Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Plaster Casts

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.
Intact collections
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

Retail Sources:
Note: beware that some are third or fourth generation molds, and may not resemble the original very closely.
Sculpt Shop
Fine Art Store
Giust Gallery


Brian Busch said...

Hi everyone,
Here's a link to another site that has some fantastic plaster casts. http://www.giustgallery.com/

jeff said...

I studied at the Art Students League in New York and we had a few casts.

We had one that was rescued from the Metropolitan Museum of Art which also destroyed it's collection.

We had a full size cast of Donatello's David as well as closet full of smaller ones.

They were invaluable in learning how to paint values and drawing.

I have two paintings on my blog, one of Michelangelo's Day, and the other a studio painting with David, the model and Dante.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Brian, I put the link for the Guist Gallery on the post under retail sources. If anyone else knows of other sources, either email me or leave a comment, and I'll add them in.

Jeff, nice cast study on your blog. I noticed you're a Frank Mason student, and I should mention that he'll be appearing with some of his work (and his students) in a show at the Arlington Art Gallery in Poughkeepsie this Saturday Sept. 20.

ZD said...

Thanks for the list.

This has to do with one of your older posts, but last night I was walking through the trees under a full moon and I noticed the greenish bluish glow everywhere. Maybe moonlight is blue because you see the way the light reflects off the leaves, similar to the way clouds are sometimes orange at night because they reflect street lights. I think it is also bluish during the winter though.

Shane White said...

I'd really like to know where the schools purchased these plaster casts. Was there a company that supplied the in the states or were they shipped from Europe? Or was this somehow put together through private and permanent collections?


David Still said...

I study at Atelier Stockholm, which is a classical realist atelier. We start (like many other ateliers today) by copying lithographs by Charles Bargue, before moving on to cast studies. The school owns many casts, but we're also allowed to borrow old casts from the Royal Academy of Art, who, maybe not so surprisingly, do not use them. One of them is the very cast that Anders Zorn drew when we was a student.

Steven K said...

The same thing happened at San Jose State and at Yale. Somehow the cast collection at UC Berkeley (?) has survived.

The destruction of the cast collections has had a more detrimental impact than most people are aware. Even when schools include cast drawing, they often treat the cast simply as an element of still life. The great academies used the casts to teach their students the fundamentals of life drawing - editing, design, form, lines of beauty, planes, etc. - and most of all, clarity and simplification, before confronting the human figure in all of its complexity. I've seen this approach more in recent Russian and Chinese academies than in the American or European schools.

No one has ever explained to me the difference between destroying casts to prevent students from drawing them and burning books to prevent people from reading them. Where was the outrage?

There should be a special ring in Hell for Agnes Claflin and the rest of the Moderns. The same thing happened at San Jose State and Yale, among other institutions.

Paolo Rivera said...

I'm always promoting the use of casts to anyone who'll listen. While at RISD, we had a few, but not as many as I would've hoped. My favorite was the life-size écorché by Houdon that seems to be pretty popular.

Also, thanks to a school year in Italy, I was privileged enough to draw both of the aforementioned sculptures by Michelangelo from life. Nothing beats the original.

jeff said...

Thank you James.
I forgot to mention that the ASL in New York still has all the casts we used.

The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia has a pretty good collection of casts.

One of a flayed arm that Eakins made.

They also have to my knowledge one of the only drawing studios for large animals and small. It's a large barn like drawing studio built to accommodate animals.

James Gurney said...

These are all fascinating stories--thanks to all of you. I forgot to mention that you can sketch great original statues at the Metropolitan Museum and other places, but there's still usually the problem with lighting.

Jeff--you raise a very important point about animal drawing. That's a subject that should be taught at every art school, with animal skeletons, anatomy study, and live sketching. Very few schools in the USA cover it (San Francisco Academy of the Art is an exception), but any student working in animation industry absolutely needs to be comfortable with drawing all kinds of animals.

James C. said...

This is very cool! I actually used to work at Skylight Studios/Giust Gallery during my summer vacations in high school under the extremely skillful Robert Shure. If you are near Woburn Ma you should check them out. My grandfather was actually a caster who worked with him that's how I was fortunate enough to get the job. But now because of your post I definitely think I will see if I can head back over there to try drawing some of their pieces.

chuck pyle said...

We have access to the cast collection at UC BErkeley, which is hidden away in the basement of a warehouse amongst the building's steam fittings! At least it's warm. We have been trying to snag them as a loan as they are about to become homeless.

Paul Foxton said...

Lighting is indeed a problem. The Victoria and Albert Museum collection is wonderful, but very poorly lit for drawing purposes.

However, the National Portrait Gallery in London, around the corner from the National, has some nice busts, several of which are very nicely lit for drawing - more by accident than by design though I think.

I've had some success picking up reconstituted marble casts from Ebay. The budget option :)

Making A Mark said...

I've drawn in the cast courts at the V&A (they do a very nice line in folding sketching stools if you know where to ask!). The main problem I find is being able to find a spot where you can sit at a reasonable distance - they've crammed an awful lot in!

Randall Ensley said...

For those who live in Connecticut, I want to insert this link http://randallensley.blogspot.com/2008/02/sculpture-at-slater-museum.html
to a post I did on the Slater Museum in Norwich, CT. A great permanent collection of plaster casts.

Anonymous said...

The casts could have at least been sold to benefit the schools. What a bunch of Taliban.

Sakievich said...

The New York Academy of Art in NYC has a great collection of casts as well. I've just started studying there and it's wonderful to see those casts and to have them available to study from.

Victor said...

steven K-

Are you a San Jose State alum? I'm a student there now, and the lack of casts of any kind (even the basic heads or facial features) is kind of sad. We just drew pipes, cans and other "debris" in drawing classes.

Unknown said...

Thank you James for this post.

In my country (Belgium) I experienced a lot of difficulties finding a plaster cast. Some of the academies I contacted told me they destroyed most of their plaster casts in the seventies, and apparently the remaining casts are very little used. Then somebody told me about the “Plaster Cast Workshop”, which is part of the Belgian Royal Musea for Art and History here in Brussels.

The Plaster Cast Workshop was founded in the 19th century and has build up a collection of 4.000 mouldings to make plaster casts, using traditional techniques. They have a huge collection of several hundreds of casts (small and big) that are permanently on display. Small plaster casts can be bought immediately when available, whereas larger pieces can be ordered. Access to the workshop is free, and upon request a guided tour can be reserved. But there’s always somebody prepared to give you a tour and tell you about the workshop’s history and the techniques they use.

The Plaster Cast Workshop truly is a unique place, and impresses me each time I visit it. It plays a crucial role in preserving our culture and history. Last year, I bought a small plaster cast of a satyr’s head, it’s about 30 cm high and I regularly draw from it, under different lighting conditions. This is real fun and perfects my drawing skills. But studying the cast has also taught me to appreciate the skills of the artist who carved the original stature.

For the website and a photo that gives a nice impression of how the Plaster Cast Workshop looks like, please follow this link: http://www.kmkg-mrah.be/newnl/index.asp?id=535

Thank you for your blog James, and keep up the good work!

Best regards,

Michael Damboldt said...

Great stuff! Thanks for the links!

Stephen James. said...

Dude! I just drew that eye! It's the most recent update on my blog. Rock on.

We have some of the other pieces of the face too.

Steven K said...


I am not an alum, but years ago I worked the graveyard shift in order to take figure drawing classes with Maynard Dixon Stewart. Just in the nick of time, too - Stewart retired from San Jose State the semester after I studied with him. A great, great teacher.

As James has noted, Bunny Carter has done great things with the Illustration program there.

Anonymous said...

The National Museum of antiquities in Leiden, the Netherlands still has a collection of them too, they're currently on exhibition until November 16th 2008.
Its not visible on the English version of the exhibition page but they actually have some drawing workshops at the exhibition. :-)

BDSP Vorchia

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Vorchia, for letting us know about the exhibition in Leiden. You are so lucky. BDSP, JMG

William, I truly appreciate all the information that you offered in your comment, and thanks fo all the others for telling a story about your training.

Nancy Bea Miller said...

Great post!

I'd like to add that my old art school, the Pennsylavania Academy of the Fine Arts, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, has an extensive and historic collection of beautifully lit casts. Drawing in the cast hall was a popular past-time, and indeed it was a mandatory part of the curriculum. Although I used to groan about how boring the hours of cast drawing were, they were enormously educational and helpful!

Now I only wish I had some casts for my beginning drawing students to work from because unfortunately I am not teaching at PAFA! Thanks for all the helpful information!

Brian said...

I wish they would send ME some casts before destroying their collections. I live in South Africa, where apparently, neither classical art training, nor even the equipment used in the training, such as plaster casts, are available. Some time ago I visited the art department at the University of Pretoria to inquire about where I might find such casts. All the learned lecturers in visual art there looked at me like I was from Mars. It turned out they had never in their lives even heard of the concept of cast drawing, let alone had any idea at all where one might get such casts or why anyone would want any. One can of course order them online, but because of an unfavourable exchange rate, they are monstrously expensive to someone on my salary. That an art school would not only get rid of its collection of casts, but actually destroy them, strikes me as frankly scandalous, an act of vandalism. Incidentally, while on my visit to the university's art department, I got to see their studio, where some senior art students where working on their, er, "art" projects. If you ask me, they can all do with a bit of humble cast drawing...

Media 123 said...
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Media 123 said...
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Media 123 said...
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Media 123 said...

Since 1979 with the Pennsylvania Academy's collection of plaster casts I have been restoring and working with antique plaster casts. Some years ago I sculpted some twice life-size anatomical studies. Copies of both the life-size Houdon L'Ecorche and it's smaller brother (29" version) are available from my website. I have Caudron's dynamic L'Ecorche figure as well. I sell the works in resin since it is more durable than plaster.
Please feel free to visit the website or contact me.

James Gurney said...

Jan, thanks for the link. You do beautiful work, and it's exciting to see that the good drawing casts are available again.

Keropian said...
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Keropian said...

I have provided sculpture restorations for over 30 years.
Besides my own sculpture studies I also provide copies of the Houdon Life-size L'Ecorche a smaller version and Caudron's dynamic flayed figure.
For more information or if I can be of service feel free to contact me at the following.

Andrea Felice said...

If you are looking for a good plaster casts or beautiful copies from the originals look at my web catalog at this link:
My workshop works with traditional methods and skilled craftsmen. The deep experience of generations is our precious heritage.
We work for the most important Museums, Academies and Sculptors around the world.
The high quality of the casts is the most important thing. We make the casts one by one to maintain the level of quality higher.
We have pleasure to receive your impression and comment.
Many Thanks.

Unknown said...

If you are wondering if there is a cast collection near you, or near where you may be travelling the Plaster Cast Collection group has a database. http://www.plastercastcollection.org/en/database.php