Friday, May 13, 2011

Lesson idea: Bas-relief sculpted portraits

This project went along with the portion of the Interactive Art History class that was the Middle Ages. When I was preparing this section of the curriculum I had a really hard time deciding what I wanted to do for this time frame because I really try and make the introductory/exploratory as diverse as possible so that the students get a real sampling of as many different medias and styles of art as possible. That being said, I went with Bas-relief sculpting for this one to encourage a greater appreciation for subtractive sculpture art and help to train them to have more careful attention to detail.

They were only allowed to do pictures of faces/people but they could pick any subject they wanted - celebrity, stock photo model, someone from their family, etc. I encouraged them to pick a subject who the really felt connected to in some way because I felt like they would be more invested in the project (that which is a real challenge for them since they are mostly beginner in their skillsets). I encouraged them to pick subjects of a younger age and even those that were babies since the younger the person, the softer and rounder their features and the easier they would be to sculpt overall. Some of the students did pick celebrities - Will Smith, Bono, Steven Tyler, various NBA players - but for the most part, the students each chose subject matter to work with that matched their individual skill levels.

They were each given a 4x6 block of Balsa foam (purchased HERE from and then each table of four students worked with one set of Mini Ribbon tool sets (Six in a set sold HERE at to carve and shape their foam surfaces from designs that were impressed upon the block through the chosen picture/guide that they placed on the top of the foam block.

Once they were satisfied with their sculpturing, details, and reliefs, they sealed them with a white glue mixture slightly diluted with water in two thin and even coats. After the foam was sealed and hardened, they painted the finished surfaces with metallic acrylic paints - bronze, silver, and gold. I encouraged them to use all of the colors and really be adventurous. Certainly what we turned out was far from the style of art we were imitating but as I said, I was trying to really get them to push themselves and their skillsets as well as stretching them beyond their own creative bounds.

Tips for you if you try this in your classroom:

  • Definitely go with the Balsa Foam class pack of 4x6 pieces. It's a really great value and this is the second time around I've used it. I/the students enjoy using them so much and they are so easy to work with that I'm trying to figure out next year's budget to accommodate larger scale projects for the more advanced students I work with.
  • Encourage the students to "think in reverse" when showing them how to go about raising and lowering the surfaces to create the relief and dimension necessary to sculpt out the facial features. Anything they might think they want to carve out/outline - like a nose or eyes, tell them to stop and carve out everything around it. Doing this kind of work requires working in a way that is sort of counter-intuitive to what the students are all used to doing.
  • Maybe use this lesson as scaffolding for clay sculpting/modeling if you/your students want to do more realistic (and less cartoon) busts. This kind of sculpturing is great practice for facial features and realistic expressions. 

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