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Relief Sculpture: Information & Examples

Maria Airth, Stephanie Przybylek
  • Author
    Maria Airth

    Maria has taught University level psychology and mathematics courses for over 20 years. They have a Doctorate in Education from Nova Southeastern University, a Master of Arts in Human Factors Psychology from George Mason University and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Flagler College.

  • 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.

What is a relief sculpture? Learn about relief carving, and see relief sculpture examples. Know different types of relief sculptures and their use throughout history. Updated: 10/07/2021

What is Relief Sculpture?

Relief art is a form of art in which designs and/or sculptures are carved directly into a background causing them to stick out from a flat surface. It has been in existence for centuries. Artists and cultures from the early Egyptians to Ancient Romans and Greeks and even present-day artists have used relief style art to decorate buildings, mark important pieces or places, as signage, and simply as art to enjoy. Coins are likely the most well-known example of relief art.

The key to the relief art definition is that the art is three-dimensional work on a 2D background so that the relief artwork is not freestanding. It is not possible to walk around a piece of relief carving to see the other side; there is no other side.

Sculpture vs. Carving

If relief art is an art that is carved into a flat service, then what is a relief sculpture? A relief sculpture refers to a piece of sculpture that has a great deal of dimension to it, or more than half of the depth dimension is visible. Additionally, relief sculpture, as traditional sculpture tends to be created using stone.

Marble is a popular stone used for sculpture work and also used for decorative relief work. However, in antiquity, any stone used to build important buildings (such as the pyramids and temples to the gods) would be used for sculpture relief work.

It is interesting to note that any sculpture, which is flat on one side and attached to a flat surface is considered a relief sculpture.

Here is a stone relief sculpture example from a cathedral in Italy.


This catherdral in Italy has an example of relief sculpture.

Relief sculpture example


Relief carvings refer to any carvings done in relief (projecting from a flat surface). While stonework can have relief carvings, it is most common to find relief wood carvings. Hardwoods (like oak, ironbark, or mahogany) are used to create lasting and sometimes useful pieces of decorative and meaningful art. Relief wood carvings are frequently found as meaningful decorations in churches.


Many pieces of relief carvings, such as this wooden relief carving in the side of a church pew, are designed as meaningful decoration.

Relief sculpture used as meaningful decoration.


Tools Used in Relief Sculpture

Regardless of the material used (stone or wood), all relief sculpture and carving work require sharp tools to create the artwork. Tools such:

  • Chisels
  • Corner Chisels
  • Wooden mallets
  • Gouges
  • Rasps


Sharp knives are used to create relief sculpture and relief carvings.

Relief sculpture requires sharp tools.


Each of these tools has a special use in relief sculpting/carving. For example, gouges are tools with a curved blade used to scoop out areas of excess material. The first tool used by a relief artist is a pencil! The first step is to sketch out the design of the material chosen. Then the work of carving and sculpting begins.

What is Relief Carving?

Sculptors are artists who create three-dimensional objects. They can work in many methods, including using clay to model sculptures, as well as processes to cast large figures in bronze. Some sculptors carve materials like stone or wood. Those who carve works might make relief carvings.

A relief carving is a sculpture with figures that protrude from a background while still being attached to it. Relief carvings create an illusion of space and depth on a shallow surface. It's a very old way of making art, and examples of relief carvings date back to ancient Greece and Rome. Relief carvings are categorized according to their depth. A low relief, sometimes also called bas relief, has figures that project only slightly from the surface. On the other hand, a high relief has figures that stand out prominently from the surface with a greater sense of depth.

Ancient relief carving. This work is an example of a bas relief.
Ancient relief carving

Now that you know what a relief carving is, let's explore how they are made. We can't discuss the whole process in detail, but we can cover some of the most important tools and steps.

Types of Relief Art

There are many types of relief art. The most common forms of relief art are named for the number of carved figures protruding from the flat background: low relief, high relief, and sunken relief.

There are also other, less common, forms of relief art, such as:

  • Stiacciato relief: A very low subtle relief style carving that barely protrudes from its surface.
  • Mid relief: Also known as half-relief, this style is exactly as it seems; halfway between low relief and high relief.
  • Counter-relief: Like a mold, the image is carved into a surface in the negative. (eliminating the figure from the material instead of carving out the figure from the material)

Generally, when an artist uses the term relief, they refer to low or high relief artwork.

Low Relief (Bas-Relief)

Low relief, also known as bas-relief, the artwork is work that is only slightly protruding from the surface. It is like an exaggerated painting of sorts; extra detail in the image to give it depth, but the figures do not have any under carving thus, they still appear somewhat flat against the background.


This example of bas relief, or low relief, is from Indonesia.

Bas relief example from Indonesia.


To see many low relief sculpture examples simply requires viewing currency from around the world. Coins are practically the bas-relief definition in that they are carved metal with images noticeably sticking out from the flat surface, but those images are not projecting so far as to add great depth to the coins.

All cultures that use coins as currency incorporate bas-relief into daily life.

High Relief

High relief sculpture is the opposite of low relief carving. In high relief sculpture, each figure is under carved past the halfway mark of its natural circumference. In this way, the sculptures are much more three-dimensional than low relief carvings.


Tools and Techniques Used in Relief Carving

Sculptors make relief carvings from many materials, including stone, ivory, and wood. We're going to focus on relief carving using wood. So, the first basic requirement is a solid thick plank of wood. Hardwoods like basswood, oak, or walnut are good choices.

Example of a relief carving with more of a sense of depth
Tropical relief carving

Tools

The next step is assembling the right tools. Wood is carved with sharp knives made specifically for that purpose. There are two primary kinds. Chisels have a flat blade that might be straight or angled. They're used to cut lines into a surface. Gouges have a curved concave blade, and are used to scoop out wider shallow areas or remove material from a surface. Some blades are specialized, like corner chisels, which have a V-shaped blade and are used to shape corners. Some chisels and blades are small and used for detail work done by hand, while others are large and meant to be hit with a mallet. Whatever their size, it's a good idea to use quality blades made of strong material like carbon steel. It's also important to make sure the blades are very sharp to ensure precise, accurate cuts.

Technique Basics

To begin a relief carving, use a pencil to trace your design onto the wood. At this point, it's helpful to think about your scene in reverse. The areas furthest away from you (i.e. the background) will be the deepest in the carving and they're where you have to start. To begin the actual carving process, define your pattern outlines with stop cuts, V-shaped incisions made with two chisel strokes that create a clean clear lines to follow in your design. Then, use a gouge to carefully remove excess wood and establish the deepest part of the background.

Man in the process of carving a relief sculpture in wood
Man carving a relief sculpture

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Additional Info

What is Relief Carving?

Sculptors are artists who create three-dimensional objects. They can work in many methods, including using clay to model sculptures, as well as processes to cast large figures in bronze. Some sculptors carve materials like stone or wood. Those who carve works might make relief carvings.

A relief carving is a sculpture with figures that protrude from a background while still being attached to it. Relief carvings create an illusion of space and depth on a shallow surface. It's a very old way of making art, and examples of relief carvings date back to ancient Greece and Rome. Relief carvings are categorized according to their depth. A low relief, sometimes also called bas relief, has figures that project only slightly from the surface. On the other hand, a high relief has figures that stand out prominently from the surface with a greater sense of depth.

Ancient relief carving. This work is an example of a bas relief.
Ancient relief carving

Now that you know what a relief carving is, let's explore how they are made. We can't discuss the whole process in detail, but we can cover some of the most important tools and steps.

Tools and Techniques Used in Relief Carving

Sculptors make relief carvings from many materials, including stone, ivory, and wood. We're going to focus on relief carving using wood. So, the first basic requirement is a solid thick plank of wood. Hardwoods like basswood, oak, or walnut are good choices.

Example of a relief carving with more of a sense of depth
Tropical relief carving

Tools

The next step is assembling the right tools. Wood is carved with sharp knives made specifically for that purpose. There are two primary kinds. Chisels have a flat blade that might be straight or angled. They're used to cut lines into a surface. Gouges have a curved concave blade, and are used to scoop out wider shallow areas or remove material from a surface. Some blades are specialized, like corner chisels, which have a V-shaped blade and are used to shape corners. Some chisels and blades are small and used for detail work done by hand, while others are large and meant to be hit with a mallet. Whatever their size, it's a good idea to use quality blades made of strong material like carbon steel. It's also important to make sure the blades are very sharp to ensure precise, accurate cuts.

Technique Basics

To begin a relief carving, use a pencil to trace your design onto the wood. At this point, it's helpful to think about your scene in reverse. The areas furthest away from you (i.e. the background) will be the deepest in the carving and they're where you have to start. To begin the actual carving process, define your pattern outlines with stop cuts, V-shaped incisions made with two chisel strokes that create a clean clear lines to follow in your design. Then, use a gouge to carefully remove excess wood and establish the deepest part of the background.

Man in the process of carving a relief sculpture in wood
Man carving a relief sculpture

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is relief sculpture example?

There are many relief sculpture examples in the world. Many ancient buildings are decorated with relief sculptures. However, the most frequently known relief carving/sculpture is a coin. The images marked on coins (of all cultures) are examples of bas relief (low relief) artwork.

What are the 3 types of relief sculpture?

The three main types of relief sculpture: low, high, and sunken. Other less common forms of relief sculpture are mid-relief, stiacciato, and counter-relief.

What is high and low relief sculpture?

The terms high relief and low relief sculpture refer to the amount of the carved figures that protrude from the flat surface to which the image is attached. High relief requires a large amount of the natural circumference of the figure to project from the surface, while low relief allows for only a slight amount of protrusion from the surface background.

How do you carve a relief?

To carve a relief, first draw out the image on the material chosen. Then, use sharp tools, such as chisels, corner chisels, gouges, and other knives to carefully carve the figures/image and scoop out the excess material.

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