How to Become a Sculptor

01

Learn the Basics of Sculpture

A branch of the visual arts, sculpting is three-dimensional art made from molding, casting, welding, and carving a variety of mediums, including stone, metal, wood, clay, and other materials.  This art form has been around for thousands of years but is just as relevant today in the form of digital sculpting as are the pieces created in 230,000 BCE or earlier, like the Venus of Berekhat Ram (oldest known Stone Age sculpture).

Today, contemporary artists work with a number of non-traditional forms of sculpture, including light, sound, ice, and kinetic sculpture, as well as 3-D modeling. 3D modeling, and more specifically, digital sculpting, is a new form of sculpture where users interact with a digital model, much like when modeling clay.  Users pull, pinch, push, and twist “virtual clay” to create a sculpture.

Precious materials like gold, jade, and silver are typically used to craft expensive, often smaller sculpture, while more common and less expensive materials, such as hardwoods, ceramics, and wax are used for wider purposes.  Many sculptors, while carving out their own niche, have found new ways to use everyday materials, such as Pablo Picasso who used bicycle parts in his famous sculpture entitled, “Bull’s Head”, or Nathan Sawaya, who builds larger-than-life sculptures out of Legos; exhibiting them in museums around the world.

02

Pursue a Degree or Formal Training

Learn Fundamental Skills & Hone Your Artistic Ability

Sculptors are highly-creative fine artists who create three-dimensional art in a wide variety of mediums. The term three-dimensional refers to the three dimensions of space – depth, breadth, and length, and is distinguished from other art, such as drawing and painting, which are two-dimensional.  The sculptures artists create can be large, like the seated figure of Abraham Lincoln enshrined forever within the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, or they can be small, like Jonty Hurwitz’s tiny human sculpture that is so tiny it cannot be seen by the naked eye. A sculptor can sculpt, chisel, carve, and cast with a variety of mediums, or choose to specialize in just one.

It goes without saying that the main requirement for being a sculptor is artistic ability.  But, as sculptors function as both the designer and craftsman, you will be carving or chiseling and modeling pieces with your hands, you will also need manual dexterity.  You may operate hand tools, chisels, pliers, or scissors. You may need to know how to weld metals and assemble and cut more pliant materials.  Sculptors might specialize in the design of one specific kind of sculpture, such as freestanding sculpture or relief. You may have a modern eye, or want to design pieces like the old masters.  You may be known for sculpting pieces that involve lighting or flowing water, or for making intricate smaller bronze or silver pieces, or larger-than-life statues for display as landmarks.

And, because you may also be in the business of self-promotion, you may need business and marketing skills in order to sell your work.  The ability to communicate ideas creatively, flexibility and adaptability, organizational skills and the ability to work in groups or independently are also skills a sculptor needs to have to succeed.  The ability to make keep observations, sometimes quick decisions, and accept criticism are also essential skills. Sculptors must have an appreciation of aesthetics and have a keen eye for even the smallest details.  Form, expressiveness and imaginative content are all concerns of a sculptor and should be honed and practiced to perfect, cultivate, and improve their craft.

Other than earning a high school diploma, a college degree is not required to succeed as a sculptor. In fact, many famous sculptors have no formal training. Take for instance, John Martini, whose work is shown in galleries and museums throughout the US, or Michelle Post, who apprenticed with printmaker Stefan Martin to learn the detailed techniques of wood engraving and has worked alongside other artists who, over the years, have assisted in her artistic growth.  

So, before entering this field, aspiring sculptors should do their research and explore all their options to determine if a formal education is worth the time and money, or if chiseling out a living as a self-taught artist is realistic.

Self-Taught vs. Formal Education

Self-taught sculptors are not confined by the constraints of formal art training and education, but are normal, everyday people who chisel, carve and mold great art. In that way, they are just like, and can possibly better relate to those who purchase their art.  Conversely, college can leave individuals with mounting student debt. Especially when some four-year programs at top fine arts colleges can cost upwards of $100,000.

Today, the Internet can be a self-taught artist’s greatest ally. It has never been easier for sculptors to establish themselves and attract a fan base than now, regardless of education. And, a greater number of artists are making it on their own using the power of a personal website and social networking. By posting photographs of your work online, word about your art can spread very quickly. Likewise, an apprenticeship can increase an artist's marketability, and although positions with professional sculptors may be hard to find, artists can search for opportunities through local community centers or cultural centers.

A growing following of your art can also give your self-esteem a boost. After all, you determine what your sculpture should look like or represent, and how you present yourself, instead of what the art world teaches it should be. Plus, there are no rules governing what you sell your art for, where you sell your art, and what it should look like. That’s pretty liberating for most artists.

In addition, just because you haven’t obtained a formal education, doesn’t’ mean your art can’t garner high prices.  Many artists without formal training experience high levels of success, including hosting their own shows and participating in museum exhibitions. During a show, you may ask people what they think about a particular piece, what they are looking for, or if they would consider commissioning your work.  Use any feedback to hone your craft or explore new techniques.

Developing a plan to attract new collectors, establishing an online presence (Pinterest and Instagram are great venues), and cultivating relationships in the field can all help a sculptor’s business. Asking for referrals to show your work in a public place or business and attending art shows or joining arts organizations are also great avenues for self-taught sculptors to explore.

Earning a Degree

Although a degree from a college, university or private art school is not required, many sculptors complete a formal education, and most agree a degree outweighs the cost and time it takes to complete. Some sculptors even go on to earn a master’s degree in fine arts, with a concentration in sculpting. During school, sculptors can gain practical experience by shadowing professionals in the field or completing internships. Many schools also offer portfolio classes; providing instruction on how to create a professional portfolio. A portfolio is typically what employers look at first when deciding to hire a sculptor or show their work in a gallery. Coursework in a bachelor’s of fine arts (BFA) program includes art, art history, sculpting techniques, stone carving, mold-making, figure modeling, casting and more. 

In the final two years of a BFA program, student’s have the opportunity to choose electives, which expose them to other methods of sculpting, such as the use of fabric, metal, wire, glass, or a combination of materials. Students are also advised to take business and marketing classes they will likely need when promoting and selling their art.  Many students will also participate in training sessions and complete continuing education classes to stay in tune with the newest advancements in the world of sculpture.  Students who wish to teach sculpture (or any art course) in a public school will also need to obtain a teaching certificate in addition to their bachelor’s degree.

Some graduates will go on to earn a master’s in fine arts (MFA), with a concentration in sculpture.  Although curriculum varies by school, most MFA programs last two years, with a focus on the theory and practice of modern sculpture. MFA programs also include many hours of studio work. Many programs require students to complete a thesis in the form of a student exhibition of his or her sculpture(s).

  • There are many other reasons to attend art school, among them:
  • The opportunity to learn from the masters themselves. Many art professors are accomplished in their field and have their artwork displayed publicly.
  • Personal mentors and alumni that give students the opportunity to connect outside of the classroom.
  • Access to equipment. No doubt, attending school gives students a big advantage when it comes to using state-of-the-art equipment.
  • The structured environment of college helps students stay focused and motivated.
  • Studio space. Many art schools and universities have individual studio space for students to produce their artwork.
  • Exposure to art shows and exhibitions give students the opportunity to showcase their work on a regular basis. Some shows are open to the public, which gives their art an even greater opportunity to be seen by art collectors, critics, and potential employers.
  • Community. Having peers critique your work is invaluable to an individual’s growth as a sculptor. Surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals can lead to new ideas and techniques.
  • Networking opportunities are there for the taking as students participate in workshops and lectures and meet local artists, which can lead to job opportunities and career advancement.

Many art schools also teach skills that can be used to further a sculptor’s career, such as how to market and price their work, or even run a small business.  Students need to know how to speak in public, and they need writing skills for presenting their work, and critical thinking skills. They provide an environment conducive to producing great art.  That said, students should research different programs offered by colleges and universities, or private art schools to find the one that offers them the best program in sculpture and fits their career goals.

03

Build Your Business

Pursue Freelance or Commercial Employment

One of the best reasons to become a sculptor is that it allows you to do what you love, and can make going to work much less monotonous and much more exciting. To many sculptors, keeping a day job to pay the bills is fine, as long as you have time set aside to go to the studio or warehouse to carve, chisel, mold, and assemble materials into works of art. Sculptors who have already made a name for themselves do get paid rather well, especially if they are commissioned to work on large projects.

A sculptor can find work with a company, a museum, a commercial art studio, and many other places of employment. They may also do freelance or be hired as a contractor for a number of different clients. They typically work in large spaces, such as warehouses or large studios where they have room for their materials, as well as their finished artwork. Some sculptors share a studio space, where they also display their work for sale.

Sculptors create commissioned work for private collectors, museums, public places, businesses, and arts organizations. They may also teach the sculpture arts, create reproductions and models for the television and film industry, or restore historical works of art displayed in churches or museums. Many sculptors are self-employed and sell their art to galleries, local or state government agencies for display in parks or other public spaces, or to private collectors. Other career paths a sculptor might pursue, include working for industrial and product design companies, cultural institutions, theaters and performing arts venues, event planning firms, or retail stores. Sculptural pieces can take weeks, months or even years to complete, and many companies won’t pay until the work is completed to their satisfaction. For his reason, many sculptors, even those with many years of experience, will often keep other jobs. Sculptors who are self-employed can usually set their own work hours but must be flexible and meet deadlines.

Salary

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics lists an average annual wage of $46,460 for fine artists, which includes sculptors. The lowest ten percent earned less than $20,000, and the highest ten percent earn more than $96,000. Wages fluctuate greatly depending on geographic location, education, years of experience, company, and reputation. Freelance sculptors earn more or less, depending on the client.

Helpful Resources

  • Interview with Mara Sfara,
    Painter, Jeweler, & Contemporary Sculptor

    Tammi Edwards
    Tammi EdwardsJun 17, 2012

    It’s no secret that sculpting is one of the most challenging areas of fine art. It takes incredible skill, attention to detail, and patience to craft an aesthetically pleasing and detailed sculpture from bronze, or wood, or another material. Despite the difficult and ...

  • Interview with Pablo Solomon, Artist, Sculptor & Designer

    Kathryn Pomroy
    Kathryn PomroyJun 24, 2012

    It is all too easy to foster the belief that those who come from limited means have limited opportunities. Biographies which counter the notion are uplifting and inspiring. When someone defeats “the odds” and redefines success; the whole world is a benefactor. The A...

  • Interview with Bruce Gray, Sculptor & Metal Worker

    Tammi Edwards
    Tammi EdwardsAug 30, 2012

    One of the most challenging aspects of being an artist is finding a way to pay the bills. In fact, many artists succumb to job positions for which they are ill-suited in order to meet their financial responsibilities. Once in a while we hear about an individual who leav...

img