Inside the Sculpture Studio - How I Create my Artwork

    I don't often give peeks inside my sculpture studio, mostly because I forget to have the camera handy when I'm doing something interesting with my artwork. But I remembered to grab some photos when I was creating my abstract Solitude thinking figure

    My abstract art comes together very differently from my other designs: the sculpture springs entirely from my head. While some of my artwork begins with collector ideas or images, like this 9th anniversary gift or this one-of-a-kind pet memorial, my minimalist, abstract art begins with a feeling. Vague, I know.

    For Solitude, I started with an idea of the mood, feeling, and general shape that I wanted to capture.

    I imagined how it would feel to hold the finished sculpture in my hands. And I let my fingers run on in their own way, without interference from analysis or much thought of any kind. Then I sculpted until it felt right.

    Entirely unscientific and probably not terribly descriptive, I know. Maybe even a little hand-wave-y for some. But that's how creating sculpture works for me.

    Maybe some photos will help. First, it all starts with a lump of something. In this case, it's a lump of Sculpey III clay, a firm, smooth polymer that doesn't dry out and responds well to either fingers or tools.

    Raw clay before sculpting

    Sculpey III comes in blocks and has to be worked for a while to make it pliant. "Working the clay" for me means pressing it rhythmically between thumbs and fingers, basically mashing it around a lot. Think kneading very small rolls of very firm dough.

    Yes, I'm pretty sure "mashing it around" is the technical term.

    Once I've worked the clay for a while, I started to make a general shape to echo the one in my head. 

    Seated thinking figure sculpture in progress

    I knew I wanted a seated figure, knees drawn up, arms wrapped around the knees. I knew I wanted it to nestle in the palm of the hand. And I knew I wanted it to feel solid and comforting to hold.

    But more than that, I knew I wanted this piece to be meditative and serene, and to invite the viewer to interpret the the figure's mood for themselves. I wanted to suggest the vitality of inward stillness, rather than static, frozen time.

    But none of this had words at the time. The piece needed to be worked out by my fingers, without my head getting too involved.

    Seated thinking figure sculpture in progress

    The first iteration started with the right idea, but this direction felt pinched and cramped to me. I didn't get very far with it before I knew it wasn't right.

    Seated thinking figure sculpture in progress

    Then I went too far the other way, and the sculpture began to feel too blocky. Heavy. Clunky. Wrong. I didn't get very far on this one, either, before I realized it wasn't working.

    Seated thinking figure sculpture in progress

    At this point I had the general feel, though, and began making smaller changes. An indentation here, a curve there, add a little to the feet, take some off the knees, and so on. The process became a lot more iterative, with small adjustments rather than lots of photo-worthy moments.

    As you see above, I only made small adjustments to the legs, back, and head at first. But it started to feel right, so I kept going.

    Eventually I had a piece I felt was right, and I walked away for a couple of weeks. I set the draft sculpture somewhere that I'd see it when I was casually passing by, because that's when my eye catches flaws and errors.

    Once I could walk past the draft sculpture without feeling irritated by this line or that curve or darn it, that shadow, I knew it was getting close. When I started to walk past it and feel a little thrill or a kind of swirly tingle when I saw it, I knew it was time to mold and cast.

    I'm pretty sure that "swirly tingle" is also a technical term. I know I'm throwing a lot of technical jargon at you, so thanks for keeping up.

    Draft seated thinking figure sculpture by Small Company Artworks

    Side note: For some pieces, this wait for the swirly tingle happens within a week or two while making little incremental tweaks. For Solitude, I think it took a couple months and a lot of adjusting. For some reason, this piece felt really personal to me, and I needed it to be exact. 

    "Exactness" can be tricky when you're using vague, abstract ideas, even if you've got helpful techniques like "swirly tingle" to guide you. It this case, I needed to feel at peace when I looked at this sculpture, like the figure was inviting me to pause and center myself.

    Once I had that feeling just right, I baked the model to lock the shape into the clay. Then I molded and cast the sculpture in cast stone.

    The molding and casting look pretty much the same for every sculpture, unless I need to build a mold box or the mold fails and I have to start over. In this case, though, I molded and cast without incident.

    Side note: take a look at the photos above and the image below. You can glimpse in the background the difference between my studio where I sculpt (tidy and clean!) and the outside studio, where I cast (untidy and unclean!). It's very Jekyll and Hyde.

    Behind the scenes - cast stone sculpture in progress

    I loved how this piece came out of the mold, and I could tell as I applied the layers of artists' wax that the angles would catch the light just as I'd hoped. The swooping shadows under the knees and shoulders contrasted with the arched arms and legs to give the figure the movement I'd been looking for.

    Thinking figure sculpture in progress

    Once I'd applied the final coats of wax, buffed the finish, and let the varnish cure, I could hold it properly.

    The solid weight rested perfectly in my palm. The curves conformed to my hand to nestle comfortably. And the satin finish felt cool and smooth, fine-textured and even.

    Once I held the finished figure, I felt just the tingly satisfaction that I look for. Even after several months, I still find something to please my eye when I move the piece to see different angles.

    Thinking figure original cast-stone sculpture

    The sculpture also has the meditative feeling I wanted to capture. When I glance at it on the shelf, or my desk, or the coffee table (I tend to move my sculpture around the house a lot), I feel at peace. I'm reminded of stillness and contentment.

    Some collectors have told me that they see a thoughtful pose, others see sadness. Some see comfort, or meditation, or inward-examination. One collector even saw a person reading a book, jealously guarding their solitude, which is an image I loved for its sly humor.

    So the shape invites precisely the kind of interpretation I'd hoped for, too.

    Thinking figure original cast stone sculpture by Small Company Artworks

    What about you? What do you see when you look at the Solitude figure? How do you imagine it would feel resting in your hand?

    What else would you like to know about secrets from my sculpture studio? Drop a comment, or tag @smallcompanyartworks on Instagram to share!