Comparing Sculptural Materials & Techniques

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  • 0:03 Sculptural Methods
  • 1:27 Sculptural Materials
  • 4:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lesson discusses some of the more common mediums for sculpture as well as some of the techniques used to create artistic forms from them. Base materials discussed in this lesson include paper, wax, clay, wood, metal, and stone.

Sculptural Methods

Sculpture can be made with anything you can shape in some way, but certain materials are more commonly used. By no means should you limit your creativity to only the materials discussed in this lesson. Since techniques vary by material, we'll discuss the appropriate methods as part of the explanation of each medium. However, all techniques are either additive or subtractive.

Additive sculpture means that materials are built up to create the sculpture's form. Subtractive sculpture means the artist starts with a larger piece of material and removes some of it until only the desired form remains. All materials fall into one category or the other, and other materials can accommodate both additive and subtractive techniques. In fact, some go through additive and subtractive processes throughout the sculpting process.

Sculptural Materials


We don't always think of paper when we think of sculpture, but there are at least two types of sculpture using paper. The first is origami, which creates artistic shapes by folding and interlocking pieces of paper. A much messier type of sculpture, but definitely fun, is paper mache. This process soaks strips of paper in a glue or plaster solution, then layers the strips on a frame or on other strips of paper to create a form. In some variations, the paper is reduced to a pulp then formed into a shape.


Wax sculpture uses variously shaped tools to carve a block of wax into the desired form. The benefits of wax sculpting are that it is a soft material that is inexpensive. If you make an error, you can add heat to the wax and fill in an area. Wax sculpture is also used as a first step in some bronze sculpture, which we will discuss later.


Clay is a wonderful material for sculpture. When wet, it is easy to manipulate and carve. More clay can always be added to build protruding shapes. Dried clay can be wetted for additional work. When finished, firing the clay in a large oven called a kiln hardens the material to make it stronger.


Wood is one of the oldest materials used in sculpture, dating back to prehistory. Wood is a softer material that is easier to carve the fresher it is. As it ages and dries, it gets harder. The artist starts with a block of wood larger than the form they will create. They use a variety of tools like knives, gouging tools, and sanders to reduce the wood down to the form they are sculpting. In general, sculpting in wood requires subtractive techniques. The finished carving can then be painted, stained, varnished, or waxed. Unfortunately, wood is also vulnerable to insect, water, fire, and fungus damage.


Metal is one of the most versatile materials for sculpting. It has a wide variety of available techniques. One of the oldest is the lost-wax technique of bronze sculpture. For this, a wax model is carved, then coated with clay. When the clay dries, it is fired to harden the clay and melt the wax. Finally, bronze is poured into the clay mold to form a replica of the original wax sculpture.

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