Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Flat Out Fun: Sculpting In Relief Part I


I love sculpting relief work. It’s truly one of my most favorite forms of creativity! It’s challenging, fun, fascinating, and you only ever have to sculpt one side. Woot! You can tell some great narratives with relief work, too, especially with ensembles, and background and border flourishes that open up whole new ways to explore creative expression. It’s also a complete blast to concoct compelling compositions that push design concepts and explore new ideas. Relief can can also be turned into all sorts of things from medallions to plaques to standees to coins to jewelry to ornaments and to just about anything you can imagine! They make great studies, too. You want to learn anatomy in a hurry? Sculpt a series of reliefs. You also get to play around with texture whether anatomical or with the objects, borders, flourishes, or backgrounds you portray. Plus, you can exercise a lot of sculpting practice in a relatively quick way as compared to full 3D work because it’s often faster to sculpt a smaller relief piece like a medallion. Indeedy, you’re going to learn a lot of concepts, techniques, and materials really fast with relief work and end up with something that's quite versatile in application! And do you want to really test yourself on design, structure, narrative, and texture? Sculpt relief work. Nothing will exercise those chops better and faster. All in all then, relief work is just a great way to play around with sculpture all the while honing your skills, Eye, and knowledge base in a relatively easy, accessible way. 

But creating one isn’t just about just sculpting a “horse on the half shell.” No sir-eee. There’s a lot more that goes into it from composition to narrative to engineering to techniques to, well, on and on. A good one isn’t so easy to just bang out. Now as for the composition aspect, I actually wrote an in-depth article for the RESS publication, The Boat, back in 2009, Don’t Fall Flat; Helpful Design Concepts For Medallions which I recommend for lots of ideas about basic composition and design. When it comes to actual technique though, how in the world does one even start to sculpt a relief? So in this nine-part series, I’m going to share with you how I sculpt all my relief work in the hopes that whatever I do may prove helpful to you!

But first, some backstory…

Types of Relief

Relief sculpture is nothing new. In fact, it’s been around for a very long time with the earliest examples dating back to the cave art of the Upper Paleolithic, around 25,000 BCE. Many of the oldest reliefs can be found in France, but examples in clay also exist in Russia and other reliefs have been found on many megaliths from the Neolithic era. So this is a very old art form with a time-honored past that’s still rich in potential for exploration and innovation. Pretty neat, huh? 

I should also mention that our artist community uses the term “medallion” as a catchall for all relief work, a rather unique quirk. So even if you sculpt a plaque or a standee or a freeform piece, people are most likely going to refer to it as a “medallion” because it’s a relief. In contrast, “relief” is the correct term for all such work whereas “medallion” has a very specific meaning in the larger art community, that being a round or round-ish piece of relief of various sizes, but mostly one that fits in the palm of your hand. So just keep that in mind when you bounce between the communities. But first, let’s talk about the different kinds of relief. There are six basic types:

  • Basso-relievo or low relief or bas-relief: When the design projects only a little bit off the flat surface. Coins are a good example of basso-relievo.
  • Alto-relievo or high relief or alto-relief or haut-relief: When the design has at least half or more of its circumference projecting beyond the flat surface, almost completely sculpture “in the round.” Many flourishes on old buildings are good examples of alto-relievo work.
  • Mezzo-relievo or middle relief or mid-relief: Between basso-relievo and alto-relievo. 
  • Sunken relief: When the design has been sculpted into the flat surface, sunken below the level and often with a strong carved-in outline. Some common examples are ancient Egyptian wall carvings and some small ivory reliefs from India.
  • Stiacciato or relievo-schiacciato: Typically associated with 15th century sculptors, Donatello and Desiderio da Settignano, it entails a series of fine chisel lines surrounding areas partly carved in low relief.
  • Counter-relief or intaglio or cavo-relievo: When the design is sculpted into the flat surface so deeply it goes beyond sunken relief, sort of like a sunken version of alto-relievo work.

Now here’s the thing, we don’t have to stop at just one form — we can mix them up! In fact, most relief work is a mixture as the artist simply does what it takes to further their Vision. Because really, there’s no reason why we can’t add in a bit of sunken relief to our mezzo-relievo piece for example, right? How fun is that? Like I tend to work in mezzo-relievo with alto-relievo elements, but I’m itching to add in sunken relief and maybe some intaglio if possible. Any which way, many options are open to us for injecting narrative, composition, and depth and dimension into our Vision. But the question still remains: How do we actually do that?

Know Thyself

Okay…before we answer that question, the second thing to consider is the medium our relief will be cast in. If it’s going to be cast in resin, we get more leeway since silicone molds are flexible and are therefore more forgiving of undercuts and cut outs. In short, they’re capable of alto-relievo work and in some cases, intaglio. However if our relief will be cast in ceramic, plaster molds are rigid and fragile and so are unforgiving of undercuts. Said another way, if our relief is destined for ceramic production, we’re limited to basso-relievo or sunken relief, or mezzo-relievo with no undercuts. Different cast media often require different approaches so know your target medium before you start! For example, my 2022 relief, The Muses I, was done in a ceramic version then in a resin version. Notice how the treatment of the manes is markedly different to accommodate the different casting capabilities? 

It’s important we fully understand the limits of our intended medium before we design our piece so we don’t end up with an unwelcome disappointment later. Now if your relief will be a OOAK piece sculpted in something permanent like baked Sculpey or epoxy clay, the sky’s the limit for you! Have at it! We can’t wait to see! As for the focus of this discussion though, it’ll be centered on oil clay destined for resin casting as that’s a much more common and friendly way to get introduced to the art form.

The Flattening and The Deepening

So now let’s talk brass tacks. The magic of effective relief sculpture is capturing a sense of 3D dimension within a “half-shell” paradigm — that’s the goal, that’s the magic trick. Yet one of the trickiest things for artists new to relief is “squishing” their compositions flat and sculpting the resulting distortions, “The Flattening” as Maria Hjerppe puts it. This is because in our full body work, or sculpture “in the round,” we work literally: What you see is what you get…er…sculpt. It’s a direct, literal translation. In the grand scheme of things then, it’s actually relatively easy. But in contrast, relief work is the opposite, it’s interpretive, really a series of judgment calls on a slew of distortions that serve the overall illusion. Instead here, what you get is what you see. Put another way, relief work is sculpting a series of compressed distortions that all add up into an illusion of 3D so you have to think about what you’re doing in a whole new way — and a lot of people find this really tough at first. But it’s all learnable with experience and a bit of a paradigm shift so let’s talk about some ideas we can apply to help us flatten our compositions with a bit more clarity.

The thing to remember is that for most intents and purposes, relief work is relatively flat, obviously. There may be touches of alto-relievo or portions “in the round,” but overall we have to apply The Flattening to our composition. But this means we can apply a kind of flattening logic to every relief, a logic that can make things a bit easier for us to adapt to the paradigm. In this, think of a flattened onion with its series of layers, or even better, think in terms of Photoshop layers if you’re familiar with that program. Each layer is a “slice” of the composition in gradually ascending or descending planes between two reference points. What are those reference points? Specifically, visualize where the closest point would be and where the furthest point would be in your composition if that horse was actually in front of you. In other words, what part would be closest to you and which part would be furthest away?

For instance, with my 2023 relief, Bean, the closest part would be his right nostril, upper lip, and right knee and the furthest point would be the tip of his left hind hoof (if it were in the composition) and left hind leg. Once you’ve established those two points, everything in between falls into a perspective relationship between them that automatically places them within the sequential “layers” of your composition. The game then becomes one of which parts should stick out and which parts should set back in relation to each other between those two points. So if we know our nostril is closest to us, that might stick out the most whereas that left hind hoof tip could be inset the most, in the case of Bean. But it also means that the ear would probably be closer to us than the barrel or, similarly, the point of shoulder might be closer to us than the stifle. In this way, each body part falls on a different “layer” of sorts, in relation to everything else. In essence then, our two reference points create a series of graduated relationships between every feature of our relief for us. So if we can keep that visualization in our heads as we work, building our illusion will have more structure and not be so confusing.

Likewise, we also have to apply what Maria refers to as “The Deepening” or where we carve in to establish the correct structure, perspective, and shadows. In a very real sense, sculpting relief work is sculpting with light because we have to think about how light plays off our piece in order to further the 3D effect consistent to correct structure and perspective. That’s to say, if light doesn’t bounce off our piece correctly, it’s just going to look wrong. 

For instance, look at my Akhal-Teke porcelain relief and study how the light bounces of it to further not only the 3D effect, but also its structures and textures. In turn, The Deepening is an incredibly important step because not only do we use it to define muscles and details, but it establishes perspective in the initial stages of blocking out our piece. It’s one of the first steps actually, and one of the most important steps. Really, get The Deepening wrong and there’s no compensating an adequate fudging fix later, you have to go back to square one and fix it at the source which could prove to be a real problem later. Why? Well, if ever there was an art form dependent on structural relationships, it would be relief work. What does that mean? See, if you make a significant enough change somewhere on your relief, chances are that’s going to reverberate throughout your piece with corrective changes needed in many other places to marry everything back together. Like change something's layer and chances are other layers will have to change to marry back together. So it’s really important to get the Deepening correct right out of the gate so that you can build your structural relationships correctly throughout the process. The good news is though that thinking in terms of layers between our two reference points automatically formulates The Deepening for us and soon, with practice, it becomes an instinctive step. But because The Deepening is so powerful, this is why it’s one of our earliest steps so don’t wait to do it later.

However, that said, none of this should be gospel. It’s only a guiding organizational idea, not a steadfast rule. Absolutely, rules are meant to be broken to serve the overall illusion when it comes to relief work and here is where the interpretive nature of this art form comes in, as it’s more “by feel” than by rules. The 3D illusion should be the all-driving force behind nearly every creative decision…so break those rules if you have to! Because here’s the thing: Following the layers rule religiously will typically create foreground layers that really stick out and potentially become too thick and weird looking while the lowest “layers” could become too thin to cast well. We always have to be thinking of a flattened paradigm, figuratively squishing our compositions like a collapsible cup to varying degrees based on our goals. What’s more, we often have to fudge things for our resulting cast to be sturdy enough not just to be cast but also to be shippable, paintable, and handled confidently, too. Put another way, don’t sculpt anything too thin or too skinny. Make sure it has some beefiness to it and in doing so, you’ll probably have to break some rules. Go for it! Sturdiness is always an overriding requirement.

But The Flattening and The Deepening logic aren’t really so literal or straightforwards all the time also because, always remember, we need to ultimately serve our vision. Absolutely, our intended illusion should be the all-driving force behind our creative decisions. So, for example, here we have the Flattening with Shaman’s torso. Notice how his forequarter seems farther away than his hindquarter, with his barrel right in the middle? But you don’t have to go crazy with the successive layers with parts protruding way farther out than others. Subtlety can work just as well. 

Because note on Shaman’s torso that his dimension between his forequarter and hindquarter was done simply by removing just a millimeter or two of material to put them on slightly different layers? Just a little bit can be enough to get the point across. 

Likewise, look at Timeless with her big ol’ preggers belly — that was achieved mostly by the application of correct perspective with just a couple of millimeters of protrusion to drive the point home. See, you don’t have to go crazy with things…just a slight touch is often all that’s needed. Now that said, there’s always alto-relievo to add that punch, which is great, but if you’re going for more of a basso-relievo or even a mezzo-relievo piece, The Flattening is going to become a stronger influence and there’ll be more subtlety between your layers.

And there this, too — sometimes they can all be on the same plane and it works just fine. Why? Well, simply the visual application of perspective-induced distortion is enough to trick the brain. Or put another way, the perspective distortions sculpted correctly will trick the brain just as effectively as sculpting things on different layers. This gives you a lot of play in your composition and how you want to design it for your backend logistics (molding, casting, handling, and shipping) or how you want your vision expressed. And honestly, when you combine the two effectively, distortions and layers, you have yourself a really striking medallion with a lot of pop to its illusion and composition.

So here we have an example with Stretch — notice that his left fore hoof is sculpted more “in the round” than his compressed right fore hoof even though it’s on a layer further away. That was intended to make it appear, from the intended angle, that his left fore leg was more towards the median, that it was a bit adducted. I think it added more interest to the moment and depth to the composition than if I’d simply sculpted that left fore hoof “further away” and so as distorted as the right fore hoof.  

Similarly, on Shaman, you can see that I sculpted his fore hooves on more or less the same plane as his left hind hoof rather than, more logically, more towards his sternum. This was because I couldn’t have the composition become too alto-relievo, too thick, because I had to consider display, casting, and shipping logistics so I wanted him flatter rather than too protrude-y 3D. In short, putting his hooves on more differing layers would have made the grass too far away, making the overall piece too deep. See — it’s all a series of judgment calls that serve your goals. Little decisions you learn to make instinctively the more experience you get under your belt and the more complicated your designs become. Honestly, if ever there was a sculpting art form that required you to truly trust the process, I think it would definitely be relief work!

So, for a beginner, I highly recommend doing basso-relievo pieces first, focusing on designing strong compositions and learning the techniques and materials in an adaptable and flexible way. Also take the opportunity to learn about anatomy, fleshy and hairy textures, and expression. What’s more, the beginner is best served when starting out with side-views of a horse’s head, a profile just to learn the basics. As you gain experience, you can move to 3/4 views and sharper angles and full body pieces. Then as you further improve and gain even more confidence, move up to mezzo-relievo and get fully comfortable with that. Finally, dive into alto-relievo as well as the other types. Ultimately, intaglio is for the most advanced student as it entails casting concerns that go beyond the scope of this discussion. Point being, take it in baby steps. Don’t expect to bang out a great or a complicated relief right out of the gate! Like anything, it has a learning curve that needs to be carefully climbed to keep you creating happily and confidently. The goal is to keep moving forwards though so be sure to challenge yourself with each new piece. And finish what you start! Nothing is going to be perfect, especially when you’re learning, but as long as you’re improving a little bit with each new attempt, you’re on the right trajectory.

Tricks Of The Trade

When you’re first starting out, sculpting a medallion can seem like a rather confusing, even daunting prospect for all these reasons, but there are some tricks that help us bullseye our target, that help us create a convincing piece of relief that draws us in with its sense of mass and realism. For starters then, the first trick is realizing that relief work only has to look good from its one intended angle, the front. It's like one of those art pieces where a pile of junk, when lined up properly in our line of sight, all of a sudden becomes a face. The effect is similar. So anything you do should serve how it works its magic from its intended angle and nothing more. Why? Well, if you try to make it look right from multiple angles, you’re going to end up in a frustrating corner because relief work just doesn’t work that way. Now the second trick is knowing that the brain is going to fill in for us. Said another way, it’s going to make assumptions about perspective and depth that will do a lot of the work for us. In this then, the perspective expressed in the composition (the distortions you sculpt) is often more powerful than the perspective expressed in the materials (the layering of the features). The third trick is trusting the process — completely and blindly. Seriously, relief work really asks you to trust that it’ll all make sense in the end. So it’s perfectly normal that things will look really weird for a time before they start to make sense. Just keep going! Which brings us to the fourth trick: Understanding that with The Flattening, distortion is a normal and expected outcome of the process. In other words, your relief may look terrific from its intended angle, but it’s going to look mighty weird from all other angles! And that’s totally normal and expected. That being the case, you’ll have to learn how to sculpt distortion — and trust the process blindly — which is perhaps the biggest challenge to those new to sculpting relief. It’s a big jump in visualization, but you can do it! And the fifth trick is to think about how light will hit your relief. In a very real sense, sculpture is an exercise of light manipulation and relief work is especially so. How well you can manipulate the light, how light catches your sculpted outy-bits and iny-bits, will directly relate to how successful your piece ends up being. So I like to check my work in a strong directional light as I sculpt to make sure things are planed properly and the dimensions are reading right. In other words, there should be correct highlights and correct shadows, consistent to your references otherwise your piece just won’t look convincing. Quite literally, your shadows are as important as your highlights. And never forget the sixth trick: Understanding that relief is our only art form where you do what you need to do rather than what you have to do. In other words, a full sculpture is literal but relief work is interpretive. So learn to do what you need to do to serve the illusion rather than trying to apply a strict logic. In this way then, relief work is instinctive, not logical. It’s a magic trick that often does better with “going by feel” rather than applying hard and fast rules. Use your best judgment based on how light plays off its surface and you’re most likely on target.

Despite all this, however, know this: The more relief work you do, the easier it becomes. Like anything, practice hones your skills and instincts and so you’ll reach a point where you really stop thinking about things and just instinctively do them. A handy exercise to train this into your brain quicker is to do a series of practice reliefs in a quick abstract minimalist style so your brain can work out The Flattening and The Deepening techniques before worrying about being persnickety about realism. Like use a non-hardening clay such as oil clay or Sculpey to work out certain dimension and planing principles and ideas in a quickie, maquette way. So much about relief work is conjuring up an illusion with depth and dimension — learn to do that first and realism will just fall into place later.

But Don’t Forget About…

But just as much, the final piece has to be cast-able in either a one-piece open-faced mold or a two-piece closed mold which introduces some new logistics into the equation. In other words, the more alto-relievo or “in the round” sections you create that don’t have a direct pathway to the back, the harder it’ll be to cast and that can have some real repercussions as to which caster is even willing to take that on (as casting free-floating elements is a whole new casting skill set). In particular, hair tendrils, heads, ears, legs and the like that end up free-floating, or are sculpted more “in the round,” can present a real challenge, so you have to think about how the mold-making will play out as you design. 

For example, look at Tossing Her Curls with her more free-floating “in the round” tail tendrils. These presented a real challenge for the casters so I’m working to tweak such things better in the future for production logistics. Because even so, incorporating some alto-relievo or “in the round” sections can add a lot of interest and punch to a piece so don’t rule it out — just know how to do it effectively so it’s cast-able and doesn’t drive your caster screaming into the hills.

Also remember that parts can’t be too fragile, they have to have a certain degree of thickness to not only survive the de-molding process, but shipping and handling, too. For instance, I had to add “flying buttresses” onto the little tags on the braids on my Sass n’ Class piece otherwise they simply would’ve kept breaking off during de-molding. 

I made the ribbons out of actual braided embroidery floss and glued them onto the piece. However, one more step was necessary: I used epoxy clay to create a “pathway to the back” to make them more easily cast-able and much more sturdy. It’s extra steps like these you have to take with a medallion for logistics but you can do them in a way so they’re hidden when the piece is viewed from the intended angle. And your pathway to the back can take many forms if you think outside of the box. See, what you’re trying to do is give a pathway for the resin to go from the sculpted section to the back of the medallion, a kind of channel for the resin to flow so the whole thing casts properly and with the least amount of hassle for your caster when pouring or de-molding. It also helps to ensure sturdiness for shipping, handling, and painting later.

Conclusion to Part I

Many folks run into headaches with relief work in four basic ways. First, they simply think it’s just sculpting half a horse on a flat surface. Nope. Good relief work is far more than that! Second, they get lost in The Flattening and The Deepening, creating a piece that ends up confusing and unconvincing in its execution. They can also find a lot of frustration because they know something is off only they don’t know how to fix it. Third, they create portions that prove uncastable or too fragile for what it has to endure out in the wild and end up with a lot of disappointment later. And fourth, they get entrenched in a kind of sculpting logic that backs them into corners where they get stuck. They forget that a keen judgment call is far more effective than logic when it comes to recreating a solid illusion or a viable piece. But all of this is avoidable with some simple approaches and ideas, all of which we’ll explore in this series. Just wrap it all up then and believable relief work is within your grasp to learn. So now that we have some backstory under our belt, let’s just dive right in!

“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”

― Edgar Allan Poe

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