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Techniques, Observations, Art history, Enthusiasms

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Currently on my  sculpture modelling stand, an anatomical sculpture of a Centaur in clay which I'm making for our upcoming exhibition at the Reading Museum and Art Gallery (UK) , quite a challenge to combine human and equine anatomy and express the energy of a twitchy man-horse in clay over a wire armature. If it comes out OK I'll cast it to plaster and then use the mould to generate a wax for bronze. The sculpture is bigger than maquette size - it's about 70 cm to the top of that raised hand.

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I am often asked what wax I use, and the answer to such a short question is long. Waxes are numerous in kind, appearance, handling and use, and I use a great number of them, many I mix myself. For this first 101 I’ll tell you a major distinction though –

Filled versus unfilled waxes.

What is an Unfilled Wax?

Basically, a pure wax or wax/rosin mix. Wax is a crystalline structure. It melts at varying temperatures and as it cools and sets, crystals form. These are organised neatly and, under a microscope, you would see a tidy mathematical arrangement. If you tear a piece of wax off a set, crystallized block, you disrupt the crystals and if you then try to squeeze it, stick a piece back on, soften and generally mush it around, the crystals become ragged. To the eye, this will appear as lines, imperfections, mess and even colour changes. Such an “unfilled” wax does not make a pleasing modelling material: raw microcrystalline wax, beeswax, paraffin wax, any simple unadulterated wax is better cast, not modelled. Even if you cast an unfilled wax you are left with seams that it can be very difficult to make disappear, because the crystalline structure, once broken, cannot be manually put back together.

Ok how do we get around that?

The ideal modelling material is one you can seamlessly, flawlessly add to itself so as your work grows you don’t see lines, patches and an ugly surface. Plasticine is one such, also clay, plastilene and so on. In the wax world, we use a filler, mixed in with the molten wax, which can be a powder such as chalk, French chalk, zinc white, anything inert, which sits between the crystals and somehow hides the visual effects of handling. This can be added to hard and to soft wax mixes, making a wax that is suitable for prototyping or even display.

Some unfilled waxes have a colour added – the darker the better – to achieve this seamless look, although I have found that modelling coloured unfilled waxes can cause a colour change. Foundry wax is unfilled, and often a dark green or purple, and when you add pieces to it the joins are hard to see but look closely and they are there. The filled waxes I use are smooth and seamless, one piece disappears into another invisibly and the surface holds together in a unified way. This takes a lot of irritation out of the process of getting a good finish.

Can I use a filled wax in the bronze foundry?

Alas no, only for prototyping and casting into an unfilled wax. The filler won’t burn out and will hang around in the mould, spoiling the casting.

What should I try first?

Anyone who has done my workshops will have been started off on the deliciously malleable 1704 (soft) and 1718 ( the hard one we use in the moulage class) in white or bronze colours from British Wax of Redhill, Surrey, UK. The former is a great prototyping material on all but the hottest days, the latter can be modelled by putting it in warm water or with a heat gun in one hand. You can also melt it over indirect heat (a bain Marie) and splodge it into a rubber mould. Don't overheat it or heat it for too long or the filler will drop out of suspension and gather at the bottom of the pan. They both take oil paint really well. Just keep them free from dust and they will look good indefinitely, but bear in mind the 1704 is really too soft to exhibit or sell.

One day I’ll write the book on wax modelling but until then watch out for more wax 101s, answering the questions I get asked most often. EC.

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I have now put online the full chapter I wrote on techniques for "Le cere vive di Clemente Susini" (Italian) Paperback – 2014 by Aurelio. Pastorino, Ugo. Amendola (Author) FMR (Publisher), reflections on my experiences whilst conserving some of the Susini models in Cagliari, Sardinia at the invitation of Professor Sandro Riva in 2014.

"The exceptional technical mastery of Clemente Susini’s wax anatomical models in Cagliari present a challenge to one who would attempt to explain the methods of their production, especially as they deliberately employ the highest artifice to conceal their manufacture. Their mimetic perfection obscures the detection of the very hands, tools and materials that gave them being."

(Please respect the copyright of this piece which is mine and the publisher's . )

Read my article here

Image: Anatomical wax model by Clemente Susini and team, Museo De la Specola, Florence.



I was teaching a class for Performing Medicine recently and was asked to make a booklist of things people with our set of interests would like, so will be offering a list here in the Writings page  as they occur to me. Here is the illustrated biography of a great wax modelling pioneer.

The Lady Anatomist: The Life and Work of Anna Morandi Manzolini
Published 30 Nov 2010
by Rebecca Messbarger

Anna Morandi Manzolini (1714-74), an artist and scientist, surmounted meager origins and limited formal education to become one of the most acclaimed anatomical sculptors of the Enlightenment. "The Lady Anatomist" tells the story of her arresting life and times, in light of the intertwined histories of science, gender, and art that complicated her rise to fame in the eighteenth century. Examining the details of Morandi's remarkable life, Rebecca Messbarger traces her intellectual trajectory from provincial artist to internationally renowned anatomical wax modeler for the University of Bologna's famous medical school. Placing Morandi's work within its cultural and historical context, as well as in line with the Italian tradition of anatomical studies and design, Messbarger uncovers the messages contained within Morandi's wax inscriptions, part complex theories of the body and part poetry. Widely appealing to those with an interest in the tangled histories of art and the body, and including lavish, full-color reproductions of Morandi's work, "The Lady Anatomist" is a sophisticated biography of a true visionary.

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John Berger's short essay on the time he arrived in the wrong city to view Holbein's painting of the dead Christ is reprinted in Keeping a Rendezvous (Penguin, 1993). The paintings he does come across , in this other city, lead him to reflect on the sensation of the observer , when making an observational work, of being observed by the subject.

"Image-making begins with interrogating appearances and making marks. Every artist discovers that drawing — when it is an urgent activity — is a two-way process. To draw is not only to measure and put down, it is also to receive. When the intensity of looking reaches a certain degree, one becomes aware of an equally intense energy coming towards one, through the appearance of whatever it is one is scrutinizing. Giacometti’s life’s work is a demonstration of this.
The encounter of these two energies, their dialogue, does not have the form of question and answer. It is a ferocious and inarticulated dialogue. To sustain it requires faith. It is like a burrowing in the dark, a burrowing under the apparent. The great images occur when the two tunnels meet and join perfectly. Sometimes when the dialogue is swift, almost instantaneous, it is like something thrown and caught.
I offer no explanation for this experience. I simply believe very few artists will deny it. It’s a professional secret."

An idea I have encountered twice this week - Waldemar Januszak , in his Renaissance Unchained series, says the Mona Lisa views you in the encounter, not the other way around.

It occurs to me that  many visitors to art galleries go there to be looked at, if perhaps not by the paintings or sculptures.
To make the artworks look at you.
To command the gaze of statues.
Even I once enjoyed being regarded by a strange exotic bird at London zoo.
It's a useful aim to have , in the making of effigies, that they should look back at one, or look forward at the future people to come.
A Mellontoptic quality.

Something Julian said to me about the actor Matthew McConaughy: Oh yes. He's really BEHIND his eyes, all the time. I can imagine you would want to sculpt that.

Another thought from this Berger, to keep:

‘When somebody is dead, you can see it from two hundred yards away,’ says Goya in a play we wrote, ‘his silhouette goes cold.’

Berger I have tended to neglect unfairly as his Ways of Seeing is a first year artschool booklist staple. Every Foundation course used to ask you to read it before you even arrived. 'Keeping a Rendezvous' is on my studio desk for slow perusal -  it contains 21 vignettes and I glean from it much that helps with the task.

Image: The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (and detail, lower) 30.5 cm × 200 cm. Kunstmuseum Basel. By Hans Holbein 1520-22

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....or, 10 things about armatures I wish I’d not had to learn the hard way

1. An armature is an internal support for a sculpture, not a skeleton. SO!...

2. The armature is not the boss, you are. If the armature is wrong and sticks out of the sculpture, cut it back, chop bits off. Don’t adapt the sculpture to cover it.

3. Rust never sleeps. A steel armature can rust and break when covered in wet clay for months; paint it with a waterproof primer. Screws too.

4. Strength is all. Use thicker steel or wood than you think you need. Even apparently thick steel can bend when you put 50+ kilos of clay on it.

5. Armatures can topple forward. Back irons need to be overengineered , the weight of a standing figure in clay can warp them or rip the screws out of their feet. One of mine, lifesized, facedived the tarmac because of an oversight in this department.

6. Raise a rubbish core. You can save on clay and weight by stuffing your solid areas ( shoulders, torsos, pelvises) with empty beer cans, pet food cans, Styrofoam blocks. Ugly but effective and only you need know.

7. Wire is a blade. The wire in an armature can cut through clay and especially wax like a cheesewire, allowing your model to fall off an armature. Wrap single wires in coils of other wires or in gaffer tape to give grip.

8. Spend the money. Square section aluminium armature wire - the thicker the better - is worth the expense. In the old days we used lead pipe, too heavy and bendy.

9. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. If you correct an aluminium wire armature position by bashing it in with a hammer, another bit will often pop out somewhere else.

10. The truth can be downloaded. Everything you need to know about this has been solved long ago; seek advice from the talented Mr. Albert Toft, freely available here

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An oil painting of a Beauchène skull mounted by Tramond in the 19th century. This type of anatomical preparation shows the bones of the skull disarticulated ( apparently the skull is filled with dry peas and soaked , the expansion causing the bones to separate)  and poised in space on brass posts and pins . Whenever I see them I read the expanding head as expressing some shock , violent emotion or surprise - like the Cornelia Parker exploding shed. I am not very practiced in using oil paint so for me this is a technical exercise as much as an anatomical one. Laying down the layers of paint and blending them is not unrelated to the feel of wax modelling. Also most of my waxes are coloured with oil paint so it's familiar, just not in a mimetic 2d application. Drying time seems to be about a week between layers. Come back and see it progress!

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I am currently in the group exhibition at the Riga Museum of Anatomy in Latvia curated by Pascale Pollier.

"In her video work, artist Nina Sellars (Australia) has revived a model of an anatomised hand from the 19th century that is housed in the collection of the Anatomy Museum of the University of Melbourne, while artists Andrew Carnie and Eleanor Crook (UK) teach visitors about the impact that space travel has on the human body and spirit, and Bryan W. Green (UK) re-interprets the dual nature of energy. Meanwhile, artist Mara G. Haseltine (US) reflects on the potential of a drug that inhibits Coronavirus replication in her work “SARS Inhibited”, and bioartist Joe Davis (US) gives hope to the world during the pandemic by bringing more than 200 million billion angels to the Anatomy Museum. Based on Islamic traditions and modern DNA propagation methods, Davis encoded the angels into a DNA molecule that covers a 0.75 mm small head of a pin."

The exhibition has been created in collaboration with AEIMS (Association Européenne des Illustrateurs Medicaux et Scientifiques), BIOMAB (Biological and Medical Art in Belgium), ARSIC (Art Researches Science international Collaborations) and MAA (The Medical Artists’ Association of Great Britain). The project is supported by the Embassy of Belgium in Latvia and Sweden, the General Representation of the Government of Flanders in Poland and the Baltic States, the Vesalius Trust and Didzis Gavars, the Honorary Consul of Belgium in Latvia.

The online exhibit is here

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