Before they began to paint on the walls of caves or make engravings in stone, humans engaged in the art of creating sculpture. It is truly ancient, with some prehistoric examples dating 100,000s of years ago — the Venus of Tan-Tan, for example, is believed to date to 500,000-300,000 BP. Enduring through the ages and the rise and fall of civilizations, sculpture has naturally evolved to reflect its time and place.
The materials used in sculpture are an important reflection of its place in history. The earliest sculptural works were crafted from readily available materials such as stone, clay, and bone, all of which were easy to find and form. However, as humankind’s tools became more developed and mining became more sophisticated, so too did sculpture mediums evolve. Read on to learn more about the most traditional materials used in the sculptural arts.
Perhaps the medium that most readily comes to mind when considering sculpture is marble. We have the ancient Greeks to thank for this. Though marble works of art date back to ancient Mesopotamia, it was during Greece's Classical Period (500 BCE to 323 BCE) when marble sculptures truly rose to prominence. Classical nudes and clingy drapery were rendered with the utmost precision by ancient Greek artisans for purposes both artistic and architectural. By the Hellenistic Period (323 BCE- 31 AD), Greek artists had mastered the art form, producing many of today's most well-known Greek sculptures, including Laocoön and His Sons, which inspired generations of artists that followed.
Later artists — the ancient Greeks, the great Renaissance sculptors, 19th-century Academic artists — all returned to the Greek prototype. The translucency of the stone, which is mostly calcite, makes it ideally suited to rendering the human form, as its surface evokes the luminosity of human skin. It also has the advantage of being quite pliable when it is first mined, eventually becoming harder and more durable over time.
Bronze is undoubtedly the most common metal used in the creation of sculpture and is also highly effective as a statue material. An alloy that is usually mostly copper with approximately 10% tin, bronze is uniquely suited to casting, a technique wherein the melted metal is poured into a mold to form the sculptural work. Because bronze expands just slightly while it solidifies, the metal fills even the finest indentations of a mold, allowing an artist to achieve a remarkably high level of accuracy and detail.
While, like marble, bronze has been used to create sculptural works since antiquity, today, it is perhaps most commonly associated with public statues and monuments. The early 19th century saw a remarkable rise in popularity of the bronze statue; it had become customary to commemorate political and military figures through public monuments. Residing in parks and civic buildings, or even lining boulevards, these sculptural works benefited from the inherent strength and ductility of the metal, which offers it a greater degree of protection from the elements than other sculpture mediums.
Like marble, the use of terracotta to create sculptural works of art dates to antiquity. However, terracotta boasts an even longer lifespan — Chinese pottery has been found from as early as 10,000 BCE. Terracotta, a type of coarse, porous clay, has a long history in Chinese art. The famed Terracotta Army is one of the most well-known works of sculptural art in the world. Dating to 210–209 BCE, this collection of terracotta sculptures depicts the armies of Qin Shi Huang and was originally made as a form of funerary art with the purpose of protecting the emperor in his afterlife.
The popularity of terracotta as a sculpture medium declined dramatically after antiquity, though it experienced a brief resurgence during the Renaissance age. Since then, it has been valued by artists as a relatively low-cost alternative to marble and bronze.
Humans have carved wood for millennia, though the earliest objects formed from wood were utilitarian in nature — spears, walking sticks and even domestic items. However, it soon evolved into a popular medium for artistry, with figural works in wood spanning continents and cultures. Due to the nature of the medium, wooden sculptures are far more prone to damage than their stone and metal counterparts, though some ancient examples remain in existence.
Until the modern era, wood sculpture and carving have been closely tied to architectural traditions. Italian torcheres, for example, were exceptional works of art that also doubled as lighting fixtures, while many other carved wooden figures served to adorn cabinets and columns. Contemporary artists, on the other hand, have begun to explore the inherent beauty of wood in its own right, creating sculptural works of art that serve to highlight its natural grains and innate strength.
These mediums represent just the most traditional materials used to create historic sculptures. In actuality, almost anything can be used to fashion a work of art, and contemporary sculptors use materials as diverse as plastic, wire, cardboard and styrofoam.
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