Art – The Technique Of Sculpture

UNLIKE the architect, neither the sculptor nor the painter need wait for a commission before creating a composition, unless he is an architectural sculptor only, or a mural painter pure and simple. It has, I hope, been made clear in a pre-ceding chapter that a mural painting or a piece of architectural sculpture must be conceived and executed with reference to the exact place it is to occupy. The description we are about to give of the technique of the sculptor applies equally to free-standing sculpture or to architectural sculpture; the differences between these lie in character, not in method.

The materials a sculptor uses are: wet clay; plasteline, a composition which does not dry and crack and need not be kept wet as clay must be; and prepared wax. An idea for a figure or a group occurs to him; he sees it in his mind’s eye, more or less clearly, more or less vaguely, as the architect first sees his building, the painter his picture, the musician his song, the poet his sonnet. It is as yet only an intangible thought, still to be made visible to others. He takes a lump of clay or plasteline and, with his fingers and his tools—flattish wooden spatulas and wire loops of different shapes and sizes inserted in wooden handles—he models the plastic material into the general guise of his vision. The top of his modelling stand works on a pivot so that he may turn the figure around and view it in various lights from every possible point of view. This little sketch may be only four or five inches high, but, like the thumb-nail sketch of the architect, or the phrase of the musician, contains the germ of the completed work. The sculptor then enlarges this sketch to a size several times greater. For this larger sketch an armature is required. An armature is a sort of skeleton without ribs or head, but with arms, legs, spine, and neck, made of wire—hard lead, copper, or galvanized iron—bent into the general attitude and shape of the little sketch model. Without the armature the model would sag of its own weight as the human body would without its skeleton. The feet of the armature secured to the modelling stand, the sculptor proceeds to clothe this skeleton with clay or plastelinewax is used chiefly for very small figures or for models of coins or medals—squeezing it around the wires and building out the forms of the body. When the general masses of the body, head, and limbs are approximately arrived at, he begins with fingers and tools to correct and modify the forms and establish their drawing and their planes. The pro-file of any form as seen in any position is, in Sculpture, the drawing of that form. Any surface, however rounded it may seem to be, may be resolved upon examination into a series of approximately flat planes. Taking the face as an illustration, we have the general plane of the forehead, the general planes of the cheeks, the general plane beneath the nose in which the mouth and chin lie. These are the big, main planes; and each is made up of other, minor planes and these again of lesser ones; and so of any part of the body. Some sculptors work by establishing the planes first; some by establishing the profiles of forms first and then connecting them with planes; as for example: in modelling a head, to build up the profile of the face and the top and back of the head exactly as it looks from the side; then the outline of the head and ears as it looks from straight in front; then the three-quarter views of the face and back of the head; then connecting these mere profiles with clay, and then establishing an infinite number of intermediate profiles or outlines in the order of their importance. By this method the absolute drawing of every mass, or contour of a mass or form, is definitely fixed. The other method, working by planes, is about like this: a mass of soft clay or plastelineno armature is required if we are modelling a head—is thoroughly kneaded and pounded together, to fill up all possible voids, and then cut with wire tools into the approximate shape of the head. At this stage it looks something like the wooden heads in milliners’ windows. Then the sculptor presses his thumbs on the places where the eyes will be and forms the plane of the eyes; changing the pressure out and down creates the cheek-bones; he returns to the nose and, using the thumb and forefinger as required, of both hands, he presses at each side of the nose-to-be, pressing out and down again to create the plane of the cheeks. Pressure under the nose develops the plane of the mouth and chin; under the jaw, the jaw-bone. A deft touch in the soft clay sketches in the eyelids, another, the lips. Long before this a face has seemed to smile through the clay as though it had always been there and the sculptor had but released it from its enveloping matrix. It is amazing how rapidly a skilful artist will thus create life out of dead earth. The sculptor then corrects profiles and planes and carries out the minor details and refinements of surface and expression. Many men have many methods, but these two are most easily describable.

Although we have described these as applied to the modeling of a head, the same principles apply to a whole figure. Sometimes, if the work is to be a statuette, the artist will go on refining the surfaces and profiles of the sketch to an exquisite degree of finish. But if a sketch for a life-size, or larger, figure is in question, he only carries it to a point where the character is clearly marked, the action expressed, the great masses of light and shade established, Balance and Rhythm secured. A cast is then made of the sketch model absolutely reproducing it in plaster of Paris, and which will therefore bear handling. The enlargement, or “pointing up” of the sketch to the size desired, is a mechanical matter and the first part of the process is turned over to men who make a business of it. Resort is had to a kind of gigantic panto-graph ; the distance between any two points on the small model is automatically increased by the machine to the size desired. An armature is made of strong iron pipe, bent and adjusted to follow the action of the figure, as shown by the sketch, and as the pantograph indicates it to be at the larger scale. The pieces of pipe for the arms and legs are often put together in such a way that they may be moved, in case the sculptor should feel a change desirable. This is clothed with clay by the fistful, pounded into a solid mass until it begins to resemble a human figure. The enlarging machine is so constructed that one leg will move in unison with the other, and a nail is driven into the clay of the enlarged model and left sticking out until its head just touches the tip of the enlarging leg; the head of this nail may give the position of the tip of the nose, or the point of the shoulder; this process repeated again and again all over the figure, it is soon bristling with nails, the head of each representing a certain point on the plaster sketch model, each of these points being marked on the latter with a lead-pencil. Clay is then built up around these nails flush with their heads, the nails pulled out, and the figure takes on the appearance of the forms of the sketch, but several times larger. It is of course unnecessary to enlarge every detail. The sculptor needs only the main planes and points, for, in enlarging a small model its defects and inaccuracies are magnified in proportion. Besides, the problem of treating a figure on a large scale is quite a different one from the treatment of a statuette; more detail is permissible, and yet the difficulty of indicating detail in a broad and convincing way is in-creased by the larger scale. So, having the main points accurately fixed, he begins afresh to study every plane, every profile, the flow of every line, how lines should be opposed or repeated by other lines, how the lights and shadows fall, from every conceivable point of view. Frequently, for the position the figure is to occupy, higher or lower as the case may be, distortion and falsification are required for truth of effect. Planes must be tipped forward or back, this way or that, the neck must be lengthened, things done to the eyes and nose and so on, in order that when placed in its destined position the figure shall look right. When it is thoroughly studied and carried as far as it can be in clay, a plaster cast is made of it and the sculptor then works over this plaster cast with the greatest care, scraping and smoothing and refining surfaces, giving them textures, and softening or sharpening details as he feels they require it, until it is as beautiful as he can make it. It is then ready to cast in bronze—a highly technical process and in modern times not a part of the sculptor’s craft. Had the figure been destined for execution in marble or stone it would have been given another sort of treatment; the last finishing process on the large plaster model would be modified or omitted; but first, and most important, there are attitudes of the body for which marble is unsuited—a very simple example would be one in which a figure is drawn up to its full height with one arm extended straight out at a right angle with the body. Either this arm must be cut from a separate piece of marble and jointed on at the shoulder, or, for the sake of having the whole figure in one piece, an enormous block of marble must be provided and all of it beyond the body wasted for this arm. And whichever way it were done, there would be constant danger and likelihood that the arm would eventually crack and fall off or be broken off. This attitude, or almost any attitude, may however be perfectly and safely executed in bronze.

The limitations of the material therefore impose a definite character upon the work, and the sculptor with a grasp upon these limitations of his materials and upon his art, composes his figure or group with definite reference to the material in which it will be executed. If he were modelling for execution in faience—glazed earthenware—he would not only model all his forms much more crisply than usual to allow for the softening of edges and the filling up of hollows by the colored glazes, but he would so model them as to catch and hold the glaze where he wants accent or a richer coloration, and would make allowance throughout for the tendency the glaze has to run off the high places and gather in the hollows. This technique is very fascinating and one of which the Chinese and Japanese are masters.

Returning, after this digression, to execution in marble, the reader will no doubt recall many marble groups or figures in which the stump of a tree or something of that sort is placed beside a part of the figure, or under it—as under the belly of a prancing horse. These are cases wherein the limitations of the material were ignored or exceeded and resort was had to this expedient to carry the weight and make the figure stand up.

To reproduce the full-size plaster model in marble, the early part of the work is turned over to skilful carvers, who, taking the rough block of stone, rough out the figure by a series of careful measurements, and then as soon as points can be fixed for it, the pantograph is brought into play—or, rather, a modification of it, since the figure is not being enlarged. Three points are established, coinciding with the three legs of the machine, and a fourth is found on the plaster cast by a sliding and movable metal rod with a point. This point is made to touch a spot on the plaster cast, the rod secured with a set-screw, the point marked for identification with a lead-pencil, the machine transferred to the marble and the three legs placed on the three fixed points which agree with the three on the plaster. The marble is then cut away until the point of the metal rod when slid out to the same extent as on the plaster model exactly touches the marble. Of course, the principal points are always found first, and the marble cut away in planes, the larger at first and then the smaller ones, until the figure is almost like the original plaster. Both are covered by this time with pencil dots representing the points where the pointing-off machine has been used. The sculptor himself then takes a hand, and with mallet and chisel, with rasp and file, and sometimes sandpaper or shark-skin, gives the forms their final surface and their final expression. The sculptors of the Renaissance probably made nothing more than the merest sketch, perhaps only a drawing, and carved their statues out of the solid block without mechanical aids.

For a bas-relief, or an alto-relievo, a background surface of clay or plasteline is prepared, not by any means necessarily flat, upon which the composition is sketched with a stick or a lead-pencil or a tool, and the forms built up on the background with more clay or plasteline, and refined and scraped away to the point of finish where a plaster cast may be made of it, the plaster worked over as for a figure in the round, and then cast in bronze or carved in stone or marble. The treatment given the forms and details must be appropriate to the material.

Coins and medals are merely small bas-reliefs. They are frequently, too frequently, modelled at a size far larger than execution. The medals of Pisanello, done in the fifteenth century, are the finest ever made; and it is quite evident from many indications besides the breadth and simplicity of their design and treatment, that they were modelled at the size of execution. When the original model is made much larger than the finished medal is to be, and then mechanically reduced, the tendency is toward too much detail. When modelled at actual size it is usually done in hard modelling wax. Medals are cast in bronze, silver, and gold, and also struck in a die. Modern coins are always struck; old Greek and Roman coins were cast.

Such, in a brief and general way, are the technical processes by which the sculptor translates a dream into reality. Neither here nor in the description of the architect’s methods have we attempted to give any idea of how the artist’s mind works through these processes and produces a work of beauty in spite of the mechanical methods, the slow series of steps, he must employ. That would be quite impossible to convey; the mind of every artist works in a different way and modifies methods accordingly.

Many sculptors, and among them some of the very best, began as studio boys or helpers, sweeping up, keeping the clay in the bin and the clay models wet, making themselves generally useful, modelling a little when they had time, until gradually, with this experience and work in night classes in drawing or modelling from the life, they became skilful craftsmen. Others, of course, began in schools of art, supplemented by experience as helpers. When a sculptor is successful and has many and large commissions, it is physically impossible for him to do all of the work himself, and he therefore has assistants who carry out his instructions—good schooling, of course, for them. This has always been so, and there is no doubt that Phidias had a large corps of assistants for his work on the Acropolis of Athens and else-where.

The sculptor’s studio is usually a pretty rough sort of place, where much heavy work is done, the floor often wet and covered with clay or plaster—as far removed from the popular idea of a studio as possible. It is a place where dreams are dreamed, to be sure; but you would never know it except as you see them made visible in the creations of the artist. Like the architect’s office, and the studio of the serious painter, it is pervaded by a professional, not a dilettante, atmosphere; it is a place where a man quietly and without pose does his daily work of creating beauty.