The morning is cool and bright when I arrive at The Sculpture School in North Tawton, Devon, for my 4-day workshop. It’s been a while since I did anything artistic and I’m a little unsure what to expect.
As I approach the studio nestled in the Devonshire countryside, I’m surprised to see two colossal Venetian masks sunk into the verge and an eccentric top-hatted lady riding a dinosaur – it’s like entering a re-imagined version of Alice’s Wonderland. This dreamscape was conjured from the imagination of artist Andrew Sinclair who, along with his painter-sculptor partner, Diane Coates, will introduce me to the art of figurative sculpture.
When I was younger, I revelled in the joys of arts and crafts, whether it was blowing iridescent inky bubbles on paper or splodging paint onto plates at the pottery café. I was encouraged to play and experiment and, like most of us, I participated with no hesitation or self-doubt.
Fast-forward to adulthood, and my career has taken me in a different direction, leaving my sketchbooks side-lined on a shelf and my confidence lulled.
Stepping inside the spacious converted barn, I hope I’ve found the place to reconnect with my creativity. Floor-to-ceiling glass panels flood light over an inspiring collection of mythical and realist bronze sculptures, from a menacing Minotaur to David Bowie shadowing his nymph-like Ziggy Stardust alter ego. Taking a seat at my work station, I can’t wait to get started.
I soon realise that it would be difficult to find a more passionate teacher – Andrew has been fascinated by clay since childhood. “I was making gorilla heads and sharks and I really enjoyed it but I didn’t see it as sculpture,” he tells us, recalling his youth spent digging up clay from his local woods.
Over the years Andrew has refined his technique to prioritise design, proportion and anatomy to develop his own unique style. We are given dimension charts along with our sculptural tools to help us make our first creation.
Andrew explains that taking the time to measure and get our proportions right at the beginning is the key to a successful sculpture.
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We begin by bending strong wire to make an ‘energy curve’, following the languid arcs of the human body on our charts. It’s amazing how this breathes life into our skeletal figures. Next, we are taught to apply a ‘rapid sketch.’
This stage involves layering small sausages of clay to roughly map out the lines of the body. I focus on each small application and enjoy the soothing sensation of the clay between my fingers and the calming of my busy mind.
Concentrating on the task at hand, the day passes quickly and I find myself happy to have some time to unwind at the end of the day. This is made simple at the lovely Clotworthy House in the nearby village of Winkleigh – it is a welcoming retreat from the outside world and the perfect place to relax.
Though it is hard to tear myself away from the comfort of bed, I am eager to return to my art-in-progress the following day. Our second morning is spent with a live model.
Andrew draws lines on the model to show the pattern of 34 key muscles visible on the surface of the body. He defines these as our ‘design criteria’. In sculpture, he explains, we have to “take the body apart and reassemble it.”
As the model is transformed into a caricature, even my own body begins to feel foreign as I become aware of its sum of parts.
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During the afternoon we gently sculpt ‘skin’ onto the muscles we shaped in our rapid sketch. I struggle a little when working on my sculpture’s back – I just can’t get it to look right. Andrew reassures me that everyone finds parts of the process more challenging and shows me how to adjust my lines.
Thankfully, clay is forgiving and ‘mistakes’ are easily smoothed over and my confidence grows.
By the end of the workshop, the size of the group in the barn has doubled – with the addition of an army of miniature figures, all different and beautiful in their own way.
We give ourselves a round of applause and I’m proud of my first attempt. I’m also feeling refreshed and inspired. I’m so excited to be doing something creative again. I’d forgotten how calming and energising it can be. In fact, I’m already looking for my next course.
How to get into sculpture
Do it yourself
Pick up some air-dry clay from a local craft shop and just give it a go. Think wabi-sabi – the Japanese philosophy of finding beauty in imperfection! You’ll find lots of tutorials on YouTube and you can display your sculpture proudly as a reminder of your creativity.
Choose a craft
It’s not just sculpture that has the power to absorb. Practice craftfulness alone or with friends by taking the time to learn a new skill or refresh an old one. Focussing your mind on the creative task in hand is a fantastic way to de-stress and unwind.
Find a course
For a course or tutor closer to home. The Craft Courses website is a great place to start but it’s also worth looking at specific venues close to you.