For as long as the arts have existed, ceramic sculpture has been a part of them.
Whoever dedicates himself to the beautiful sculptural work will be in this case also a potter and will create his work. The pottery will be his vehicle to express himself.
Both worlds frequently overlap in the artistic world, taking into account that since the beginning of mankind, clay has been a very accessible and common element to create, and modeled figures with a figurative or symbolic meaning are as old or older than the paintings we made by torchlight in the caves where we lived.
We are going to tell you about the history of sculptural pottery up to the present day, the types of ceramics that exist, the wonders that are made today and curiosities that we also want to share with you.
WHAT IS CERAMIC SCULPTURE?
It is an art form that directly uses real space, using clay as a material, which, once the sculpture is finished, is fired, to end up as a ceramic piece.
Sculpture, being three-dimensional, occupies a space and interacts with it, unlike painting, which creates a fictitious space on a plane. The forms created can be compact or solid, or be provided with protrusions that are introduced into the surrounding environment. It can be hollow, continuous or perforated, giving access to its own internal space.
The freestanding sculpture is the one that can be surrounded and observed from all points of view.
Relief sculpture gives us a frontal view in which, within a relatively small depth, a complicated series of real spatial relationships may have to be indicated.
Work by Arantxa from Ceramicaespiral
BUY CERAMIC SCULPTURE
There are many types of ceramic sculptures available for purchase, all the ones you can see at Arteologic are unique artistic works that use sometimes millenary methods, keeping traditions alive.
The process of creation and kiln firing in ceramics is environmentally friendly and the ways of using color are made in pottery using oxides and natural pigments as it has been traditionally done.
Nowadays, we can also find reproductions of classical and famous works (from the Venus of Willendorf to Greek and Roman art, etc.), making it an opportunity to have a museum piece in our home at an affordable price.
Then there are pieces according to the style of each artist, figurative, abstract… And contemporary works that already mix other materials and use modern techniques of enameling, kiln, etc. taking advantage of technology.
From here we try to give visibility to the work of artists that we have found remarkable in this field. You can see a small selection of unique works made by very talented ceramists.
On the other hand, the purchase of ceramic sculptures from emerging artists will not cease to be an investment as in any type of art.
MATERIALS AND BASIC METHODS OF SCULPTURE AND CERAMICS
Casting would be the fourth basic technique, but it is a reproduction process and not an original production.
To carve a sculpture we subtract material from a solid and resistant mass, in modeling we add material or modify its shape by pressure, in construction we form a sculpture from several parts that can be of the same or different material and in casting we use molds to reproduce a sculpture in a different material. The most common technique applied in ceramic sculpture is modeling, but other techniques can also be used. We could carve the clay when it is at leather hardness, a point of hardness where the clay is not dry and can still be worked on but no longer allows modeling. We could create a ceramic sculpture with the construction technique by modeling and firing the pieces separately and then joining them together and we could even combine them with other materials and we could make a serial reproduction of several sculptures by casting, using plaster or fired clay molds.
Sculptures created by Arek Szwed
There are many sculptural methods common to all materials, clay, stone, metals, etc., although not all of them are applicable to all materials. For example the lost wax sculpture is exclusive for molten metals (an initial wax mold is used which would be covered with another refractory material and through some holes when heated, the molten wax liquefies outside, leaving the mold hollow to be filled by the metal of choice).
As for the materials, there is as much variety as in any other form of artistic ceramics, let’s see some of them:
Stoneware ceramic figures
Stoneware is a widely used material. What is achieved with this material is a special roughness and texture. Working in stoneware has its particularity and the advantage that it does not require such high firing temperatures as porcelain does.
Nor is it often necessary to achieve a tone as white as this or its degree of vitrification. In addition, there is more room for the artist to maneuver, since it is quite moldable. For this reason, the production of stoneware sculptures for sale and exhibition is frequent.
When we read this term, the terracotta army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang quickly comes to mind, an impressive army of 8000 soldiers with chariots and horses, all different from each other, was a wonderful find that occurred in the 70s.
In general, when we talk about terracotta sculpture, we can refer to figures made in fired clay, not on a potter’s wheel and without vitrification, that is, with a porous structure, so it is permeable to water.
This material has been used many times in the arts for more than 3000 years and since then it has taken many formats: from full life-size (or larger) human figures to busts or smaller pieces.
The first works have been female figurines, since femininity has been present from the beginning in art in the form of primitive goddesses. Later there have been Mesopotamian and Egyptian tablets, passing through Roman and Greek sculptures, etc., still being a material used by artists today.
You can see below a reproduction for sale of the mythical warriors of Qin Shi Huang made by Taras Bogaci.
Other types of ceramics to create figures
Porcelain sculpture is also frequently seen, although it is more difficult to work with and requires higher temperatures, it is also very appreciated, from the first Chinese pieces, through its arrival in Europe to the currently popular Lladró figures.
There are infinite types of clays, firings, finishes and let’s not forget that the materials mentioned above (and others) can be glazed and/or painted.
Going a bit outside of what defines ceramics, many works are not limited only to fired clay, but would be “cold ceramic sculptures”.
Made of materials such as cold porcelain (which is not porcelain but a mixture of vinyl glue, corn starch and other ingredients) or air dry clay (which is not clay as such).
Polymer clay (which does require an oven, but does not require the firing temperatures of natural clay) is also widely used today.
They are modern materials that will make it easier for us to approach clay sculpture in a simple way, at home and often without an oven either.
HISTORY OF CERAMIC SCULPTURE
Ceramic sculpture in antiquity dates back to the Paleolithic era, when small animal or human figurines were modeled in clay. Many of the tools, materials and forms of sculpture have changed little over centuries of activity.
Some examples of ceramic sculptures throughout history are the Sumerian statuettes made between 2750 and 2600 BC discovered in the Iraqi temple of Nippur, the Greek ceramic sculptures molded under pressure known as Tanagra or the 8000 terracotta warriors found in the excavations of the mausoleum of the first emperor of Ch’in, on Mount Li, dated approximately 200 BC.
The latter could be modeled thanks to the dense clay existing in that region, which allowed the construction of life-size figures and are a good example of how the different ceramic sculptural techniques are used. The faces were modeled by hand, no two faces are identical, the torso was cast and the final details were carved later, and the statues were then painted in bright colors.
As for color, many pieces were also painted, either by ceramic or non-ceramic finishes, as in the creations of Greek ceramics and sculpture. The ceramic finish would be the one that goes through the ceramic kiln to be fixed and the non-ceramic finish would be the one that is applied and left to dry in the air. Ceramic finishes are more durable than non-ceramic finishes, which allows us to get closer to their original appearance in the case of archaeological remains.
Sculpture of a woman’s head. Greece 500 B.C.
Sculpture in Greek art
Considering the historical period, Greek sculpture dates back to the year 3000, and was maintained for two thousand years.
Four periods are contemplated: geometric (with the Ionic and Doric schools), archaic (which still preserves a certain “geometrization” and rigidity of the human figure), classical (the sculptures begin to have more movement, smooth contours and naturalness) and Hellenistic (greater realism and expressiveness of the figures and faces).
The works were mostly made of marble (the most valued material), limestone and we can also find sculptures in terracotta. As for metals, bronze was the most common, almost half of the sculptural production was made in this material. The works were polished and highlighted with hot wax and oil.
Greek ceramic sculpture was made in small figures, especially amphorae, vases, vessels and other utensils. It must be taken into account that a work of large format round bulk was impossible to fire in a kiln and also the resistance of the ceramic in this type of large figures is not adequate, having options such as stone.
For this reason, the terms Greek sculpture or Greek ceramics are used separately.
The artistic legacy of this culture is enormous and many of the masterpieces made in sculpture, ceramics and painting in Greece, fortunately can be seen today in different museums and in their original locations, in the same buildings that were erected in their day.
Here something similar to what we mentioned about the Greek period happens, there is not much production of ceramic figures in large format due to the limitations of this material compared to stone.
Apart from the production of decorative vessels (such as “terra sigillata“) and utilitarian objects, such as bowls, pots, vases, etc., there are no large-scale figures.
However, there are small pieces such as braziers and skylights that in themselves can be considered pieces of ceramic sculpture, and their small size should not detract from the quality of the artistic object.
As a curiosity, small pieces made in terracotta for toys have been preserved.
Visigothic sculpture and art
From the 5th and more relevantly from the 7th century onwards, the production of the Visigothic people that inhabited the Iberian Peninsula, coming from Germanic lands, began to intensify as this people settled.
The best known in our days is the architecture and its gold and silver work. Visigoth pottery is in some ways an inheritance of Roman pottery and mostly for functional purposes: pottery for construction, household utensils and religious objects. There are not many examples of Visigoth ceramic sculpture as such.
INDIGENOUS CERAMIC SCULPTURE
After this general description, we will talk a little about indigenous sculpture and ceramics, which are those made by the original populations of different territories. This definition is applicable to any continent, although indigenous is often associated with the peoples of the Americas.
In indigenous art, clay is a primordial element as any other element of nature and with it sculptural forms are modeled, loaded with symbolism with which the indigenous creates his imaginary and with it gives an explanation of his world.
Many times these pieces are not only isolated sculptures, but are mixed with forms of functional and ritual objects, such as bowls, vessels and sahumadores. Vessels with anthropomorphic and zoomorphic forms are a beautiful example of indigenous ceramic sculpture.
In the case of pre-Columbian ceramic sculpture, it is usual to find pieces in the original color of the clay used; however, polychrome pieces such as those found in Llanos de Barinas have also come down to us.
In addition, sometimes they received, after firing, a treatment to give them different shades, often in dark tones using something equivalent to the Japanese “Raku”. It is known that they used engobes.
This type of sculpture, thousands of years ago, used indigenous raw materials and employed diverse and varied techniques, but did not use the potter´s wheel, nor did they use molds. The motifs created ranged from figures representing animals and human beings to geometric forms with simpler designs.
The cooking was carried out in fire using the embers of the bonfire.
As a curiosity, pre-Columbian sculpture is recreated today using the same techniques, resulting in some really beautiful pieces, we liked the work of Natalia Marin, in her blog you have a sample of her work.
CONTEMPORARY CERAMIC SCULPTURE
Work made by Yanko Vasilev in glazed clay.
This is coupled with the improvement in the clays and products used, no longer relying on local materials and the industry is researching into more specific materials for each type of work. Materials can be acquired from anywhere in the world to suit the sculptor’s work. And then there is, of course, the greater sophistication of the firing furnaces, which are more affordable and now allow a very wide range of temperatures and greater control and reliability over them. The subject matter obviously now extends to all branches of modern ceramic sculpture, such as abstract art. And the materials used are expanding to include metals, plastics, etc. It is true that many renowned artists have used ceramics in murals and for sculptural figures have preferred metal, as in the case of Joan Miró. Today we have many examples of ceramists-sculptors (or vice versa) who continue to investigate and innovate in methods, techniques and mix of materials, as in the case of Steve Belz. In addition to the great diffusion that is taking place in exhibitions and other dedicated spaces, buying contemporary sculptures made in ceramics has become another form of investment in the art market.
“Bound” © Steve Belz
You can watch a video about the Schlenger collection, which features amazing contemporary ceramic works.
As you can see, clay is a very versatile material with which we can make from a sink or tiles to the most exquisite or wildest work of art. There is room for everything.
Dare to take a little piece of clay and let yourself be carried away modeling a figurine, the one that comes out, without any pretension.
(*) Text and images with the collaboration of Arantxa de Ceramicaespiral.
Note: This article contains affiliate links that lead to the artists’ stores outside of the Ateologic website. If you buy something from them, we will receive a small commission that will help us to continue our site and in turn continue to support those artists.
This of course does not affect the selling price.