usually very long and I sculpt from morning to night, so in order to do a likeness in a week, I have to really put in the time.
Sometimes though, a likeness will give you a lot of grief. I think it took me a month to do my first 1/4 scale Harrison Ford for the Indiana Jones statue. It really varies depending on how difficult a piece is. I haven’t been able to streamline it into a dependable timetable yet.
AP: Personally I find generic portraits just as challenging as capturing a likeness. Do you find them to be easier, harder or about the same?
TG: Yeah, I’m with you, I find it tough too. Some sculptors do non likenesses EXTREMELY well and creatively...I’m not good at that. I did a pirate that wasn’t likeness oriented, and I found it very difficult. I suppose they are slightly easier, just because nobody comes in with any preconceived idea of what the character looks like, but I sort of get lost in all of the potential options.
AP: Have you ever sculpted a self-portrait? Is so, how did it turn out? If you haven’t sculpted one, why not?
TG: Nope! Never have. Never even thought about doing that! haha! I guess I just don’t much like my face. ;) In seriousness though, I think I’m just much more interested in sculpting characters or things I like, and I’ve never been much into self portraits. If I ever do it, I’ll do it in rough clay in a larger scale. I think that would be kind of fun!
AP: Have you ever given up on trying to capture a likeness? If so, who was it of, and how long did it take before you called it quits?
TG: I don’t think I ever have. I’ve had excruciatingly difficult ones, but I’ve never thrown the towel in all together. It took me three times to get a decent Nathan Fillion, though. For the most part I’m just rarely in a position where I can say, “to hell with this!”. :) When I’m hired to do something, I’m terrified at the idea of failing to do it.
AP: Is there a likeness you’ve wanted to sculpt but haven’t gotten around to it? If so, who is it?
TG: Oh yes. Tom Waits. I’m a massive fan of the man’s music, and I’d love to sculpt multiple Tom Waits statues.
AP: How many portraits do you think you’ve sculpted in your time as a professional sculptor?
TG: That’s a good question, man....I haven’t ever stopped to think about it. It’s probably not a whole heck of a lot. lol! I’d guess it’s around 30 in the 4 years I’ve been sculpting professionally. It might not even be that many. Some of those are multiple sculpts of the same character/actor. I’ve probably done nearly 10 Harrison Ford pieces with varying success/failure. :)
AP: What are some basic principles or advice you have for portrait sculptors?
TG: Hmmm, Sculpting likeness portraits is usually pretty arduous, so you gotta be patient and tenacious. It’s also a really good idea to hold your work up next to the work of portrait sculptures you admire or hold in high regard. Be sure to study some basic facial anatomy. I love human anatomy, so I like to learn everything down to the bone, and I think that has helped me quite a bit in my portrait sculpting. When you know that every face has the same basic structure, you start to look for certain shadows in your reference that indicate those forms and planes you know are beneath the surface. Every face is different, but fundamentally the same.
Another simple piece of advice is to put a small vanity mirror on your desk so that you can constantly look at your portraits in the mirror. It’ll make all of the problems jump out to your eye. By that same logic, it’s good to look at your reference in a mirror if you’re doing likenesses. Nobody is symmetrical, and sometimes the things that make a likeness look great are the imperfections.
I'd like to thank Trevor for taking time out of his very busy schedule to do this interview. I hope you all enjoyed it as much as I did. In fact, I think I'm going to read it again. Cheers!! See you next week.