To understand and apply relief as it relates to the creation of three-dimensional art.


Imagine a flat desert landscape. Rising above the table-like surface are low hills and craggy mountain peaks. Shallow pools and deep arroyos have been carved into its sandy soils by the action of water and wind. In your mind's eye, cut out a square mile of this landscape and mount it vertically on a gigantic wall. You have created a gigantic wall relief!

Starting with the concept of the picture plane you can physically add or subtract material to create low or high relief sculptures. A bas-relief (literally "low relief") is a sculptural relief--usually on a panel or other planar surface--in which the figure projects only slightly from the background plane. A haut-relief (literally "high relief") is a sculptural relief in which deep cuts or three-dimensional forms project significantly from the background plane.

Girl with Doves, marble, Greek, 300 B.C.

It is possible to develop three-dimensional reliefs from almost any material. Additive and Subtractive processes, are those in which material is either "added" or "subtracted" from a sculptural form. Some materials, such as clay, are easy to manipulate. One can easily imagine adding or subtracting material to a slab of clay. Material can be added or substracted from almost any base material--including obdurate materials such as stone or steel. One very satisfying method of creating reliefs is to layer up planks of wood, then carve down through the layers using wood carving chisels and a mallet.

Because of its ability to cast deep shadows, high relief sculpture is often characterized by dramatic contrasts in light and dark. Low relief, on the other hand, is often characterized by a more limited range of values. By varying the depth of the relief, the sculptor can adjust the relative importance of different portions of a relief. In the high relief sculpture below, notice how the artist varied the depth of the surface treatment to give added emphasis to the central figure, a tribal king. The material in this case is bronze, a sophisticated process that required a furnace for heating molten metal. The original relief would have been created in wax or clay, then translated into bronze using molds and the lost wax casting process.

Five Figure Plaque, Benin, 17th century, Bronze,
image courtesy the Guggenheim Museum, NYC.

Creating a mold from an object allows us to change the medium of the sculpture quite easily. Casting, whether at room temperature using liquids such as plaster or resin (cold casting), or hot liquids such as molten bronze, aluminium, or iron (metal foundry), is a substitution method--that is, one material is literally being "substituted" for another. Reliefs executed in relatively fragile materials such as unfired clay, wax, or plaster are of often translated into more permanent materials using a variety of casting methods.





--Carved Stone reliefs, Mahabalipuram, India
--Bronze relief, Benin, Africa