This article details the major methods of creating three-dimensional art: carving, casting, modeling, and construction (sometimes called assemblage).


Carving uses the subtractive process to cut away areas from a larger mass and is the oldest method used for three-dimensional work. Traditionally stone and wood were the most common materials because they were readily available and extremely durable. Contemporary materials include foam, plastics, and glass. Using chisels and other sharp tools, artists carve away material until the ultimate form of the work is achieved.

A beautiful example of the carving process is seen in the Water and Moon Bodhisattva from 10th-century China. The Bodhisattva, a Buddhist figure who has attained enlightenment but decides to stay on earth to teach others, is exquisitely carved and painted. The figure is almost eight feet high, seated in an elegant pose on a lotus bloom, relaxed, staring straight ahead with a calm, benevolent look. The extended right arm and raised knee create a stable triangular composition. The sculptor carves the left arm to simulate muscle tension inherent in supporting the body's weight.

In another example, you can see the high degree of relief carved from an original wood block in this mask from the Pacific Northwest Coast Kwakwaka' wakw culture. The mask was used in winter ceremonies where animals were said to take human form.

It is extraordinary for masks to personify a natural event. This and other mythic figure masks are used in ritual and ceremonial dances. The broad areas of paint give a heightened sense of character to this mask.

Supernatural Mask

Supernatural Mask

Wood sculptures by contemporary artist Ursula von Rydingsvard are carved, glued, and even burned. Many are massive, rough vessel forms that carry the visual evidence of their creation.

Michelangelo's masterpiece David from 1501 is carved and sanded to an idealized form that the artist releases from the massive block, a testament to human aesthetic brilliance.

Michelangelo, 'David', 1501, marble, 17' high. Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence

Michelangelo, David, 1501, marble, 17' high. Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence


The additive method of casting has been in use for over five thousand years. It is a manufacturing process where a liquid material is usually poured into a mold, which contains a hollow cavity of the desired shape, and then allowed to solidify. One traditional method of bronze casting frequently used today is the lost wax process. Casting materials are usually metals but can be various cold-setting materials that cure after mixing two or more components together; examples are epoxy, concrete, plaster, and clay.

Casting is most often used for making complex shapes that would be otherwise difficult or uneconomical to make by other methods. It's a labor-intensive process that allows for the creation of multiples from an original object (similar to the medium of printmaking), each of which is extremely durable and exactly like its predecessor. A mold is usually destroyed after the desired number of castings has been made. Traditionally, bronze statues were placed atop pedestals to signify the importance of the figure depicted.

A statue of William Seward, the U.S. Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln and who negotiated the purchase of the Alaska territories, is set nearly eight feet high, so viewers must look up at him. Standing next to the globe, he holds a roll of plans in his left hand.

Richard Brooks, 'William Seward', bronze on stone pedestal, c. 1909

William Seward, bronze on a stone pedestal, c. 1909

More contemporary bronze cast sculptures reflect their subjects through different cultural perspectives. The statue of rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix is set on the ground, his figure cast as if performing on stage. He is on his knees, head thrown back, eyes shut, and mouth open mid-wail. His bell-bottom pants, frilly shirt unbuttoned halfway, necklace, and headband give us a snapshot of 1960s rock culture and engage us with the subject at our level.

Daryl Smith, 'Jimi Hendrix', 1996, bronze. Broadway and Pine, Seattle

Jimi Hendrix, Daryl Smith, 1996, bronze. Broadway and Pine, Seattle


Modeling is a method that can be both additive and subtractive. The artist uses modeling to build up form with clay, plaster or other soft material that can be pushed, pulled, pinched, or poured into place. The material then hardens into the finished work. Larger sculptures created with this method use an armature, an underlying structure of wire that sets the physical shape of the work. Although modeling is primarily an additive process, artists do remove material in the process. Modeling a form is often a preliminary step in the casting method. In 2010, Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti's Walking Man (c. 1955), a bronze sculpture first modeled in clay, set a record for the highest price ever paid for a work of art at auction.


Construction, or assemblage, uses found, manufactured, or altered objects to build form. Artists weld, glue, bolt, and wire individual pieces together. Sculptor Debra Butterfield transforms throw-away objects into abstract sculptures of horses with scrap metal, wood, and other found objects. She often casts these constructions in bronze.

Louise Nevelson would cut and shape pieces of wood, gluing and nailing them together to form fantastic, complex compositions. Painted a single tone (usually black or white), her sculptures are graphic, textural facades of shapes, patterns, and shadows.

Traditional African masks often combine different materials. The elaborate Kanaga Mask from Mali uses wood, fibers, animal hide, and pigment to construct an otherworldly visage that changes from human to animal and back again.

Some modern and contemporary sculptures incorporate movement, light, and sound. Kinetic sculptures use ambient air currents or motors, allowing them to move, changing in form as the viewer stands in place. The artist Alexander Calder is famous for his mobile, whimsical, abstract works that are intricately balanced to move at the slightest wisp of air, while the sculptures of Jean Tinguely are contraption-like and, similar to Nevelson's and Butterfield's works, constructed of scraps often found in garbage dumps. His motorized works exhibit a mechanical aesthetic as they whir, rock, and generate noises. Tinguely's most famous work, Homage to New York, ran in the sculpture garden at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1960 as part of a performance by the artist. After several minutes, the work exploded and caught fire.

The idea of generating sound as part of three-dimensional works has been utilized for hundreds of years, traditionally in musical instruments that carry a spiritual reference. Contemporary artists use sound to heighten the effect of sculpture or to direct recorded narratives. The cast bronze fountain by George Tsutakawa (below) uses water flow to produce a soft rushing sound. In this instance, the sculpture also attracts the viewer through the motion of the water: a clear, fluid addition to an otherwise hard abstract surface.

George Tsutakawa, 'Fountain'. Bronze, running water. City of Seattle

Fountain, George Tsutakawa, bronze, running water. City of Seattle

Doug Hollis' A Sound Garden from 1982 creates sounds from hollow metal tubes atop grid-like structures rising above the ground. In weather-vane fashion, the tubes swing into the wind and resonate to a specific pitch. The sound extends the aesthetic value of the work to include the sense of hearing and, together with the metal construction, creates a mechanical and psychological basis for the work.

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Source: Christopher Gildow,
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Last modified: Wednesday, February 14, 2024, 4:06 PM