First impressions... what do you think?

Show students a photograph of the sculpture Portrait of Peter. (More views of the artwork can be seen by clicking on the image and visiting the artwork page.)

Portrait of Peter

Portrait of Peter 1970–1972

Peter Palmer (active 1970–1972)

Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services

Encourage students to reflect on and discuss the sculpture as a class or in small groups.

Use these nudge questions if helpful:

  • what are your first impressions of the sculpture? What does the sculpture show?
  • what do you think and feel when you look at the sculpture?
  • do you think Peter is resting? Is he waiting for someone? Is he just sitting and thinking…?
  • what material do you think the sculpture is made from?
  • what techniques do you think the artist used to make the sculpture?
  • can you spot any possible clues to how it was made?

How was Portrait of Peter made?

Portrait of Peter was made using a cast.

Peter Palmer used plaster to cast and make moulds of his own clothed body. He made lots of moulds of the different areas of his body – using 10 moulds for his head alone!

He then pressed clay into the plaster moulds to create the pieces for his sculpture. After removing the clay from the moulds he fired it in a kiln.

Portrait of Peter (detail)

Portrait of Peter (detail)

Peter Palmer (active 1970–1972)

Once fired, he attached the pieces together using a resin. (This is why there is a patchwork of seams across the sculpture's surface.)

Although cast from his own body, the sculpture is slightly smaller than life-size, as clay shrinks in the kiln.

Explain Peter Palmer's technique to your students and discuss it in relation to Portrait of Peter.

  • Do you think the artist was 'cheating' by casting his own body rather than modelling his self-portrait?
  • The sculpture is textured – where do you think the textures come from?
  • Why do you think his eyes are closed in the sculpture?


Explore more clay sculptures and techniques

This slideshow includes a range of sculptures made using clay.

Look at each sculpture with your class and ask students to think about and discuss the techniques and tools the artist might have used to make it.

Use these nudge questions if helpful:

  • describe the sculpture
  • what shapes can you see? (Flat geometric shapes, curved shapes, organic shapes?)
  • what does the surface of the sculpture look like? (Is it smooth? Does it have any marks?)
  • what techniques do you think the artist used to make the sculpture? (Did they model it? Did they build it from prepared slabs? Did they carve it? Did they use a mould?)


Clay modelling

This sculpture is made by modelling clay. The artist started with an unformed lump of clay and modelled it using their fingers to create the shapes and forms of the sculpture.

Deutschland 1946

Deutschland 1946

Karl Weschke (1925–2005)

If you look closely at the surface of this sculpture of a cat, you will see the marks of the clay tool used to shape the sculpture. (The marks also suggest the texture of fur).

Cat Looking Up*

Cat Looking Up*

unknown artist

To model larger sculptures from clay, artists often begin with an armature made from wire. They then add clay to this to build up the sculpture and then model the details.

Find out more about using an armature to model clay with this Art UK activity

Clay carving

Artist Halima Cassell carved the geometric shapes of her clay sculpture using tools. In her art, she combines her love of maths and architectural geometry with her interest in Islamic design and African pattern-work.

Concentric Flower

Concentric Flower 2003

Halima Cassell (b.1975)

Jerwood Collection

Watch Halima Cassell at work and find out more about her technique

Slab construction

Artist John Maine constructed this abstract sculpture from blocks or slabs of clay. These would have been pre-made and then joined together using a clay slip. To join separate clay pieces together, the edges of the clay are roughened before the slip is applied, to help with the binding process.

Clay Slab VII

Clay Slab VII (from the 'Ball Court' series) 1982

John Maine (b.1942)

The Hepworth Wakefield

Hugh Colvin also used pre-made clay slabs to construct House. He would have made the stepped shapes on the top of the walls and incised the tile decoration on the roof before constructing the house. After firing the sculpture the house has been glazed giving it a shiny surface.



Hugh Colvin

Press mould

Like Peter Palmer, artist Helaine Blumenfeld pressed clay into a textured mould to create the surface of Figurative Landscape. She has then roughly torn and bent the thin clay panels to form an abstract sculpture.

Figurative Landscape

Figurative Landscape 1981

Helaine Blumenfeld (b.1942)

The Hepworth Wakefield

About casting

Peter Palmer made the moulds for his self-portrait by casting his own body.

Casting is a common sculptural technique and is usually associated with bronze or plaster sculptures made by pouring molten (liquid) bronze or liquid plaster into casts. Casting and moulding processes are generally used either for making copies of existing sculptures or, as used by Peter Palmer, as an essential stage in the production of finished work.

Find out more about casting

Development ideas

  • Students could make multiple objects from their mould and attach these together to create an assemblage sculpture. (If each student casts a different object, they could share the moulds and create an assemblage sculpture using a mix of forms.)
  • Students could cut up their clay casts before firing and once fired, re-arrange and attach the segments together to create abstract sculptures.

Explore the sculptures of Eduardo Paolozzi for ideas. Krokadeel is made from an assemblage of parts of found objects, machinery and toys which Paolozzi cast in metal.


Krokadeel 1959

Eduardo Luigi Paolozzi (1924–2005)

University of Edinburgh

Paolozzi also cut up plaster sculptures he had cast and roughly re-joined the pieces together to create fractured, disjointed versions of the original. 

Michelangelo's 'David'

Michelangelo's 'David' 1987 (?)

Eduardo Luigi Paolozzi (1924–2005)



Explore textures in clay

The jacket and shoes worn by Peter Palmer in his self-portrait are textured. The textures of his real clothes were transferred to the plaster when the cast was made.

  • Gather objects with texture such as lace or loosely woven cloth, leaves or sprigs of foliage or old trainers with a textured sole.
  • Task students with making a relief plaque with a textured pattern by pushing the different textured objects into slabs of clay.

The textured slabs could also be used to make vases or other vessels.

Or use them to make an abstract sculpture inspired by artist Helaine Blumenfeld's Figurative Landscape (1981).

Figurative Landscape

Figurative Landscape 1981

Helaine Blumenfeld (b.1942)

The Hepworth Wakefield


Creative writing activity: what's Peter’s story?

Task students with writing a short story, poem, short play or piece of creative writing inspired by Portrait of Peter.

Use these prompts to spark ideas:

  • who is Peter?
  • why is he sitting on this bench?
  • is he on his way somewhere?
  • is he waiting for someone?
  • what is he thinking and feeling?

Extension activities

Experiment with some of the other clay techniques explored in this resource.

Create a building or abstract sculpture

Artists John Maine and Hugh Colvin used slab construction techniques to create their sculptures.

  • Task students with using slab construction techniques to construct a building or structure. 

Watch this YouTube video for slab building tips

Carve a pattern in clay

Artist Halima Cassell carves into clay to create her geometric patterned sculptures.

  • Task students with creating a patterned panel by carving into clay.
  • Begin by designing a pattern. Students could use their maths skills to design a geometric pattern or could create a more freeform pattern.
  • Make the clay panel by rolling the clay with a rolling pin. The panel should be at least 2–3cm thick to allow for carving.
  • They should initially draw their designs onto the panel and then use clay tools or old cutlery (not sharp knives!) to carve into the clay.

Look again at Halima Cassell at work
Explore patterned artworks for inspiration

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