I first came across Powertex a couple of years ago when I visited a SENZ craft expo and the tall elegant African-style figurines took my eye. I was keen to do a workshop but didn’t manage to connect with the dates when they were in Auckland. This year I was re-inspired when I saw them again at SENZ and was determined to give it a go. My friend Dominique was also keen to make a figurine (not an African one) and so when there was a workshop in my area we signed up. The workshop runs all day (approx 9.00am to 3.00pm) and the price includes all the materials you need to make a figurine or a wall canvas picture.
Powertex is an interesting material that looks like a (thick) water-based paint but it hardens as it dries to give an almost concrete-like finish. The beauty of it is that you can coat fabrics in it and apply them to your sculpture to give the wonderful drapes and folds of fabric but have a rock-solid result that can even be put outside. It comes in several different colours and you can apply various pigments afterwards to turn your creation into a masterpiece.
Half of our class were making figurines and the other half making pictures. For figurines you start by selecting the ‘head’ you want – there are a whole range of different plaster heads/busts to choose from, including the African ones I was interested in. You also need a base stand – ours were made of half a concrete paving stone with wooden dowel attached, a polystyrene block, tin foil and masking tape.
First you decide how tall you want your figure to stand by putting the head/bust on the polystyrene and lining this up with the base stand. Then you cut a slot into the polystyrene so that the wooden dowel fits inside it. Then you need to trim the polystyrene block into a rough shape and cut off the corners to round it out. You also need to cut the top of it away so that it flows smoothly from the head/bust to the body, and then use masking tape to attach them securely. You then put the body onto the base stand (the slot usually faces the back, I got it wrong but it doesn’t really matter in the long run) and make whatever adjustments you want to the body shape e.g. sculpting the waist some more, using scrunched up tinfoil to add bottoms and busts – remembering that the figure is elongated so these might not be in the place you originally think they will be. Once you are generally happy with the shape, you wrap all the body in masking tape and using figure of eight loops of the tape to fasten the body securely to the base, then paint the whole thing in Powertex (ours was Powertex Bronze).
Then you get to the messy, fun but daunting part. Wearing disposable gloves and an apron is essential (and taking photos until the end is extremely inadvisable if you value your camera). We are given bits of cotton jersey material and textured paper deco to start creating the look we want. There are all sorts of other fabrics and paper available to create a whole world of textures. You start from the bottom and work upwards and outwards – as a beginner I found it very hard to know quite what was required. Basically you start with hiding the dowel and drape material over to connect to the base and create the illusion of legs or skirts. Then you add layers and folds to fill out the figure, and then finish with outer layers. You need to dip the fabric into the Powertex and use your fingers and/or a paint brush to work the Powertex into the fabric and totally cover it but not have it too wet. Then you attach it to the figure – the wet Powertex just sticks – and adjust to get the draping you want. As you add each piece you start to get more of an idea of what the final shape will be. You can add any fanciful touches you like, such as a headdress.
We left the figures to dry whilst we had lunch and then came back to paint them. The Powertex wasn’t completely dry and there was still some ability to adjust the folds if you needed but it was dry enough to paint. The paints are made from special pigments (some are metallic) that you mix in very sparingly with a varnish and apply to the Powertex. We were encouraged to use it very sparingly and apply it to enhance and highlight the textures e.g. on the ridges but not in the hollows. I was quite happy with my figurine at the time but later (see my next post) added more pigment to get the much richer colours that I personally like. You need a steady hand to highlight the face and jewellery details.