Math in Sculpture...Self-Study to relearn old techniques in sculpture

When learning something you need to understand that there simply is no finish line....the line constantly moves out and you learn more in an ever-expanding infinity line. 

Sure, in school you may think there is a finish line: For example if there is an Geometry Final on Friday and you pass it then you are done with Geometry! Forever

Well, that is what I thought in 9th grade. Then I kind of thought that in college. After all, I was on the career path to be a painter, then an illustrator, finally a sculptor. Why would I need higher math?

Fast forward a few decades and now thanks to my iPhone and the glorious internet I'm able to look at my husband as he's ready to cut the wood for some intricate angles when renovating our shop and say- wait a minute - I don't think that's right - and a small voice in my head starts whispering ancient words that I haven't heard in years....'obtuse' vs. 'acute' angles.

So while I may not have remembered EVERYTHING about those math subjects, enough stuck with me, prodding me to stop and think about the angles we were cutting, do a little homework and then get them right. Kind of an important thing when your dollars and time are on the line.

page image from Malvina Hoffman Book

Then I remembered a sculpting forum that I am a part of and the thread of conversation was regarding enlargement of sculpture. I questioned the sculptor that had started the thread because the photos were no longer visible and just reading the text made no sense to me. I'm a visual and kinetic learner - I must read, see diagrams and move my hands to really learn. Please - never try to teach me via speaking or audio tapes alone. I think I must be anti-auditory. Makes me very cranky ;-)

So this generous sculptor said I could find the diagrams I was looking for in Malvina Hoffman's book. 

Who? 
Never heard of her? 
Neither had I (This will definitely be fodder for a few blog posts!) and that is quite sad for all of us. 

This amazing, pioneering woman is known as the "Rodin of the US" and indeed did study with Rodin in France. I found her book at the library (Thank God for the Poudre River LIbrary District with their Prospector loans that allow you to get books not available locally) and found it so useful that I went out and bought an old used copy to keep in my personal library.

See that picture up there? The one with some angles and lots of small text? There is the magic. I must admit that normally I see all that text and a some scary looking math-type diagrams and would normally turn the page to something way more fun and interesting. But I had set out to understand how the previous generations scaled up sculpture by themselves - without the aid (and expense!) of 3-d scanning and CNC foam-milling.

I'll admit that it took reading this chapter three times before I started to think I might be understanding the concept. It was a beautiful fall Colorado day so I parked my butt outside to enjoy the day and vowed to read and re-read it until I figured this out. I got excited and pondered it several times before putting my hands into action. Grabbing the blue paper that comes in all my Prospector Loans (and makes for my ready-made bookmark for each book) I took the edge of the paper, scraped a line into the surface with my thumbnail and turned it sideways to use it as a ruler. Once I took my 'ruler' and followed along with the text (Published 1939 so they speak math problems a little differently than they do today) and moving my 'ruler' along with the lines A-B and arc D - suddenly the lightbulb came on! Now I get it and can't wait to make some big mathematical board and diagrams for my studio and blow a maquette up to life-size using these principals!

The thread from the sculpting forum made a lot more sense and I began to see how I could use this formula to scale up a sculpture from a maquette to any size - or scale down if needed from life-size to tabletop.

You may wonder - why would I need to do this if I can simply use proportional calipers? Well, there is a limit to how larger you can work with proportional calipers. It would be much too unwieldy to try to use very large calipers all day long doing monumental or heroic sized work. Additionally you can make some computations using the formula, post it in your studio and continue to work and take measurements from your chart even if your model is no longer there to work from.

Certainly a 3-d scan and CNC foam enlargement is a huge time-saver and a real bonus in this day and age and of course I'll make use of this technology too. But just like the iPhone and internet are great tools to use today I find that these SUPPLEMENT books and learning from instructors,  they don't replace them. 

Learning old-world techniques is something that I am currently spending a lot of time on because it is amazing knowledge that works really well creating a strong foundation to build upon and supplement with new ideas, methods and tools.


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