Guestblog: Plaster Casting – the inside story

Sometimes you find yourself leaping impulsively into a project – and this was one of those times.  I had answered an advertisement, asking for models who were prepared to be plaster cast for an artwork by “an international artist”.  Not only have I never been plaster cast, a month or so ago, I hadn’t ever modelled!  But taking part in Spirited Bodies & London Drawing’s day at the BAC, and joining in a number of SB’s workshops, I felt this was something I could step up to and sent off an email in response.

Within a day or so I’d been asked to submit photographs of myself and the date was set.  The studio very kindly gave me a list of items they would provide for my use (robe, wipes, Vaseline, shower gel – though they apologised that there would be no running water!) and said that they would provide lunch… that was the clincher for me!

Our first date was cancelled… the artist had now decided I was to be cast wearing a corset and it would take the costumier a few days to have one ready (I was asked to submit my dress & up-to-date bra size measurements for this).  Although they would not be casting the pubic area, I thought it would be useful to take an old pair of knickers which I wouldn’t care about throwing away, and also an old pair of slippers – both of which proved to be a good idea.

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I arrived at the studio and, after meeting the three people involved in casting me, and being told that I could use their office as my private changing room, I undressed to have a very detailed schedule of my measurements drawn up.  My eventual plaster cast figure would be clothed, in a costume from around the 1820s, so everything was written down for Angel’s costumiers to fit to. After that I was helped into my calico corset and tightened up, my waist being measured again.

As the corset needed to be returned to Angel’s in good order, the whole thing was covered in cling film, before I was coated in a layer of Vaseline, corset and all, from my jawline to my toes (my head is not being used in this piece).  Vaseline helps the set plaster release from the body… believe me, you know the bits you forgot!

From there into the studio, where a table had been set up, covered in a blanket and with a tough plastic sheet on top.  The guys had a sketch of the pose the artist wanted, and spent a considerable amount of time arranging me; I was to lie on my back with my right hand & arm above my head, my left hand clutching a bottle of Moet, my left leg out straight and my right leg bent, with the heel resting on the back of a chair.  Rather like a murder victim, the position was drawn out around me (though the Vaseline made the marker smudge somewhat, so this was re-done with gaffer tape).

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Over the next hour every possible dimension was measured and logged: from my left big toe to my right, from my elbow to my jaw… even from my left “half nipple” to my right “half nipple” – as I was now on my back, my chest was escaping from the corset, which was the effect the artist wanted.  Although keeping the pose required concentration, I realized that the hard work had yet to begin; in the afternoon we’d start the plastering.

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We took a break for lunch and moved to a different part of the building, out of the studio – and I was very grateful to have my slippers with me.  Although it was a bit of a chilly day, the effect of being covered in Vaseline was similar to stepping out of a warm bath into cold air… I was freezing and found it very hard to keep warm in spite of standing in front of a heater for the next half hour.

Before too long we were back in the studio.  I was helped back into position, the measurements were checked and checked again, and we were ready to begin.  It’s a very fast and intense business, making up plaster and applying it (not so fast for the model!).  There needed to be a constant flow of plaster at perfect consistency; it must be only just pourable, not too wet, but not likely to go off before it’s smoothed into place.

First my torso & upper arms were plastered, with a line being carved through from top to bottom, down my breastbone.  This was to create two pieces so that they could get me out of it!  If it had been in one piece, they would have had trouble lifting it off me (as it curved round my sides) and it would probably have broken when they tried to remove it.  Then two further sections around my neck and collar bone (each side) were poured, plus the lower section of the arm above my head – this piece set too early, resulting in lots of bubbles, and had to be ditched, but the rest went well.  The plaster is unbelievably cold when poured on, turning very warm after ten or fifteen minutes (which is when you know it is setting).  Although the sections could be lifted at this point, it is less likely to snap if you wait until it is totally cold again, which takes quite a while.

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Although I was now “set in stone”, I still had to work hard to keep my pose.  My legs were free but, if I had changed their position, I would have compromised the curve of my spine (and possibly cracked the plaster) so it was important to stay absolutely still.  My lower back, on my left side near my coccyx, had been in hard contact with the table for some hours and I was beginning to feel the pressure point there.  The jokey atmosphere of the morning had gone; we were all there to get the best job done and it was no time to fidget or grumble.

Fortunately, the main pieces set well – it’s a rather strange but wonderful feeling to have the set plaster lifted off your body.  If you have the tiniest space to move, you can help tremendously by maybe stretching your neck a little, or sucking in your rib cage, or twisting your elbow a tiny bit.  Although the plaster does stick to the little hairs on your body, the Vaseline allows it to be eased off without pain!

We took another short break and then came back to cast my legs, which was the most difficult part for me.  My back was now feeling quite sore, where I was in contact with the table, and as they applied more & more plaster, my legs became heavier and heavier with even more pressure on that contact point (one thick layer of plaster is applied, then skrimmed with pieces of hessian, then another layer is poured on top and smoothed).  Now I couldn’t feel my legs and I was certain that my right heel was about to slip off its precarious ledge, on the back of the chair.  The guys reassured me that my leg probably wouldn’t move if I did slip – but they propped me up with a piece of wood between my knees, for extra support.  Again, this was being cast in two sections, right & left, to ease removal.  After what seemed like forever, the pieces were lifted off – which took quite a bit of work as they were large, and encapsulated part of my feet as well.

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Now the extremities.  The previous cast of my hand had not worked terribly well (they’d lost one of my fingers!) so it was decided to cast my hands in silicone – a much faster, and more reliable, way… but much more expensive so not encouraged.  The pink silicone was mixed quickly and slapped over my hands and feet – again the same process of cold, followed by very warm, then waiting until cold again.  This was quite fun to see being peeled off… a little like removing gloves, it’s very rubbery and you can almost turn it inside out (it’s similar to the stuff used by dentists to take a cast of your teeth).

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We suddenly remembered that we were short of a piece – the portion of my right arm, which hadn’t set properly earlier in the day.  Plaster was quickly smoothed on and, as it was setting, I remembered that I hadn’t reapplied the Vaseline to that section – too late now, but I’ll never forget again!  It was pretty miserable, lifting that section, and I was amazed to see that I was left with any top layer of skin, let alone hairs, on my arm.  Very painful.

By now it was gone 7pm and we were all tired.  It had been successful, and the guys were kindness itself, but the day had been much harder, physically, than I had imagined. My back was very sore and my skin in that area was numb to the touch… in fact it took two days for the sensation to completely return, and over three days for the bruising to subside.  I climbed into an old tracksuit I’d brought, not having the energy to clean myself with the buckets of warm water I was given, and left – dreaming of a warm bath!

In retrospect it was a great experience to have had – and I’m now looking forward to next March, and a private view of the final artwork before it goes on display to the public!

One Week Later!!

plastercast

Author: estherbunting

Performer, artist, writer

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