Artists pursuing academic training in contemporary ateliers spend time making charcoal studies of plaster casts. These replica sculptures are made from classic Greek, Roman, and Renaissance originals.
This is an excellent way to refine drawing skills, especially the close observation of light and shade on form. As an added benefit, you get to feast your eyes on the timeless beauty of master sculptures.
Here’s a plaster cast of Michelangelo’s Moses from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
Plaster casts can be either gigantic full figure replicas or smaller pieces. These affordable casts of individual facial features are based on Michelangelo’s David.
Most art schools once had large plaster cast collections, but many destroyed them in the wanton orgy of iconoclasm of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The cast collection belonging to Vassar College in New York State (seen intact above) was a typical sad story. The director of the Art program, Agnes Clafin, ordered the destruction of the collection in the 1940s arguing that casts were no longer useful in teaching, and that “this was a time to innovate, to bring Vassar up to speed.” Only a few casts at Vassar escaped annihilation.
But fortunately there are still several museums and schools that held onto their plaster cast collections. Many will allow artists to draw from them, but the limitation is often the lighting. Typically, museum lighting uses multiple light sources, which makes the study of form and chiaroscuro rather confusing. If you’re drawing a cast that’s lit by multiple light sources, it’s best not to bother copying tones and to study the lines and shapes instead.
George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts
Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Missouri in Columbia
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA (including architectural casts)
University of Oxford, Great Britain
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Copenhagen Cast Collection
Pushkin Museum in Russia
for a full listing, check out:
Plaster Cast Collection Database
Story of the Vassar Casts, link
Note: beware that some are third or fourth generation molds, and may not resemble the original very closely.
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