Sculpting Techniques

Someone once said that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. That’s a horrible analogy if you love cats, like me, but when applied to non-living things the saying rings true. There are several ways to transform a lump of clay, a chunk of metal, a blank canvas, a block of wood, and so on. In the first article, I gave a list of different methods and techniques that can be applied during the process of sculpting to reach a desired end product.

As a beginner sculptor, it’s helpful to know and be familiar with the basics of each of these methods and techniques. It also doesn’t hurt to begin practicing them. First, let’s learn all there is to know about these various methods of sculpting. Keep in mind that these methods and techniques encompass all materials involved with sculpting: wood, stone, clay, etc. The following is a general overview of all methods associated with sculpting, not just techniques for sculpting clay.


  • Involves cutting or chipping away a shape from a mass of stone, wood, or other hard material
  • a subtractive process where material is systematically eliminated from the outside in

This one can be figured out pretty easily. Hack away at something until it looks like what you want. More advanced artists will map out planes and masses that make up the shape of the outer forms, then once the outer shape is complete, map out smaller sections until the only thing left to do is add small details.

After all of that is complete, a finish is added.

You might think that this is the only way to carve an object, by mapping it out and completing from large to small. Even with this method, your idea for the piece can change as the piece is manipulated. That will happen during in any sculpting project. With direct carving though, there is a plan and a map of how to get there, even if the end product is different from what the artist had originally envisioned.

Indirect carving is accomplished by first making a clay model of whatever the artist intends to produce. Then that same model is carved out of wood or stone, whatever the artists prefers, by a pointing machine (we’ll talk about pointing later). This method is not a favorite among carvers and normally ends in disputes among them. Even though it is not widely used, it’s still good to know about.


  • created when a soft or malleable material is built up and shaped to create a form
  • while carving is a subtractive process, modeling is an additive process

A variety of materials can be modeled, not just clay; plaster, wax, concrete, stucco, etc. Normally a model is made to be reproduced in another more rigid form, like metal, plaster, concrete, or fiberglass. Unless it is already made to be rigid and permanent through the characteristics of the material used.

Just like there are different types of casting, there are different types of modeling.

Modeling for casting involves just that. Making a model, normally out of clay or plaster, that will end up serving as a model for a sculpture made out of plaster, fiberglass, or concrete.

There’s also modeling for pottery sculpture. In order to handle the stress of firing, a pottery sculpture must be hollow and of even thickness. This can be done through two ways: hollow modeling and solid modeling.

In hollow modeling, the clay model is built hollow and of even thickness from the beginning of the process. In solid modeling, the clay model is constructed as it normally would be. Then, before it is fired, it is cut open, hollowed out, rejoined, and dried out.


  • an additive process
  • involves melting down a material, normally a metal, that is then poured into a mold. The mold is cooled and the metal is hardened


  • the process of gathering and joining different materials to create an assembled sculpture
  • an additive process


  • the process of reproducing a sculpture by transposing measurements taken all over its surface to a copy
  • a pointing machine ensures accuracy and thoroughness on the sculpture
  • this machine is an arrangement of adjustable metal arms and pointers that are set to the position of any point on the surface of a three-dimensional form and then used to locate the corresponding point on the surface of a copy
  • the main use of pointing is for the indirect method of carving, which I covered earlier

Surface Finishing

  • can be natural, bringing the material of the sculpture itself to a finish, or applied
  • Natural methods include smoothing and polishing on surfaces like stone carvings, wood, ivory, concrete, and metals
  • Applied methods include painting, gilding, patination, electroplating, and various forms of finishes
  • Paint can add a durable finish to any sculpture
  • Gilding is the method of decorating a sculpture with gold, silver, and various other metals that are applied in leaf or powder form over a suitable priming
  • Patinations are caused by chemicals; whether it’s by exposure to different kinds of atmosphere or by burying in soil or by immersing in seawater
  • These same techniques can be achieved through artificial means, like applying a chemical to allow iron to rust or applying a chemical to the surface of bronze and then heating it to make green, brown, blue, and black patinas
  • Electroplating is the process by which surfaces of metal sculpture are coated with chrome, silver, gold copper, and nickel
  • Other finishes include etching, engraving, metal inlaying, enameling with metal sculptures; pottery can be decorated with oxides, enamels, colored slips, glazes, and through the process of burnishing

That concludes the general overview of sculpting methods and techniques. I would like to end this article with a bit of advice for beginning sculptors. It may be tempting to start this hobby alone and closed off in your home. There’s a few reasons why this shouldn’t be your first instinct.

First off, taking lessons at a studio can be helpful. You can observe and learn from people who have sculpted for years and know how to guide you through the beginning stages of sculpting. Secondly, you can avoid a catastrophe where you forever ruin your carpet with clay or a glaze you wanted to try out on a finished product. If that happens to you, give Katy Carpet Cleaners a call. I’ve trusted them to keep my carpet clean for years and I always refer to my friends. They can remove the most stubborn of stains from any carpet and leave it looking better than when it was first installed.