Three-dimensional art made by one of four basic processes: carving, modelling, casting, constructing

Henry Moore OM, CH, 'Recumbent Figure' 1938

Henry Moore OM, CH
Recumbent Figure 1938
Green Hornton stone

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Introduction

Techniques and processes

Carved sculpture is usually made from stone, wood, ivory or bone. The main material used for modelling is clay. The process of casting involves modelling (in clay or wax), making a mould from the model, and then casting it in in a metal – usually bronze.

In the twentieth century a new way of making sculpture emerged with the cubist constructions of Picasso. These were still life subjects made from scrap (found) materials glued together. Constructed sculpture in various forms became a major stream in modern art (with constructivismassemblage and environments). Techniques used included welding metal, introduced by Julio González, who also taught the technique to Picasso.

Browse the slideshow of videos and artworks below for an introduction to a range of sculptural techniques and materials.

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  • Sir Jacob Epstein, 'Doves' 1914-15

    Carving – marble
    Jacob Epsten championed direct carving – cutting forms directly into wood or stone, as opposed to working from a wax or clay model. The simple shapes of this sculpture, carved from Greek marble, preserve the integrity of the block from which it was carved.

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  • Ronald Moody, 'Johanaan' 1936

    Carving – wood
    A large rectangular block of elm is used as the material for this sculpture. The artist, Ronald Moody has exploited the wood's natural qualities to enhance the modelling of the figure. The surface has been carved and polished to achieve a smooth, subtly modulated finish.

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  • Ben Nicholson OM, 'circa 1936 (sculpture)' circa 1936

    Carving – plaster
    Plaster is the medium Ben Nicholson has chosen for his abstract carving. A block of plaster was created by pouring plaster into a cubic mould. Once set, the soft porous nature of plaster makes it easy to carve.

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  • Julio González, 'Head called `The Tunnel'' 1933-4

    Metal construction – first steps
    González is regarded as the pioneer of welded iron sculpture. He learned oxyacetylene welding while working at the Renault car factory during the First World War. The tensile strength of iron allowed him to create three-dimensional forms without filling in the volume, an effect that he described as ‘drawing in space’. The forms used in his sculptures are abstracted from the human figure.

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  • Construction – metal
    Artist Phillip King, who came to critical prominence in the mid 1960s, makes large scale, brightly coloured, abstract sculptures. This video provides a fascinating insight into his working processes, from small maquette (or model) to finished sculpture.

  • Casting
    Anthony Gormley is best known for his casts of figures. Get a behind-the-scenes peep into his processes and techniques in this video tour of his studio.

  • Modelling
    Rebecca Warren's amorphous figure sculptures are modelled from clay. Take a closer look at her ideas and work in this TateShots video.

  • Assemblage – mixed media
    In his studio Brian Griffiths has a collection of interesting objects he has found and saved to make (or inspire) his mixed media assemblages.

The beginning of sculpture

The earliest known human artefacts recognisable as what we would call sculpture date from the period known as the Upper Paleolithic, which is roughly from 40,000 to 10,000 years ago. These objects are small female figures with bulbous breasts and buttocks carved from stone or ivory, and are assumed to be fertility figures. The most famous of them is known as the Venus of Willendorf (the place in Austria where it was found in 1908).

Sculpture flourished in ancient Egypt from about 5,000 years ago and in ancient Greece from some 2,000 years later. In Greece it reached what is considered to be a peak of perfection in the period from about 500–400 BC. At that time, as well as making carved sculpture, the Greeks brought the technique of casting sculpture in bronze to a high degree of sophistication. Following the fall of the Roman Empire the technique of bronze casting was almost lost but, together with carved sculpture, underwent a major revival during the Renaissance.

The development of sculpture

Explore the development of sculpture from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century through Tate artworks.

Sculpture in focus

An in-focus look at the work of two very different sculptors and their approaches to materials, techniques and subject matter.

Henry Moore: Abstracting the figure

Experiments with abstraction were one of the features of early twentieth century art, beginning with Picasso’s readymade sculptures. Henry Moore emerged in the 1920s as a leading avant-garde sculptor. He was initially inspired by sculpture from non-European cultures, such as those of Africa, Asia and South America which he first saw in the British Museum. In the 1950s and 1960s, Moore worked almost exclusively in plaster which was cast in bronze, creating abstracted figurative sculptures inspired by forms from the landscape and nature.

Tate curator Chris Stephens and Anita Feldman from the Henry Moore Foundation introduce Henry Moore’s sculpture as displayed at Tate Britain.

A gift of sculpture
Tate Etc. feature which focuses on the sculptures Moore gifted to Tate.

The Bronze Age
Article exploring Moore in the context of his contemporaries and the success of the The New Aspects of British Sculpture exhibition at the 26th Venice Bienale in 1952.

Cornelia Parker: Crushes, collisions and explosions

In the late 1980s British sculptor and installation artist Cornelia Parker began making installations using materials that had often been subjected to violent acts of transformation. 

Cornelia Parker, 'Thirty Pieces of Silver' 1988-9

Cornelia Parker
Thirty Pieces of Silver 1988-9
Silver and metal
Purchased with assistance from Maggi and David Gordon 1998© Cornelia Parker

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In Cornelia Parker’s hands, nothing is stable. Solid objects fall apart, collide, combust and are crushed, only to re-emerge from these acts of violence in new and surprising forms.

I like to take man-made objects and push them to the point where they almost lose their reference, so that they become something else, take on other alliances.

In this video the artist explains the ideas and processes behind her Folkestone Mermaid, a commisson for the 2011 Folkestone Triennial.

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View
Use this learning resource for an in-depth exploration of Parker’s iconic installation Cold Dark Matter, in which she magically presents an exploding garden shed, complete with shed-like contents, as if they are stilled mid-explosion.

Cornelia Parker: Talking Art
‘My work is all about the potential of materials – even when it looks like they’ve lost all possibilities.’ Watch Cornelia Parker in conversation with curator and writer Lisa LeFeuvre.

Sculpture in context

Curator Greg Sullivan introduces British art from 1810–1840 and examines neoclassical sculpture in the context of what was happening in painting at that time.

The poetics of space
Sculptor Anthony Caro and architect Norman Foster discuss the relationship between sculpture and architecture in this Tate Etc. article.

Tate Debate: Why do we still need monumental art?
Blog questioning the relevance of monumental public sculpture in the context of contemporary society, with reference to Anish Kapoor’s 2012 commission for London’ Olympic Park.

Other perspectives

In this video from the Fashion meets Art series, fashion designer Jonathan Saunders explains just what it is about Anthony Caro’s vibrant abstract sculptures that inspires his designs.

Saloua Raouda Choucair: From Beirut to Tate Modern
In 2013 Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair received her first major show outside her home country at the age of 97. This video follows the journey that these pioneering works of abstract art took from Beirut to Tate Modern as well as providing insights into the artist’s life and the development of her work.

Interview with Helen Charash about the life and work of her late sister Eva Hesse
Artist Eva Hesse pushed the boundaries of sculptural materials and form in her extraordinary sculptures. ‘What was it like to grow up with a genius?’…In this article, the artist’s sister provides an intimate perspective on Hesse’s life and work.

Conserving sculpture

Watch experts from the worlds of conservation, performance, textiles and archaeology discuss the preserved studios at the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Conserving large-scale painted sculpture
Read about our conservation project on Phillip King’s Call.

The conservation of John Foley’s sculpture of Sir Joshua Reynolds P.R.A
The conservation team explain how they cleaned the extremely dirty marble sculpture Sir Joshua Reynolds, P.R.A for display at Tate Britain in 2005.

Sculpture in detail

In 2005 Rachel Whiteread’s Embankment was installed in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. This video provides a behind-the-scenes insight into the processes involved in installing large-scale sculptural installations.

IN FOCUS: The Singer exhibited 1889 and Applause 1893 by Edward Onslow Ford
This in depth research project considers how two sculptures by nineteenth century sculptor Edward Onslow Ford function as a pair and explores the context of their making and reception in late Victorian Britain.

Contemporary Sculpture and the Social Turn
The two curators of skulptur projekte münster 2007, Kasper König and Carina Plath, are joined by James Lingwood, Director of Artangel, London, and two of the participating artists, Maria Pask and Mark Wallinger, for a panel discussion on the way artists engage with urban space and the public sphere, and the way the public engages with art works.

Related glossary terms

Techniques and materials:
cast, carving, metal, mixed media, maquette

Groups and movements: Eighteenth / nineteenth century:
neoclassicism, new sculpture, realism, symbolism, Victorian

Groups and movements: Twentieth century:
assemblage, cubism, constructivism, Geometry of Fear, minimalism, New British Sculpture, new generation sculpture, environments, land art, YBA