Portrait Busts -- an Original Technique




About: I'm a refugee from Los Angeles, living in backwoods Puerto Rico for about 35 years now and loving it. I built my own home from discarded nylon fishnet and cement.

This is an original technique I use for making portrait busts out of grout.  Grout is like cement, except it is stickier and doesn't shrink.  When cement dries it shrinks and tends to crack, which the grout does not do.

To make the finished bust lighter I use a mold to make crumpled aluminum foil cores.  The cores can be bent some to give position variations. 

The grout I use, "Keraset", comes in a light gray color.  The grout can be given a variety of colors, depending on the addition of powdered pigments.  The pigments are available in hardware stores for coloring cement.  Right now, I am mostly making clay-colored grout using a combination of red and yellow pigments. 

Step 1: The Mold

The 2-piece mold was made out of cement many years ago, and I don't have photos of its construction. 

The core shape was originally sculpted in clay.  Using mold-making techniques, I made a 2-piece mold of the shape. 

The left and right halves of the core are molded out of crumpled aluminum foil.  The halves are then taped together.  The neck can be bent to provide position variations.

Step 2: Packing the Mold Halves With Aluminum Foil

I like to line the mold with one or two layers of aluminum foil, like a skin, before packing it with more randomly crumpled aluminum foil.  That gives a fairly smooth surface for the first layer of grout to stick to, and gives the core more structural integrity than it would have without the skin.

Since aluminum foil doesn't stretch, it will tear if you force it into the recesses of the mold.  Tearing of the skin layer is avoided by first crumpling the aluminum foil to create a quilted pattern of wrinkles.  That shrinks the area covered by the foil, but allows the foil to stretch out again without tearing as it is pushed into the mold. 

I use a ball on a stick as a tool to help push the foil into the mold.  Leave some excess skin hanging over the edge of the mold.  It will be folded back over the crumpled foil in the middle to help hold it in place.

I usually fold up a pleated strip of foil and put it through the neck area to give the neck more strength when it is bent later. 

Fill the skin with crumpled foil, fold over the skirt around the edge onto it and remove the core half from the mold. 

Step 3: Join the Halves

The left and right aluminum halves of the core are taped together.  Three bands of tape around the eyes, neck, and chest do the job. 

Step 4: Coloring the Grout

I mix the grout and pigment powders in a 5-gallon plastic bucket with a lid.  I shake it about 50 times in a circular motion.  Let it sit for a while so any cloud of dust inside the bucket has a chance to settle.  Try not to breathe any grout dust. 

Step 5: Mixing the Grout

I made a boat-shaped mixing bowl out of silicone rubber.  It can be flexed and scraped to remove even hardened grout since nothing much sticks well to silicone rubber.  The boat shape is for ease in pouring when it is used with plaster of Paris to make molds. 

I usually add the water first and then the dried powder.  Stir with an old spoon, or other tool, or by hand, but you have to wear plastic or rubber gloves.  I use "disposable" gloves, reusing them until they tear.  The thin material almost lets you feel like you are working bare handed. 

The grout can be mixed with varying amounts of water to give it thicker or thinner consistency.  It all has its uses. 

Step 6: The First Layer of Grout

Wet grout is fairly heavy and sags, so you can't do too much at first without a rigid core.  These prepared cores let me sit down with the model and start in on the facial features right away, saving the model's time in the initial stages.  Since the core is already hard, it supports the weight of any added grout during the sculpting process. 

Rub the first layer on with your gloved hand, or mini-trowel, such as a palette knife.  It's quick and easy.  I do a layer on the bottom of the core first and then set it down on a flat, non-stick plastic sheet to finish coating it.  That way the bottom is plastered and out of the way.  It has a flat and smooth surface when hard. 

The plastic I work on is moisture barrier material used underneath cement slab floors in house construction. 

Step 7: Sculpt the Bust

Using hands, or sculpture tools, sculpt the material as you would clay.  These busts take me about 7 or 8 hours to make, which includes about 4 hours of the model's time. 

Unlike clay, which can be kept moist and pliable by preventing evaporation, the grout is in a continual process of hardening up once it receives water.  It's always easier to add more fresh grout to the bust later than it is to carve away hardened grout, so try not to over-shoot your mark if you can avoid it. 

Please excuse the unnatural colors of some of the photos.  I don't know what causes my camera to go wacky on the colors at times.  It's time for a new camera, I guess. 

Step 8: Other Busts I Have Made

These are some other busts I have made over the years. 



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    34 Discussions


    The end result is amazing! I've been doing some research into alternative materials for an arts project and considered mortar caulk and bathroom grout, and of course, I found this! Thank you so much, and good work! I've never worked with cement-like material before, do small pieces of grout chip off easily?

    2 replies

    Glad you like the technique. Grout is not as hard as fired clay, but it is easier to work with because you don't have to fire it. It's about comparable to the strength of cement. If you don't bang it, or drop it, small pieces won't chip off. Do some small-scale tests to get a feel for the strength.

    Just curious, I was looking for an alternative sculpting material that will stick to a styrofoam core.  And to make matters more difficult, I need it to have a smooth finish.
    So, that being said, how "workable" is the grout after it's cured?  Can it be sanded at all?  I was leaning toward Bondo, but it's pricey!  Any suggestions?

    1 reply

    The grout sticks well to Styrofoam.   When hard it can be filed and sanded.   If you want a shiny smooth finish, you may have to use something like a varnish.  Experiment, and let me know if you come up with anything good. 


    9 years ago on Introduction

    Great work.
    You obviously know a bit about sculpting.
    Could you make a figurine and show me/us how to make a mould for the figurine. Im totally lost when it comes to moulding, however I am good at the 'pour', if ya know what I mean.

    1 reply

    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction


    Making a figurine is one thing.  Making a mold of it is another. The kind of mold you make depends on the position of the figure, for one thing.  A complex position calls for a more advanced mold making technique -- using more than two mold parts, or a flexible inner mold with a rigid outer mold shell. 

    Try to avoid undercut areas that would hang up a rigid mold.  For that you need a flexible mold. 

    I suggest you start with simple shapes with two-part molds.  I used to make figurines out of clay.  Cut pieces of acetate and stick them into the clay to represent the part line.  You can use acetate to fuse the pieces together.  Plaster one side, remove the acetate, apply mold release, and plaster the remaining side.  It helps to put registration dimples in the acetate with heat and a round object, and wedge holes in the part line for sticking a wedge in to help pry the mold halves apart. 


    I'm not sure, but I think it must be sanded.  It has some gritty feel to it and it doesn't shrink and crack when it hardens and dries. 


     On the package it will say if it is for joints that are 1/2 or larger - that is sanded grout, for smaller joints unsanded grout can be used. If it is gritty I am sure it is sanded, thank you. Unsanded grout will crack if the expanse is too large. Is it possible if you mixed the gout thinly and used it as a slurry you could then dip the piece just to get the first few layers on?


    The slurry idea sounds interesting, kind of like dipping candles.  One would probably waste a lot of slurry in the dip tank, though.  I'll stick with just slathering on a thicker coat.  It doesn't take all that long, and there is no need to repeat the process. 

    Dipping would be a good way to make mini-caves with stalactites and maybe stalagmites.  The stalagmites could always be made separately and inverted when finished. 


    9 years ago on Introduction

    I work for a grout manufacturer and love to see alternative uses for this product!!  Keep up the good work. I would be happy to help out with future projects.

    1 reply
    osiris sr

    9 years ago on Step 8

    my older sister had art class they made busts out of wax starting with a gallon jug and welded pedistel . the pedistel was heavy half in thick metal with a heave rod about a foot long in the middle and tree like branches to hold the wax . the hot wax was melted and poured into the gallon jug the wax was carved into an indian bust and feathers added as head dress . when my sister moved she gave me the sculpture i should of took photos alwats document everything with photos wish i had them to share here. happy mol;ding casting carving no matter the medium its fun way to craft that great bust remids me of zz tops frank beard


    9 years ago on Introduction

    looks good.
    An interesting choice with grout, an artist at sculpting and timing.
    Bust sculpting is due for a revival.

    2 replies