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Common terminology for sculpture

A brief overview of some terms art historians use to describe sculpture.
A photograph of Railway Sculpture by Harry Mercer on the University of York campus
© University of York

Here are some subjects and common terminology for sculpture.

Are any of these terms unfamiliar?

If you feel uncertain about the definition of any of these terms, do some research off-platform to discover their meanings. We’ve also shared some helpful art dictionaries at the bottom of this article which you can use. Have you heard these terms used to describe non-sculptural objects? The language of sculpture, used to describe three-dimensional objects, can have a wide range of applications in our daily lives. In the next lesson, we’ll be putting our description skills to the test, so you might want to refer to these lists again.

Type of sculptureSculpture is a broad term for a diverse type of art practice. These terms will help you to describe what type of sculpture you’re talking about.

  • Free-standing – Sculpture not attached or supported by any other structure.

  • Relief sculpture – A technique where the sculpture is raised from but still attached to a surface. Bas-relief is if it is only slightly raised from the surface and high relief if it’s further away and more defined from its background.

  • Bust – Sculpture which depicts the head (and sometimes shoulders and chest) of a person.

  • Figurine – A small statue. Figurines with movable parts are more commonly referred to as dolls or mannequins.

  • Monument or memorial – A single sculpture or group of sculptures designed to commemorate a significant person or historical event.

  • Effigy – A representation of a person, typically found in a recumbent position on tombs. Effigies can also be representations of hated people that are made to be destroyed such as Guy Fawkes effigies for Bonfire Night in the UK.

  • Equestrian statue – A statue of a figure riding on a horse.

  • Mobile – A type of kinetic sculpture, based on movement. The elements of the sculpture are affixed and hung in such a way that a gentle breeze will move the parts.

  • Sound sculpture – Sculpture that is created to make a sound. The sound then becomes an important part of the work.

MaterialWhat is the sculpture made from?

  • Bronze
  • Marble (Often, you’ll be able to trace the source of the marble and where it was quarried such as Carrara or Makrana)
  • Wood (Oak, pine, cherry, lime, birch, etc)
  • Stone and semi-precious stones
  • Gold and silver
  • Glass
  • Man-made materials: Aluminium, concrete, steel, cardboard, plastic and plaster

TechniqueWhat methods and technical processes were used to create the sculpture?

  • Casting
  • Carving
  • Chiselling
  • Hammering
  • Moulding
  • Welding
  • Joining
  • Assemblage
  • Electroplating
  • 3-D printing

StyleThis list is purposefully small in scope. These might be some of the styles or movements you could encounter in a survey of Western and European modern sculpture. Referring to the style of a sculpture could tell a reader or listener more about the time and place a sculpture was made and some of the stylistic principles the sculpture might adhere to.

  • Cubism
  • Geometric abstraction
  • De Stijl
  • Constructivism
  • Dadaism
  • Vorticism
  • Surrealism
  • Futurism
  • Formalism
  • Abstract Expressionism
  • Pop-Art
  • Minimalism
  • Land art
  • Installation art

Other descriptors you might want to consider:

  • Size
  • Colour
  • Subject
  • Identifiable shapes
  • Patterns, textures and markings
  • Appearance and clothing (if it’s figurative sculpture)
  • Site (where it is located)

The V&A Sculpture Hub

Chilvers, Ian. The Oxford Dictionary of Art, 3rd. edition (Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 2004.

Ward, Gerald WR. The Grove Encyclopaedia of Materials and Techniques in Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

© University of York
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Modern Sculpture: An Introduction to Art History

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