Casting Cement: Sculpture & Techniques

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever wanted to make a sculpture for your yard and wondered what materials would last the longest? How about cement or concrete? In this lesson, we'll explore ways of using cement to make durable cast concrete sculpture.

Defining cement and concrete

Have you ever seen garden stores selling all kinds of outdoor sculpture? In order for those sculptures to last a long time outside, they need to be made of a durable medium. How about concrete? But first, what's the different between cement and concrete?

You often hear the words cement and concrete used interchangeably. But cement is a powdered substance made of calcium, silicon, aluminum, iron, clay, and other materials that have been burned together in a kiln or high temperature oven. These ingredients are carefully chosen for their chemical properties (more on that in a moment). Cement is an important ingredient in a finished product called concrete.

Concrete is a mixture of cement; a binder such as stone, sand or gravel, sometimes called an aggregate; and water. Remember those special chemical properties mentioned earlier? To make concrete, the cement and other materials are mixed with water, and this sets a chemical process called hydration into motion. When first mixed, concrete has a heavy paste-like consistency, but thanks to hydration it gradually becomes extremely hard, even though it should be kept damp as it hardens. When it is finished, it is impervious to water. Cast concrete is sometimes also called ''cast stone.''

Using concrete to make sculpture

Concrete is versatile as long as you know how to work with it. It's also easy to experiment with because you can buy the raw materials at any large hardware or building supply store.

When it's in a semi-liquid form or uncured, concrete is heavy and viscous--not easy stuff to handle. At this point, depending on how you want to use it, you can add substances to it that will slow the drying rate or speed it up, or make the wet concrete flow more freely. It all depends on how you want to use it to make art. But in all cases, to make sculpture with concrete you need something to control its shape.

Example of concrete sculpture: A monument to a city founder in Kristianstad, Sweden, by Per Olov Utvedt, finished in 1988. Concrete is a good choice for outdoor works because its largely impervious to the elements.
concrete sculpture from Sweden

Here are three possible sculpting methods.

You can cast it in a mold, a hollow form made of plaster, aluminum or latex into which uncured concrete is poured. The inner surface of the mold is coated with a substance like shellac to ensure that the concrete doesn't stick to it. The concrete cures until it has hardened and then it's removed from the mold.

Another, more complicated method is to use a mesh armature, or skeletal form, to support the concrete. Here, the armature is made first, using materials like chicken wire, wood or metal tubing. Then the basic form is filled out using a lightweight substance like styrene, and surrounded with another outer shell of metal wire. It's only at this point that the concrete is parged, or continuously poured and pushed into place by hand to cover the underlying form. A finished work can sometimes require layers of concrete and wire support.

Massive outdoor concrete sculptures of Paul Bunyan and his ox Babe in Klamath, California. Most likely, due to their massive size, these works were created using armatures and parging concrete.
concrete sculptures

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