Artists jokingly oversimplify the process of sculpting by saying it’s just a matter of removing all material that “doesn’t belong” in a block of stone or clay. Though that is the right idea, it is a little more difficult than that. Sculpting is three-dimensional art made by shaping and combining hard materials, such as marble, metal, glass, wood, or plastic material such as clay, textiles, polymers and softer metals. As with many of the arts, sculpting became more of a pastime as the practical needs for it were either perfected or dropped for more effective means. Creating with natural elements continues to take on some surprising innovative aspects, such as sculpting with sound and light. For the sake of concentrating on hobby sculpting, this article will only summarize some of the more recognized areas and detail the more practical or novel aspects.
Sculpture, in one form or another, goes back thousands of years. Some of the earliest forms found have, because of their durable nature, been carved in materials such as stone. The process of sculpting is basically the controlled removal of stone, whether it is from a single rock, or on large slabs, such as is found in the earliest forms known as petroglyphs. These were images created by removing part of a rock surface, which remains in situ by incising, pecking, carving, and abrading. These paved the way for monumental sculptures, which cover large works, and architectural sculpture, which is attached to buildings. Hardstone carving is the carving, for artistic purposes stones, stones such as jade, agate, onyx, rock crystal, carnelian, or sard. Engraved gems are small carved gems, including cameos, which were originally used to create rings worn to imprint personal emblems on documents with sealing wax. A sampling of famous stone and marble sculptures are the carved jade items of the Shang Dynasty, Michelangelo Buonarotti’s Pieta, Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne and of course, the Greek Venus di Milo, whose true sculptor may have been Alexandros of Antioch.
Bronze Sculpture and Casting
Bronze is the most popular metal for cast metal sculptures. A cast bronze sculpture is often called simply a “bronze.” Common bronze alloys have the unusual and desirable property of expanding slightly just before they set, thus filling the finest details of a mold. Their strength and lack of brittleness (ductility) is an advantage when figures in action are to be created, especially when compared to various ceramic or stone materials, such as marble. Typical artists famous for this type of sculpture are Myron’s Discus Thrower, Donatello’s David, Rodin’s Burghers of Calais and The Thinker, and more recently, Remington’s Bronco Buster (1909).
Casting is a manufacturing process by which a liquid material is (usually) poured into a mold, which contains a hollow cavity of the desired shape, and then allowed to solidify. The solid casting is then ejected or broken out to complete the process. Casting may be used to form hot liquid metals or various materials that cold set after mixing of components (such as epoxies, concrete, plaster and clay). Casting is most often used for making complex shapes that would be otherwise difficult or uneconomical to make by other methods. Casting is a 6,000-year-old process. The oldest surviving casting is a copper frog from 3200 BC. The casting process is subdivided into two distinct subgroups: expendable and non-expendable mold casting.
The methods used for small parts and jewelry vary a bit from those used for sculpture. A wax is obtained, either from injection into a rubber mold, or it is custom-made in wax. Occasionally, a custom-made wax might be molded in rubber first as insurance against the loss of the unique wax and related labor costs incurred in carving it. Castings for smaller sculptures, such as jewelry, can be found in museums and modern galleries everywhere. Some good examples for inspiration can be found among items associated with the Shang Dynasty (hair pins, jewelry, and ritual items). Navajo jewelry is sand cast, making it interesting, as well (see “Other Natural Materials,” below). Also the work of contemporary Bob Burkett is made unique with the shubuichi technique, which has helped him produce small but outstandingly detailed pieces, i.e., beads.
Probably the most popular sculpture method is that of clay. Clay is inexpensive and easy to work with, and the possibilities for firing techniques, glazes, and finishes are endless. Pottery is the form most often chosen for artists trying to sell their work because it is both aesthetic and useful.
At the greenware state, the artist can choose to decorate the piece, either with paint or an underglaze. Cobalt blue paint, for example, is commonly used as an underglaze decoration on the traditional “blue and white” wares that come from China on rice bowls, etc. An overglaze pigment can be applied after the first firing. This is often the method of choice because more colors will “survive” the second, lower-heat firing. Enamel is the method of applying powdered glass as the overcoat to a piece of pottery, causing a durable and shiny result. Burnishing can be done at this state, though the piece is most likely to survive if it is done before the first firing, at the green “leathery” state. The results of using wooden or bone spatula, smooth stones, plastic, or glass bulbs will produce an extremely shiny effect. This can be done on the entire piece or only on parts, leaving some spots with a matte finish.
Wood carving is a method of working with wood where a cutting tool is used to make a wood object. Figural carving seems to have been widespread. The carving to represent one`s god in a tangible form finds expression in numberless ways. The early carver, and, for that matter, the native of the present day, has found a difficulty in giving expression to the eye, and at times has evaded it by inlaying this feature with colored material.
Whittling is a form of wood carving and is the simplest and cheapest means of creating something from almost anything. From walking sticks to delicate figures, about the only thing necessary is a whittling knife and a piece of wood. Some types of wood are softer than others, ranging from balsam (the most common lightweight media) to others, such as walnut and ebony (the hardest and most challenging with which to work). Rosewood is popular, especially for ornamentation on stringed instruments and inlays.
Typical famous wood carvings are found on the doors and in much religious architecture throughout Eastern and Western Europe, and India. Africa and Oceania are famous for their carved masks and animal renditions. Some specific carvings include The Head of St. Anne by Tilman Reimanschneider, The Annunciation by Veit Stoss, and even a violin by Constantin Brancusi.
In addition, very famous works of wood come in the form of musical instruments. Woodwind instruments, such as flutes and oboes, all the way to lutes, viols, and the rest of the string family range from the very simple carvings of bamboo (such as with the earliest flutes) to rosewood inlays and scrollwork found on lutes and other stringed instruments. The amazing thing about working with wood is that wood is not dead—its cells are alive, and temperatures, humidity, and age all affect its properties. When someone takes on the task of carving and varnishing an instrument (top, bottom, sides, etc.) he needs to take into account not only its immediate aesthetics but also how it will sound in the coming years. Sculpting with wood for pitch and resonance is no casual task, and it is no wonder the world still marvels at the accomplishments of Antonio Stradivarius to this day.
Other Natural Materials
The Navajo are an Athabascan people who migrated into the Four Corners region of the American southwest roughly 600 years ago. When they settled there, they were farmers and herders. However, when they came into contact with the Spaniards, they learned silver smithing skills and soon became top-notch jewelry designers. One common technique used by the Navajos is a method of sand, where molten silver is poured into a sand mold, and course, grainy marks are left in the finished piece.
Silver may also be hammered or braided. Today, the most popular Navajo materials are silver, turquoise, coral, lapis lazuli, and malachite. They also use black onyx and several varieties of oyster shell. Traditionally, Navajo jewelry employed only materials found in the area where they lived, or traded for with other area residents. Today, however, they have expanded the numbers and types of gemstones they use, taking full advantage of internet suppliers and gem and mineral fairs.
Sound sculpture is often the brainchild of a composer or musician who crosses over into an “interactive” piece of artwork. This can be demonstrated in something as simple as a wind chime or Aolian harp. One of the more sophisticated examples, however, is the Blackpool High Tide Organ in Great Britain, created by Liam Curtin and John Gooding. It interacts with wave energy and plays at high tide through eight pipes attached to a dyke. These pipes are connected to eighteen regular organ pipes in its promenade, and when the sea water swells, it pushes air into the pipes, making random sounds based on a harmonic series in B flat, a natural series of harmonics. Another example is found in San Francisco. It is called the Wave Organ, and listeners can sit among stones reminiscent of ancient ruins and listen to gurgling, sloshes and hissing sounds amplified by a series of pipes coming from underneath. Yet another work of art is the Singing Ringing Tree, designed by Mike Tonkin and Anna Liu of Tonkin Liu. It is located in Lancashire, and interacts with nature by using wind energy to produce chorales of pipe sounds spanning several octaves.
For anyone picking up any new hobby, the wisest philosophy is to start small. See if you have an aptitude for it. Though it is important to have quality tools to do the right job, it is not necessary to pick up entire sets at once. For the first several pieces, buy them as you need them, (e.g., buy just one carving or whittling knife and one or two small blocks of wood). Or, with clay sculpture, buy small amounts of modeler’s clay or and practice on small pieces first—you don’t need a potter’s wheel right away. Practice imprinting with textures using common household objects, like spoon handles, stamps or popsicle sticks. It doesn’t need to be expensive. If you are finding you like what you see, start checking into some of the more sophisticated objects, and begin looking for studios in your part of town that make their kilns available or a small price. You can research books and the internet for methods and pointers. You can network with local hobbyists and attend workshops that come through your area. If your sculpture techniques are serving you well and you like your results, try looking for that “signature” style that will set you apart from the others. Whether it’s a specific color or glaze technique, or if it’s animal and tree carvings that set you apart, pick it and perfect it. At this point (if you choose to), you can participate in farmer’s markets, festivals, and even gallery openings to begin broadening your horizons. Just remember, though, unless you’re being commissioned to work on pieces for other people, there is no reason your hobby should be anything but just that—a hobby. If you fear that the task of creating is becoming tiresome, take some time off or try combining it with another art form or style, lest you begin to despise it. For example turn your project into a wind chime and see what sounds it makes. Use your wood carvings to imprint or adorn your pottery. A hobby should be fun!