Understanding the planes of the head

A compilation of writing I sent to a student I am mentoring in Portrait Sculpture.

He sent me images of his work together with the models.

The comments are specific to M’s level of Portrait Modelling and are designed to encourage further refinement in his understanding.

It has been abridged to make it more in context as an example of what I can offer should you consider mentoring. This page would constitute an hour of my time and be charged appropriately at an hours rate. Permission has been given for the use of the images.

Hi M

Please allow me to be direct.  I hope my account of what you have sent will be positively critical.

In the photos you sent me your work has progressed without a clear understanding of the Planes of the Head. 

The features have been added, but the structure underlying the features is not yet strong enough and will therefore need altering. This means that the time you have spent to model the features is wasted as you will have to undo what has been done to find a better likeness to the sitter. 

To rectify this you will need to work less quickly towards a likeness and place far more emphasis on the stages you need to pass through.  I'll try to explain about the planes of the head.

The planes

How to better understand the planes of the head

From a sculptural point of view, this type of understanding needs to underlie the work and be a layer that if not passed through, is certainly at the back of the mind while working. This understanding tends to unite the forms, stopping each individual part getting worked on out of context and ahead of other areas. 

A similar idea in drawing, that allows the drawing to be developed accurately. From this you can see that the primary stage or “layer of perception” has little to do with the final look of the features.
The planes sketched

See more clearly in a sketch

This type of sketch is good to draw onto the clay, to really define the form in a sketch-like manner, before any attempt to define skin or surface. This allows the clay to be loose and fluid, but moreover easily changed, until a time that a good structure is reached and a certainty that can be relied upon to develop further. 

This also encourages the clay to be rough at this stage and refined (should you wish) as the detail is modelled. If the clay is smoothed too much, too early on, before the planes are found, there is a far higher chance of the clay getting “overworked”.

The planes software

This is an image from a 3-D graphics software.

This is an image from a 3-D graphics software. What is important is to define the important chief features that make the sitter the way they do... not define every single plane
The planes software &  drawing

Drawing & a 3-D graphics software.

This drawing is similar in a way to the computer generated example, but the mouth is more defined as are the cheeks and eyes and side of the head. This would be a good starting point as a study for a sculpture. I would recommend doing studies to this stage either as separate sculptures or then continue them to further develop the work. 

The sculpture of Henry Moore by Marini is at that stage and can be further refined. It has a very strong structure and has correct balance. Now the detail of the features can be approached… but not before. However, Marini chose to leave it at this stage. My preference would be to aim for this level of understanding prior to furthering the work.

The planes software &  drawing

Heads without the planes in balance

If you continue without studying the planes, your work will end up going in the direction of these heads. Not that they are bad sculptures and they are no doubt good representations of the sitters, but they are lack lustre and too reliant upon a photographic aesthetic that seeks representation, rather than a sculptural aesthetic that can carry far more information and qualities about the sitter. 

Remember that Bourdelle states that "if my work is done well, resemblance occurs of its own accord"


Seek out key points on the model that lie on the brow, the hairline and the jaw. These 3 arcs that traverse the head need to be in the correct relationship. If you need to place dots on the model in either talc or eyeliner.  Practice how to measure these dots and translate them to the clay.

This will enable you to see the marks rather than be looking at the features. You will need to train your eye to only ask questions about the form and ensure that no clay is added unless it has a function and answers a working question. The map or plan you create is of primary importance as you need to follow a clear intention. Otherwise the lazy mind will make
countless errors and add clay without understanding it's application. This can only result in a clay that portrays a similar lack of intention to the viewer. Do not go further ahead than the task you set yourself - to answer each question. 

This ensures you work thoroughly passing through each perceptual layer one at a time. I cannot stress the importance of this too highly. The
upshot of it is when working on planes… stick only to planes. Further refinements can be achieved when the emphasis shifts to the next perceptual layer (at the conclusion of getting a satisfied understanding of the planes).

From what I have read, and from his writing, Rodin seemed to work the planes at a later stage when the work was nearer completion. I do not yet understand his working methodology and nobody I have asked seems to be able to throw any light on it either (and I have asked some of the most highly regarded International Portrait Sculptors this question!) So until then I believe it better to include the planes in the structural stage of the development of the work.
For now hope this is useful?

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