Project 1 Shallow Relief Sculpture

Project 1 calls for a shallow relief structure constructed by applying materials to a base board. Initially, I played around with ideas in my sketchbook, searching for an idea which I thought I could make. My first thoughts were inspired by my research in the Constructivism and art mirroring technology. I explored the idea of designs based around clock and engine internal parts, and I really like some of the shapes, but I decided these would be well beyond my ability to make. My next idea was based around simple piled up shapes that perhaps I could hope to cut in one material or another.

torso (43 of 49)


torso (45 of 49)

I explored ideas based on the human form, but abstracted into really simple shapes, and into the patterns which I might be able to create using wood strip. These were inspired by looking at the work of Elsworth Kelly in the Tate Modern on a recent study visit. I realised that the designs which appeal to me are those with some organic, curved element or irregularity, and that a rectangular base board was just not ticking my box.

torso (46 of 49)

I like the idea of repeated, but off-beat patterns, and I may return to this later, but not now. I also like the idea of a stylised human form based around the skeleton, but placing the components and modifying the base board to suggest movement. I played around with pieces of paper cut to the dimensions of some wood strip which was surplus from a DIY project.torso (47 of 49)

relief (12 of 5)

I decided I could produce a more interesting base board by  overlapping shapes, having projecting applied shapes, or connecting several rectangular boards to create a new shape. This final idea lead me to think about using reclaimed boards which might have a characterful surface showing the signs of previous use and old  palette wood seemed an ideal size. A trip to the local garden centre’s skip produced plenty of material if very wet, dirty and mossy.

relief (15 of 5)

Broken up bits of palette

I knocked out any nails, pulled off loose splinters of wood, and scrubbed the planks with bleach. At this point I was rather disheartened as the wood felt really squelchy and soft. I suspected that it was too rotten to use, however it did eventually dry out revealing great grain, knots and characterful surface marks.

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Scrubbed with bleach

I spent some time playing around with the pieces to see which I would use and in what orientation.

relief (2 of 11) relief (3 of 11)

relief (1 of 11)

I then added my paper shapes, including a ‘pelvis’ and carried on experimenting.

relief (4 of 11)relief (5 of 11)

Ribs got added…

relief (9 of 11) relief (8 of 11)

relief (7 of 11)relief (6 of 11)

and string for a spinal cord, and the interest of an additional material and texture

relief (10 of 11)

The boards were sanded and dry-brushed with white undercoat to bring out the grain and pull the boards together as a unit, since they were slightly different colours.

relief (11 of 11)

Dry brushed with undercoat and sanded

I cut the strip wood into pieces to play around with using a mitre saw (I do my own framing) which allowed me to cut precise, equal lengths in three sizes for the spine  and three sizes of a narrower strip wood for the ribs. The wood was a bit mildewed from being in the garage loft, but sand paper removed that effectively and neatened the cut ends.

torso (18 of 49)

I carried on playing around with the shapes including consideration of the knots and scars in my base wood.

torso (4 of 49) torso (3 of 49) torso (2 of 49) torso (1 of 49)

At some point in my playing about, I decided that the pelvis could be a more interesting shape and add more interest with a reverse curve.

torso (6 of 49) torso (5 of 49)

My wood working skills are absolutely minimal, so I decided to make the pelvis, with its complex curves, out of cork tiles which I knew I could cut with a Stanley knife. We have some tiles, again left over from DIY, and I tested cutting a complex shape. The cork was a bit fragile, so I experimented with laminating two layers using PVA glue. This worked really well, producing a relatively strong shape which could also be sanded smooth around the edge to remove any jaggedness from cutting. I went ahead and made the pelvis component using this method.

torso (8 of 49)

First tile cut to shape

First tile cut to shape

Two tiles cut

Two tiles cut

One side painted with PVA

One side painted with PVA

The two shapes stuck together and left under weights

The two shapes stuck together and left under weights. Clearly sanding will be needed to smooth those edges.

I could never have cut such a complex shape with a saw. I next experimented with making rope. The sisal string was too insignificant and needed scaling up. With a couple of metres length doubled, I twisted the string up and doubled it back to create a four ply rope in the same way it would have been done in a traditional rope walk.

 torso (15 of 49)

A test hole was drilled in a test chunk of wood to confirm the size of holes needed to thread the rope. In order to get all the holes consistently in the centre of the wood chunks, my husband suggested using his milling machine. This has a vice which can be set precisely forward/back and side to side under the drill bit and then multiple pieces machined in exactly the same way each time. He showed me how to use the machine, and in particular its safety cut-outs. Once set up, the machining was straight forward.

torso (14 of 49)

My husband has been really helpful and supportive, explaining the best way to do a job and how to set up for it, and then letting me do it myself under supervision.

All blocks cut and ready for sanding

All blocks cut and ready for sanding

Rearranging the pieces yet again made me realise that I could create a hole in my base plate to echo the hole in the pelvis and suggest a heart, perhaps.

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Deciding where to put the batons

The base board was joined together with three batons on the back.

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Screwing in the first two screws to place the batons.

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Drilling a guide hole through the two layers.

One baton was placed at an angle to give stability and stop lateral movement.

The back painted in case the ends of the batons are visible from the side.

The back painted in case the ends of the batons are visible from the side.

Whilst in the garage, I had a root around in some boxes and found some bolts and spark plugs to play about with, as I felt the structure needed something more.

torso (30 of 49) torso (31 of 49)

I didn’t like the combination of metal and wood; to my mind it echoed kitsch representations of Frankenstein’s monster, but I did like having something at the shoulder, so I decided to add a circle of cork there to echo the hole in the pelvis and create a further rhythm through the piece.

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Before fixing down the surface elements, I did a bit of final radical playing about to ensure that I was convinced by my original idea, but didn’t like anything. I tried out my final fix on scrap material using hot glue.

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Testing hot glue on palet wood


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The pelvis was glued down with PVA and weighted, then the spine was threaded and each block glued down with hot glue. The end of the rope was looped around the ‘neck’ to allow subsequent tensioning and add a non-rigid dynamic to the composition. The ribs were then lined up using heavy weights and glued, one after one, with hot glue.

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The final piece to be applied was the ‘shoulder’ with PVA.

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Final shoulder piece glued and weighted in place.

D-rings and cord were attached to the back so that the final piece could be hung either horizontally or vertically. The completed sculpture is 95cm by 40cm by 8cm.

torso (39 of 49)torso side (1 of 1)

torso (42 of 49)

I quite like it hung horizontally as it gives an extra dimension of abstraction.

I was really interested to find how engaged my family were with the making of this work. Everybody had opinions and was interested to see it progress. I wonder if this is a characteristic of sculpture over 2d art; that it is more involving. Certainly my family have never been so vocal about my other work.

I was not aware of it as I worked, but I can now clearly see how I was influenced by Picasso’s sculpture, particularly ‘Still Life‘.

torso drawing (1 of 1)

A2 charcoal drawing with sculpture lit from bottom left

I was thrilled with the idea of painting my sculpture, as suggested by the course materials, since I am not a painter and haven’t done any of the Painting modules. I have done a bit of ‘leisure’ watercolour in the past, but not for several years apart from a bit of pen and wash in a sketch pad. This has to be one of the worst watercolours ever. I have forgotten so much about leaving white support, judging tone and not using colours straight from the tube, but I did have fun doing it.  Given the exacting nature of the straight lines and hard shadows, I think watercolour was not the best medium to choose but I have been able to explore the different surface qualities of the planks, wood end grain and cork. This is the complete painting of a detail of the sculpture.

torso painting (1 of 1)


My first exploration into sculpture was really exciting and stimulating. My researches lead me to want to honour the character of my materials and I was particularly influenced by Picasso’s ‘Still Life’ assemblage in the Tate.

This first low relief sculpture draws on my fascination with the human form and the skeleton. Its structure has been dictated by my extreme reluctance to use a regularly shaped base board. I find irregular or curved shapes much more inspirational; as soon as I abandoned the idea of using a rectangular board and found some scrap timber in a skip, my imagination felt liberated.

I have tried to use a number of contrasting materials, some soft, some hard, regular and irregular, smooth or with surface texture. I lightly brushed the reclaimed wood with white paint to bring out its grain, but decided to leave all the other materials natural. This allows their inherent texture or grain to be seen against the base material, but also uses their warm, natural colours to contrast with the white boards and provide an organic feel to the ‘bones’. I have tried to be honest with the materials and let them speak for themselves.

Different levels in the sculpture are created by layering up the materials but also by piercing both the pelvis shape and the base board. I would have liked to have made it more three dimensional, but didn’t like any of my experiments in that direction, for instance rotating some of the boarding to be at ninety degrees to the rest and project out. Similarly, I tried extending the range of materials with metal but felt that the organic materials worked better alone for the subject.

The elements of the piece perhaps look a little sparse on the base board, but I felt that simplicity was an important part of making a striking piece. I have tried to create a rhythm through the sculpture with repeated shapes such as echoing the hole in the pelvis with the circle representing a shoulder joint. I also considered the negative spaces between the pieces. In some places, they are placed closely to relate and create larger shapes such as the ‘ribs’ and ‘spine’. In other places, I have left large areas of base board bare, to allow the texture to be seen and give room for applied shapes to breathe.

I think the use of reclaimed material is the single strongest element of the piece. Its relative two dimensionality is, I think, the weakest.


About starrybird

I am mature student studying art with The Open College of the Arts. My passion is printmaking.
This entry was posted in Part 1 Construction and Drawing, Project 1 Shallow Relief Sculpture and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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