In this post we discover Debbie Court’s method for making figure sculptures with paper mache clay. As soon as you can see the sculpture she made for us, you’ll know why I’m so excited about this tutorial. Thanks, Debbie!
How to sculpt a regency-style figure.
©2018 Debbie Court
In 2014, I was browsing around on YouTube when I came upon one of Jonni’s videos. I was totally captivated and it’s thanks to Jonni’s many tutorials, her books and her wonderful paper clay recipe that papier mache is now my full time occupation and my obsession! I consider her my mentor and so I was thrilled when she asked me to write this guest tutorial for her blog.
Whereas Jonni is definitely a sculptor of animals, my speciality is people. I love faces and making pieces that tell a story by suggesting character and movement. Today I’m going to show you how to make a regency style lady. It’s a project to suit all levels of ability – the amount of detail you add is up to you, but the basic method will work at any level.
Making a figure in a long dress not only simplifies the sculpting (no legs to deal with or issues about getting the piece to balance upright), but also the folds and drapery in the dress are a great way to show movement in a piece.
The finished piece is called ‘The Letter’ and is 24cm tall – but you can make yours whatever size you like.
Start by making the basic triangular shape of the woman’s dress from scrunched up newspaper bound into shape with masking tape.
Gradually add more newspaper to shape the shoulders and the bust line and start to suggest the folds of the dress.
Make a small ball with newspaper and masking tape for the head and attach it with a wooden cocktail stick. Remember to leave plenty of cocktail stick showing for the neck and make the head much smaller than it will eventually be because once you start adding features and hair, it will grow and grow and you don’t want it to end up too big for the body!
Try to imagine where her waist, and hips are positioned beneath the dress in order to keep the proportions accurate.
I always like to get a feeling of movement right from the armature stage so I took time to get the stance correct with one hip and one shoulder slightly higher than the other to suggest motion and by the positioning of her arms. I knew she would be holding a letter in one hand and I thought that by placing her other hand over her heart, it would create a little ‘story’. Was it a love letter perhaps, or a letter ending a relationship? I deliberately kept it ambiguous so that the viewer’s imagination takes over. But you can keep the pose more simple or create your own story.
Again, the positioning of the head is an excellent way to suggest movement – even if you just have it turned a little to one side. When you come to the details later, you can further suggest this by making the eyes look off to one side rather than straight ahead.
Adding the paper clay
Once you are happy with the stance, it’s time to start adding Jonni’s paper clay. I mainly used my fingers dipped in water to smooth it onto the armature and a simple metal tool for detailing the folds and details of the dress.
You can keep this stage very simple or you can go mad with the drapery! I love showing movement in fabric, so I put in lots of detail at this point including a section of the dress which swirls around at the back of her. …but you do whatever you like at this point. I also added some buttons to the dress…again made out of paper clay.
Next comes the face and neck…depending on how good you are at sculpting faces, put as much or as little detail into this as you like, adding paper clay to create brow bones, cheeks, the nose and chin.
I could do a whole tutorial on sculpting the face alone, but for now, just go with your particular style. …or you could be really contemporary and abstract and leave the face blank!
Hands are notoriously difficult and again, a whole tutorial could be devoted to them. Keep them simple if you wish or you could even put your sculpture in a position where they are hidden …in a pocket or behind a fold in the dress. It’s up to you.
Finally, add clay for her hair and sculpt it into a simple regency style. I added a little plait for detail. Using a sculpting tool, you can easily suggest the strands of hair to give some texture to the piece.
Once all the sculpting is completed, give it a gentle but thorough sanding to create a smooth finish. I use emery boards to do this (I’m not sure if you call them that outside the UK…they are things made of sandpaper for filing your nails)….they are small and can be cut down to get into all the nooks and crannies.
At this point, you could leave the figure in it’s natural colour which is quite effective – I often leave my pieces like this – or you could paint it or colour it using other techniques. Whether you choose to colour it or not, you will now need to seal the whole sculpture by coating it in a layer of PVA glue with a paint brush. Don’t forget to include the bottom of the piece so that it is completely sealed.
I prefer not to paint my sculptures. I use coloured powder for skin tones and hair – the easiest form is to use powdered eye shadows and apply them with a small brush, blending and building up the colour gradually until you have the level of colour you want. For the eyes, I use tiny pieces of coloured tissue paper…white, brown and black in this case. It’s fiddly, but worth it as you’d need a very steady hand to paint tiny eyes. Carefully, seal everything in place with more PVA glue.
I decided to give her a bottle green dress and again, I didn’t want to use paint. Instead, I used small pieces of dark green tissue paper which I positioned onto the sculpture with a wet paintbrush. Once I was happy with the position of the paper, I gave the whole thing a coating of PVA glue to seal it all into place.
You can use this method or just paint it…but you will still need to seal it with glue afterwards.
I added a little letter to her hand and then coated the entire piece in a matte varnish.
In some of my work, I make paper clothes for the figure which I add to the basic paper clay sculpture. This gives even more of a feel of movement to the piece.
For this earlier piece, I made the skirt of the dress using paper towels stiffened with glue and held in place while they dried into shape. I then covered it in torn up pieces of paper napkins with a little flower pattern. There are so many different things to try – I hope you’ll enjoy yourself experimenting with these and other ideas of your own.
So – enjoy having a go at sculpting this figure and please feel free to message me with any questions or to show me what you’ve done!
‘The Letter’ is available to buy along with other pieces that you can view on my website: www.debbiecourt.com or on the selling platform www.artfinder.com I also love to take on commissions so feel free to contact me to discuss any ideas you may have. I seem to be asked to do a lot of ‘significant birthday’ sculptural portraits!
Happy figure sculpting!