Making Plaster Casts

Article by Andrea Felice.

Andrea Felice of FeliceCalchi.Andrea Felice of FeliceCalchi – Plaster Casts & Sculptures

Plaster cast reproductions are ubiquitous in today’s art schools, ateliers and academies. While it is well-known that casts come from molds which were originally taken from ancient and classical sculptures, did you ever wonder how plaster casts were made and who makes them? This article, by my friend Andrea Felice, will help answer those questions. Note that Andrea’s first language is Italian. English, in Italy, uses the spelling ‘mould’, whereas in America we use ‘mold’.

Thinking Like an Mould Maker
The production of plaster casts has ancient origins and is closely connected to the techniques of sculpture. The modern manufacturing of casts is not different from the old methods but the use of modern materials has adapted itself to the ancient technique. Plaster is an economical material, easy to use and very durable. For these and other reasons it is the best material for the making of casts and has been since ancient times.

What exactly is a plaster cast?
Technically, a cast represents a mechanical transfer of a sculpture from one material to another. This transition is done through a direct imprint on the original sculpture. This imprint is called a mould.

From the very beginning of the study of sculpture, be it Greek, Roman, Medieval or Renaissance, artists and scholars needed to stand in front of the original work. Unfortunately, very few were able to reach the great museums or visit the richest collections or archaeological areas around the world. Plaster casts, serving as ‘dignified substitutes’, could replace the original work in museums, academies or schools of art. The plaster cast is a clone, faithfully reproduced, that spreads any architectural or sculptural work in perfect likeness and in minute detail. Casts do not intend to take honors from the original sculpture but, on the contrary, exalt its importance and magnificence, enhancing its beauty and diffusing it with great respect for the memory of the original.

École des Beaux Arts , Paris,  Andrea Felice (2013.)École des Beaux Arts, Paris, Andrea Felice (2013).

In the museums that preserve the original, the plaster cast offers itself as a replacement during the absence of the original for exhibition or restoration. The replacement helps to maintain the visual integrity of the old gallery. Thus, it is rather important to recognize and remember the undeniable artistic value that is contained in it as a ‘legitimate son’, especially for ancient casts.

To make a mould
The making of a mould is a very complex process, but we can say that it basically consists of various parts that, when fit together, make up the negative volume of the statue.

The mould maker is a craftsman who deeply knows the very complex work which is needed to produce a cast. Initially, the mould’s subject needs to be carefully studied in order for the maker to determine the most effective way to divide the sculpture. A correct division corresponds to a correct conformation of the mould. It should allow for easy removal from the original sculpture without damaging the sculpture or the mould pieces. Those pieces should also be able to be easily combined into one for the eventual making of the cast.

First, he makes an impression (the mould) with a rigid material, from the original and very delicate sculpture. The mould is made from 3 or 4 layers of silicone rubber. Before the silicone can be applied, it is necessary to apply both a removable, protective coating on the marble surface as well as a releasing agent. Without the slightest damage to the thin marble or bronze original, he pulls off the heavy mould which is composed of many parts (pieces).

A plaster shape, fitted with a solid wood frame, will be used to contain the well wedged, flexible and soft imprint of silicone inside the mould.

The execution of this process can take several days, and in the case of very large sculptures, the work of many people. Considering the eventual size of the mould and the weight of the original marble, a mould maker never works alone. One of the most difficult moulds that I ever made was one of the Laocoön group at the Vatican Museums.

There are different kinds of moulds that can be made depending upon their eventual use. Generally today the cast of an ancient statue is made with a silicon rubber mould. Although the traditional technique is still perfectly respected, the silicone rubber has eased the work of the mould maker and greatly improved the quality and definition of the resulting casts.

Making a cast at FeliceCalchi.Making a cast at Felice Calchi

Speed in art is not an added value!
While new technologies present digital 3D scans as new systems of reproduction, they cannot replace the quality of a cast made with traditional techniques. The production of mechanical copies and the widespread “fever” for digital 3d acquisitions applied to sculpture reproduction has become very popular in recent years, often in a forced way, even when a work of this type isn’t required. Unfortunately, the quest to speed up all activities permeates every field of our twenty-first century culture.

Making quick and easy a work that otherwise would require a long process, especially through the hands of highly skilled workers, is only a vain shortcut that does not lead to any valuable destination. However, an authentic plaster cast is made only from a direct mould off of the original, with traditional materials and skills. Precisely because of this, we consider the cast to be a work of art in its own right. All other reproduction methods result in poor copies and nothing more.

Plaster cast of the Laocoön at the Royal Cast Collection, Copenhagen, Denmark.Plaster cast of the Laocoön at the Royal Cast Collection, Copenhagen, Denmark.
This marble sculpture consists of three life-size figures in a complicated tangle of legs, arms and spiraling snakes. I had to use around 200kg of silicon rubber, 350kg of plaster for the mould and the cast, 30 wooden planks and 15 steel bars for the cast frame. At the end of an enormous amount of very hard work that lasted many weeks, I found myself in the working area surrounded by nine big moulds and an infinity of pieces that I needed to fit together.

Pouring the Cast
As when making the mould, the making of the cast positive must be done while respecting strict rules in order for the result to be considered a professional work. Once the mould’s pieces are put together, he pours liquid plaster inside the empty void – the impression of the mould. Once the liquid plaster hardens, the result will be a cast. The first layer of plaster is poured into the completed mould, very accurately, and spread around with a long-haired brush. The brush is needed because it assures that the plaster gets into all of the mould’s recesses. The result of this brushing will be seen as the exterior skin of the cast when it is finished. Next, more layers of plaster are applied, along with reinforcing materials such as hemp and other fittings of iron or wood. In the past, the casts were made very heavy and divided into big sections. The reason was that only a very basic armature was inserted and the division into pieces allowed for easier transport.

Andrea making the cast of Augustus.Andrea making the cast of Augustus.

Details on the surface of the plaster cast are very important elements. The fidelity of all the particulars of the surface, in reference to the original sculpture, determines the real objective and economic value of the plaster cast. Many people, when visiting a cast collection, notice some casts which have small, raised lines on the gypsum surface. Those thin lines, which may appear unsightly, are an element which determines the quality of the cast. In fact, those signs produced by pieces of the mould, were not removed nor touched up by the mould maker. This helps to guarantee the fidelity of the cast to the original work. The mould maker, leaving all the signs intact, ensures his good work. Today, the use of silicone rubber has eliminated all those marks on the cast surface and also resulted in more accurate details on the plaster.

The Use of Plaster Casts Today
Plaster casts have today, as in the past, a wide range of uses in museums, historic houses and academies or schools of art. Depending upon the destination, the cast will have different requirements. Casts for scientific use in museums require the most detailed surface and can often be made in alternative materials such as resins. These are often used in the restoration of a sculpture when pieces of the original marble are missing. In that case, the integration of the cast piece(s) into the original marble is of prime concern.

Usually, in historic mansions, interior decoration, or in collections of antiquities, historic casts are used more often. If the collection also has more modern reproductions, the patina of these must have the same characteristics and apparent beauty that the other, older casts may have.

An extensive use of plaster casts is done in academies, art schools or art classes. They are used as a reference in the teaching of painting, charcoal drawing and in the Sight-Size technique. The perfect, warm white color of the plaster offers the right combination of highlight, halftone and shadow that we call chiaroscuro. One of the most famous drawing courses, the Bargue-Gérôme Drawing Course, is based precisely on the exercise of accurately depicting plaster casts in order to learn how to separate light from shadow in a three-dimensional figure.

FeliceCalchi, Head of Psyche of Naples and Bargue’s drawing of the original.FeliceCalchi, Head of Psyche of Naples and Bargue’s drawing of the original.

It also is curious to note that art academies often use plaster casts for drawing reference that appear divided in unusual ways when compared to the original sculptures. Many drawings depict famous masterpieces in strange divisions or in apparently meaningless sections. Casts of Michelangelo’s David are often portioned in this way. There isn’t a particular reason for this, as related to the sculpture represented, or to the drawing technique. Rather, it is simply a single portion of a reference cast that was once composed of many pieces.

Cast Making as a Traditional Craft
As do all craftsmen of historical and cultural significance, the mould maker is also in a class of craftsmen that is disappearing. The apprenticeship is generally very long and apprentices are not skilled enough to execute an entire mould of a sculpture before five years or more of practice. However, the workshop today as in the past, employs many workers who work in tandem in order to produce a greater whole.

During the work of casting, some results can be achieved only and exclusively with a specific tool and skill set. Only that specific material allows you to create that unique effect. Only in a specific way can you do that thing. Being a craftsman is a mental condition that one achieves only through years of dedicated training. There are few traditional plaster casting workshops still in business today. Their skills need to be preserved, so that the artistic value of the original sculpture, and the cast of it, will not be altered or changed in any way.

The FeliceCalchi Workshop.The FeliceCalchi workshop.

Andrea Felice was born in Rome in 1970 and raised in the old art workshop where his father, a skilled mould maker, took him every summer. His attendance at art foundries, workshops and studios of famous artists such as Giacomo Manzù, Cy Twombly, Jeff Koons, and Igor Mitoraj, has helped to stimulate his passion for sculpture and the craft of art. He lives in Rome where he works in his studio on plaster casting and mould making.

Since 1998 he has also been the mould maker and marble restorer at the Vatican Museums, where he has made casts of the most famous ancient sculptures like the Laocoön and the Augustus of Prima Porta. Andrea has also done restorations of sculptures like the Perseus by Antonio Canova.

In 2009 he founded FeliceCalchi – Plaster Casts & Sculptures. His company has a large collection of casts with an ever increasing catalog. It is an internationally recognized cast manufacturer. The casts, produced by FeliceCalchi, are now widespread in the most important museums and art academies all over the world. Felice’s working philosophy involves the preservation of the ancient technique of moulding and casting, using only traditional materials to produce plaster casts of very fine quality.

Andrea has a great article here about purchasing plaster casts.

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