Improvisational realism

As I get into some larger and more realistic clay sculptures of thunderstorms an interesting paradox presents itself.

Working from photographs in order to sculpt a storm requires approximately 63% extrapolation. The photograph shows me one angle of the storm which I’m able to adequately reproduce, but there may be roughly three sides not visible to the photographer from that particular angle. A storm is large enough that a person isn’t able to photograph it from all angles. If you’re far away to see the entire cell, you probably won’t have time to drive around it before it’s dark out, the storm merges with other clouds nearby or actually dissipates.

It’s somewhat of a thrill to sculpt, even from a still image, such a dynamic form. Recreating these supercells in clay (or, perhaps, wood) is basically 37% abstract rendering and 63% conjecture. I have no idea what the other side of the storm looks like, nor do I know the shape of the anvil from the top. The work requires me to imagine what the other side of the thunderstorm looks like.

In the short time I’ve been working in this way I’ve really come to enjoy this process, the paradox of realism and imagination. A week or so ago I described it in my own mind as improvisational realism, as I worked on the sculpture above. I’m eager to keep working in this vein, although there are a number of technical details that will need to be worked out a long the way.

I’ve already cracked the anvil on the pictured work. While turning it over onto a towel in order to hollow out, it laid at an angle which bent the moderately moist edge too far. I attempted to repair it and am praying that it doesn’t crack when fired. The thin edge of the anvil protruding from such a solid piece of clay is asking for trouble as it is. This particular shape was formed through subtractive and additive processes; toothpicks were used to add strength while the work sets up. It will probably take at least five, probably ten of these forms before I find the best way to fabricate them. It doesn’t help that I’m using a clay body (Steve’s White) essentially devoid of grog. The next one will, instead, be a mixture of clays from the reclaim bucket (low-fire white, raku and a mid-fire buff) that will contain a significant amount of grog in comparison, probably better for sculpting these fairly tenuous forms.

I have roughly five hours in this one already.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

3 Responses to Improvisational realism

  1. Julie says:

    Wedge some grog into your clay? Doesn’t take much…

    How big is this guy?

    In any event… I’m really intrigued by looking at it. Please keep making them.

  2. pNielsen says:

    I think I’ll have too get some grog into the clay. I like the Steve’s White because it’s like a porcelain for low-fire, smooth and very white. I knew when I bought it thought it’d be a challenge for sculptural work. May end up just being what I throw with, when I get my kickwheel built (which will hopefully be this week).

    This piece is 10″ long, 5 high and 5 wide. And just tonight I noticed a crack in the top, in a different place than I mentioned in the post. Disappointing, but learning. Guessing this one will be destined for the reclaim bin . . .

  3. Pingback: In the Studio: More improvisational realism « The Aesthetic Elevator

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