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.

IMG_3373 - Version 2

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).


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.


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.


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).


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!!


Lucy channelling ‘The Raft of the Medusa’

Raft of the Medusa
Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As Esther knows, I’ve long wanted to do a Spirited Bodies using ‘The Raft of the Medusa‘ as the inspiration point.  Reluctantly accepting reality, I know that this is not an appropriate re-enactment for inexperienced models, the poses involved are tough and hard to hold.  Tonight, I was modelling for Lucy Sullivan’s evening class at Kingston University.  Lucy and I have history together, I enjoy working with her because she is one of the tutors that encourages my desire to create challenging and intriguing poses, using props to the max.  She’s never forgotten working with me for the first time, with the University of the Arts London student life drawing group.  She insists that I posed with a chair on my head.  This may very well be true, a chair on the head is not unusual for me.

Tonight, I am sick with a horrid head cold, sneezing and generally feeling miserable and definitely weak and feeble.  I am thinking that I will do only simple low stress poses.  There is a donkey, a small bench that allows an artist to sit on it, while the front part can be propped up to form an easel.  Its about two foot high and under 4 foot long.  Hmm.  I’m thinking about the possibilities.  We start with short poses, 5 and 10 minutes, and I start thinking about the Raft of the Medusa, lie on the donkey with one knee up, one leg dangling over the other, my head off the end of the donkey and an arm hanging down into space.  Apart from a 30 minute reclining pose, I stick to my muse.  I stand looking for the ship on the horizon, I clamber over the donkey, I sprawl, as corpse-like as possible, across it.  I am re-enacting at least 17 different bodies, dead and alive, the artists don’t know that – well, they wouldn’t if only I stopped saying ‘The Raft of the Medusa’ with glee as I land in another contorted way.  The artists have to cope with lots of unusual foreshortenings, trust their eyes not their head’s interpretation of what a human body is like.  Everyone is happy.
The images created show that, while I might have been thinking corpses and crowded rafts, the artists were working on their own ideas.  That’s one of the things I most like about modelling – you create a pose and the artist creates their work, somewhere between the two is transformation.  It happened at the last workshop we did on Sunday – 3 people were given an everyday drama and created something artistic.  LaDawn had nicked Carlos’ parking space, they were arguing about it, and David was the peace maker.  Out of this mundane beginning, they formed a pose that could have come out of a Caravaggio of a religious scene.  LaDawn standing, shaking her finger at Carlos, who, on one knee, one arm up entreating, and David with arms outstretched, touching both of them in a clear gesture of reconciliation.  Enacting a scene is liberating, helps you think of poses that mean something through their stance and gesture, and this gives the artists something extra.  Posing for artists is about more than just lounging about naked – its about evoking presence.
Lucy Sullivan, tonight’s tutor, attended one Spirited Bodies workshop and gave great feedback to the participants about their poses and how artists might react to them.  She said that the Spirited Bodies models, all amateur and new to it, were better than professional models she’d booked for her class.  She’d had one model recently who wouldn’t keep still in any pose, and irritated all the artists.  She said that the people modelling at the workshop came up with good poses which they held, were still and a pleasure to draw, and she’d like to work with them again if they wished to after their Spirited Bodies experience.  There could be no better recommendation.  The artists coming on Saturday 20 October are in for a treat.
Looking again at the Raft of the Medusa, I can see that I got the arms the wrong way round for the man spotting the ship on the horizon and there were some more twisty poses that I missed out.  I shall have another go another time.  Some of the images are creased, that’s because the artists had thrown them away – life drawing for artists is like doing scales and arpeggios is for musicians, an essential way of keeping in practice, maintaining and developing technique, a building block not the end itself.  I rather like rootling round in the rubbish bin after an evening’s posing, you never know what you will find.  Sometimes you are amazed at what artists will throw away – other times equally amazed at what they will keep.

Arts For All; & all about the Man!

Returning from a workshop of ours I mused that we are teaching people how to be naked! It ought to be natural. It is!
Today I took a Spirited Body to work and I don’t just mean my own. James couldn’t make any of our workshops but through emailing I could tell he was pretty nervous. He wanted a chance to try out on a smaller scale and talk about the experience face to face which can make all the difference. I checked my schedule and thought my session with ‘Arts For All’ in Shoreditch might be just the ticket. I asked fellow life model Lydia Julien who volunteers at the charity, running the session what she thought, and after checking with boss Caroline Barlow she said they welcomed the chance to have 2 models for the price of one! They also fully supported my initiative which matches their own to make art available to people who might not otherwise get to it.

“We believe strongly in inclusion and, at Arts For All, people from many different social and cultural backgrounds unite in friendship and creative exploration.”

The class really enjoyed the opportunity to draw from 2 models and were a lovely supportive environment for James’ first time. Lydia let me plan the pose schedule according to my requirement to best instruct in life modelling.

James was incredibly nervous at first and it took a bit of prodding from me to get him to remove his clothes! He didn’t want to draw and just looked awkward at the side so I did push him, knowing that once he got past the first hurdle, it would start to get easier.

James’ first pose: shy, covering his body in a closed stance (5 minutes) by Lydia Julien
Seeing Paulette Lewis’ picture shows me how my own choice of closed pose which I took first, was then mirrored by James

After the 1st pose he quickly got his shorts back on again, probably worried I would lure him into some further trickiness should he remain unguarded… so he stood out while I rocked on alone for 10 minutes. For the 15 minuter I had an idea to make him more comfortable, offering him a seat while I again stood.

by Paulette Lewis

James’ strong 2nd pose by Candy Hilton
by Miessen

From 15 minutes we went straight into half an hour, so that by midday (tea break time) James had experienced a variety of poses. I asked him to lie down however he wanted for this while I took a seat.

Lydia sticks her pieces of paper together for a nice charcoal impression
by Hilton
by Kamye Miessen

In the break we caught up with the artists who were very encouraging, pointing out which parts of James they liked to draw.

The main event after tea was a long pose where I lay and James sat.

by Candy Hilton
by Lewis

Lydia was ecstatic by the end – she is always very happy but I could tell she loved the ambience as much as I had of initiating a newbie in the art of the pose. She’d been showing him her work as we went along so he could understand how well he was doing and see what was coming out well. Caroline too was really enthused by the experience and James was invited to model on his own some time! He couldn’t quite believe it, it felt like such a big leap.

We went for coffee after to pick up the bigger picture of the event and James’ background. He is depressed in a full time ‘proper’ job which drains him and leaves him feeling a mug. There have been major body issues of a particular kind in his past which I have asked him to write about separately, as I think this will resonate with many men. It was great to get to know another of the new cast of Spirited Bodies for Saturday’s exciting event. What a brilliant morning and I feel positive that James is so much closer to feeling confident about the 20th.

Caroline Barlow said that Spirited Bodies are welcome to try out at Arts For All life drawing sessions in future, with or without me. If they approach her alone she will want to meet them first. She has given many new models their first opportunity, already aware that her group is the perfect environment for welcoming and putting at ease a nervous model.

To attend the group to draw; it is on Mondays 10:30am – 1:30pm, at The Tab Centre, 18-20 Hackney Road, E2 7NT at a very reasonable rate – Unwaged/Student £2.50, Part time employed £3.50, Employed £5 and they provide materials

Life Modelling, Inner Confidence & Writing (a Business Plan with Lucy)

Last night I went to bed thinking how amazing is Lucy Saunders! Yesterday she ran a workshop in creating the business plan when you start up your own business. It was held on an estate in Wandsworth for the Women of Wandsworth Mums Enterprise group.

With the current government kicking millions off the dole and yet few jobs, there is a massive need nation wide for business know-how and confidence, especially among those who have been outside of the business arena for some years or indeed all their lives. The WoW Mums are mostly single parents with a variety of skills from accounting to video making and charity setting up. They have found they get very organised with local issues like saving libraries and adventure playgrounds and keeping young kids off the streets by setting up sports clubs etc, but feel somewhat remote from the reality of making money out of these not inconsiderable activities. They have also found they naturally work for each other, and therefore do so for free in a bartering system, but as their benefits are cut, they will have to turn social capital into pounds.

Lucy began the morning by saying how brave she thought they were  – they already did something which terrified her – claiming benefits!! She has a mortal fear of form filling, explaining that life doesn’t fit in a form, she always looks for connections and cannot box things up simply.

She pointed out as well – if you can manage a household budget, you can manage the finances of a business. She set about demystifying the language of the business plan. She explained how she is a words person, others operate best in pictures, but the language of the plan is unfortunately in numbers, so that’s what you have to deal with.

In 2 short hours Lucy covered a lot of ground from deciding on your business, marketting, costs, having a surplus (people seemed to be allergic to the term profit), principles of selling, checking in with your plan periodically, real cost of hiring staff, how customers will pay and whether it is worth getting a loan. She ended by handing out copies of a book she ordered to inspire the group – ‘It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be’, by Paul Arden and proffering the homework  that each person must sell something – anything – in the next 2 weeks, be it at a car boot sale or on ebay or wherever, the point is to observe what is involved in the process.

What Lucy intended to leave the group with was the message that failure is fine; most projects don’t work the first time round, but then you will learn; a business doesn’t have to be new but can be your own version of an existing idea and in fact this way you know there is a market.  She generally wanted to instil confidence as well as challenge their assumptions, for example stating that big mark ups in price in many trades, are entirely normal.

We originally approached these women to model for us, but they are clearly more interested in learning some business tactics. Very wise. If they thought life modelling would be lucrative I am sure they would give it a go. Lucy does say that life modelling gives you great experience in running yourself as a business, as you are mostly self employed. It’s true and one of the things I love about it is not being employed by any one body or boss – I am independent and to some extent choose where I go to work. I rarely get paid for holidays or being sick, but I feel free to say what I think. There is no given protocol for the delicate nature of appropriately talking to a life model, so it’s up to you to let others know how it works if they transgress sensitivity. What I mean is, some tutors almost apologise for your nudity in front of a class, revealing their own discomfort/horror at the idea of being nude in that situation. They almost without realising it shame you as doing something no normal person would do. To my mind that ought to be challenged, but is most effectively done so subtley.

Here are some pictures from a session I recently did in Tadworth with a group of artists who normally focus on landscapes. Once a year they have a model for figure drawing, and they asked me to keep my clothes on. They wanted some Degas style poses, thinking of dancers, and asked if I have done ballet and have a costume. I said I can do the poses, but I will wear what I would when I go dancing.

water colour by Chris Dolling

I really enjoyed working with this group;

Communicating a Pose: from Model to Artist (to canvas)

My practical application of life drawing techniques is pretty ropey. I’ve heard and seen a lot; but done – there I lack. When instructing others on how to draw me I explain – “Convey my essence, what does the pose feel like? Express that with your charcoal marks!”

Today I observed the communication process again. My typical poses are not often like naturalism, I mean mainly my shorter poses (less than half an hour). They are abstract, geometric, dynamic, concerned with balance and not obviously expressive of an emotion. They are about form. As I shift from angular shape to perpendicular groove, it is my body that tells me which way to go. Or rather it just does it. Today I saw/felt an artist watching me first, before he put pencil to paper. Taking it in – ‘what does it mean?’

I looked at myself: balancing on the sides of my feet, legs crossed, back leaning slightly forward and arms out front about belly level, hands together in an almost begging fashion. My head was tilted up and to the left. I thought: “There is nothing obvious which I am telling you, at least not with your left brain. So best not to analyse too much.” I was right all along. Feel the essence, don’t think about it. Take time to absorb the information given before your eyes, your senses. Then translate to paper. Measure by all means; but let the charcoal interpret the meaning, which in any case never need be clear. Not in linear terms at least. It may strike on another plane.

by the artist in question, Joe Goldman at Idun Eustace’s class (Wimbledon Art Studios); longer pose

Next week we have another meeting for new models; this time at Battersea Arts Centre on Wednesday 19th September, 7-9pm.

Also we have life modelling workshops lined up where participants get to try drawing each other as well as us. The emphasis is not on being able to draw, rather on seeing what the model is from the artist’s point of view. These are on Wednesday evenings of 26th September and 3rd October at Battersea Library. This is great preparation for our event on October 20. Do get in touch to book a place, there is a charge of £10. Drawing materials provided.