Brazen Images: Making Bronze Sculptures

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A highly nuanced technique, the casting of bronze sculptures balances the subtlety of its malleable, melted state with the robust strength of its solidified, contoured form. First used around 6,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, an area now part of Iraq, bronze remains a widespread and alluring sculpting material, most likely due to this fascinating paradox of its essence.

Skilled Icelandic artist Helgi Gíslason, whose work is currently on display here at Agora Gallery in Persistence of Form, fashions his bold, bronze sculptures using the centuries-old “lost wax” method. Watch the video below to discover his refined process:

Gíslason celebrated his opening reception for his most recent exhibition at Agora Gallery this Thursday, December 3rd, 2015. Though this video is a little dated, Gíslason joked, “Well not much has changed. This process has been in place for the past three thousand years!”

“I think sculpture is very important. Sculptures have to speak for themselves when the artist is not there. Like a book has to stand without the author.” Gíslason’s sculptures literally do stand on their own, catching the attention of every guest who comes into the gallery.

If you are considering a future in bronze sculptures, or even if you’re just interested in learning more about Gíslason’s work, the above video is a very useful place to start.

Some equipment you’ll need:

 Model or Pattern Wax* Carving & Cutting Tools
Sprue Wax Wires Wax Frame
Alcohol-based Coating Plaster
Clay Sand
Plastic Bags Buckets
Ceramic Kiln Crucible-
Blowtorch Eye Protection
Tongs Heat-resistant Gloves
Stirring Rod

*Gíslason uses industrial type wax

Why bronze?  One of Gislason's finished sculptures

A metal alloy, composed mainly of copper and combined most often with tin (which, by themselves, are too soft and brittle), it resists corrosion and metal fatigue more than steel. It’s a better conductor of heat than most steels and lighter than stone. While other comparable metals such as gold, silver, and brass (an alloy of copper and zinc) are quite pliable and forgiving to work with, bronze alloys often have the very desirable property of expanding slightly just before they set, filling in the finest details of a mold.

The “lost wax” casting process: To begin this method, a wax original of the sculpture is covered with a plaster and clay mold and then baked. The wax melts, leaving a hollow cavity in the hard clay shell for the molten metal to be poured into, which then hardens into an exact replica of the one-of-a-kind wax model sculpture. If the original is large, it is divided into sections to be individually cast in plaster so that each part better retains its shape.

Once all the casting is completed, the separate parts have to be fit together, welded, smoothed, and furnished. For many, bronze conjures a notion of harshness and insensitivity, but once it has been melted it takes on a delicate and powerful form, emanating an unpredictable energy and movement.

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Helgi Gislason at Agora Gallery, for his opening reception on December 3rd 2015
Helgi Gíslason at Agora Gallery, for his opening reception on December 3rd 2015

For more detailed information about the process, read the full video transcript below.

——————————Full Video Transcript——————————

Artist: Helgi Gíslason 
Narrator: Anna Yates
Script Written by : Erna Indrioadottir
Gislason works with industrial wax poured into a special frame

“Bronze, used in sculpture since time immemorial, is the most important metal in the history of sculptural art. Helgi Gíslason works in bronze. The method he uses to create his sculptures is the ancient ‘lost wax’ process. In the ‘lost’ process, a wax original is made and then covered with a mixture of plaster and clay. The clay is then baked in a ceramic kiln and the wax melts leaving a space in the hard clay shell.

To make the bronze sculpture, the molten metal is poured into the space and when the bronze has hardened the clay is broken, leaving the metal sculpture.

Hegli Gíslason makes his originals in wax, sometimes drawing the sculpture first. If the original is very large, it is divided into sections which are then individually cast in plaster so that each part retains its shape better.

Here, the artist is working on a section of a large work: a wax funnel is made leading to pipes which the hot metal runs down, and small vents which allow the escape of hot air, which the molten metal expels from the mold.

The artist generally uses industrial wax in his work. The wax is melted and poured into a special frame. When he has measured the thickness of the wax, he waits for it to cool.

Gislason works on a section of a larger work using a wax funnelNow the wax is hardened, it can be peeled off the base. The addition of various materials to the wax alters its color and changes the consistency. Sometimes the artist shapes his originals entirely by hand, but in this case he is working on part of a large work and uses the plaster cast in order to preserve the exact shape of the section.

A blow torch is used to keep the wax at the right temperature, so it is easy to mold and to shape. The wax is cut along the edges of the mold; every part of the sculpture must be molded precisely so they all fit together exactly when the whole sculpture is assembled.

When the funnel and pipes have been connected with the section of the work that is being cast, it is vital to ensure that the completed bronze will be an exact replica of the wax original.

The metal has been melted in a graphite crucible, which is seen here being removed from the kiln
The metal has been melted in a graphite crucible, which is seen here being removed from the kiln

When the wax model has been generously coated with alcohol, it is covered with a mixture of plaster and clay. This is then fired in a ceramic kiln at 600 degrees Centigrade. The clay hardens, the wax melts away, leaving a space in the clay and the mold is ready.

The molds are carefully prepared before the bronze is poured into them. They are placed in a kind of box and sand is packed around them. This is to prevent the molds cracking when the molten metal is poured into them. The molds are inside plastic bags in the sand. Here, an opening is being cut.

Now, the metal is being melted in graphite crucible which is being removed from the kiln. Bronze was originally an alloy of copper and tin, while in modern times zinc has been added to the mixture. Bronze was probably first used about 6,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, an area now part of Iraq, which was the homeland of many prehistoric peoples. The oldest recorded civilization there is the Sumerian, whose technology and high culture were unparalleled until recent centuries.

At a temperature of over 1200 degrees Centigrade, the bronze is removed from the kiln and poured into the molds where it runs into the space in the clay previously filled by the wax. This hard metal, which at first glance seems unyielding, takes on within the mold the form the artist desires. This ancient method of part casting bronze has been regaining popularity among artists in the past few years and is now quite widely used. Perhaps this an answer to the softer materials produced by our technological age, such as plastics, which many artists found tempting, especially in the 1960s.
The craft of welding sections of the work together
The metal solidifies quickly and the next task is to find out how successful the casting has been. The mold is freed from the sand and the plastic bag removed. As the mold is broken away from the bronze, it is completely destroyed. It will not be used again and the work cast in the mold is the only one of its kind. No duplicates of it will ever be made.

Although the sections of the sculpture are complete, there is much work still to do. The separate parts have to be fit together, welded, smoothed, and furnished. The bronze will undergo yet more changes under the hand of the artist. Around the turn of the century, artists started working directly in bronze, coming into direct contact with its hardness and subtleness and especially its ability to capture and reflect the varying qualities of light. Generally, bronze is linked in peoples’ minds with the notion of harshness and insensitivity, but once it has been melted it takes on the strange form seen here in Hegli Gíslason’s studio.

But the sculptures do not stay in the studio for long. Here, they are on display in Listmunahúsið a Reykjavík art gallery. While they remained in the studio, the artist could change them, bend them, break them, even tear them apart. But the act of exhibiting completes the process of creation. From now on, no more changes can be made. It is as vital for an artist to exhibit as for a writer to achieve publication or a composer to have his works performed. Only then are they complete and only then is it possible to judge whether they have succeeded or failed.

Gíslason at Agora Gallery - December, 2015.
Gíslason at Agora Gallery – December, 2015.

Hegli Gíslason, interviewed by an Icelandic daily newspaper, described the feelings of an artist on the eve of an exhibition, ‘Exhibiting is always a crisis. It takes a struggle. Here you are, you are saying, these are my ideas, my emotions. It’s demanding, but of course it has to be done. It’s vital to exhibit, see the works in new context, and make a clean start. And of course one wants to receive a response from the public, and find out about their reactions. And, finally, the sculptures go out into the real world.’”

 

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4 comments

  • What a fascinating blog! I have always loved bronze figurines & sculptures. I have much interest in bronze, the different methods used in creating them into beautiful forms of art. It was also very interesting to learn that the making of Bronze sculptures. began 6000 years ago. I did enjoy watching the Artist using the lost wax method. The ones I know of use the polyresin method with multi-alloy. I would like to learn more about that method as well, as those are the kind I will be selling once my website is up and running. I do see the difference in the methods. The lost wax method has fewer colors involved than the ones I will be selling, but still, the artists in this blog sculptures are stunningly beautiful. And, to think that only one can be made and not molded as needed, makes them really special, that one of a kind masterpiece. I do wonder, what in the artist’s imagination led him to make sculptures, like the full body with half of the limbs missing. It makes it appear that it has been around for thousands of years and worn down by time, yet still magnificent. Thank you for sharing on this blog, it was very informative.

  • Wao! That was great post and site as well. Thanks for sharing these useful information with us. That was so nice to see this video. I am glad to know about the bronze creation. I am also having services from NBM Metals for my project. I had I had excellent experience with them. . I would highly recommend this to anyone for their service.

  • Bronze is great! And time consuming. So I cast in clay most of the time. Would be good to find a reasonable way to cast in bronze in US

  • Alternative casting materials

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