Sculpture is the art of making three-dimensional representative or abstract forms, especially by carving stone or wood or by casting metal or plaster.

Because of its three-dimensional nature and the fact it can be displayed in many more different types of location than (say) painting, there are a number of important concepts, and theoretical issues which govern the design and production of sculpture.

Among the greatest form of fine art known to man, sculpture has played a major role in the evolution of Western culture. Its history and stylistic development are those of Western art itself. It is a key indicator of the cultural achievements of Classical Antiquity, and became an important influence on the development of Renaissance art in Italy. Together with architecture, it was the principal form of monumental religious art which for centuries (c.400-1800) was the driving force of European civilization. Even today, although continuously evolving, sculpture is still the leading method of expressing and commemorating both historical figures and events.

Supreme examples of this long-established form of public art can be found in many of the best art museums.

Also known as "plastic art", for the shaping process or "plasticity" it involves, sculpture should be fairly simple to define, but unfortunately it's not.


Carved sculpture is usually made from stone, wood, ivory or bone. The main material used for modelling is clay. The process ofcasting involves modelling (in clay or wax), making a mould from the model, and then pouring a liquid material, such as plaster or molten metal, into the mould.

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


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 (named after the town 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 art of sculpture is no longer restricted by traditional sculptural concepts, materials or methods of production. It is no longer exclusively representational but frequently wholly abstract. Nor is it purely solid and static: it may reference empty space in an important way, and can also be kinetic and capable of movement. Finally, as well as being carved or modelled, it can be assembled, glued, projected (holographically), or constructed in a wide variety of ways. As a result the traditional four-point meaning and definition of sculpture no longer applies.

Basic Forms of Sculpture Now Outdated

Previously, the history of art understood only two basic sculptural forms:sculpture in the round (also called free-standing sculpture) and reliefs(including bas-relief, haut-relief, and sunken-relief). Nowadays, new forms of light-related sculpture (eg. holograms) and mobile sculpture necessitate a redefinition of the possible forms.


The basic traditional forms of this 3-D art are: free-standing sculpture, which is surrounded on all sides by space; and relief sculpture (encompassing bas-relief, alto-relievo or haut relief, and sunken-relief), where the design remains attached to a background, typically stone or wood. Examples of relief work can be seen in megalithic art such as the complex spiral engravings found at Newgrange (Ireland), on Trajan's Column in Rome, the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, and the Parthenon. Gothic architectural reliefs appear on all major European Cathedrals of the period: witness the Saints on the south trancept of Chartres cathedral, and the apostles on the north trancept of Rheims cathedral.

It can also be classified by its subject matter. A statue, for instance, like the two versions of David by Donatello and Michelangelo, is usually a representational full length 3-D portrait of a person, while a bust usually depicts only the head, neck and shoulders - see the bust of George Washington (1788) by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828). A statue of a person on horseback, such as the one by Giambologna (1529-1608) of Cosimo de' Medici in Florence, is termed an equestrian sculpture. Perhaps the greatest ever equestrian statue is Falconet's Baroque-style Bronze Horsemanin Decembrist Square, St Petersburg: a monument to Tsar Peter the Great and a masterpiece of Russian sculpture, albeit created by a Frenchman.


Three-dimensional art begins with prehistoric sculpture. The earliest known works of the Stone Age are The Venus of Berekhat Ram and The Venus of Tan-Tan, both primitive effigies dating to 230,000 BCE or earlier. Thereafter, sculptors have been active in all ancient civilizations, and all major art movements up to the present. After Egyptian Sculpture, the principal Golden Ages in the evolution of sculpture have been: (1) Classical Antiquity (500-27 BCE); (2) The Gothic Era (c.1150-1300); (3) The Italian Renaissance (c.1400-1600); and (4) Baroque Sculpture (1600-1700). For a detailed chronology of the origins and development of 3-D art, see: History of Sculpture.


The two principal elements of sculpture are mass and space. Mass refers to the sculpture's bulk, the solid bit contained within its surfaces. Space is the air around the solid sculpture, and reacts with the latter in several ways: first, it defines the edges of the sculpture; second, it can be enclosed by part of the sculpture, forming hollows or areas of emptiness; third, it can link separate parts of the sculpture which thus relate to one another across space.

Works of sculpture can be assessed and differentiated according to their treatment of these two elements. For instance, some sculptors focus on the solid component(s) of their sculpture, while others are more concerned with how it relates to the space in which it sits (eg. how it "moves through" space or how it encloses it). Compare Egyptian sculture with the works of Alexander Calder (1898-1976) and Naum Gabo (1890-1977) and you'll see what I mean.

Another important element of (most) sculptures are their surfaces. These can produce quite different visual effects according to whether they are (eg) convex or concave, flat or modelled, coloured or uncoloured. For example, convex surfaces express contentment, satiety, internal pressure and general "fullness", while concave surfaces suggest external pressure, an inner insubstantiality and possible collapse. Then again, a flat surface carries no suggestion of three-dimensionality, while a modelled surface - one that contains light/shadow-catching ridges or hollows - can convey strong effects of 3-D forms emerging from or retreating into darkness, similar to a painter's use of chiaroscuro. Although most traces of pigment have now disappeared, a good deal of the sculpture produced in Antiquity  and Medieval times (eg. gothic cathedral scultures) was covered with paint or other colouring materials, including gold or silver leaf and other precious colourants. Alternatively, sculptors carved directly from precious coloured materials, like ivory, jade, and gold, or combinations thereof. Colour can obviously endow a surface with differing attributes of (inter alia) texture, proportion, depth and shape. An interesting use of colour by a modern sculptor can be seen in the Pop-Art work Ale Cans (1964, oil on bronze) by Jasper Johns (b.1930).