How to Commission a Bronze Sculpture by Deran Wright
How to commission a bronze sculpture; a guide
To commission a custom piece of bronze sculpture is not difficult, but it is a process. If you have never done it before here is a short guide on what to expect.
Will it be expensive? That can depend on the size, but yes, it will definitely be more expensive than something you buy from a chain store. Remember, mass production is what brings down the price on manufactured items. By its very definition, a custom piece of sculpture will be created one at a time by artists and skilled artisans.
Cost will depend on size and complexity of the design of the sculpture. Other factors can also affect the cost. Do you want to own the only one in the world? Then it will cost more. Or, do you know other people who might also like one?
I recently created a small sculpture for a person who was graduating with an MBA. Over a dozen other graduating members also bought one. Because of the numbers, I was able to work with them on the price. Here's why;
When creating a custom commission, there are three cost factors to keep in mind.
First you are paying the artist for his actual time and talent to create the sculpture. Second, to produce a bronze of the original sculpture, a mold must be made. The cost of the mold is equal to, or can even exceed the casting cost of one bronze casting. Finally, there is the cost of the casting itself. *
When multiple castings are made, even though each individual casting goes through the exact same lost wax casting method, the cost of the rubber mold and the artist's time can be spread out over a group, rather than just one.
So how would one begin if one wishes to commission a custom bronze sculpture?
There are several questions you should really ask yourself before you proceed. For instance...
If you have an idea in mind of what you want, does it already exist?
Say you want a sculpture of Abraham Lincoln sitting on a bench... several sculptors have already made versions of this idea. If you can find one that you like that is already on the market, it may save you money and time if you can buy a pre-existing model. Do your research.
However you may not like any of the pre existing sculptures, and want to commission your own. Make note of what you like and do not like about them, so you can communicate your wishes to the artist you select.
What style of sculpture do you like?
Very impressionistic, hyper realistic, or something in between? Find an artist who works in a style you are comfortable with. Review their past work. There are sculptors who are highly specialized in their subject matter. An artist who specializes in sculpting lifelike horses may not be the best choice for a portrait of a loved one.
Some artists create a wide variety of subject matters. I myself like to shake things up, and sculpt different subjects.
It can get boring to just mechanically sculpt endless variations on a single theme. Ask the artist if they would be willing to tackle your idea.
What is your budget?
Be up front with the artist about how much you would like to spend. Even if your budget is limited, if the subject is of particular interest to the artist, they may be willing to work with you. There are causes I personally support, for instance, like the Boy Scouts of America. My son and I had a good experience with this organization.
While as an artist I am not always able to support them monetarily, I can lend my talent to create artwork for them at a discount.
Alternatively, if you have enough to cover most of the basic costs, the artist may feel they can find other buyers for the finished piece. When you are covering the initial costs to produce the sculpture, the artist is that much further ahead. Then again, maybe not.
Do you feel comfortable working directly with an artist?
Artists are individuals who have chosen a non traditional career path. They can be quirky. Some have good business heads, some don't. Some are communicative, some aren't. One might work very fast, another may be very slow. Some may take constructive criticism well, others may not.
Any professional artist should be able to supply you with references who will be able to give you an idea of what to expect. If an artist has a reputation for being difficult to work with, the quality of their work may still be worth the trouble. Or it may not. How much patience do you have?
You may wish to approach an art gallery.
Art galleries represent a group of artists, and act as the artist's agent. They can recommend an artist for your specific project, and can smooth out some of the contact and financial issues. They typically charge a fee of 50%. This fee is added into the price you will pay whether for a custom commission, or a pre-existing artwork. Even if you are working directly with the artist, if they also work within a gallery system the artist may keep their prices consistent with gallery prices, so as to not undercut their relationship with the gallery owner.
Not all artists work with galleries, for a variety of reasons. Because of this, their work may be less expensive (or it may not.)
How quickly do you want it?
It takes time to create a custom commission sculpture. The artist will work at their customary speed, and depending on size and complexity, it can take weeks or months to create an original sculpture. Then it will move to the foundry for the lost wax casting. At times foundries have more than they can reasonably do at one time, and have a backlog of work. These are usually in order of arrival, first come, first serve style.
Once at the foundry, the sculpture will move through multiple operations. Each must be approached with care and consideration to arrive at a positive outcome. The rubber molds that produce the casting waxes must be carefully constructed to faithfully capture all the original detail. A well constructed mold leads directly to an excellent bronze casting. The rubber mold process by itself may take weeks for a large sculpture.
At each stage, the same amount of care is taken. It may take several months for a large scale sculpture to proceed through the entire process.
Explain to your selected artist exactly what you want, as well as you are able. If you are not quite sure what you want, then the artist may need to visit the site, or your home, to get an idea of what your tastes are. The artist may make sketches, or a small model, to ensure that there is a clear understanding of what is desired. Take as long as you need on this step... it's important you get it right. Agree on the size. Get out a tapemeasure, or a yardstick and double-check the size you want. Most people are not very good at estimating the size of things. And because it is a dark material, bronze appears to be smaller in person.
To achieve a life-size sculpture it is customary to add ten or twenty percent to the original size.
Sketches for a custom Medusa doorknocker... and the finished piece.
A preliminary sketch for a 6' sculpture for The Morris Meditation Garden, and the finished sculpture.
The sculpture was close to complete when a decision was made to replace the butterfly in the sketch with a bird.
An experienced artist will be able to give you a firm figure for the final cost of the sculpture, and that should be all that you have to pay for the artwork. Usually, transportation to the site, and installation costs are not included.
Each artist may have a different billing system, but most of the ones I am familiar with break the total cost into thirds. In my own practice you would be required to make a 1/3rd down payment to begin work on the sculpture. This amount is non-refundable. No more money is due until the original wax or clay sculpture is complete, and you (the client) are satisfied with the work.
Once you are satisfied that all is to your liking, and the sculpture fulfills the spirit of the original design, a second payment is due. If for some reason at this point, substantial changes are desired, that vary dramatically from the agreed upon design, an additional surcharge may be added. This is not common, but has happened.
Once the sculpture is approved, and payment is received by the artist, the sculpture will proceed to the foundry stage.
When the bronze sculpture is complete, the final payment is due.
The sculpture has been cast in bronze, is completely finished, and paid for. But you still have to get it home. Unless you have made arrangements in advance, typically the artist is not responsible for this. More on this later.
But first, a few notes on the lost wax casting process;
Lost wax casting method in brief;
Bronze sculptors do not sculpt directly in bronze.
A bronze sculpture is the end result of a long process. But it doesn't begin with bronze.The traditional material for sculptors once was wax. A sculptor created a sculpture in wax, and then it was cast using Cire Perdue, or the lost wax casting method. If the casting failed, the sculpture was lost. So masterpieces like Cellini's Saltcellar... The Perseus and Medusa... There is only one in the world. Rubber molds changed all that. A fine rubber mold can pick up the fingerprints of the sculptor. The rubber mold is the most important part of the process. Now sculptors work in whatever material they like. Wood, wax, clay, plaster, ceramics, resins or polymers. A rubber mold is made of the sculpture, and the rubber mold is used to produce... a wax copy. This wax copy is called a casting wax. And because of rubber molds, more than one wax copy can be made. And so, numbered editions were made possible, and sculptors were free to use the material they were most comfortable with. I myself still sculpt mostly in wax.
The Rubber mold
The first step of the lost wax casting process is to make a rubber mold of the sculptor's original sculpture. A common misconception is that molten bronze is then poured into the rubber mold. It's not that simple.
Bronze is poured at 2100 degrees. The rubber mold would be destroyed by that much heat. Only wax is poured into the rubber mold.
The case, or mother mold
The case mold is a hard shell, usually of plaster, but sometimes composed of fiberglass resins. It's purpose is simply to hold the flexible rubber in the correct shape. Often there are built in locks that hold the rubber firmly in position.
The casting wax
The rubber mold is used to make an exact replica of the original sculpture, but in wax. This is the wax that will become 'lost' in the lost wax process of creating the bronze sculpture.
Sprues and Gates
Sprues and gates consist of a network of wax channels that are added to the various pieces of the casting wax. They will be the paths that the molten bronze will follow to flow into the casting.
Ceramic shell investment
This wax is completely immersed into a vat of ceramic slurry, similar to 'slip' used in porcelain ware. It is dipped into this material repeatedly, and allowed to dry between each coating, until layer by layer a thick ceramic coating is built up. This becomes the shell, or basically, another mold, that the bronze is poured into.
Since the wax was totally immersed in the ceramic slurry, there are no seams on this mold.
When the wax is 'lost'.
When the shell is placed in an oven, called a 'burnout chamber', the shell is fired, and the wax simultaneously melts out and leaves a negative space.
This ceramic shell is what the molten bronze is poured into.
There are no seams in this final mold, or ceramic shell, so once the bronze has cooled it has to be chiseled away to reveal the sculpture. So you can see, there are many steps involved just in this last step.
The shells are fired in the oven, the wax is 'lost', the bronze ingots have been heated to 2100 degrees in a container called a crucible. The shells are carefully placed, the molten bronze is poured, and if all goes well, and the shells do not break open or explode... then you have a successful cast.
Assembly and metal finishing
Ancient bronze sculptures, no matter how large, were cast in one piece. Most modern bronzes are cast in sections,and assembled like a jigsaw puzzle by skilled metal workers. One reason for this is that it is far safer to have 100 lbs of molten bronze to deal with than 1000 lbs.
Also once the bronze is cast and cooled, the sprues and gates, now solid bronze, have to be cut away. The sculpture is welded together using bronze welding rod. The welds are then textured using hand held high speed grinders to match the original texture.
Left to itself long enough in the elements, a bronze sculpture will slowly turn green, or verdigris. This is called an acquired patina. For our purposes, we will use a chemically induced patina, so we can control the process.
The bronze is heated and treated with an array of chemicals to achieve the desired surface coloration.
Then it is coated with protective layers of lacquer or wax, or both, to help preserve the finish.
This is the final step, and the sculpture is complete.
The artist's original sculpture of an Airedale Terrier
The rubber mold
Case mold in progress
Completed case mold
Interior of a rubber mold
Wax legs pulled from molds
Casting wax with sprues
Upon completion, the final payment is due
To sum up;
Although it can go faster, it can be a lengthy process, and the timetable can be uncertain. So if you have a definite date in mind, it's best to start early. (Addendum: I can now say from personal experience that a global pandemic is one situation that will definitely adversely affect the completion of the sculpture.)
The basic steps;
Contact your selected artist.
Agree upon a sculpture design and ultimate price.
The artist will require a down payment to begin work, typically 1/3rd of the agreed upon fee.
The artist will create the sculpture, hopefully giving you regular progress updates.
When the artist is satisfied with the sculpture, he will call you in to view the work.
At this point everything depends on you. Does it accurately reflect the design you and the artist discussed? Do you like it? Be honest with the artist. Remember that some artists accept criticism better than others, but you have feedback on that from the artist's references, right? Most artists who specialize in custom commissions will be happy to work with you to achieve your vision.
When you approve the sculpture, the next 1/3rd payment will be due.
Then the original sculpture will proceed to the foundry.
(Fast forward past the lost wax casting process.)
Now the sculpture is complete, and the final payment is due.
If the sculpture is small, tabletop, desktop or mantelpiece size, take it home and admire it. If it is a large scale sculpture, you are not yet finished.
Unless you have made specific prior plans for transportation and installation of the sculpture, this is typically not included in the price. Large sculptures require complicated travel arrangements. It is possible that special large trucks, insurance, site preparation, on site cranes for installation will be needed. Public sculptures often require an engineer to analyze the site and installation procedures.
Outdoor bronzes should be installed using stainless steel fasteners to avoid galvanic corrosion, which can accelerate deterioration of the sculpture or fasteners. (Exception: do not use stainless steel with aluminum sculptures.)
Professional installation is important, especially if the sculpture will be exposed to the public, to reduce liability issues. Will children be playing around, or on, the sculpture? Better safe than sorry.
Most artists would be out of their depth in such matters, and rely on experts. You should too.
The artist or the foundry can make arrangements for you here, if you need assistance.
The artist will also wish to take photographs of the finished and installed sculpture for their portfolio.
Long term care
Most of the long term care of bronze is only concerned with the appearance of the surface finish, or patina. Bronze is an extremely stable alloy of copper and tin, sometimes with traces of zinc or silicon added. You can basically ignore it for a thousand years, and it won't be much the worse for wear, with a few exceptions. If conditions are just right, or wrong, and the sculpture is exposed to dissimilar metals, galvanic corrosion can eat away at a metal quite rapidly. Proper installation with stainless steel fasteners can avoid this.
The patina is the finish that was applied to the sculpture by the artist and the foundry's patina master. Bronze is a metal that tarnishes like silver. This tarnish, or patina, can take on different hues depending on what the metal is exposed to. By careful application of a blend of heat and chemicals, the patina can be artfully controlled.
The most basic patina, and one of the most durable, is the rich reddish brown color that most people think of when they visualize bronze. However, variations of greens and blues, deep reds and yellows can be achieved. Bronze can also be highly polished like brass, but with a slightly richer, darker result. Once the desired patina is achieved the sculpture is coated with wax or lacquer to preserve the finish. The patina will continue to age even under this coating, as the process is only slowed. The more complex the patina, the more fragile it is, and the more maintenance it will require to keep the original appearance. It is wise to stick to simple patinas for outdoor sculptures.
There are two schools of thought about preserving outdoor sculptures. Some feel that sculpture should always look just as if it were set in place yesterday. They may feel a poorly maintained sculpture looks neglected and unsightly. That may be a valid opinion, but you can spend a lot of time and effort trying to keep outdoor sculpture looking new.
Exposed to the elements, the protective coatings will only last for a few years and must be renewed periodically. If the sculpture is near water, especially pools, fountains or sprinklers, the coatings will degrade more rapidly. The chlorine in the water will quickly begin to turn the bronze green.
There are those who feel that the elements should be allowed to do their work on bronze, to turn, to blacken, and streak the sculpture with green where the rains run down the surface, until they look as ancient as the hills. There is a certain majestic grandeur in a bronze sculpture standing eternally against the effects of time.
Personally I think it depends on the sculpture. You must make up your own mind.
If you opt for like new, then get well acquainted with an accredited conservator, or a local bronze foundry. The conservator has been trained and has a degree... The patina master at the foundry does patinas and patina repair all day every day for very particular artists.
Either will be able to perform regular maintenance as required.
Wax leg after 1st dip
Burnout chamber with shells
Pouring bronze from a crucible
Bronze, after shell removal
Cut off sprues ready to remelt
Cast sections welded together
The finished sculpture
Application of patina
Often, the artist will put a limit on the number of reproductions of the sculpture that will be made, which is called a limited edition. In a limited edition, the edition size and the number of each piece will be marked on the sculpture. A sculpture marked 1/6 means it is the first casting of 6 total sculptures, 2/6 being the second casting, and so on.
It is also possible that a few extra castings may exist, which were basically experimental models, while the artist toyed with possible variations. These would be marked as A.P., or 'Artist's Proofs', abbreviated. More rarely, some foundries maintain a set of Foundry Proofs. These would seldom if ever appear for sale.
After the proofs, if any, and all edition numbers have been cast, the molds are destroyed.
The French Legal system places strict regulations on what can be called a classic 'limited edition' and in France the maximum limited edition size is 6 castings.
Most places however, allow limited editions of almost any size, as long as the edition doesn't exceed the stated limit. So it becomes a decision of the individual artist.
To bring a bronze sculpture into existence is an expensive, arduous and time consuming process. A custom commission is a boon for the artist, because it involves at least partial recompense up front. But most artists create work for themselves as well, which they sell on the open market, with varying degrees of success.
One artist may opt for higher edition numbers and low per piece prices, while another may be able to command higher prices for lower edition numbers.
Without very specific prior arrangements, the copyright to all original sculptures belongs to the artist. All rights to reproduction of the sculpture belong to the artist. All rights to all use of the image of the sculpture belong to the artist.
From the moment the artwork is created by an artist copyright protection is in effect. It lasts for the lifetime of the artist, plus 70 years.
Sometimes the artist relinquishes or assigns some of their rights to another entity, usually for a considerable monetary consideration. This must be done through a legal contract, like a Copyright Release or Assignment, where specific terms are set. The artist will at minimum retain the use of the image of the sculpture in their promotions.
Copyrights can and do expire, and some artworks are reproduced without permission, after the artist is long dead. The Frederick Remington and Charles M. Russell recasts are a notable example.
The original molds of these particular sculptures disappeared years ago. To make additional castings, someone made new molds from original bronze castings. From the new molds waxes were pulled, and went through the lost wax casting process just like any bronze casting.
In essence, a bronze cast from another bronze, not an original wax.
A secondary casting from a mold made from a primary sculpture casting is known as a 'surmoulage'... literally 'overmould'. They can be detected by careful measurement. There is a known shrinkage factor in the lost wax bronze casting process.
When the casting wax is poured, it shrinks 5%. When the bronze is poured, and cools, it shrinks 5%. Combined, the shrinkage factor is a noticeable 10%.
So a surmoulage will be at minimum 10% smaller than the original bronze sculpture it duplicates.
Modern methods of digital scanning might be able to compensate for the variances, which is where provenance comes into play. Most authentic Remington or Russell bronzes are well known, and their whereabouts are firmly established.
The newer castings, or surmoulages, are worth a fraction of the value of an original cast during the artist's lifetime.
Original Remington's were cast in low numbers, and most of them are in museums. You can buy a reproduction for a few thousand dollars, and they are overpriced at that.