Why a Painter Needs to Think Like a Sculptor


Before beginning the painting, apply simple topography lines to a drawing to assist in the visualization of form and depth.

Working on a one-dimensional surface has its challenges. As magical as it can be to create the illusion of depth and form upon a flat surface, there are many lessons to be learned from the sculptor. The debate as to which is the nobler of the arts is one that can be traced as far back as the Renaissance. I won’t venture into the debate here but will note that each has its important lessons.

I learned one such lesson many years ago and it has had a profound effect on my paintings every since. When starting out as a painter, I spent considerable time learning to draw and paint the portrait. After some years of effort, I had obtained a modicum of ability and, being young of years, felt I knew everything there was to know about art in general. As the years have ticked by, however, this has been greatly disproved. Because I was capable of painting a portrait, I decided to try my hand at sculpting the human head. Seated in front of my mound of clay that first day, I began the task. As I closely studied the model and the clay began to take form, I thought to myself: “Wait until the instructor sees my piece; I am going to receive such praise in front of the other students.” Finally, the instructor approached. As I eagerly awaited my impending praise, she leaned over my shoulder and turned the turntable the clay was resting on. As it rotated, I was shocked to discover that I had placed the ears an inch and a half from the eyes in depth. When looking straight on to the subject, that was the visible width but when the head was observed from the side, it was apparent the distance was closer to four or five inches in depth. This was a revelation! The sculptor deals in literal depth and the painter has to create the illusion. The painter must think like a sculptor, while the sculptor thinks like a sculptor.

Applying this to our paintings can be difficult. We become involved in the visual widths and heights of the objects we are painting, forgetting that they also have depth. Only an inch or two of a field may be visible, yet it represents one or two miles of distance. One means of reminding ourselves of the surfaces we are dealing with is to apply faint topographic lines on the initial drawing before attempting the painting. This simple visualization, though lost as the painting is started, is then internalized and we make wiser choices when dealing with the elements of edge, value, and color; ultimately producing a painting that has greater depth.

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3 thoughts on “Why a Painter Needs to Think Like a Sculptor

  1. Beste

    I think this is a great advice. Years ago, I have tried sculting years ago and similar experienced shocked me as well. The part that I find same in both painting and sculpting is to work on the whole piece at once. You cannot fix the ear without thinking about the eye. Similarly in painting, you cannot work on a tree without thinking about the sky or mountains in the background.

  2. Mary Ann Pals

    Great info here, Richard!

    One of my first lessons when I’m teaching beginning drawing students is to hand them a page with black and white pictures of some simple objects (hammer, scissors, etc) and a piece of tracing paper. They trace the outer contour of the objects, and then are told to draw lines inside the objects to show each object’s form/depth. What I am always amazed at is that while each person’s interpretation is unique, most are very well rendered. In other words, sometimes the lines drawn by two different people can be very different and going in different directions, yet they’ve both successfully shown the form and depth of their objects.

    After that lesson, the length and direction of their lines and marks are much more informed. I no longer see the color-it-in-like-in-a-coloring-book type strokes, especially in shadowed areas.