from The New Book of Knowledge®

For thousands of years sculpture has filled many roles in human life. The earliest sculpture was probably made to supply magical help to hunters. After the dawn of civilization, statues were used to represent gods. Ancient kings, possibly in the hope of making themselves immortal, had likenesses carved, and portrait sculpture was born. The Greeks made statues that depicted perfectly formed men and women. Early Christians decorated churches with demons and devils, reminders of the presence of evil for the many churchgoers who could neither read nor write.

From its beginnings until the present, sculpture has been largely monumental. In the 15th century, monuments to biblical heroes were built on the streets of Italian cities, and in the 20th century a monument to a songwriter was built in the heart of New York City. Great fountains with sculpture in the center are as commonplace beside modern skyscrapers as they were in the courts of old palaces. The ancient Sumerians celebrated military victory with sculpture. The participants of World War II also used sculpture to honor their soldiers.

The Types of Sculpture

Sculpture can be divided into two classes: relief sculpture and sculpture in the round. There are three methods for making sculpture: modeling, carving, and joining.

Relief sculpture is sculpture in which images are set against a flat background. A coin is a good example of relief sculpture: the inscription, the date, and the figure--sometimes a portrait of a statesman—are slightly raised above a flat surface. When the image is only slightly raised, as with the coin, the sculpture is called low relief or bas-relief. The ancient Egyptians sometimes carved figures into a flat surface. This type of carving is known as sunken relief. Statues that are almost three-dimensional but still are attached to backgrounds are regarded as high relief.

Sculpture in the round is freestanding, attached to no background. Most statues and portrait busts are carved in the round.

Modeling is done with clay, wax, or some other soft, pliable material. The sculptor adds pieces of material and molds it to the desired shape.

Carving can be thought of as the opposite of modeling because it involves removing rather than adding material. With knife or chisel, the sculptor carves from a block of wood or stone until the form is made.

Joining, or constructing, was not widely practiced until the 20th century. In this method the artist uses pieces of wood, metal, or plastic and joins them together into a construction. The airy, abstract kind of forms that are popular in modern times lend themselves to the joining system.

Almost everyone has actually practiced all three methods of making sculpture. When you make a snake or clown of clay, you are modeling. Whittling a stick is carving, and playing with an erector set or building a model airplane is joining.

How Sculpture Works

We think of the sculptor as a creative, sensitive, and original thinker. Seldom, however, do we think of the physical demands that the art of sculpture makes on the artist. A sculptor's work can be backbreaking. Marble must be moved and cut. Wood must be carved and sandpapered. Clay must be pounded and kept in condition with day-to-day care.

The sculptor must have a great deal of technical knowledge. He or she must know a good piece of stone from a bad one and just how much force that stone can take before it cracks. The sculptor must judge the quality of woods and learn how much water different kinds of clays need to stay workable. For casting models, the sculptor must know the chemistry of metals and their melting points. And the modern sculptor is frequently a competent welder, riveter, and machinist as well as an artist.


Before beginning to work, the sculptor must decide what material to use. Materials range from something as rare and costly as ivory, which comes from elephants' tusks, to common clay. Good clay is highly prized, but almost anyone can afford it, since it is found in many places all over the world.

The sculptor must decide between a material that is permanent and one that must be made permanent. Each kind has its advantages and disadvantages. A stone like marble is, of course, very hard. Carving must be done with great strength and at the same time with great delicacy. Mistakes are difficult to repair, and too much force can cause breakage. But when a marble statue is carved and polished, the sculptor's work is done. Clay, in contrast, is very soft. The artist can experiment a great deal, adding pieces and remodeling sections. If a mistake is made, the error can be removed quickly. However, clay must be kept workable. Every day the unfinished work must be covered with damp rags, and from time to time the unused clay in the bin must be moistened with water and pounded. Moreover, when the modeling is finished, the statue is by no means ready for exhibition, for clay does not last long. Therefore, the statue must be converted to another kind of material. A number of systems may be used, each requiring additional work. These systems--pointing, firing, and casting--will be described later.

Perhaps because they are permanent, stone and metal have always been important materials for the sculptor. Other materials that have been used include wood, ivory, jade, bone, glass, and plaster. For sculpture that is to be converted to another material, clay is by far the most frequently used substance, but various kinds of wax have also been employed.

In modern times the sculptor has turned to new materials such as one of the plastics, fiberglass, stainless steel, and aluminum.


Sculpting tools are an extension of the artist's hands. Some tools let a sculptor work a soft substance easily and precisely. Other tools allow the use of materials otherwise too hard to handle.

Loops of wire held in wooden handles can drag off large sections from a mass of clay more quickly and neatly than can a person's hands. Sticks or blades of wood, ivory, or light, flexible metals can give clean edges and draw fine lines across the surface of wax, clay, or soft metal. Hardwood and all forms of stone demand different kinds of tools. Hammers, mallets, chisels, and drills are needed for the process of carving. Today sculptors often use welding torches and soldering irons to join metal together for sculpture. Special machines that join or separate plastics with heat and pressure may also be used.

Pointing, Firing, and Casting

Many sculptors begin working from their sketches, while others work directly with their materials. Whatever the approach, the sculptor's aim is to produce a lasting work of art.

Pointing is not used very much today, but to sculptors in the past it was a dependable system for converting clay or wax sculpture into stone. First, the sculptor made a clay model of a statue. The sculptor then placed points, or marks, on the model, measuring the distances between the points. Using hundreds and sometimes thousands of points as guides, the exact proportions of the model could be transferred to the stone.

Firing is the only system that converts clay sculpture itself into a durable object. Not all clay sculpture is suitable for firing, for the system requires the object to be hollow and free from impurities and air bubbles. Therefore, as a rule, only small statues are fired. After the sculpture is completed, it must be left uncovered while the moisture in the clay evaporates. Then it is placed in a kiln, a high-temperature oven, and fired (baked) until very hard.

Casting is the most common system of converting a clay or wax sculpture into another material. There are many systems of casting, most of which are used in foundries. Basically, casting involves making a mold of the clay or wax model. This mold may be made of plaster, rubber, clay, or any of several other substances that are both workable and tough. If the sculpture is clay, the mold must be made in several parts, so that it can be removed from the model and then reassembled. If the figure is made of wax, the mold may be of one piece; for the mold can be heated, causing the wax to melt and run out. Hot liquid metal--usually bronze--is poured into the mold. When the metal has hardened, the mold is broken away and the sculpture is cleaned and finished.

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