I am often asked why my sculptures look so real and why I choose to sculpt life-size people. My answer is that I am motivated and inspired to undertake what I feel is the most difficult challenge in art, while staying true to the methods of the old masters and sculpting from scratch.
I began my art career as a 2D artist, using pencil, chalk, charcoal, as well as oil, acrylic, watercolor, and airbrushing. However, I enjoy the challenge of 3D, where the comfort of using color and shading to acquire depth and accuracy is eliminated.
Why Sculpt People?
Due to the fact that most of us see people every day of our lives and examine ourselves in the mirror, we are most familiar with human anatomy and will readily identify any inaccuracies when examining a face – regardless of personal characteristics such as height and weight. Apart from wildlife specialists, not many of us would distinguish whether the anatomy of an antelope or rhino was entirely accurate, given that we’re not living amongst them in the wilderness. I have completed commissions of life-size animals, including dolphins, an elephant, and a Doberman, as well as oversized sculptures of sea animals such as prawns, lobsters, and clams. However, I did not find these commissions as challenging or compelling as sculpting the human form.
Naturally, the realness of a sculpture is drawn from accurate structural dimensions. While miniature sculpture requires good eyesight, patience, and concentration, small pieces are overall, easy to sell for their charm, light weight, and transportability. Their size, however, inevitably brands miniature sculptures as unrealistic. My miniature fiberglass resin monks were easier to sculpt and paint, as they fit perfectly in my hand, and required less time to complete, however I didn’t find that miniatures presented much of a challenge.
Oversized sculptures stand powerful and impressive, demonstrating the artist’s excellence in working with scale and large, heavy materials. However, I have learned from my monumental projects that the artist must be accompanied by a team and that the work automatically secures a stamp of approval simply for its surrealism and grand dimensions. Viewers hold no expectations for realism, as it is understood that the sculpture is monumental. Yet, does the sculpture look real? Artistically it is far less demanding to paint and texture the “skin” of a large sculpture when using a vast scale. Inserting large strands of “hair” is also quite effortlesss and does not require the skill of an artist. While such projects may be fun, I favor sculpting life-size individuals, as the expectation of precision, realism, and detail is enhanced at this level.
What are Some Key Aspects to Making the Sculpture Look Real?
Conquering Distance and Lighting
Sculptures available for public viewing are often accompanied by features such as lighting, props, background, and a particular atmosphere to enhance the realism of the sculpture, while avoiding natural light. Having completed a great deal of work for museums across Thailand, I am aware that most museums require specific lighting and forbid guests to take pictures or view the sculptures too closely. Oftentimes the flash of the camera reveals imperfections in the sculpture’s color. Alternatively, my aim is to allow everyone to view my sculptures at any distance, any location, and during any time of day, with the freedom to take photographs with or without the flash. The greatest compliment I receive is when people walk away from my work feeling only half-convinced that the sculpture isn’t real.
Why Use a Live Model?
It is entirely undemanding to create any imaginary person with whatever features the artist chooses, given that the sculptor can make no errors. Sculpting historical figures from photographs, again, is quite simple because there is only a general expectation of what the individual should basically look like; the model is not available for comparison. I was once commissioned to create a realistic sculpture from an imprecise face carved into a bronze pendant, as the man had died 60 years prior. I asked the elders of the village to describe the man’s appearance – many of whom had different recollections. Nobody had any rigorous expectations as to what the sculpture should look like. Overall, I find that the key to creating a super realistic sculpture is to succeed in presenting a finished work that is nearly indistinguishable from its model.
What are the Challenges in Working Only from a Photograph?
There is always a high expectation for realism when sculpting an individual who is alive and available for comparison. In such an instance, I like to meet my model before I begin the sculpture, due to the fact that photographs can be misleading. While I have sculpted many individuals working only from a photograph, it can become quite tricky turning a 2D image into a 3D sculpture, as the perspective changes dramatically in a photograph, and the size of facial features is difficult to determine. The perspective of the camera lens is also deceiving, as the face will become distorted when the photographer aimed the camera too closely to its subject.
I once had a commissioner tell me that my model’s ears were too big, and she proceeded to cut the ear off of the life-size photocopy of my model’s face, and stick on my clay sculpture, announcing, “It’s supposed to look like that!” A common misconception when viewing a photograph is to forget that one’s ears are positioned farther back than their nose. It makes them appear smaller in the photograph than in real life. The most accurate way to measure the ears is to do so with a ruler in comparison to the length of the nose.
The lighting in a photograph is also deceptive in highlighting only certain features of the face and making them appear more prominent then they may actually be. It is not uncommon to have two photographs of the same individual that look entirely different due to variances in the distance of the photographer from the individual he is photographing, as well as in the angle and intensity of the lighting on the model’s face. Let us also keep in mind how often one face can change based on mood, time of day, health, weight, age, etc. In fact, if you examine yourself in the mirror, you’ll notice that your face is different every time you look at it.
Thus, when comparing the sculpture with the photograph, it is important to view the sculpture from the same distance as the photographer stood when photographing his model, and to position the lighting from the same angle as in the photograph. Moreover, it is imperative that I work from as many photos as I can acquire (I prefer to photograph the model myself) for the purpose of comparison and in order to see as many angles of the model’s face as possible. Undeniably, the most difficult undertaking is to sculpt an individual who is still alive, yet unable to meet with me before I begin sculpting, as is the case with my sculpture of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet.
Do You Create Your Sculptures by Applying a Mold over the Model’s Body?
Modern technology has dramatically altered the traditional sculpting process. Artists can now create molds of actual items or body parts, employ lasers to manipulate size, or digitally design 3D models to have cast in bronze. I continue to hold true to the traditions of sculpture by creating from scratch. From the clay foundation to the wax master, to the completed bronze piece, I take part in nearly every aspect of creating the final sculpture.
Is it Possible to Create a Sculpture that is Too Realistic?
Yes. I once created a fiberglass resin monk that looked too realistic. I sculpted directly from the model, adding the dirt in his fingernails and toenails, duplicating his crossed eyes, and making the bottoms of his feet black (as monks do not wear shoes). I was quite pleased with my finished product until my mentor explained the importance of adding “art” to the art, or rather, enhancing its beauty. As my intention is to honor the individual I am sculpting, it is sometimes necessary to re-create the individual at his/her best, without omitting any unique characteristics of the model. Luang Boo Luan (Grandfather Monk Luan) was in his upper 80s when I sculpted him and his eyelids were quite heavy. Instead of sculpting his eyes nearly closed, as I they were when he posed for me (which would have been quite a time saver), I sculpted them with a bit more liveliness, as he would have appeared in his younger years.
How Do You Feel About Adding Action and Emotions To Your Work?
The use of physical action and emotion essentially support the idea that the sculpture has life. The most convincing action to duplicate, therefore, would be under-action, or sculpting someone who is dead. Given that sculptures have no life to begin with, duplicating the deceased would again, arouse no expectation that the individual should look life-like. Similarly, the same rule applies to sculptures of someone sleeping, as closing the eyes eliminates the need to add life to the sculpture, and usually requires sculpting only half of the face.
The employment of over-action (particularly with bronze sculpture), such as emotions, including anger, fear, excitement, curiosity, concentration, or confusion, as well as physical movement, as though playing a sport or a game, is also utilized to promote life, yet does not indicate that the sculpture actually looks real. I have thus far been commissioned to create sculptures embracing such emotions; however I find it more challenging and compelling to create a sculpture with no action and no emotion, while appearing life-like. Duplicating a live model in his/her ordinary, offhand or casual state appears more natural and enhances its realism. Additionally, I avoid actions that conceal the sculpture’s face.
How Do You Feel About Adding Props / Accessories to your sculptures?
Accessories such as jewelry, clothing, sunglasses, nail polish, lipstick, wigs, facial hair, and hats may be used to enhance realism or occupy unfinished body parts. My fiberglass resin President Gerald Ford sculpture is hidden under a large suit, for which I didn’t have to pay as much attention to his anatomy. Typically, however, I sculpt and paint the entire sculpture to enhance its realism even though my sculptures are always clothed. I would not display nude fiberglass resin sculptures, not only because I feel that art should be wholesome and aim to sculpt in a way that honors my model, but but also because it may cause viewers to feel too bashful to actually examine the sculpture closely.
Why Fiberglass Resin?
In Thailand, wax sculptures melt in the tropical climate. While the temperature for wax is agreeable in Montana, or any museum where there is constant air conditioning, creating a sculpture out of fiberglass is a step beyond wax and creates a more permanent and realistic finish. Indeed, wax presents limitations in displaying the piece and cannot withstand the test of time, as can fiberglass resin. Regardless of the material I work with, my aim is to produce the most realistic sculpture possible, while avoiding the shortcuts that are always available to sculptors.