How should I learn to sculpt?
January 4, 2007 2:23 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to learn to sculpt. Where should I start?

Books: I've gotten several books from the library and they've whetted my appetite, but none seemed like a good introduction to sculpture. Does anyone here have a recommendation for a sculpture book?

Spatial thinking: It seems clear that sculpture is all about thinking spatially and understanding lines and forms. I haven't been very good at this kind of thing in the past. Any recommendations for activities that will help me improve? If I'm a spacial dunce, should I just give up?

Materials: I bought some modelling clay. Seems like it'd be good practice for working with forms and shapes. Since I'd like to eventually carve wood and stone, I'll want to graduate to something where I carve away from a block of material to form a shape. Is wax good for that? Any other suggestions?

Classes: I've checked around and all the local sculpture classes seem to be advanced, and seem to focus on the techniques of working with various materials. Is there a different type of class I should be looking for that might be more of what I need?

(Googling this topic came up with some semi-helpful links, but most of them dealt specifically with modelling the human form and focused on learning anatomy and stuff. I'm not interested in starting with the human form; to keep it simple I'd like to deal with abstract shapes and maybe some animals for now.)
posted by agropyron to Education (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Bachelors-level studio art programs usually have, as a prerequisite for everything else, a class with a name like '3-dimensional design' or something. If done right, these classes are a little bit about techniques and materials and whatnot, and a little bit about how to see things and think like an artist and so forth. This sounds like almost exactly what you need.
posted by box at 2:37 PM on January 4, 2007

Best answer: Have you considered cement as a medium?

This author's books are excellent.
posted by the cuban at 2:42 PM on January 4, 2007

Alabaster is the best material for getting into stone carving, it is translucent, very easily worked with a wide variety of tools. Soapstone is also good for starting out.
posted by hortense at 3:13 PM on January 4, 2007

Best answer: Spatial thinking: revisit everything you see and think of it as a potential medium. (Don't worry about focusing on a particular medium at this early stage). Look at paper clips, grass, cereal boxes, ice, dirt, kleenex, aluminum cans, -everything- as a medium. Stack thing on top of other things. (nudge nudge). Rearrange things from their conventional arrangement. Draw sculptures you would like to make. Look at works of other sculptors (in books and museums). Make drawings of their work.
posted by allelopath at 3:23 PM on January 4, 2007

Start at the top, take a week off, attend jade carving workshop.
posted by hortense at 3:37 PM on January 4, 2007

Best answer: I studied sculpture in university, so I won't be of much help with regards to finding beginning classes in the community.

You're onto something with your insight that spacial thinking is important to traditional sculpture, but remember that art is yours to play with. My grandfather was an amateur painter for 20 years before picking up clay, and his sculptures reflect that experience. They're simply tablets with not-quite-3d shapes carved out of them and then painted. Works for him, and they're neat and original to look at.

But I assume you want to practice more traditional sculpture. To improve your spatial thinking, just do it -- it will get better with practice.

Just about every sculpture class I've taken has spent time initially getting a feel for the medium (as in: create something -- anything -- with a straight part and a curved part). This is usually followed by a lot of time finding increasingly complex objects that are already 3d, and just sculpting a duplicate (usually actual size). Only once you've mastered the technique of getting the medium to do what you want could you graduate to the level where you would create something from your imagination. Depending on the student, sometimes this is a fast process, but more often it takes time.

Clay would probably work for you as a cheaper medium to work on spatial relationships, but you might be better off with plastocene, if you can find it. Plastocene doesn't harden, so you can just keep recycling your material for study after study. It's a nasty, nasty chemical though, so you should be careful to take precautions when using it.

I haven't worked with wood or stone, but I have worked with wax, and it requires a completely different method of working. With wax you're displacing material in your hand, massaging it into place, and moving it around rather than subtracting from it. With wax you learn to be concerned with temperature, regularly moving your work under heat lamps to keep it pliable, but not for so long that it melts. I can't imagine that's relevant to wood or stone.

I wouldn't recommend spending too much time in clay, plastocene, or wax if that's not what you're really into. You would be spending time learning lots of information and techniques (aside from spatial thinking) that have no relation to sculpting wood or stone, such as how to build armitures to support big (heavy) work, and how important it is to keep a relatively even thickness throughout your piece so it doesn't explode in the kiln. I wouldn't even assume that wood and stone share much in the way of technique, even though they're both subtractive processes.

I say just jump into your medium of choice. Find a class on it, and learn through experience.
posted by nadise at 3:38 PM on January 4, 2007

For me learning through experience has been the best. I started with clay because someone randomly gave me a giant bag of it. At first I didn't fire anything I made. I just made something then mashed it back into a block and started sculpting something else with the same clay. That will give you lots of practice with the subtractive method without having to worry about the medium.

Eventually I found a small class on stone sculpting for noobs. It was offered at the local clay supply place. The instructor was awesome and with only 8 people in the 4 day class we all got a lot of attention and instruction on whatever aspect of sculpture we were interested in.
posted by J-Garr at 5:04 PM on January 4, 2007

Best answer: I have a lot of book recommendations, but most are specific to stone sculpture, which is what I prefer.

Your question is a little ambiguous to me, and forgive me because that is my problem, and not your question's.

Sculpting to me is expressing something in a (usually solid) medium. Learning that is different from learning the techniques specific to manipulating that medium.

I had a sculpture instructor once who told me "I can teach you how to carve, but not what to carve." Which question are you asking?

So as to scultping in general, learning about what has been said in 3D work is worthwhile. That implies studying artists, their lives, and their work. It is a perpetual task, as there are quite a few out there. Do any of the ones you know interest you? If so, perhaps they are a good place to begin. What's in their work? WHat's their story? Who influenced/trained/preceded/revered them? Why?

Have you spent time in many museums, looking at sculpture? Are you close to some good ones? Where can you afford to visit to see the really good stuff? How will you recognize it? Do you see sculpture in architecture and nature?

Also helpful, what is it you want to say? Is there something that you want to explore or succinctly present in a shape? (I have themes of human pretensiousness, futility, decay, femininity, continuity, and bridging the gaps between the ancient and modern, for example.)

When it comes time to actually construct something, you have many decisions to make about medium. Sculpture is done with everything from light to stone. All have specific features, limitations, and relevant techniques. To recommend one over the other is inappropriate because we don't know your innards. What do you love? Once I loved wood, but now am almost a slave to marble. There are hundreds of stones, woods, glasses, metals, paper, assemblages, shadows, the list is infinite. What can you not get out of your mind? That's a good choice. Google is more cooperative with some idea of what you are seeking.

That said, I find that I have enjoyed Vasari's "Lives of the Artists", a modern book called "Art and Fear" by Ted Orland, "The Agony and the Ecstasy", among others. Expensive picture books regarding Michaelangelo, Brancusi, Bernini, Rodin, Henry Moore, and many, many, others are always useful in improving your understanding of the field. Studies of any sort in anatomy are essential if you aspire to the figure, either representational or abstract. Classes, surveys, workshops, seminars can all help. Depending where you live, there may be willing folks able to mentor or direct your interests.

Once you start, try not to stop!

Have fun studying and good luck.
posted by FauxScot at 8:00 PM on January 4, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the excellent answers, everyone. Another one of those threads where just about every answer is a "best answer".
posted by agropyron at 7:55 AM on January 5, 2007

Best answer: you could carve bars of ivory soap- there's a street artist in toronto who does this with exacto knives and sells the results for $5. cheap and cheerful, and practical, too! you can always just wash your armpits with your mistakes.
posted by twistofrhyme at 1:50 PM on January 5, 2007

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