Portrait Sculpting

For our next topic of discussion, I thought we'd talk about something that has (for me anyway) always been a special part of the sculpting process. Portraiture.

Being able to capture a likeness has been an important part of sculpture for thousands of years. Examples of this can be found all the way back in the early Greek and Egyptian cultures. While their ability to capture a true likeness was not as strong as cultures that came later, the idea that an individual was important, and that their face is how we would distinguish them, is what gave rise to the great traditions of portraiture.

For those of us in the commercial world, portrait sculpting has been raised to greater and greater heights. The ability that some sculptors have to capture a likeness is uncanny - and to do it at 1 1/2" is incredible.

I'm going to talk a little about how I got started sculpting portraits and I'll try to give some insights into what I think is important when it comes to capturing a likeness.

My first experience sculpting a portrait was actually only the second sculpture I had ever made (the first being a life sized study of my right foot). I sculpted the portrait of a fellow classmate in my very first sculpture class. We took turns modeling for each other. After a couple of class sessions the portraits were complete. My portrait of her wasn't exactly flattering. She was a woman in her late 40's and her face had all the signs of a woman who had seen too much sun. Perhaps a little less detail would've been better back then. All in all, the portrait was pretty good for only my second attempt at sculpting. After that i was hooked and sculpture became the most important thing for me.

Through the years that followed, I sculpted many portraits. Some life size, some half life, and even a couple of twice life sized portraits. I thought I'd be able to earn a living (or at least pay the bills) with portrait sculpting. However, what I wanted and what was, were two different things. The world of Fine Art started becomming a battle that it didn't seem I could win. I started to look for alternatives. It was around this time that I discovered the world of commercial sculpting (for the toys and collectibles market). I tried my hand at a few busts first, sculpting generic faces as I got used to the smaller scale (which after twice life sized heads, felt like I was sculpting miniatures). I reached out to people online. I found some very talented individuals and started studying their work. My first big help came from Tim Miller. Tim was kind enough to not only chat with me online, but he also gave me his number so I could call him and talk directly to him about my work. Tim gave me some great pointers and really helped to guide my abilities to a place where they could do what I was trying to do.

My first real attempt at a likeness was when I sculpted the figures of Captain Hammer (AKA Nathan Fillion) and Dr. Horrible (AKA Neil Patrick Harris), from the hilarious short: Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-long Blog. The portraits weren't that bad actually. Tim again shared some great pointers about hair and ears. I was learning and already getting better. My next foray into portraits came in the form of my first professional sculpting gig. I got hired to sculpt the likenesses of characters from the Buck Rogers series. I threw myself into the projects and tried to remember what Tim had shared with me. I gathered my reference and started sculpting. At first I was only hired to sculpt two of the characters, but by the time the job was done, I had sculpted six. Each one got a little better. I learned a great deal about gathering reference, making my own measurment guides, and even abut resin casting. The project was a great personal success for me because it was trial by fire, and I had passed.

The next portrait I attempted was going to be a challenge. I wanted to see how much detail I could put into a tiny 1:6 scale head. I chose Morgan Freeman as my subject. This time, I made new (smaller) tools, researched ways of getting skin textures on wax, and really pushed myself to sculpt a portrait that was instantly recognizable. I think I succeeded, even if he ended up a little thin in the cheeks (caused by dimensional shrinkage in the wax and resin - I learned about that too). When the piece was painted by the very talented John Richer, I was floored to think that something I sculpted could look so life like. My next personal challenge was a series of self portraits. I wanted to take a neutral expression and see if I could change it in the wax to have different expressions. This was a great exercise, and one that I recommend to anybody trying to get better at portrait sculpting.

The last portrait I sculpted (a little over a month ago) was the portrait of Matthew McConaughey as Denton Van Zan from the movie Reign of Fire. This was an especially difficult portrait as the actor didn't look like his normal self in the roll. McConaughey is usually clean shaven, has a full head of well groomed hair and a Texas smile on his face. However, as Denton Van Zan, he had a shaved head, a dirty beard and stern look in his face. This is where portraiture becomes the most difficult. Actors take on different looks in movies, and as a sculptor, it's our challenge to capture both the look of the character and the actor behind the make-up. When it's done well it's almost magical. I'm not quite there yet, but there are a few sculptors who are. Tim Miller, Trevor Grove, Andy Bergholtz and Adam Beane are a few of those. These are the artists that continually raise the bar that I'm so desperately trying to reach. But it's because of sculptors like these, that portraiture is where it is today. These guys are carrying on an old tradition (whether they know it or not) that goes back to the great masters of Art History.

So, what can I share with you guys about the things I learned? Well, for starters, there's no substitution for good reference. Reference (and a lot of it) is the key to being able to capture a likeness. Getting as many views of the individual's head is really helpful in filling in the details and structure of their head. Be sure to get clean front and profile shots. One of the ways I've been able to get really good pictures is screen captures from DVD's. When my computer can't capture a good image, I go old school and set up my camera on a tripod in the living room and I snap photos right off the t.v.. I've actually gotten real good at it. I use the sepia setting on my camera, that gives me the best detail and contrast without the color to throw things off.

Measuring is the next important thing. It's crucial to take as many measurements as you can. Try to triangulate measurements as that really helps place things in a three dimensional space. Using a mirror and turning heads up side down is also very helpful in finding symmetry and structural flaws. Do this a lot in the beginning. It's better to find the problems early than to have to destroy hours of work when you discover the problem late. Also, try to get some fresh eye's on the piece. Whether that means walking away from it for a while or showing it to other people to get their opinion. Sometimes you can get the best advice from someone who knows nothing about art. One of my regular "advisors" on portraits is actually my mail man. If I'm working on a portrait and just want a quick opinion, I'll walk out of the studio when I hear him coming. He loves seeing what I'm working on, and he has a surprisingly good eye for finding what needs improvement.

Lastly, I'd say the best thing you could do for yourself is practice. Sculpt as many heads as you can. Write down a list of celebrities, both male and female, and start at the top. Advice, how-to videos and books are no match for hands on training. Challenge yourself. Give yourself assignments that you think are hard. Then after a few years of getting better and learning your own way - pay it forward and teach others. With the advent of the digital world and scanning technologies, it's up to us to carry the torch for our ancient tradition of portrait sculpting.