Artist explainer: making a mask
Sculptor Nick Reynolds specialises in creating life masks from a mould of the sitter’s face. He discusses the long history of life masks and death masks, and explains why they are so fascinating. Watch him then demonstrate how he makes a mould using specialist materials, and outline the techniques involved in this process.
My name is Nick Reynolds, I’m a sculptor and I specialise in making life masks and death masks.
A life mask is a mask that’s made by taking a mould directly from the subject’s face while they’re alive, whereas a death mask is when you mould someone’s features when they’re deceased.
And this goes back to Egyptian times. Obviously, this is pre-photography, so if you wanted a statue of somebody, you would take a cast of their dead head and then you could use this casting technique.
And it was from the technique of casting that sculptors learned how to reproduce and to create realistic looking art pieces.
One of my favourite masks at the National Portrait Gallery is the one of Oliver Cromwell.
It was the very first death mask that I saw on a school trip.
And I was just blown away by the idea you can look at a dead person’s features as if they’d been frozen in time, and I was deeply fascinated about this.
In order to make a life mask you need a moulding compound.
You can use plaster if you like, or you can use alginate, which is a dental compound that dentists use to mould your teeth.
Or most recently, you can use a skin-safe silicone rubber.
If you were to use plaster, you would have to use a grease on the face as a mould release, particularly for the hair and eyebrows, otherwise, this would all get pulled out when you take it off.
Physically, it’s very brittle. You have to pull it apart to get your cast object out.
Silicone rubber being very flexible, you can make multiple, multiple copies.
So, if you want to make many, many copies, silicone rubber is the way to go.
The main trick to capturing someone’s features accurately is to make sure that the person doesn’t move while the stuff is setting and trying to get the stuff on as quick as possible and as thin as you can, because the more material that you use, the more it’s actually going to distort the face.
Once your plaster shell has hardened and the silicone or alginate underneath has set, you simply get the subject to move their features underneath and it lets a bit of air get in there, and it helps release it and you basically pull the shell off, and the moulding compound in one go.
Once you have your mould, there’s various materials you can use, you can just pour plaster into the mould.
Generally, I will pour wax into that mould and then I will spend some time sculpting the wax.
I’ve done probably over a hundred life masks and death masks in the last 25 years.
- Explore the materials, techniques and creative practices used to create life masks and death masks.
- Examine the social contexts and purposes of life masks and death masks.
Watch and discuss
- What do you think life masks can capture or express compared to other types of portraiture?
- What are some of the technical challenges associated with this portrait media? What are some of the opportunities?
- Does the process of being a sitter for this type of portrait appeal to you? Why or why not?