How to Become a Sculptor

Ancient Art Form

As far as art goes, sculpting is arguably the world’s oldest profession, barring cave drawings. This 3-dimensional art form has been around for thousands and thousands of years, starting when the first hairy-knuckled troglodyte contemplated over a mass of wet clay mud. Over time, sculptures have played an integral part in religious worship, philosophy, and even politics. Ancient Rome is a prime example, as is also modern Washington D.C. Of course, sculpture is also highly prevalent in both the fine and decorative arts.

Sculptor - ScottArt and Commerce

It is important to note that when one refers to sculpting (or any art for that matter) as a “profession,” he or she should keep in mind that very few who set out to become commercially successful ever really do. As with all art, if you are absolutely called to it, driven to succeed, and can’t imagine doing anything else, then assuming you have the talent and the skill, you might think about investigating the potential of doing what you love for a living. Once you have committed to taking this leap, there are a few ways in which to monetize your art work. These range from public art commissions to galleries to selling your work on Internet sites like Etsy or eBay.

What is Sculpting?

Sculpture is a subcategory of the visual arts that is distinguished by its three-dimensional nature; it is also known as a “plastic art.” There are a few modes of sculpting that an artist can utilize to make this art. Such methods include carving, which is the removal of material to reveal form, and modeling, which is the opposite. Here, the artist creates by the addition of material, such as clay, to create form. There is a wide variety of materials and methods that can be employed to sculpt. Methods include carving, hand or wheel molding, or the welding of various materials into shapes and configurations. A myriad of materials can be chosen as the medium including wood, stone, metal, clay, and even glass. As you explore sculpting, it is important to eventually specialize in one type of material as each medium is so different, and each requires specific methods, tools, and equipment to master.

Essentially, a sculptor must be able to conceptualize how to best represent the chosen subject matter and to choose the size, scale, and the most appropriate material to be used in creating his or her art piece. Basically, it is the job of the sculptor to take an idea and mold it into a three-dimensional object that imaginatively represents the concept, is instantly recognizable, and preferably, impactful to its viewer. In order to be commercially successful, it is important to keep in mind that what sells are works that are distinctly unique from what is already out there; work that embodies a signature style. When one ponders such luminaries as Van Gogh, Picasso, Renoir, Warhol, Banksy, or specifically sculptors like Michelangelo and Auguste Rodin, one instantly can associate their work and styles with their names.

This is how you, the artist, can more effectively monetize your creative output and, again, this is by being instantly recognizable and memorable through your work. This is what drives art lovers to seek you out and to collect what you offer. Develop your skills, create a signature style, promote yourself strategically, create momentum, and then you may just have a shot at becoming a self-sustaining and even successful sculptor.

Master the aforementioned methods of sculpting and you can call yourself a “sculptor.” Begin to think like a business person and act strategically. Then sell enough work to live comfortably, and you can then know yourself to be a true “professional.”

Where to Begin

Sculptor - Scott 3A good place to start is to simply try your hand at it. If, after trial and error, you have developed an affinity and love of this art then you may be ready to take the next steps toward a career in sculpting, but for now, let’s start with the basics. Go down to your local art store and obtain the raw material you will need to create your sculpture. Clay is usually the best choice for those exploring this art for the first time. Remember, clay (and other mediums) are used to build a piece of art by the addition of the material to create form. Sculpting with wood or stone is far more challenging to the beginner and is distinguished by the process of removal of material –again, a less than optimal choice for those getting their proverbial feet wet. Next, purchase the tools that are necessary for the material you are planning to work with. Be sure to obtain enough to realize the full dimensions of your envisioned sculpture. It’s a good idea to always have a little extra on hand.

Once you have your material, let’s say a block of clay, the next step is to take a moment to visualize how your sculpture might be created by pondering the block before you. It is important to have a table that is solid (not wobbly) and a foundation (a piece of wood) upon which to create the sculpture. Give yourself room, and certainly use a table that you won’t mind getting water and clay all over, as that is inevitable. Ask a clerk at your local art supply store about platforms, armatures (the skeletal structure upon which you add the material), various tool suggestions, etc. For purposes of exploring this medium, you can start out more simply. All you really need for now is the material and a good solid surface upon which to work.

Next, take a blade of some kind (or actual sculptor’s cutting tool) and rough out an outline of your envisioned sculpture. Ask at the art supply store to be shown the various kinds of tools that are available for this task. (If you are removing material like wood or stone, be very careful as to not injure yourself.) Keep in mind the intended proportions of your sculpture as you develop the form. It is a good idea to make consistent measurements and to indicate points in your sculpture so as to develop the sculpture in proper proportionality.

Sculptor - Scott 2Once you feel you are happy with the rough form of the sculpture, you can add details like the individual fingers on the hands or the shape of the nose and the bulk of the hair, should your subject be the human form. Be balanced as you detail so that all sides are shaped incrementally. It is important to avoid working excessively on only one area and to take moments now and again to step away to view the totality of your work and its proportions. See your progress from all sides of the sculpture and, for example, work on the back for a while and then switch to the front, etc. Using a picture or, better yet, a model is the best way to get all the details correct. Eventually, should you keep pursuing sculpture, you will need to invest in the proper tools for the job as it facilitates the process greatly and allows for much greater control.

Now you have reached the point where you can add texture and finish to your sculpture. A wet sponge is ideal to smooth all the surfaces of the clay. You can also use a knife or some kind of textured item to further refine and imprint the surface of your work. If you took the leap to wood or stone, use a sanding tool to create smooth surfaces on these materials.

Congratulations! You have completed your first sculpture. Now you might wish to cure your work of art to properly finish it up even further. You can likely find several places in your local area where you can fire the clay for a reasonable price.  Firing the clay will cure it. If you like the natural look of the clay, then you are done. Otherwise, choose a glaze (or stain for wood) to further enhance the look and to match what you originally envisioned for your sculpture. It is also important to invest in a sealant to protect your art piece from the elements. This is especially important if it is to be placed outside.

Take a look at the infographic below for some important statistics and information about a career in sculpting.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Andre Anyon

Forensic Artist at Forensic Body

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  • Andre Anyon
  • Raleigh, NC
  • 30+ years
  • Forensic Body
  • Forensic Artist/Human Model Maker

Andre Anyon has 10 years experience in forensic art and over 30 years as an artist. His business, Forensic Body, is focused on forensics and human model making.The Art Career Project got in touch with Andre so he could share his thoughts on what he has learned on his professional journey as a sculptor:

Promoting a business and the paperwork involved takes me out of the workshop. I knew from my father being an artist that it’s not an easy life, but if you have a high level of passion for what you do, it’s not so bad when you think about how lucky you are to enjoy the work you do. I meet so many people that don’t like what they do to earn a living.

Advice

On his schooling and training

I didn’t go to school for art. I’m the son of a professional artist and knew that’s what I wanted to do early on. I started doing special make-up effects in movies right out of school. When the industry started to die off, I moved onto bronze monuments and prototyping. This is when I created the first forensic model, the “Spatterhead.” It’s a model to create blood spatter for training, crime scenes, and courtroom demonstrations. I then moved on to creating full forensic bodies and other forensic human models for teaching and agencies.

On education

Practice and consider finding an artist to apprentice under. It can be much more of a REAL education at a fraction of the cost of going to college. In my youth, I spent a lot of time, a lot of money in materials, and I gave up some social life while being immersed in practice. It doesn’t come without sacrifices. A good portfolio often trumps education or a list of experiences. Seek out those in the field you want to be in. Don’t be foolish to think that getting a degree is all you need. Many of the best artists I’ve ever known bypassed an expensive degree. Of course, if you want to just teach, that’s the way to go! Productivity is the best thing you can do for yourself, even if you have no client!”

Kevin Caron

Kevin Caron Studios, LLC

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  • Kevin Caron
  • Phoenix, AZ
  • 14
  • Kevin Caron Studios, LLC
  • KevinCaronArt

Kevin Caron is a fourteen-year professional artist from Phoenix, Arizona. His work can be viewed at www.kevincaron.com.

The Art Career Project contacted Kevin to pick his brain about his professional journey as a sculptor:

On education:

I have no formal training in sculpting or art. I have learned how to fabricate over the years. I also have an overactive imagination which has been a great help.

Advice

Career Advice

Prepare to work long, hard hours. Prepare to have a lot of false praise. Prepare to be disappointed on occasion. Remember that you are doing this because you’re compelled to create – because you have to, not because you want to. If you think it’s going to be an easy career, this is probably not the right path for you.

Al Hone

Self-employed Sculptor

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  • Al Hone
  • 15
  • Self-employed
  • Sculptor

Al Hone is a fifteen-year veteran sculptor and maker of custom hand-carved furniture.

Here he discusses his background:

I starting working with my father and grandfather from the time I could walk. (We had a cabinet shop for many years.) In 2000, I started building custom hand-carved furniture. Functional art pieces are my forte. Sculpting the wood, designing, and the overall creation gave me the artistic outlet I had wanted for years. I have shown my work in some of the top custom furniture and design shows in the country. In 2010, I began sculpting for bronze casting. I took a few classes from a well known sculptor who also happens to be a friend. He taught me a great deal about anatomy and how to sculpt from the inside out. Already having the design background, I knew about balance, form, the use of shape, and negative space.

And here he tells us about his average work day:

It depends what I am working on. I prefer to do my sculpting in the morning. My mind is fresh, the light is generally good, and it starts my day off well. We tend to travel full time doing art shows. If we are at an art show, I will set up my sculpting stand there and sculpt away. This is a great way to engage people and also to help them learn about the process of creating a sculpture. I also spend time studying wildlife, taking photos, or finding reference material.

Advice

Career and education

Set aside at least an hour every single day to sculpt. Study all types of art –drawing, painting, etc. Studying different art mediums helps to develop your art skills and trains your eye to see what you need to see. Find someone to study with who sculpts the way you would like to. They have learned all the tips and tricks and can give hands-on advice to help you learn what you need to know. Once you have created a work of art you have to know how to sell it and you need to know how to market it. This is what most artists struggle with. They just want to be in the studio and create. Half your time needs to be spent marketing you as an artist and branding your name, as well as trying to make sales. I have always thought marketing should be one of the top things an artist needs to know.

How to get your foot in the door

Create what you love and don’t chase the latest trends. If you put your heart into what you create, people will see that, feel that, and want it in their home. There really is no right way or wrong way to get started. Get your art in front of people and be seen. Don’t give up and work hard.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Sculptor?


One doesn’t need formal schooling in order to become a sculptor as one’s work will “speak” for itself. However, many sculptors do acquire degrees in art to improve upon their artistry, learn the craft, and to be motivated to produce in a structured manner. Many sculptors earn degrees in fine arts, choosing universities and colleges that offer a focus in sculpture. When one attends a school or a workshop, or is privately tutored by an established artist, it is also beneficial due to the potential for networking. If you live in a good-sized town or city check out the local municipal offerings that often include art classes and workshops. Your local community college probably offers extension and regular classes in sculpture too.

SPECIALIZE

In all areas of career pursuit it is often helpful to be specific, to acquire a skill that few have, and to work in a niche that is less competitive. Find something that will set you apart.

An example of this would be a career in forensics where you can exploit your talent for sculpting. Forensic sculpting or what is known as “facial reconstruction,” is still an area that has not been supplanted by technology. This is the craft of utilizing clay to reconstruct a dead person’s face starting with, and then building up from, the deceased’s skull. In this vocation you would be working closely with law enforcement and also anthropologists in order to help in identifying bodies. You would also definitely need to pursue an advanced degree in either forensic science or forensic anthropology. Forensic sculpting is not for everyone given its subject matter and the fact that it also incorporates biology, anthropology, and art all into one discipline, and is therefore quite challenging. But it could be just right for you!

WHAT ARE SOME SCULPTING RESOURCES?

  • ARTSHOW is a very helpful site with tips, guidance, and further links for both the beginning and more advanced sculptor.
  • Sculptor Charles Oldham offers a very helpful tutorial on YouTube for sculptors.
  • A NY Times article on forensic sculpting and renowned artist Frank Bender is available here.

For the budding sculptor it is quite obvious that a burning desire to create and a general passion for art are the most important aspects to possess. It is also a recurring theme in our interviews and research that one needs to develop the skill of self-promotion and to be a self-starter. Another important facet is to align one’s self with those who can help you to acquire the necessary skills as an artist. This does not necessarily mean a higher education, as many successful artists have, instead, developed a body of work that serves to propel them into a successful career with no degree necessary. (However, if one of your goals is to teach then a degree would be necessary.) On the other hand, school provides structure, networking, and the motivation to create on a consistent basis, all under the tutelage of those who can provide the basic skills and a foundation upon which to grow as an artist. No one way works for all artists.