The Fine Art of Metal – The Right Way of Sculpting

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The Fine Art of Metal – The Right Way of Sculpting

 

Metal art often only considered as metal wall art covers many spheres of both functional and purely decorative artwork. Functional like metal clocks, cutlery, and sleek appliances, and decorative like picture-prints on metal sheets, bronze sculptures, exquisite chess pieces, and décor accents. From wire metal filigree works and cast metal sculptures made from bronze, to ancient hammered metal cups and fine gold Egyptian jewelery, the resilience of earth metals and their malleable nature has made them one of the best materials to make beautiful works of art and crafts.

1. Iron Ore

Of all the known metals, iron is the most abundant of all and can be found in almost all elements; water, soil, and rocks.

It is known to be a prized material from ancient times and iron objects have been discovered in Nineveh, Egypt, Roman Britain and ancient China. This metal isn't exactly pure because it contains some silicon, sulfur, carbon, and phosphorus, with the three principal varieties of commercial iron, cast iron (pig iron), wrought iron, and steel containing various degrees of carbon compounds.

Iron in Ancient India

All artwork and sculptures, including other iron objects, are likely to rust when they get exposed to damp air, moisture or water. However, because iron ore is prone to rust, it can be prevented when coated with non-oxidising materials like tin, brass or zinc. Iron is made into personal adornments, hand tools, cooking pots, garden sculptures and drinking vessels, along with ornamentation of weaponry, horse-tacks, boats and other functional items. The amount of carbon in cast iron, wrought iron and steel is what determines their character, strength and working qualities. Wrought iron contains the least amount of carbon while cast iron contains the most.

From larger-than-life sculptures to irresistibly petite decorations and art forms, all the different types of iron artwork are made from one of these three:

Cast iron – It contains a good amount of carbon which gives it a brittle quality. It cracks easily if hit hard is extremely coarse, and cannot be stretched or bent. Cast iron isn't really used in the decorative arts because of its roughness but is mainly used for ornamental firebacks and facings, fireplace accessories and traditional stoves.

The Art of Cast Iron

Steel – Steel’s hardness is a mid-way between wrought and cast iron so it possesses characteristics of both. It has a finer grade and is lighter and malleable if exposed to very high temperatures. With sudden cold temperatures, it becomes extremely hard. Steel has a shine and though it is used majorly for structural works and reinforcement materials, it is also used for contemporary artwork and sculptures.

Large Puja Thali

Stainless steel - Alloying chromium with steel helps to prevent it from rusting and retain its lustre and stainless steel is alloyed with 10% to 20% of chromium. Its lustre, non-rusting qualities, and its beauty make it suitable for exquisite cutlery, staircase railings, decorative hardware, and jewellery.

Wrought Iron - Wrought iron has fewer carbon impurities than cast iron and is softer in nature. It is easily rolled into plates, hammered into bars and drawn into wires. Its malleability allows it bend into any shape or form, wrought iron items can be painted with brass and various thicknesses of the iron can be used for cheaper hardware, braces and brackets, garden furniture, outdoor ornaments and garden sculptures, fireplace linings, railings and balustrades, grilles, and affordable light fittings.

2. Tin

Tin is majorly used for metal wall artworks, plaques, figural sculptures, hanging ornaments, tin wall signs, busts, decorative badges, water vessels, ornate vases, candlesticks, and tin foil art. Tin in all forms have been used for recycled art with some of the most awesome metal art formed this way. Recyclable tin materials include bottle tops, sweet tins, food cans, and the like.

One of the least known but beautiful expressions of metal art are the tin artworks first produced in Mexico around the 16th century. Because tin was not only available and inexpensive, it was light and malleable. This made it easy to shape, crimp, stamp, punch, and cut into a wide variety of decorative and functional artwork, and paint in pleasant colours. Tin’s shiny surface that looks similar to silver is what likely contributes to its appeal for making art objects and sculptures, regardless of its tendency to rust.

3. Copper

Copper is a metal that is found in its pure state, just as silver, gold and tin and pre-dates iron in terms of its use. According to the history of art, most nations used copper extensively as materials to make coins, weapons, statues, décor, and household items.

The Glory Of Lord Ganesha, Wall-Hanging Mask - Made in Nepal

It is also claimed that the ancient Egyptians used copper chisels hardened by a now unknown process to cut their granite. This metal is used for both decorative and industrial arts and is favoured for its strength, durability, and its workability. The ease with which copper can be moulded (it can be hammered or cast) into any desired shape or form makes it a useful and great metal to use for the following: 


Hardware

Sculpture worksThe Glory Of Lord Ganesha, Wall-Hanging Mask - Made in Nepal

Wall art

 Statues

Table ornaments

Vases and urns

Display pedestals

Lighting fixtures

Screens

Grilles

Kitchen utensils

Ethnic jewellery

Clocks

Jewellers combine copper with silver or gold to harden them for jewellery making. Copper is also alloyed with nickel and zinc to make beautiful pieces of German silver. Because copper is very durable, it is used extensively for the production of small ornamental objects and for structural objects that can’t endure excessive strain.

4. Bronze Metal Art

Nearly all the ancient civilizations used bronze in their art even as its discovery dates back to the time of the Sumerians around 3500 BC.

Harder than iron with anti-corrosive qualities, it is the most popular metal for cast metal sculptures and statues and was used mainly as Roman weapons of war in ancient times. Bronze is strong and durable and can be cast with ease in the most intricate delicate patterns or imposing and magnificent forms, all in a great variety of colours, shapes, and styles. It is more popularly used than copper (and brass) to create metal ornaments, sculptures, statues, figurines, plates, chalices, and unique hardware.


27" Nataraja | Handmade | Madhuchista Vidhana (Lost-Wax) | Panchaloha Bronze from Swamimalai

The surface finish of bronze works is obtained by dipping the finished object into a 'bath' of various types of acid but the finishing results are only light veneers and soon wear off if the object is knocked about, handled too frequently, or exposed to harsh weather conditions. Bronze artworks include:

Ancient busts

Figurines

Religious vessels

Sculptures

Statues

Metal plates

Masks

Monumental castings

5. Brass Metal and Art

Brass was discovered much later than bronze, around 500 BC, and is a bright yellow tinted metal that can be polished to a high shine and because it tarnishes easily, it requires a high level of polishing to keep it looking bright and lustrous.

Traditionally, metal craftsmen protected its shine with a coat of lacquer. Though this may have prolonged its shine, it still didn’t stop it from tarnishing. Brass is soft and malleable and can be rolled into thin sheets after which designs can be etched, stamped, hammered out, and ‘spun’ while shapes and forms can be easily created. It is also used as base materials for decorative metal ornaments and jewellery that are thinly or thickly coated in silver or gold.


Large Size Vijayanagara Deeplakshmi

Brass art and decorative items include:

Wearable brass art

Vintage brass motifs

Jewellery

Musical instruments

Brass stampings

Ornaments

Antique padlocks

Door knockers and other intricate and decorative ironmongery

Retro hardware

Brass statues and sculptures

Furniture and furnishings hardware

There are a number of metal objects of art that are greatly valued for their craftsmanship and designs. They are not necessarily valuable metals but they possess great decorative value. These metals include antique silver, pewter, classic Sheffield plate, and lead.

Wax Carving and The Lost Wax Casting Method

Wax carving is an essential skill for jewellery makers, allowing them to craft wax models that can be used to produce beautiful and intricately detailed jewellery pieces through the lost wax casting method. Also known by its French name, cire perdue, lost wax casting is an extremely versatile technique capable of accurately reproducing complex designs in metal, but it is also an ancient tradition with a rich history spanning more than five millennia. The exact origins of lost wax casting are shrouded in mystery and it is possible that the technique was developed independently in different regions, but archaeological records suggest that the method was first used at some point in the fourth millennium BC.

Prior to this, molten copper was transformed into relatively rudimentary tools and weapons using simple open or two-part moulds made from stone or clay. The bright idea of first carving a wax model, around which a clay mould could then be formed and heated – a process which both hardens the clay shell and melts away the wax – meant that much more elaborate metal objects could be cast, and opened the door to a whole new world of craftsmanship and artistry. Some of the earliest known objects produced in this way are decorative copper items found in the Nahal Mishmar hoard, in Southern Palestine, which have been dated back to 3700 BC. Other early lost-wax-cast pieces, from delicate miniatures and dress pins to life-size statues, have been found all around the world, in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, as well as in Africa and the Americas. As the use of lost wax casting spread, new techniques and variations were introduced to the process. As well as copper, metal workers began casting pieces in bronze and gold. Furthermore, the development of hollow casting allowed for the production of hollow objects that could be made more cheaply, while the introduction of indirect casting made larger-scale pieces viable.

An Emotional Composition of Love (Large Size)

The biggest changes made to this ancestral technique, however, did not occur until the 20th century. Following initial developments in the dentistry sector, the jewellery industry had its own brainwave in 1936, when Danish engineer Thoger Gronborg Jungersen patented a method involving rubber moulds that could be reused to make multiple wax models without having to carve each one individually. Today, between CAD and 3D printing, jewellers have a wide range of hi-tec design and production tools at their fingertips. But hand carving wax models for lost wax casting allows them to get in touch with the ancient roots of their profession by practising an art which, to this day, is still one of the most accurate methods of reproducing a detailed design in metal.

Lost wax casting, also known as cire perdure, is an ancient process where metal alloys are made into a design from a wax mould. Throughout the years, the lost wax casting process hasn’t just been used for jewellery, it was also used to make sculptures and ornaments. Also, one of the main advantages to lost wax casting is the fact that you can replicate the same model as many times as you’d like. The most common metals used for this process are silver, gold, brass and bronze – so there are lots of opportunities for jewellery making projects.

Tri-Murti and the Devi

Bronze objects have been cast using the lost wax (cire perdue) process for at least 5,000 years. Although by Rodin’s day some of the techniques and materials have changed — and today continue to change — much of the process is as it was in ancient times. Lost wax casting is for many the process of choice because it is extremely accurate in replicating detail and because of the durability of the objects it creates. However, the process is very arduous and time-consuming. Most sculptors, including those of Rodin’s day when artists could choose from scores of foundries, depend on independent foundries to cast their works.

Can one try Lost Wax Casting at home?

You can try this yourself easily by making a solid version – first melt a candle or crayons until they are soft, then mush them into a shape you like. Let the wax get cold so it is hard. Then take soft clay and wrap it gently all around the wax statue, and let the clay dry well (it will take a few days to dry hard). Leave a small opening so the wax can melt out later. Now heat the clay in the oven over a metal pan and the wax will drop out of the middle. Take the clay out of the oven and let it cool; then pour plaster into the clay mould. When the plaster sets, carefully break off the clay, and you’ll have a plaster statue just like your original wax statue. Of course, one can’t do it with metal at home because you can’t make a hot enough fire to melt metal.

For most of the ancient world, bronze statues were small, often less than a foot tall. Not only was the material expensive, but bronze in large amounts tends to warp as it cools so large statues were just not possible. Sculptors would create a mould of their image and pour molten bronze into it. When it cooled, the mould was removed and a solid bronze statue was inside. The Greeks used this technique as well, but they wanted to make life-size bronze statues, just like they made life-size marble statues. This meant developing a new style of casting bronze.

24" Lord Nataraja in Anandatandava (Wax Casting) | Handmade | Madhuchista Vidhana (Lost-Wax) | Panchaloha Bronze

This led to the development of the lost wax casting method, also called 'hollow casting'. In this method, the statue is cast in individual pieces then reassembled, and the casting is done by creating a hollow wax mould that is replaced by bronze. The Greeks were not the first to ever use this technique, but they were the first to really embrace it on a major size and scale. The lost wax method was time consuming, but allowed sculptors to create large bronze statues.

How does the casting work for Bronze?

So, here's how it works. First, the sculptor creates a full-scale model of the figure in clay. Next, the model is covered in a large clay or plaster mould. After the mould sets, it is removed in pieces. Remember that in the lost wax method, the statue is cast as smaller pieces that are later reassembled. In each mould, melted beeswax is applied to the inside surface, left to dry, and then removed. At this point, you have a hollow wax figure that looks exactly like the original clay model. The sculptor has one last chance to look over the wax model and make any corrections, smoothing out air bubbles or wrinkles and adding details.

In a last phase, liquid clay is poured inside the wax model to form a clay core and the outside is covered in a clay mould. Both are left to dry, and metal pins are driven through the mould into the clay core. Finally, the entire mould is heated and the wax melts, pouring out of the mould. This is where the 'lost wax' name comes from. Molten bronze is then poured into the hollow cast where the wax used to be. After the bronze dries, the clay mould and core are removed and the metal pins soldered off. Now, you have a hollow piece of bronze. The sculptor solders all of the pieces back together and voilà, you have a life-size bronze statue. It is important to note that, when the process of chasing is finished, if the sculpture is small enough to have been cast in one piece, the work is given a patina.  Larger sculpture is generally cast in segments, and after all segments have been made, they are joined together, a process called braising. After braising, the artwork would proceed to patination.  A patina not only protects the sculpture, but also gives it colour. It is a step in the making of the finished bronze wherein hot or cold oxides are applied to the surface of the metal, creating a thin layer of corrosion. This layer – slightly brown, green, or blue in colour – is called the “patina.” The patina protects and enlivens the surface of the bronze.


Saraswati

With the lost wax technique, the ancient Greeks developed some of the first examples of large bronze sculpture. One notable example is the Charioteer, made around 475 BC. Originally, this figure was part of a group of bronze statues including a team of life-size horses and a chariot. The entire composition was made of hundreds of individual bronze sections that were soldered together.

Ancient “lost-wax” bronze castings have withstood the centuries, visually telling the tale of past cultures, their religions, and their social structures. For example, Chinese bronzes depicted ceremonial images; Indian and Egyptian castings symbolized deities; Africans cast images of nature; and the Greeks recreated the human form. Many of these cultures have since grown obsolete, their religions have evolved and societies have changed. Elements of the “lost-wax” process have been refined. Yet today, bronze casting is essentially the same as it was in 2,000 B.C. during the Akkadian period.

Bronze is an alloy of 95% copper, 4% silicon and 1% manganese with traces of other elements such as iron. Silicon bronze has been the bronze of choice for fine art castings since its development in the 1920s. It is corrosion-resistant, strong, resilient, formable and weldable. Also known as "hot-cast" bronze, a fine art "lost-wax" casting of silicon bronze is created through many labour-intensive steps.

Prominent Bronze Sculptures of India


North India

    Dancing girl – Mohanjadaro.
    Chariot – Daimabad (Maharashtra) datable to 1500 BCE.
    Interesting images of Jain Thirthankaras have been discovered from Chausa, Bihar, belonging to the Kushana period during the 2nd century CE.
    These shows how the Indian sculptors had mastered the modelling of masculine human physique and simplified muscles.
    Remarkable is the depiction of Adinath or Vrishabhanath, who is identified with long hair locks dropping to his shoulders. Otherwise, the thirthankaras are noted by their short curly hair.
    Many standing Buddha images with right hand in Abhaya Mudra were cast in the North India, particularly in UP and Bihar, during the Gupta and the Post-Gupta periods.
    The Sanghati or the Monks Robe is wrapped to cover the shoulders, which turn over the arm, while the other end of the drapery is wrapped over the left arm.
    The cloths of Buddha figures were thin.
    The figure appears youthful and proportionate in comparison with the Kushana style.
    In the typical bronze from Dhanesar Khera, UP, the folds of the drapery are treated as in the Mathura style, i.e., in a series of dropping down curves.
    Sarnath style bronze have fold less drapery and an outstanding example is that of the Buddha image at Sultanganj, Bihar, which is a quiet monumental bronze figure.
    Vakataka bronze images of Buddha from Phophnar, Maharashtra are contemporary with the Gupta period bronzes. They show the influence of the Amaravati style of Andhra Pradesh in the 3rd century and at the same time, there is a significant change in the draping style of monk’s robe.
    Buddha’s right hand in Abhaya Mudra is free so that the contemporary drapery clings to the right side of the body contour. The result is a continuous flowing line on this side of the figure.


    Large Superfine Tibetan Buddha in the Cosmic Colors of Life and Death


    The additional importance of the Gupta and Vakataka bronze is that they were portable and monks carried them from place to place for the purpose of individual worship or to be installed in Buddhist Viharas. In the manner, the refined classical style spread to different parts of India and to Asian countries overseas.Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir regions also produced bronze images of Buddhist deities as well as Hindu gods and goddesses. Most of these were created during the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries and have a very distinct style in comparison with bronze from other parts of India.

    A noteworthy development is the growth of different types of iconographies of Vishnu images. Four headed Vishnu, also known as Chaturanana or Vaikuntha Vishnu, was worshipped in these regions. In Buddhist centres like Nalanda, a school of bronze casting emerged around the 9th century, during the rule of the Pala dynasty in Bihar and Bengal regions. In the gap of a few centuries the sculptors at Kurkihar near Nalanda were able to revive the classical style of the Gupta period. A remarkable bronze is of a four-armed Avalokiteswara, which is a good example of male figure in graceful tribhanga posture. Worship of female goddesses was adopted which is a part of the growth of the Vajrayana phase in Buddhism. Images of Tara became popular. Seated on the throne, she is accompanied by a growing curvilinear lotus stalk and her right hand is in Abhaya Mudra.

    South India

    The bronze casting technique and making of bronze images of traditional icons reached a high stage of development in south India during the medieval period.Among the Pallava period bronze of the 8th century, the best one is the icon of Shiva seated in Ardhaparyanka asana (one leg kept dangling). The right hand is in the Achamana Mudra gesture, suggesting that he is about to drink poison.Although bronze images were modelled and cast during the Pallava period in the 8th and 9th centuries, some of the most beautiful and exquisite statues were produced during the Chola period in Tamil Nadu from 10th to 12th century AD.The technique of art fashioning bronze images is still skilfully practiced in South India, particularly in Kumbakonam.The distinguished patron during the 10th century was the widowed Chola Queen, Sembiyan Maha Devi.Chola bronze images are the most sought-after collectors’ items by art lovers all over the world.The well-known dancing figure of Shiva as Nataraja was evolved and fully developed during the Chola period and since then many variations of this complex bronze image have been modelled. Shiva is associated with the end of the cosmic world with which his dancing position is associated. In this Chola period bronze sculpture, he has been shown balancing himself on his right leg and suppressing the apasmara, the demon of ignorance or forgetfulness, with the foot of the same leg. At the same time, he raises his left hand in Bhujangatrasita stance, which represents tirobhava that is kicking away the veil of maya or illusion from the devotee’s mind. His four arms are outstretched and the main right hand is posed in Abhayahasta or the gesture suggesting. The upper right hand holds the damura, his favourite musical instrument to keep on the beat tala. The upper left hand carries a flame while the main left hand is held in the Dolahasta and connects with the Abhayahasta of the right hand. His hair locks fly on both the sides touching the circular jvala mala or the garland of flames which surrounds the entire dancing figure. A wide range of Shiva iconography was evolved in the Tanjore region of Tamil  Nadu.


    The 9th century Kalyanasundara Murti is highly remarkable for the manner in which panigrahana (ceremony of marriage) is represented by two separate statuettes. Shiva with his extended right hand accepts Parvati’s (the bride’s) right hand, who is depicted with a bashful expression and taking a step forward.The union of Shiva and Parvati is very ingenuously represented in the Ardhanarishvara in a single image. Beautiful independent figurines of Parvati have also been modelled, standing in the graceful tribhanga posture. During the 16th century known as the Vijayanagara period in Andhra Pradesh, the sculptors experimented with portrait sculpture in order to preserve knowledge of the royal patrons for prosperity. At Tirupati, the life-size standing portrait statue was cast in bronze, depicting Krishnadevaraya with his two queens, Tirumalamba and Chinna Devi. The sculpture has combined the likeness of the facial features with certain elements of idealization. The idealization is further observed in the manner the physical body is modelled to appear imposing as well as graceful. The standing King and Queens are depicted in a praying posture, that is, both hands in the Namaskara mudra.

How to Maintain Bronze Sculptures

All bronze sculpture is an investment which must be properly cared for. For indoor bronzes, the bronze should be wiped with a clean, soft rag once a year. Use a soft brush and apply a coat of Paste Wax or Tree Wax to the sculpture. Allow it to sit for an hour or so and then buff it with a soft brush or rag. This will protect your bronze from the oil of human hands, dust, and grease. Outdoor bronzes should be treated twice a year by cleaning and waxing the metal. Generally, this cleaning should be performed right before and right after summer. Waxing the bronze right before summer is especially important because this will protect it during the hot summer months.

References and Further Readings

‘From Clay to Bronze: A Studio Guide to Figurative Sculpture’ by Sculptor Tuck Langland.

‘Indian sculpture and painting’ by Ernest Binfield Havell.

‘A History of Fine Arts in India and the West’ by Edith Tömöry.

 

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