Commissioning a portrait sculpture

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At Caswell Gallery we have a lot of interest in portrait commissions. They are fairly commonplace, but somewhat complex in nature. No worries though, we’re going to break it down for you and answer all your questions.

sculpting Athena's portrait - CopyThe first thing clients think of when entertaining a commission is cost. Commissioned portraits can be affordable, but it’s always best to know your budget. This a topic to discuss at the very beginning so you know what to expect. Details that will be considered when the artist gives a quote include number of subjects, size of the finished sculpture, time frame (additional charges usually apply for a rush order), patinas, bases, travel if the artist has to come to you, or vice versa (this is a charge you will incur), shipping if necessary; approximate time it takes to sculpt, and number of requested proofing sessions. Since every commission brings its own special set of circumstances there might be other considerations in addition to those mentioned. Be sure to ask as many questions as you feel necessary, earlier than later is always best. Any question is relevant as it pertains to your piece. It’s important that you establish trust with the artist and have a clear understanding of the process and expectations.

Portrait sculptures are commissioned to portray a variety of subjects–children, grandchildren, grandparents, and pets; sometimes inTPark_2121_030312 memoriam, but always with affection. You may even find yourself spearheading a movement to commission a portrait of a public figure. When considering a portrait commission give some thought how you want your subject portrayed. Do you want a bust, torso, or full body depiction? How many people will be sculpted? For the sake of budget, to a certain extent regard each individual a separate commission. Next would be the size–miniature, life-size, and monuments are all options.

Figuring out these details are all part of the consultation process for which there is no charge. Because portrait sculptures are a reflection of the subject and traits specific to them, be prepared to share anecdotes, hobbies, personality  characteristics, and sometimes even props. These details can make all the difference in the success of the final piece. Remember you are interviewing the sculptor as well, so you want the relationship to be one of mutual respect and collaboration. Once the decision has been made on the above details, the rest of the process will begin. Standard practice will require a deposit and which point the artist will begin your sculpture.

Most often the artist  will have a sitting where the subject will be posed and have their pictures taken from several angles. Facial and other necessary measurements will be noted. In the case of a deceased subject, be prepared to provide pictures from several angles, if at all possible. From there the artist will start sculpting. Once substantial progress has been made on the piece, you will come in to proof and discuss any changes. At this point there may be a series of meetings until the changes have been made to your satisfaction. The artist will then finalize the sculpture and you will come in one last time to approve the piece before it goes to the foundry for casting. The final step in a bronze sculpture commission will be to decide on the patina and whether or not you will have your piece put on a base.

If you keep these things in mind you will be thrilled with your one of a kind sculpture that is sure to become a treasured family heirloom.


Ohhhhh nooo, you don’t have the foundry anymore?

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We are proud to have a knowledgeable and curious clientele associated with our gallery. We have countless numbers of visitors returning to see our old foundry and reminiscing about their very memorable tours. Unfortunately, they are mildly disappointed to find out Rip sold the foundry several years ago. But, since there is such a fascination with the process of bronze casting we thought it would be nice to turn you on to some foundries in Oregon that also offer tours. Be sure to contact the foundries first to confirm the hours and other details. Tours may be scheduled, self directed and there may a charge.

To learn a little more about the fascinating work of the foundries, read our post on the lost wax casting process.

Parks Foundry
331 Golf Course Road
Enterprise, OR 97828
Phone: 541-426-4595

Parks Bronze foundry nestled in Wallowa County of Oregon and well established in this artisans community since 1986 as a full service bronze casting and molding foundry in response to fine arts sculptors, art collectors, art enhancement projects, and art appreciation.

Valley Bronze Gallery
18 S Main Street
Joseph, OR 97846

Located in the scenic art community of Joseph, our showroom displays sculptures by many artists whose bronze works are cast nearby at our foundry. The gallery also serves as the initial meeting place for tours of our foundry, which is located approximately 1/2-mile northwest of the gallery on Alder Street, west of Main. Joseph is a community that our artists enjoy visiting during their business trips to the foundry.

The Maiden Foundry
16600 S.E. 362nd
Sandy, OR 97055

The magnificence of this legendary metal has endured the ages, reflecting an Old World value for timeless quality. We are a foundry run by artists and we strive for that same tradition of excellence. We take pride in capturing the essence of the original creative concept.

Hot Lake Springs
66172 Hwy 203
La Grande, OR 97850

Following a short film, you will see a complete hands-on demonstration. After a time for questions and answers you will visit the Hot Lake Springs Bronze Casting Facility. There, you will observe our artisans at work on all stages of the bronze casting process. Allow yourself plenty of time. We would like you to experience bronze from beginning to end. Bring your camera and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

The art of lost wax casting

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It is somewhat a wonder that we still use a material that was discovered thousands of years ago. More astonishing, though, is that artisans and even industrialists, continue to use the lost wax method of bronze casting. This method of production is loved by artists, jewelers, and machinists because it maintains even the smallest detail. For you curious ones, here is a little more info about this fascinating process.

The Art of Lost Wax Casting

It’s not every millennium that you can create beautiful art work using a process that is thousands of years old, but lost wax casting happens to be one of those processes. A technical and somewhat lengthy process, contemporaries use the same steps as the artisans of 2000 BC.

The first step in the process is to carve the sculpture. An oil based clay is often used which will stay pliable and allow the artist to leave the piece for an indefinite amount of time. Most pieces are supported internally by armature which can be made of any number of materials—special foam, wire or even aluminum foil. The finished clay sculpture looks exactly as the artist intends, with all the details in their final form.

The next step is to make a mold of the original, out of which the bronze will be cast. The clay sculpture is divided into sections and silicon rubber is poured over each section creating a soft layer. This layer is then encased in plaster making it rigid and in turn more stable. Referred to as the “mother mold”, it is now the exact negative of the original sculpture. Molds are generally two sided, so when both sides are complete, the mold is opened and the original clay sculpture is removed. This mold will be used repeatedly, unless it is a limited edition, at which point it will be destroyed once the full edition has been cast.

The mother mold is now ready to receive the molten wax. The melted wax is poured on the inside of the mother mold and rotated to create a uniform layer.  This step is repeated using a cooler layer each time, until the desired thickness is reached, usually about 1⁄8 inch. This dimension also determines the wall thickness of the final bronze. The wax liner is now an exact copy of the original. Once it is removed from the mold, the wax is then “chased” using a heated metal tool, which will help smooth out any unwanted marks or seams. The wax now looks like the finished piece.

A wax, tree-like structure, known as gating, is then created by attaching “paths” and a “cup” to various spots on the wax model. The gating provides open pathways for molten bronze to flow and will be removed later in the process.

After the gating is complete, the wax model is dipped alternately into slurry, then into a silica sand material, allowing the piece to dry in between. The process repeated until the shell is least a ½ inch thick. This is repeated as many as ten times and can take weeks to complete. The bigger the piece, the thicker the shell needs to be. Once dry, the piece is then placed in a kiln to harden the coating, and melt the wax. What remains is the negative space, formerly occupied by the wax, hence the term “lost wax casting”. When the shell is cool, water is poured through to expose any cracks or leaks and then patched if necessary.  After this it is finally time to pour the bronze.

The bronze alloy is melted in a vessel known as the crucible, and then poured through the cup into the heated shell. The pouring process takes place very quickly and requires a team of several people.  The bronze cools rapidly and may be handled as soon as one hour after pouring. The investment (the hard shell mold) is then broken open, revealing the final bronze. At this point the gating is removed. The piece is sandblasted to remove any residue from the investment; pits are filled and the piece is chased to remove the seam, welding and other marks. It is worked on in this manner until it looks exactly like the original sculpture. From there patinas are applied and the sculpture is finished.

In a future post we will talk about patinas and caring for your bronze sculpture.

The history of bronze

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We have a lot of interest in the bronze sculpting process, so with that in mind we have written a series of posts that  will introduce you to the medium of bronze. Of course, one really needs to start at the beginning to understand how truely amazing it is that we still make use of the material and the process itself. So…we present The History of Bronze.

The Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age make up the three classifications of prehistoric cultures. Referring to the third phase in the development of material culture in ancient Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, the Bronze Age denotes the first period in which metal was first used. Beginning 5,500 years ago, the Bronze Age primarily took place between 3500 BC and 1200 BC. Although the actual date between cultures varies, the transitional period is referred to as the Chalcolithic Age, meaning the time in which copper and stone were both used. The use of pure copper by 3000 BC was reserved for small or precious objects, and carved stone, for tools. In their earliest forms, artifacts were hammered, but with the addition of tin, bronze became the preferred material, especially for weapons—hard, durable, indestructible for all intents and purposes, and best of all, lethal to the enemy. Bronze was used only rarely at first, but by 2000 BC, its use greatly increased. Around 1000 BC, the ability to heat and forge iron, brought the Bronze Age to an end, thus beginning the Iron Age.

It is thought that the lost wax process of sculpting was discovered In China around 3000 BC. Archaeologists believe a potter may have sculpted an object out of beeswax, enveloped it in liquid clay and placed it in fire, which melted the wax and hardened the clay. The molten bronze would have then been poured into the hollow cavity of the fired clay. Once the metal cooled and the clay was broken away, the first bronze casting was revealed. With this method they were able to make items that possessed both strength and beauty.

It has generally been accepted that Greece and Egypt also utilized the lost wax process as well and more recent discoveries indicate bronze making in Thailand, as far back as 4500 BC. Bronze castings have also been found in Africa from this same period. Ancient “lost wax” bronze castings have withstood the centuries, telling the tale of past cultures, their religions and social structures presenting an intriguing visual history through the work itself. Although certain elements of the process have indeed been refined, little has changed throughout time. Artists love to make use of the lost-wax process which offers a medium capable of revealing even the finest detail. By using the lost wax method of casting it is possible to transform other forms of sculpture—wood, stone, clay, or plaster, into lasting bronze works of art. Bronze has a longevity rivaled by few processes, and the versatility to alter its appearance with the addition of luxurious patinas.

In our next posting we will explain in more detail the actual lost wax process.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia