Carve a Free-Form Sculpture

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Large Arch Columbus IndianaAround the middle of the last century, sculpture began to evolve or change into what we know today as modern sculpture. Artists began working with new materials and "invading" solid forms with voids or holes. Henry Moore, one of the most famous sculptors of the 20th century, was a pioneer in stressing the importance of negative space. Strongly influenced by his environment, he was fascinated by the caves which occurred in the hillsides and cliffs of his native England. To Moore, a hole or negative space was as important as solid form, and he often used hollow cavities in his work.

Another distinguishing characteristic of modern sculpture is the artist's choice of subject matter. Before the mid-1800's, sculpture was created to represent people such as religious figures or royalty. Sometimes artists would model or carve the likenesses of animals. While modern sculpture can be representational, the subject is just as likely to be abstract. Much of Henry Moore's work falls into this category. Two of the artist's sculptures are located in Columbus, Indiana. One of them, Large Arch, stands in front of our public library, and it has served as the focal point of the library plaza since 1971.

Large Arch and other sculptures which are created to complement buildings or architecture are called "monumental sculptures." Before a sculptor invests money for materials or spends the time necessary to make such a large work, he or she makes a smaller sculpture to use as a model. This preliminary study for the full-scale sculpture is called a maquette (pronounced ma-KET). You can make a model or maquette by pouring a plaster block, and carving it with some simple tools. Working in the style of Henry Moore, we'll carve a small, free-form sculpture. Maybe someday your maquette will serve as the model for a monumental sculpture! To help save natural resources and landfill space, reuse a polystyrene cup to make the carving block.

You Will Need:

  • Plaster of Paris
  • Water
  • Plastic container
  • Polystyrene coffee or malt cup
  • Table knife and spoon
  • Finishing tools and sandpaper
Student Sculpture one

How to:

To mix the plaster, fill a small plastic bucket or other container no more than one-third full of cold water. Now sift the plaster of Paris through your fingers into the water. Keep adding the plaster until it stands above the water in dry peaks. This will take awhile, because the plaster will keep sinking. In order for the plaster to mix properly with the water, however, it's important to add the right amount.

When you reach this stage, you can mix the two together with your hand. Stir the mixture gently, and squeeze out any lumps that may occur. As soon as the plaster is mixed to a smooth, creamy consistency and covers your hand, pour it into a polystyrene cup. Tap the bottom of the container on a flat surface to release any trapped air. Depending on how much you mixed, you may have enough to fill two or more cups. Student Sculpture #2

The plaster will harden in just a few minutes. When the block is ready, peel the cup away, and discard the pieces. You can plan your model by drawing several views of the sculpture and then transferring a rough sketch onto the block. If you prefer, you can make a direct carving by improvising as you work. Use the table knife and spoon to create the sculpture. You'll notice that the plaster may be warm. This is because mixing the plaster with water causes a chemical reaction which gives off heat. The plaster will be soft, so working with the block is easy at this stage. It will take several hours to do the carving.

This kind of sculpture is called a sculpture in the round. People will be able to look at the model from all sides. For that reason, you should turn the work as you carve, and try to make it interesting from any view. Consider making a hole at an angle somewhere in the work. Remember, Henry Moore liked to use holes or voids in his sculpture. This lets light in, and helps cast interesting shadows. The plaster will be dry when the sculpture no longer feels cold when you touch it. After you're done carving and the work is dry, you're ready to smooth the model. Depending on how rough the sculpture is, finish it with metal rasps, files, screen wire, and/or sandpaper.

Tips and Tricks:

To save money, buy plaster of Paris at a discount store or lumber yard rather than at craft or paint stores.

If you want to make a larger sculpture, substitute a quart or one-half gallon paper milk carton for the polystyrene cup. When the plaster sets up, just peel away the carton and discard.

Mixing plaster properly takes a little practice. If the mixture is too liquid, it will take a long time to set up, and the finished block will be weak. On the other hand, if you add too much plaster of Paris to the water, it will be too thick, harden very fast, and it will be difficult to use.

Never mix plaster in a metal container, because you'll be unable to remove it or clean the container when the plaster hardens. Also, be very careful about cleaning up after working with the material. Plaster can clog sink drains! Clean your hands by wiping the plaster on a rag or paper towels, and then rinse in a bucket of water. To remove plaster from the mixing container, wait till it dries, and then scrape it into a trash can.

© 1997 Marilyn J. Brackney (updated 2018)

Volume 10 No. 1

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