Defining Sculpture



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Sculpture is the branch of the visual arts that operates in three dimensions, and one of the plastic arts. Durable sculptural processes originally used carving (the removal of material) and modelling (the addition of material, as clay), in stone, metal, ceramics, wood and other materials but, since modernism, shifts in sculptural process led to an almost complete freedom of materials and process. A wide variety of materials may be worked by removal such as carving, assembled by welding or modelling, or molded, or cast.

Sculpture in stone survives far better than works of art in perishable materials, and often represents the majority of the surviving works (other than pottery) from ancient cultures, though conversely traditions of sculpture in wood may have vanished almost entirely. However, most ancient sculpture was brightly painted, and this has been lost.

A basic distinction is between sculpture in the round, free-standing sculpture, such as statues, not attached (except possibly at the base) to any other surface, and the various types of relief, which are at least partly attached to a background surface. Relief is often classified by the degree of projection from the wall into low or bas-relief, high relief, and sometimes an intermediate mid-relief. Sunk-relief is a technique restricted to Ancient Egypt. Relief is the usual sculptural medium for large figure groups and narrative subjects, which are difficult to accomplish in the round, and is the typical technique used both for architectural sculpture, which is attached to buildings, and for small-scale sculpture decorating other objects, as in much pottery, metalwork and jewellery. Reliefs may also decorate steles, upright slabs, usually of stone, which contain sculpture or sometimes just inscriptions.

Another basic distinction is between subtractive carving techniques, which remove material from an existing block or lump, for example of stone, and modelling techniques which shape or build up the work from the material. Techniques such as casting, stamping and moulding use an intermediate matrix containing the design to produce the work; many of these allow the production of several copies.

Sculpture is often used mainly to describe large works, which are sometimes called monumental sculpture, meaning either or both of sculpture that is large, or that is attached to a building. But the term properly covers many types of small works in three dimensions using the same techniques, including coins and medals, hardstone carvings, a term for small carvings in stone that can take detailed work.

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