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Sculpture Materials and Methods, Artist Essay by James J. Nance - Sculpture Materials and Methods - Abraham Lincoln Art Gallery

Essays on Art, Sculpture, and Abraham Lincoln 

By Bronze Portrait and Figure Sculptor James J. Nance


The use of Armature, Types of Clay, and Modeling Procedures in the sculpture process.










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Sculpture Materials and Methods


Once the artist has an idea of the sculpture's composition and before an artist can build the sculpture up with clay there must first exist a solid support to which the clay will be applied. This is especially important when the sculpture has an open composition with outstretched limbs. This solid support is called an "armature." 

 Clay can be very heavy and for a life size adult figure can easily weigh 600 pounds.  This mass must be internally supported by a solid framework, usually welded pipe and wire, mounted securely on a modeling board.  The size and shape of the armature is dictated by the size and complexity of the sculpture.  In preparation, an artist will often prepare a  small clay or wax model of the future sculpture called Maquette which will lack detail but aid in deciding composition and the resulting construction of the armature.  If the armature is not constructed properly or if the artist changes his mind about the composition after the work has begun, the  completed sculpture may have pipes sticking out of the surface and the work must be torn down and the armature rebuilt correctly before starting again.  This is not an uncommon occurrence even with the most experienced artists. 

Types of Modeling Material  (wax, water clay, oil clay)

Wax.  A specially formulated modeling wax has advantages when creating small figures.  The lightness of the material and its pliability and workability offers the artist the ability to work in fine detail to create tiny features such as fingers.  Wax is often worked using wire tools which can be heated over a flame.

The finished product has a rough rugged vitality and shows the marks of sculpting.  This is a perfect material for creating small western sculptures such as cowboys or Indians or animals.  The lightness of the wax does not require a heavy armature, which can be built with wire and moved as necessary as the work progresses and the artist changes the composition. An artist who works in heavy clay will often create a first draft maquette from wax.  

Water Clay:  Water based clay is essentially pottery clay and until recent years was the material of choice for sculptors.  One advantage of water clay is that its consistency can be adjusted by the artist to fit the circumstances. As the sculpture is initially modeled, the artist can keep spraying the clay with a water mist bottle to create a smooth slick feel.  I personally prefer this type of clay for portrait busts.  The wet surface of the clay allows the artist's hands to easily glide over the form, feeling the composition.  Between sessions, the work is covered with a plastic bag to preserve moisture.  As the work progresses and detail is finally modeled into the sculpture, the clay can be allowed to gradually dry with less and less moisture applied.  A wet or dry paintbrush becomes a valuable tool and can be used to blend detail and surfaces.  

Prior to making a mold, the artist can fire the work and create a one of a kind permanent original.  This process is tricky and requires gradually allowing the sculpture to dry to a leathery state.  Then the artist must actually cut the work in half and hollow out the clay to a thickness of about 1/4 of an inch.  Finally the hollowed out work is reassembled using a wet clay slush and allowed to dry very gradually over several weeks.  If the work is allow to dry too quickly or without being hollowed out, it will simply crack and fall into hundreds of pieces. When the 19th Century French sculptor Auguste Rodin was called into the army, he wrote home daily imploring his lady friend to keep wetting the burlap covering his unfinished sculptures. 

Finally the dried sculpture is fired in a pottery kiln to create a durable terra-cotta original.  While a fragile wet clay sculpture would be destroyed in the mold making process, a fired terra-cotta sculpture would be undamaged. A terra-cotta sculpture is most desirable if the artist is not interested in a bronze casting or does not need to create multiple copies from a mold.  

The primary limitation is that the process requires practice and finesse and if not done properly, the original can be lost.   Also during the process of drying and firing, the clay will shrink almost 12% so if the artist is attempting to create a life size work, the original must be pre-scaled up 12%.   Another limitation is that water based clay is that the weight of the water and clay can be massive and be very difficult with which to work. With large figures with outstretched limbs, a catastrophic collapse of the armature and work is possible.  The best use of water clay today is in busts and small figures which are destined for firing into terra-cotta.

Oil Clay.  Oil based clay presents one of the greatest advances in sculpture technology in modern times.  This clay is much lighter than water based clay and can be purchased in a variety of consistencies to suit the project.  A sculpture modeled with this clay will not dry out and will remain supple indefinitely. Fine detail is much more easily modeled in oil clay and surfaces can be blended with a paintbrush containing lighter fluid.  Further, the clay can be temporarily rendered into the consistency of soft butter by simply cooking it for a minute in a microwave (as long as it is not your wife's microwave).

Limitations include the fact that the finished sculpture is fragile and can be easily damaged.  This requires that a mold must be made to cast a permanent copy, destroying the original in the process. However until the artist decides to cast the sculpture, it can be carefully preserved in the clay state indefinitely with out fear of drying out.   Most artists recycle their oil clay using it over and over again for each project.  Oil clay is the material of choice when a sculpture is created which is intended to be cast from a mold into multiple copies.  

Procedure to Model a Bust

( Sections, General to Specific, Tools )

Sections: After deciding on the important composition of a bust, the artist will first model a rough featureless head and shoulders from clay on a simple cross shaped armature. On that framework the sculpture will be gradually modeled using the concept of "sections."  Since sculpture is three dimensional an accurate three dimensional representation of the subject cannot be created by simply considering one or two views; an unlimited number of sections must be considered. 

The easiest way to visualize the concept of sections is to imagine a cut through a clay bust  with a long sharp knife from top to bottom dividing the bust in half.  The outside outline of the cut section will form a silhouette  which is called a section.  It is this silhouette which the artist observes when modeling and duplication the subject in clay. One section, however, is not enough; there are an infinite number of sections that can be mentally cut (and observed), each revealing a different silhouette.  The artist then will literally turn his subject around hundreds of times each time searching for new and revealing sections.  Sections need not be viewed vertically either.  In portrait modeling, some of the most useful sections are viewed from the top down or bottom up. It is not uncommon to see an artist lying flat on his back on the floor looking up or perching on a ladder straining to look down on a subject. By continuously modeling the edge of many, many sections, the three dimensional form will accurately and naturally develop. Of course this is an approximation of the actual process. In practice  the observation of sections blends subconsciously with the artist's intimate knowledge of the facial form and sensitivity to the subject.  An experienced artist can model for long periods after a brief view of the subject retaining the forms of the face and sections in the memory. 

General to Specific: Another equally important concept in modeling sculpture is to begin with the general and end with the detail.  This may sound obvious, but it is the most critical skill a sculptor  must master.  Each individual has a unique shape and presence to his head and body, so that it is not unusual for one to recognize a loved one from the rear without seeing features of the face.  The artist must resist the temptation to begin individual features too soon and concentrate initially only on basic structure and the subtle form.  In fact, a skillful sculptor can create an excellent and readily recognizable bust which posses few features.  On the contrary perfectly formed individual features on a misshapen head will be totally unrecognizable. Only after the artist is absolutely sure the subject is captured in form, should features and detail be gradually and carefully added. 

Tools: Many people ask what kinds of tools must be used to model sculpture. Despite the claims of tool manufactures, all that is necessary is the artist's brain, eyes, and hands. An expensive and full sculptor's tool chest will no more make one a better artist than the latest laptop computer will make a better novelist. I know one very famous sculptor who uses only a old kitchen spoon, fork, and butter knife.  The best tool available is the hand and thumb, and a bust can be 80% completed using nothing else.  The important thing to remember is that it is not the tools, but the artist. 



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First Published to Web on  0 1/24/2003  /   Last  Updated on  05/16/2013 11:47 PM    /   Copyright 2003 James J. Nance