Art from Art History: Portraits in Clay

By Castro-Smith, Jocelyn | School Arts, November 1996 | Go to article overview

Art from Art History: Portraits in Clay


Castro-Smith, Jocelyn, School Arts


As a first-year art instructor teaching ceramics to a mixed grade nine through twelve art class, I was eager to incorporate art history into ceramics projects in an interesting and innovative way. While examining a book on ceramic sculpture, I came across a photograph of a clay portrait of Vincent van Gogh designed by the contemporary ceramist, Robert Arneson. A light bulb went off in my head . . . learning to sculpt and design a bust of a famous artist would give my students additional handbuilding experience and a provide an introduction to the role of portraiture in art.

Preliminary Research

I began with a trip to the media center where I took out every art history book I could find and brought them to the artroom. Next, I instructed my students to spend some time looking through the art books for a self-portrait by or an actual photograph of an artist, accompanied by the artist's artwork. My intent was to have the students design a sculpture that would reflect the chosen artist's artistic style. Could a student construct a bust of Monet and paint it with an impressionistic brushstroke?

I also instructed the class to read about the selected artist's life and work. At this point, a lively discussion ensued about the artists and the work that the students had chosen. For our final critique, I planned for the class to share with one another the history of their artist.

After the students finalized their selections of a portrait and artist, I instructed them to closely examine the painting they had chosen to work from. I asked the class to note the way in which the artist used paint: the texture of the brushstrokes, the layering of colors to build up a surface, etc. These would be important elements to remember when the students painted their sculptures.

Creating the Sculpture

I asked the students to bring in Red Delicious apples for the first step in creating their sculptures. The students covered the apples in plastic wrap and a thin layer of clay rolled out by students on the slab roller. A lump of clay was used to handbuild the shoulders and neck of the bust.

After the clay-covered apples firmed up a bit, each student eagerly looked forward to the next step. Brain Surgery! The class sliced around the top of their clay-covered apples, carefully lifting off the tops and pulling out their apples. Heads were glued back together by a little scratching and slurrying, and now, the students had hollow heads to connect to their waiting necks and shoulders.

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