Common Problems & Solutions in Sculpting

Lesson Transcript
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.

Sculpting is visual art that creates three-dimensional works using media like wood, stone, or clay. Explore some of the common problems encountered in sculpting, the media involved in each problem, and their common solutions. Updated: 01/24/2022

Creativity Gone Awry

As with any creative project, things don't always go according to plan. Problems can arise when working with materials to make sculpture.

Sculpture is three-dimensional art. It includes objects made by carving wood and stone and modeling with clay. Over time, people have devised many ways to make sculpture, and you can be sure that some of those processes involved trial and error.

In any creative process, accidents happen. Sometimes problems are related to poor quality materials, or someone using materials in a way that pushes them to their limit. They literally reach the breaking point. At other times, unforeseen challenges, like a flaw in a carving surface or clay that won't hold its shape, can make successfully finishing a product challenging.

We can't explore all the ways sculpture can go wrong. But let's look at major sculpting disciplines with an eye to potential problems and solutions.

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Problems & Solutions in Carving

In carving, an artist starts with a solid block of material like wood or stone and removes sections until the desired form is reached. Once the material is removed, it can't be put back. Carving mistakes can mean starting over. But other problems can be overcome with proper awareness.

When carving in stone or wood, make sure to have a stable surface on which to place your piece while you're working on it. Use the right tools for the job. All carving requires sharp blades. Keep them properly sharpened so they'll work as intended. Wear protective gear like safety glasses and a mask and work in a properly ventilated studio.

Always carve away from yourself rather than toward your body. And take your time. Patience can help you avoid problems.

Stone Carving

The choice of stone can make a difference. Experienced carvers work with granite or marble. But these hard stones are a challenge that require skill and top-quality tools. For beginning sculptors, it might be better to start with a softer stone that's easier to carve.

Soapstone is soft and polishes to a smooth finish. It's a good first choice, with a caveat. If you decide to carve with it, be aware of possible health concerns; it breaks in chips that can fly and hit you, and it gives off silica dust. Safety gear is a must.

Another choice, alabaster, is soft and easy to carve. It also has a caveat. Alabaster can have flaws in it that can break if not handled properly. But this problem can be overcome. If you wet the stone before carving, water will seep into flaw lines and make them more visible. Once you identify the crack-prone areas, adjust your design accordingly. If you have to carve near a flaw, it's best to carve with the grain of the stone instead of away from it.

Stone carvers often mark the outlines of the figure they're carving on the solid block as a reference point. Use a pencil instead of a marker because inks and dyes in the latter can bleed through layers of the stone, marring the surface.

Wood Carving

When carving wood, choose a wood like basswood that's soft and easy to carve. With the blade facing away from you, use your wrist to angle and work it rather than by forcing movement from your elbow. This gives you more control over the blade.

Cut with the wood grain rather than across it. If you make a cut and the piece is supposed to fall off, but it doesn't, be patient and re-cut it. Don't chip away at the end of it or pry it loose, which might damage the wood. Gradually remove materials, working slowly to your desired shape. Don't ever gouge wood out because those holes can weaken areas you haven't yet carved.

If carving figures with fragile parts, make sure the wood grain runs up and down them. For example, if you're making a horse, you want the grain running vertically on the legs. This gives them a bit more strength.

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