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Making a Spanish polychrome sculpture

The Saint Ginés de la Jara sculpture is crafted from hollow wooden structures, intricately carved and assembled. The lifelike details, from glass eyes to realistic flesh tones, are achieved through meticulous techniques like estofado and encarnaciones. The final result is a stunning piece of art, reflecting the high-quality materials and craftsmanship of 17th century Spain. Created by Getty Museum.

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Video transcript

-Underneath its ornate exterior, the sculpture Saint Ginés de la Jara has a core made of two hollow wooden structures. On the bottom is a large box-like section, which is reinforced inside with a small wood block attached on the front left. On the top is a smaller hollow section. The two sections are then glued and nailed together. Next, boards are attached to the sides, which will become the Saint's robe. A piece of wood carved to depict a knotted rope is nailed to the front. The arms and scapular, or sleeveless vestmest, are carved then glued onto the core. Now the rope appears to hang behind the scapular, from the Saint's waist. Once the glue has set, final carving is completed. To strengthen the joins, nails are then added. The Saint's feet, hands, and forearms are carved separately. The left forearm and hand are made up of two individual pieces, which are glued to a dowel. The Saint's face is carved separately, almost like a mask. The eyes, made of glass, are inserted into the face from behind and glued to the carved eyelids. The face, with eyes attached, is then glued onto the head. With the general structure now complete, the sculpture is ready for the intricate surface treatments of estofado and encarnaciones, creating the life-like cloth and flesh we see today. -Beginning to shape the block of wood, the form would be drawn on one of the surfaces that the sculptor chose. To start reducing the bulk of the wood, quite big tools would be used initially to move fast, like saws or big chisels. Once the basic shape had been achieved, it would be the equivalent of a rough sketch but in three dimensions. Then, the sculptor would move along to using slightly finer tools-- for example, chisels of various sizes. And then using increasingly fine tools, the shape is actually brought out of the block of wood. Both in Central Spain and in Andalusia was a great concern for the quality of wood to be used in the carved figures. So the craftsman and the artists and the sculptors were very, very aware of what sorts of choices would be longer-lasting, be more worthy of admiration, and so on. So there was a great concern for this high quality of materials. As the tools become smaller and more delicately shaped, it's possible for the sculpture to work on a much smaller scale, perhaps carving the shape of a finger and tapering it at the point, perhaps creating the relief of the nail. And he would be much smaller blades or cutting edges to do that. Sandpaper would be the finishing steps in the actual carving of the wood. There's a constant dialogue in play between the three-dimensional form and the two-dimensional surface decoration. They're really meant to go hand-in-hand. One doesn't make sense without the other. Estofado is the two-dimensional decorative layer that is the skin of the sculpture. To prepare the glue, sheepskin would be boiled in water by clipping parchment scraps to extract the glue. The next layer is called yeso grueso in Spanish, the thick gesso. It's the glue with calcium carbonate or calcium sulfate, kind of natural chalks, mixed into it. After the yeso grueso and yeso mate was applied, they would be smoothed. The next stage in this laborious method of building up these layers would be to apply the red bole. Bole is a special kind of clay that has traditionally been used since antiquity as the under layer for applying what we call water gilding. When it was dry, it would first be polished, and then, very importantly, a burnishing stone, which is usually an agate, compresses the layer of bole and brings a luster to the surface, and also, once again, smooths the texture. It's then ready to receive the gold leaf. The gilder would pick up the gold leaf with a special brush, called a tip. And with a tiny puff of air, just apply it on to the surface of the bole which had been dampened with water and alcohol. Just that tiny bit of moisture would activate the glue in the bole layer, and it would adhere the gold. When it's dried and burnished, on top, over the layer of gold, a layer of temper paint could be applied. Tempera paint is traditionally made of egg yolk. The artist would prepare the paints by grinding pigments and the egg yolk together. This would be applied over the gold in various areas. In order to keep the pattern consistent, a paper pattern would be prepared that could be pricked. Then, tiny bits of pigment would be transferred through those tiny holes and onto the surface to be decorated. And once the design is transferred in this way, then the polychromer can start to scratch or scrape the designs. By doing this, he would remove that top layer of paint, the tempera paint, and reveal the gold underneath it. And then further accents can be given by using punches. And punches are metal tools that I was struck with a hammer to make a little indentation so the light plays across them with a little more drama than just in the scratched areas. To finish and give greater subtlety to these surfaces and the texture and material, shading and highlighting can then be done. Estofado technique of scratching away and revealing the gold underneath gives more points for the light to reflect from and sort of give greater definition to the three-dimensional form. The encarnaciones mattes, matte flesh tones were more lifelike, they were more realistic, because clearly it differentiates the hands and face from the decorative surfaces of the fabrics. The wood would be initially sealed with all of these layers of glue by brushing on to the sanded wood. Then, the next layer of the preparation is chalk. This layer is called yeso matte. It's the matte gesso. Dried yeso would be mixed into the glue as well to start building up the yeso layer. This would then be applied with a soft brush and sort of rubbed into the wooden surface so it's really well integrated to that surface. When these preparation layers of yeso in the glue have been well dried for 24 hours, they can then be published to give a smooth surface that will be receptive to the paints that will then be applied. The pigments for the flesh tone would be prepared in oil. In matte encarnaciones, you would simply paint the oil paint onto the surface that's been very beautifully prepared in the gesso layer. And you would do a first layer using a middle flesh tone, and using blue for areas where there might be veins near the surface of the skin, and so on. Once that layer was dry, again, the artist would return and would paint everywhere with just a single flesh-tone color, but very, very thin, so that layers underneath would subtly show through. And then, finally, detail. For example, pink highlights around the fingernails would be applied very delicately on top of this general flesh tone layer. The Roldana Workshop was a family workshop, so, in some ways, it's one of the tightest collaborative relationships that we know about in 17th century Spain.