A dozen techniques to make modeling for a medal easier, and, more professional.
IN 1964 the art director of Medallic Art Company, Julius Lauth, wrote an article “Modeling For A Medal” published in the National Sculpture Society’s Sculpture Review. He gave the three most basic requirements for sculptors to burn into their memory before they start creating bas-relief models to be made into medals. This information is timeless, it is just as useful today as it was in 1964.
Schooled in art and architecture, a youthful Julius just out of college, was hired by Medallic Art Company in 1931; he worked 42 years for the firm, except for a stint in the navy during World War II. As he rose through the ranks, from messenger boy to vice president and art director, he was trained in every stage of medal making until he could operate every piece of equipment in the plant. For the reducing machine he was trained by the founders of the firm, Henri and Felix Weil, who were the first to import the machine to America in 1906.
Decades later I was trained by Julius Lauth in turn, in all things medallic without the necessity of operating any shop equipment. Instead I was required to write about it. (Julius and I worked together on several projects, one of which was the grandest public relations efforts undertaken by the firm, the 75th anniversary exhibit of the National Sculpture Society where we gathered sample medals of every NSS member and mounted these on large panels along with a picture of each artist.)
I would like to reiterate here Julius’ three principles he revealed in that article for the new medallist and, if I may, add to them. This knowledge will aid any sculptor who wishes to prepare the oversize models to be able to create professional models that can be made into medals. Artists must prepare the models suitable for that most magical machine of awe, the die-engraving pantograph, and in particular, the awesome Janvier pantograph.
Not only does this machine reproduce all the modulated relief on the surface of the artist’s model – now technically a pattern mounted on the machine – but it also cuts the die that can strike the medals (or a hub to make many dies). From the artist’s clay model to thousands of exact miniature metal replicas, the process, which may at first appear obscure, relies incredibility on the ability of the reducing machine’s mechanism to reproduce the modulated relief of the artist’s original model in precise proportion – and with complete fidelity! – to immutable steel of the die destined for striking.
Make your model sharp and crisp. Medal makers have a saying, “If it’s in the model, it’s in the medal!” Thus every detail you want in the medal must be shaped in clay during modeling. Making an oversize model – and reducing this to the size of the required die – will diminish (and sometimes eliminate!) tiny flaws. But the clay models must include every detail no matter how small. The model must be absolutely complete, as perfect as possible, with every tiny detail present.
Rounding the edges of relief will give your model a “softer” look, particularly on low relief designs. But the magic of medallic art is to have relief with sharp edges where the sides of relief meet the top of the relief. Keep these junctures with full points. This gives your design the crispness so much desired in medallic art.
When you cast your clay model into plaster you will have one last chance to touchup – to strengthen a line, to make the hair a bit finer, to sharpen a serif on the lettering (and, of course, to remove any casting flaws). You are seeking to make sharp, crisp detail in the entire design in the plaster model you send off to the medal plant to be made into medals. And, obviously, you need two plaster models, one for the front, the obverse, one for the back, the reverse.
What happens to your models then? Plaster models cannot be mounted on the reducing machine. A hard surface pattern needs to be made from your plaster models. When Julius Lauth wrote that article in 1964 the technology was to make electrogalvanic casts – galvanos – these were copper shells that made a permanent pattern of your model’s surface. This electrolytic process requires about three day’s time to form a galvanic shell. If necessary the shell is backed with lead to give it additional strength before it is mounted on the pantograph.
The process of making oversize models and galvano casts was developed by the French in the 1880s. So permanent is that copper shell, dies could be made today from 100-year old galvano dieshells. However, an epoxy material was developed in World War II that was ideal for replacing copper galvanos. An epoxy pattern can be cast of your clay model in less than three hours! (The epoxy is a hard material, but not as permanent as a copper galvano – we have yet to learn the length of its useful lifespan.)
It is this pattern – galvano or epoxy – that is mounted on the die-engraving pantograph. This machine is set to trace the modulated relief on the pattern’s surface and transfer this in direct proportion to a cutting point that mills the face of a steel block, cutting all the cavities in the die that is your medallic design.
Generally, three separate passes are made on the reducing machine, using finer tracing points and correspondingly finer cutting points each time. Diemakers want all your fine detail to be reproduced in that die! After inspection the die is hardened and it can be used – along with its mate – to strike the medals in giant presses.
Julius Lauth ended his original article by writing: “The country’s distinguished medalists … are familiar with the demands of the art of the medal. They tell us it is particularly satisfying to see for the first time the newly struck medal so perfectly reduced, to see it brought down to the hand-held scale originally planned, to see the two sides put together as designed, and to wonder who, in some distant future time, may hold it, examine it or treasure it.
“Perhaps their beautiful examples combined with this bit of technical advice will encourage others to try Modeling for a Medal.”
- No undercuts.
- Bevel on all relief.
- No tall projections.
- Suggest color with shading.
- Contrast the elements with texture.
- Simple design with elaborate detail is
- better than elaborate design with simple detail.
- Prepare lettering in harmony with theme.
- Three support points on reverse.
- No congruent mass.
- Background plate.
- Border & rim.