A relief is a sculptural technique where the sculpted elements remain attached to a solid background of the same material. The term relief is from the Latin verb "relevo," to raise. To create a sculpture in relief is to give the impression that the sculpted material has been raised above the background plane.
Reliefs are traditionally classified according to the height of the figures’ projection or depth from the background:
- Bas-Relief (Low Relief): In bas-relief, the figures and elements remain close to the background, which is usually flat. They project only slightly from this background, creating a subtle three-dimensional effect. Bas-relief is often used on coins and on friezes in architecture.
- Haut-Relief (High Relief): In haut-relief, the figures and elements project significantly from the background, often by half or more of their natural depth. High relief is often used in monumental sculpture and in the decorative arts.
- Sunk Relief (Sunken Relief or Incised Relief): In sunk relief, the outlines of figures or elements are carved into the surface, and the figure itself is recessed within these outlines. This style is characteristic of many Egyptian reliefs.
Process of Creating a Relief
Creating a relief sculpture involves either subtractive techniques (like carving) or additive techniques (like modeling or casting), or a combination of the two.
In a subtractive process, the artist starts with a flat surface of material (like a stone slab) and removes material to create the design. The sculptor uses tools such as chisels, mallets, rasps, and files to carve away the surface and bring the design into three dimensions.
In the additive process, the artist adds material to the surface. This method is commonly used in materials like clay, wax, or plaster. After the design is modeled in these soft materials, it can be cast in a more durable material, like bronze or concrete.
Historical and Modern Use
Relief is among the oldest forms of artistic expression, evidenced by prehistoric cave carvings. It was extensively used in the art of Ancient Egypt, Assyria, and other early civilizations. It continued to be popular in the art of the Classical, Medieval, Renaissance, and Modern periods.
In contemporary art, relief techniques are used in a variety of contexts. They're common in public art, commemorative and memorial sculptures, architectural decorations, and coin design. They're also used in industrial applications, such as the pattern design of certain types of tires.
In conclusion, relief is a versatile and enduring sculptural technique, offering a distinctive blend of two and three dimensions. It allows the viewer to engage with the work from a single vantage point, making it particularly suitable for incorporating into architecture and other functional objects.