The Good Versus Bad in the World of Sculpting

Art Wise

We have all seen our fair share of sculptures in homes, offices, hotel lobbies, spas, and shops. Have you ever wondered why some sculptures are so intricately made, with fine detailing, whereas other seem rougher, or less clean in their finish? This vast difference in the quality of metal sculptures is not due to the skill of the sculptor alone, but also due to the process used to make the piece.

(A Manjushri Buddha of very high quality (left) versus one of inferior quality (right))

The process used to cast the metal has a dramatic impact on the quality of a finished metal sculpture. And the ‘Lost Wax Process’ of metal casting, is perhaps the most laborious process that exists, to make sculptures of the highest quality. The process originated around 4,000 BC, which is about 6,000 years ago! And it’s still used widely around the world today to create various products, including sculptures.

(Metal objects made using the lost wax process; from left to right: Rein ring from Mesopotamia (2,600 BC), Amenophis the 3rd from Egypt (2,200 BC), Gold pin from Trassem, Rhineland (1,600 BC) - Source Gold Bulletin)

How the Process Works

The Lost Wax Process, known in French as Cire Perdue, is the method of creating a metal sculpture by pouring hot metal into a wax model, which is lost during the process. The earlier castings were made in copper, but bronze quickly became the preferred material for statuary, as it is stronger and more tensile.

There are different kinds of Lost Wax casting. The first and earliest method involved creating a solid wax model and then wrapping it in clay. The model is then heated to melt the wax and harden the clay. Molten metal is poured into the inverted clay mould, and upon cooling, the clay is broken to reveal a solid statue.

(Molten Metal Being Poured Into a Mould; source: mahabuddhaart)

Sculptures made using this method are very unique, and literally, one of a kind, since the clay mould has to be broken to take the statue out! A craftsman typically spends several weeks/months working on just one sculpture. And this is why, such sculptures are hard to come by, and more highly priced. The detailing is very fine, and the intricacy of the work adds to the beauty of each piece.

(Zoomed in shot of a stunning Buddha with a durje highlighting the finest quality work; available on Artisera)

Most statues made using this solid wax method are less than 12 inches tall, as statues of larger castings tend to warp. In order to overcome this problem and create large free standing statues, the ‘Hollow Lost Wax Casting Method’ was invented.

(Step by step guide of the Hollow Lost Wax Casting Process. Source: National Gallery of Art, nga.gov)

This method is extremely complex, and involves breaking the wax model into different sections, and then using coatings of plaster, clay and more wax, to create moulds. When heated, the wax model melts, leaving the moulds hollow, into which molten metal can be poured. This is done through attached funnels and vents. The separate pieces are then joined together, and the statue is given the required finish. Sometimes gemstones or glass are set into the statue as well.

(A Nepalese Gilded Buddha head decorated with stones, available on Artisera)

Differentiating from Commercial Production

So how does one tell if a sculpture has been made using the elaborate lost wax process, or just mass produced? For commercial (mass) productions, typically two moulds are used (one each for the front and back). The same mould(s) are used to create several hundred (or thousand) pieces of the same design. The front and back of a piece are glued together, and the line where they are joined is usually visible, even after being painted over. Commercial production allows large quantities of the same design to be manufactured, and this brings the price of the sculpture down considerably. But, as the same mould gets used and reused over and over again, the intricacy and detailing suffers, and the final product typically does not have the fine features seen in sculptures made using the lost wax process.

(Commercially produced sculptures often lack the detailing and precision of sculptures made using the Lost Wax process)

Lost Wax Casting in the Indian Subcontinent

The Dhokra tribes of West Bengal have been practitioners of the hollow lost wax casting method for over 4,000 years, and still create various kinds of intricate wire jewellery and ornaments using this process. Even the more traditional solid wax casting process is still used in Nepal and South India to create idols, brass bells, ‘urlis’ and the famed Aranmula metal mirrors using various metallic alloys.

The process may be more laborious, but for the true art connoisseur, the quality of a finished sculpture made using this process, is worth the time, effort and price!

(Range of sculptures available on Artisera are made using Lost Wax Process)

Watch a video from the Victoria & Albert Museum showing the process in action:

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