Sculpture and Surface, part 1. Carving and Casting by Steve Johnson

 Sculpture and Surface, part 1. Carving and Casting by Steve Johnson
30th November 2021

Sculpture obtains its surface colour in two ways, either from the material of the sculpture itself or from an application of some kind over the sculpture’s form and substance.

A sculpture’s materiality can provide the rich orangey browns of fired terracotta, the gorgeous pinks of Rosa Portuguese Marble, the silvery greys of weathered oak, the white otherworldliness of Italian Statuario marble and Plaster of Paris, or the saturated tinted colours of cast acrylic sheet.

An applied or acquired layer covering the underlying substance of a sculpture might include paint, raw pigment, fired enamel, encrusted mosaic, chromium or silver plating, chemical patination, fabric, fur, etc.

An applied layer on the surface can dramatically alter our appreciation of the substance below – its weight, density, identity etc.

In either case, the surface and its colour is what the eyes see first, followed by the discovery of sculptural composition in space as you move around 360 degrees. You cannot see the back of a sculpture from the front. You have to walk around the other side. The colour and material at the back, in most cases, will already have been seen at the front.

This first impression is therefore highly influential on our interactions with sculpture. It sets the tone for your encounter with sculptural form in the round.

At some point, an applied finish can be necessary for conservation, should longevity be desirable.

Chromium plating mild steel, for example, provides a protective layer against rust and the decay of form. It might only be a 0.08-millimetre thick surface, but chromium plate is protecting the structure and has a substantial role to play.

Similarly, an undercoat and topcoat of paint over a wooden or metal sculpture also provide a protective layer against humidity, precipitation, and evaporation changes. Oil paint can also be wiped or dusted clean without leaving marks.

A layer of applied colour(s) can also provide coherence, especially when construction is made from different materials for practical reasons, but left untreated has arbitrariness. Paint, for example, could unify disparate materials.

Suppose a sculpture has no application of a surface finish. In that case, when it exhibits the raw material from which it’s made, this is what the 20th-century Modernist Movement would have characterized as a ‘truth to materials. Such a work would exhibit the objective reality of a sculpture’s material fact – its true nature. You can see it’s made from wood, plywood, stone, mild or stainless steel, iron (rusted), aluminium, unglazed ceramic, plastic sheet etc.

There is no pretence, and there is modesty. It’s a literal embodiment of truth. It is what it is to the core.

And materials themselves can carry implicit meaning. A monument cast in bronze and a hypothetical ice sculpture of the same size and subject will arouse different sentiments. The former might commemorate a hero or heroine, and bronze will survive as an aid memoir for generations. An ice sculpture, by comparison, would symbolize the transience of existence and the vagaries of a society’s changing values.

From a Modernist perspective, an applied surface over sculptural form represented an unnecessary ‘adornment’. It was to be avoided. In turn, adornment represented the tastes of the bourgeoisie, and lavish surface decoration demonstrated society’s hierarchical structures.

Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery, London, in 1928, and not a particularly avid supporter of contemporary art, judged the lavishly decorated Albert Memorial, Kensington, and its Gothic Revival aesthetic, as quote, ‘’An expression of pure philistinism”.

In terms of Modernist aesthetics, surface decoration represented a cover-up, an untruth to materials, fake hues.

It is worth noting that when British Modernist, Henry Moore, had some of his large scale post-war bronze casts turned green (verdigris patination) using Cupric Nitrate and a blowtorch at the foundry,  it looks like a specific deviation from the Modernist manifesto with its forward-looking aesthetics.

Bronze has a high copper content. In natural outdoor conditions, due to a chemical reaction between copper, oxygen, water and carbon dioxide, copper oxidizes and turns green. This would take between 30 to 50 years naturally, depending on local atmospheric conditions.

One might imagine that the impulse to speed up the surface ageing process at a foundry from 50 years to 1 week on a large bronze, or from 50 years to one day on a mantel-piece bronze, represents a nod to antiquity. It’s arguably the manufacture of gravitas by association and at speed.  A certain reverence for the bronze patinas of the ancient world – Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Roman Antiquities. Moore studied them all in the British Museum.

Patination is a manufacturing process imitating the passage of time when not naturally occurring. It’s a certain sleight of hand in particular with verdigris.

In the millennia before 20th Century Modernism and since the late 1960s, the colour, allure and diversity of surface ‘finishes’ have proved too alluring to resist. The potential for how a coloured surface can influence a viewer is difficult to ignore by either a sculptor or a commissioning body.

What follows are three examples of both types of surface – raw material exposed at the surface,  an ‘adorned’ surface for want of a better word and a comparison of both.

Polychrome Sculpture.

 Veit Stoss, Crucifix with Madonna 1502.

Image search –  veit stoss + crocifisso di ognissanti 1502

Painted wooden ecclesiastical sculpture of the late Gothic period shows that colour is not simply an applied cosmetic decoration. Still, that painted colour adds to the intrinsic meaning of the iconography.

Paint creates a heightened sense of realism that bare wood lacks.

Sculptures of Christ, the Virgin Mary and numerous Saints are given an immediacy which would not be possible without the use of paint. More often than not during the Medieval period, a wood carving would leave a sculptor’s workshop for a painter’s workshop, where it would be finished.

Paint is performing an important role here.

In creating a heightened realism using gesso and paint, the sculpted Holy family are brought closer to the congregation. Their presence is brought into church, creating a bridge to the spiritual realm and a bridge in time.

In the Veit Stoss Crucifixion scene of 1502, the last hours of Christ’s agony and his imminent release from this world are carved and painted in great detail. The nails through Christ’s feet and hands of the Veit Stoss crucifixion are made from real iron.

An applied layer of paint is being used as a technique to facilitate devotion.

In Gothic polychrome sculpture, painted flesh is particularly realistic, giving a sense of visceral immediacy to the holy story and seen most graphically in the works of Veit Stoss.

In the painted wood carving of ‘Crucifix with Madonna’ of 1502, the skin of Christ crucified is so pallid as to be difficult to look at. The colour is draining away in front of our eyes. From a Christian perspective, the painted tonality of that flesh expresses vividly Christ’s imminent death and his sacrifice. And it’s right there, viscerally present, in the church, 1502 years after the event.

Gold leaf – a light emitting and immutable substance relates to heavenly realms, red to Christ’s suffering, and the Virgin Mary is clothed in a blue cloak over a purple garment.

Royalty in ancient times were often clothed in purple and blue because the dyes for these colours were rare and therefore exclusive. As the ‘Queen of Heaven and Earth’ the Virgin’s cloak is nearly always painted blue.

This is not a cosmetic layer of paint over form.  It does have a function in conserving the wooden carving below, but more significantly, the biblical story is conserved, and the events of the past made to exist in the minds of the living.


Constantin Brancusi

‘Sleeping Muse’ (marble) 1909-10

Image search – Sleeping Muse I Smithsonian Institution

The first version of ‘Sleeping Muse’ is a sculpture carved from a particularly unblemished white marble. It was followed by 4 bronzes in 1910 taken from a plaster cast of the carved original.

It is interesting to compare the white marble carving of 1909-10 with the subsequent bronzes of an identical form in 1910, to speculate how colour, and surface, and material, affect the expressive outcome.

The beguiling mystery of Brancusi’s sculpture in general, is to do with identifying the form and subject of a work, particularly as it becomes more abstract.

Are the features in this ‘portrait’ of a sleeping woman’s head so reduced and streamlined as to make it impossible to identify a specific individual?

The sitter for ‘Sleeping Muse’ in the original carved version was a real person – Baroness Renee-Irana Franchon. But any attempt to produce an anatomical likeness would seem of little interest to Brancusi.

One might assume that by 1909-10, portrait photography did that job perfectly well, and Fine Art needed another purpose to remain relevant.

Speaking about Brancusi, Henry Moore said, ‘Since the Gothic, European sculpture had become overcome with moss, weeds – all sorts of surface excrescences which completely concealed shapes. It has been Brancusi’s special mission to get rid of this overgrowth, and to make us once more shape conscious’.

The evolution from mimetic figuration to prioritizing non-objective shape is clearly being played out in ‘Sleeping Muse’.  An evolution in which mimetic description of the features of an individual’s face disappear, to be honed down to an egg like ovoid which displays stylized streamlined facial features. These features do not jeopardize the overall ovoid shape.

The carved ‘eyes’ with closed lids are discreet and invisible within the white marble. They are under the skin of the sculpture so to speak, and therefore completely convincing as eyes that are seeing something we, as viewers, are not.

But what? That is the beguiling mystery.

Could Brancusi be suggesting that the muse, who artists depend on for their inspiration, is resting and unavailable?

Sculpture by definition is concrete, physically in the here and now, something you trip over as you step back to look at the paintings.

But Brancusi’s carving ‘Sleeping Muse’ creates this uncanny feeling that you are looking at a head in another dimension.

It’s a remarkable achievement for a lump of marble – to make one acknowledge that to all intents and purposes that object you’re looking at represents a consciousness which is not in the room with you at all.

It’s similar when you look at a real sleeping person anywhere, perhaps on the Tube or in an armchair. They are not really here with you. It’s natural to wonder where they are. Their body might be here, but ‘they’ are not.

To be in the presence of a piece of white stone, and for it to have a similar kind of absence is magical and exceptional.

The whiteness of the marble is partly responsible for this uncanny departure. In the pared down facial features and closed eyes, Brancusi has achieved the softest play of light imaginable, particularly in the closed eyelids. It’s as if light itself has been coaxed into particular shapes and subtle volumes and subtle shadows.

Something as ephemeral as light has been modelled with a chisel and a mallet and abrasives.  The ephemeral, fleeting nature of ambient light itself is modelled.

These forms and the light they modulate, capture the ephemeral domain of sleep, when observed by someone awake.

The heightened serenity expressed, is the result of white stone in combination with form.  The form in its entirety is a head not attached to a body. But the detachment is not the result of something gruesome, the guillotine for example, (Brancusi worked as a sculptor in Paris most of his life).

The sculptor’s art has been to allow the body to disappear without any trauma to the head.

What is the effect of bronze on the same form?


Image search- Sleeping Muse Metropolitan Museum New York.

One of Brancusi’s bronze casts taken from a plaster cast of the original carving can be found in the Metropolitan Museum, New York.

It exhibits the pitted marks of the casting process in the cheeks, brow and chin.

Light describing the subtle forms across the bronze sculpture’s surface now show up as reflections from light in the gallery. The source of light is therefore much more ‘local’ in the bronze and more tangible, because we sense where the light source is coming from.

The light doesn’t seem to emanate from within the sculpture itself, as it does in the marble version. The way light glides over the surface of the carving creates a certain dematerialization compared with metal.

The facial features are imbued with the quality of gold. In this bronze version a semi-matt lustre provides the finish.

The chiselled hair of the original, now in cast bronze, is patinated with a black/brown patina creating a more graphic distinction between ‘hair’ and ‘skin’.

Brancusi produced the finishing and patina of all the bronze versions himself, so each version is subtly unique.


What’s the expressive difference between the white marble carving and the bronze version of ‘Sleeping Muse’?

Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin and unlikely to be damaged in transit. Marble by comparison is prone to bruising if handled roughly and if knocked or dropped, prone to shattering.

Marble, is therefore understood to be vulnerable in a way that bronze isn’t. (Ancient Egyptians used bronze tools to carve stone).

We are intuitively aware of marble’s relative vulnerability to impact, and this is heightened when it’s white Carrara.

I would suggest that the marble version of Sleeping Muse is imbued with a sense of vulnerability in a way that the bronze isn’t, or not to the same extent. And I would suggest that this vulnerability is analogous to the vulnerability of a sleeping figure.

What is remarkable about the carved version of ‘Sleeping Muse’ is that vulnerability and serenity are fused together.

The bronze version does have the same uncanny absence of the sitter, but not with the same intensity and reverie.

In conclusion, the visceral immediacy of Viet Stoss’s Crucifix with Madonna of 1502, and the serene ephemeral absence expressed in Brancusi’s carving, ‘Sleeping Muse’ of 1909-10, rely in large part on the expressive potential of surface – something often underestimated within the sculptural practice.


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