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Explore the Basics of Sculpture

Throughout history the techniques artists use to create sculptures have been largely determined by available materials and tools as well as by the purpose of the finished work.

Attributed to François Duquesnoy, Christ Bound, 1620s

Attributed to François Duquesnoy, Christ Bound, 1620s, ivory, Patrons' Permanent Fund, 2007.67.1

Jean-Pierre-Antoine Tassaert, Painting and Sculpture, 1774/1778

Jean-Pierre-Antoine Tassaert, Painting and Sculpture, 1774/1778, marble, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.110

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Head of a Woman, 1913

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Head of a Woman, 1913, carved and painted oak, Patrons' Permanent Fund, 2002.143.1

Carving: Sculptors use metal tools and abrasives to create figures, reliefs, or abstract forms. They often work with hard materials, such as stone and wood. Carving is considered a subtractive process, which means artists remove material with chisels or other tools to form the sculpture.

Andrea del Verrocchio, Putto Poised on a Globe, c. 1480

Andrea del Verrocchio, Putto Poised on a Globe, c. 1480, unbaked clay, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.128

Andrea del Verrocchio, Giuliano de' Medici, c. 1475/1478

Andrea del Verrocchio, Giuliano de' Medici, c. 1475/1478, terracotta, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.127

Edgar Degas, The Tub, c. 1889

Edgar Degas, The Tub, c. 1889, pigmented beeswax, plastiline, plaster, lead, wood, cloth, cork, wire, on wooden base, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1985.64.48

Modeling: When working with soft materials, such as clay and wax, sculptors use their hands, assisted by tools made of metal, wood, bone, or plastic, to build up forms. Sometimes they use a wood or metal framework (armature) to support the weight of the materials. Artists fire clay in a hot kiln to turn it into durable terracotta.

Severo da Ravenna, Neptune on a Sea Monster, c. 1500/1509

Severo da Ravenna, Neptune on a Sea Monster, c. 1500/1509, bronze, Widener Collection, 1942.9.104

Auguste Rodin, The Thinker (Le Penseur), model 1880, cast 1901

Auguste Rodin, The Thinker (Le Penseur), model 1880, cast 1901, bronze, Gift of Mrs. John W. Simpson, 1942.5.12

Molding and casting: Sculptors can create copies of their work through molding and casting. They use plaster, clay, gelatin, or silicone to make a mold of the sculpture, and then they fill the mold with moist clay, plaster, or another material to reproduce it. Some sculptures cast from a mold are considered finished works, while others are used as models for future molds.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, "Double Eagle" Twenty Dollar Gold Piece [obverse], model 1905-1907, struck 1907

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, "Double Eagle" Twenty Dollar Gold Piece [obverse], model 1905-1907, struck 1907, gold alloy, Gift of John Wilmerding, 2008.100.1.a

Angelo de Rossi, The Agony in the Garden, c. 1700

Angelo de Rossi, The Agony in the Garden, c. 1700, copper, Patrons' Permanent Fund, 2006.21.1

Hammering: Sculptors occasionally use a hammer or awl to add details or decorative patterns to a surface. They form a relief sculpture by working a thin section of metal, freehand or around a mold, from the front (embossing) or by pushing forms out from the back (repoussé). Striking, a related method utilized with coins, uses a mold (die) to press a design into metal.

Noah Purifoy, Untitled (Assemblage), 1967

Noah Purifoy, Untitled (Assemblage), 1967, mixed media, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, William A. Clark Fund and Gift of Dr. Samella Lewis), 2015.19.3928

Alexander Calder, Finny Fish, 1948

Alexander Calder, Finny Fish, 1948, painted steel rod, painted steel wire, glass, and objects, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls, 1996.120.15

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Medici Prince), c. 1953

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Medici Prince), c. 1953, construction, Gift of the Collectors Committee, 1982.54.1

Assemblage: Artists use the assemblage process to arrange carefully shaped or found objects into a sculpture. The parts of the sculpture might be all of one kind or a variety of elements. Modern sculptors who practice this process bring together found or diverse elements to create a sculpture, that is, a three-dimensional version of a collage. The combination of elements can result in a work of beauty, visual interest, or significant meaning.

South German 15th Century (Swabian or Franconian), The Holy Kinship, c. 1480/1490

South German 15th Century (Swabian or Franconian), The Holy Kinship, c. 1480/1490, polychromed wood, Patrons' Permanent Fund, 2002.13.1

Luca della Robbia, Madonna and Child, c. 1475

Luca della Robbia, Madonna and Child, c. 1475, glazed terracotta, Widener Collection, 1942.9.141

Jean Arp, The Forest, 1916

Jean Arp, The Forest, 1916, carved and painted wood, Andrew W. Mellon Fund, 1977.20.1

Polychromy: The term polychromy means “many colors.” Applying color to the surface of a sculpture can heighten its sense of energy and bring surfaces to life. Artists use paint, gold leaf, or glaze to direct viewers’ focus and highlight certain features or forms.