On Learning to Sculpt

In this section I explain how to go about teaching yourself how to do figurative sculpture. I've had several people ask me how I went about teaching myself to sculpt so I thought it would be useful to pass along the basic approach that I used. In addition I'll give some, hopefully, useful observations that I've made about sculpting. Note, just because I taught myself how to do something doesn't mean that this is how you should go about it. There are some excellent teachers out there and not everyone is motivated to do it on their own. However, the opposite is also true. In fact, I think some fine art programs try to strongly discourage representational sculpture.

Sculpting is all about creativity. Be it the conceiving of an idea for a sculpture or solving a technical problem in the execution of that sculpture. But before this can occur you'll need to acquire some technical knowledge and cognitive skills. By cognitive skills I mean educating yourself to see and represent the basic shapes in the complex three dimensional form of a living being.

To sculpt you need to educate your eyes first to see the human body. Part of this comes from acquiring a theoretical knowledge of anatomy. This comes from "reading" books on human anatomy (see the section on suggested books). The rest of this part of your education comes from learning figurative drawing.

In a certain sense reading a book on anatomy is absurd. The text contained in such a book is a description of a bunch of Latin tongue twisters. The illustrations are really what is useful in these books. The shapes and relative sizes of the different parts of the skeleton and their relative placement/attachment is the most important thing to learn. Gleaning the same information, from these books, about the muscles is next most in importance. A big complication with muscles is that they change shape when they move the body. A related topic is knowledge of the bony landmarks of the human body. These are the spots that have no padding (i.e. just a thin layer of skin over a recognizable feature in the skeletal structure).

In order to teach yourself figurative drawing you should first learn a little bit about drawing. I recommend the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. Once you have got some of the basic drawing skills down read some of the books I recommend on figurative drawing. Try analyzing and copying some photographs of nudes using the techniques of figurative drawing. After this you just need to practice a lot. I found that drawing from life twice a week for several hours a session quickly built up my skill level. You should be able to find life drawing sessions in any city of a reasonable size. If you can't find such a session canvas the local artists for available models and start your own. Figure drawing is a skill that needs constant practice so don't stop drawing even after you become adept at it because it will fade away if you don't use it.

After you have acquired the basic cognitive skills needed for sculpture you can proceed to the more technical skills and knowledge. The technical side can be broken down into modeling and studio practice.

In modeling you actually build a "model" of something in either water clay or plastilene. The only book that really does justice to modeling is Laniteri's book. It is kind of old fashioned but read, understand and follow it (at least in spirit) if you want to really be an effective figurative sculptor.

Studio practice are those little details such as how to keep the clay from slumping off your modeling stand and falling on your feet as you stand there with a horrified expression on your face. I heard a story from a local foundry owner about a sculptor that spent a year on a sculpture only to have it start to do this to him. Furthermore, in your studio practice knowledge, you should acquire enough knowledge about what happens at the foundry that you can sculpt a model that can be easily cast (this will save you money in the long run).

One bit of advice about studio practice I'd like to pass along is that there is not necessarily one right way to do things. Buildings armatures and accessories are basically acts of improvisation. Eventually you'll find that you like to do things in certain ways and they won't be the same as the next sculptor's way of doing it. Just be conservative and use as much common sense about doing things as you can and you should be OK. Note, you should really learn about using power tools and dangerous chemicals before you use them and if you decide to weld then take a real class from a certified welding instructor before you attempt to weld.

After you have acquired your basic skills and knowledge you need to hire a model and give it a go. One advantage of doing a lot of life drawing is that you'll know some models by the time you need one. Be professional and respectful of your model and they will appreciate it. Act otherwise you'll get black listed and you'll never be able to hire one again. If you need any inspiration for a pose try looking in your sketch book.

I talked to an elderly sculptor at a sculpture show the summer I was preparing myself to sculpt. I told him that I wanted to sculpt and with a smile he quoted something his sculpting teacher had said to him years before that went like this "So you want to sculpt? God help you!" Sculpture is very expensive and if you are not rich and you really want to do more than the occasional piece then you are going to have to treat it as a business. I recommend several books on this subject below.

Good luck!

Sculpture Books

They are more or less in recommendation order (best book first).


  • The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards
    1999, J.P. Tharcher

    An interesting approach to basic drawing.


  • Atlas of Human Anatomy for the Artist by Stephen Rogers Peck
    1990, Oxford University Press

    Very practical and relatively inexpensive.

  • Human Anatomy for Artists: The Elements of Form by Eliot Goldfinger
    1991, Oxford University Press.

    Very through and relatively expensive reference.

Figure Drawing

  • Master Class in Figure Drawing by Robert Beverly Hale, Terence Cole (Editor)
    1991, Watson-Guptill Publications

    A true classic.


  • Modeling and Sculpting the Human Figure by Edouard Laniteri
    1985, Dover Publications

    My bible on modeling.

  • Terracotta by Bruno Lucchesi,
    1996, Watson-Guptill Publications

    Full of lots of tricks and tools for modeling. However this book does not really touch on the basic kind of issues that Laniteri deals with.

Studio Practice

  • From Clay to Bronze by Tuck Langland
    2000, Watson-Guptill Publications

    Basic modern studio practice and one of my favorite books on sculpture.

  • Sculpture; Principles and Practice by Louis, Slobodkin
    1983, Dover Publications

    A bit old fashioned but still useful for things like making a plaster mold.

  • Patinas For Silicon Bronze by Patrick V. Kipper
    1996, Loveland Press

    Very useful once you get to the point of having your work cast in bronze.

The Art Business

  • Art Marketing 101; A handbook for the Fine Artist by Constance Smith
    2000, F&W Publications

    More of a business slant.

  • How to Survive and Prosper As an Artist: Selling Yourself Without
    Selling Your Soul
    by Caroll Michels
    2001, Owl Books

    Equally good but more of a marketing slant.

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