Let's touch bases...

So this week I’m talking about the unsung heroes of the sculpting world, the supporting cast that elevates the star, the often overlooked, but always important, members of any sculpting composition… That’s right. I’m talking about Bases.

The bases of our sculptures are an often overlooked element that I think need a little more attention. The base isn’t just the thing that a sculpture sits on, it’s part of the overall composition and serves to elevate the piece – not just physically but emotionally as well. Let’s take an example from one of the greats of classical sculpture. Rodin’s “The Thinker”. When we look at this piece, we see that it’s all about the man and his thoughts. We focus on him and try to peer into the soul of the figure. But what happens if you change the base. Imagine the figure sitting on a classical roman column – Doesn’t quite feel right does it. How about if he was sitting on a stool or chair? Still not right. While the base on the figure of “The Thinker” is a simplified and obscured rock or slab, it’s an intentional design to help guide your eyes and your emotions to where the artist wanted them to be.

So now lets talk about our own work. I know that I have struggled with base design for a long time. Choosing the right forms and compositional elements have taken up large parts of my time during the design process. For some it seems to come easy, others seem to struggle with it, and others see bases as an after-thought. Well, I think we all need to take a closer look at the bases we use for our sculptures and try to bring a bit more life into our work.

When do you start thinking about the base? This is an important question to think about. So many of us spend little time thinking about the base in the early design process. We get so excited about drawing or sculpting a figure that we set aside the designs and concepts for what will eventually ground our figures to this world. I asked a number of friends to give me their thoughts on this question. Here are some of the responses.

“…very seldom do you get to design from scratch, but for me, whenever I think of the character, I am thinking of base /body as a whole. The base can always bring out the best in the characters pose, it lends support not just for the purpose of physical support but story telling wise.” – Erick Sosa

“From the beginning. If not from the very beginning, then damn near cuddles-corner next to it. I know an artist who insists on not only designing the base first, but sculpting, molding and casting it, before he begins the figure. I could not, and have not disagreed more. That's about as ass-backward as I think you can go. The figure is always primary and its evolution, development, should evolve as it needs to. Trying to force a figure onto a base completely eliminates the figures voice. And it’s got one! Who would you rather have talking to you? The figure or the base? You can see the difficulty this poses in some of his work. Things don't fit as they should. Stairs too narrow for the foot, balance a little too planted. None of this is to say that I haven't screwed up a good figure with a crap base. I have. But I try to be as aware as I can about what I'm asking the base to do and why.” – Tim Bruckner

“Contrary to what I've done in the past, I've been forcing myself more and more to conceptualize a fully-designed base right in the beginning of my projects. Sometimes, you're so excited to get to the cool pose, anatomy, accessories, etc. on the actual character, you leave the base design as an afterthought, which I've often found to be detrimental to the finished statue. Sure, the base isn't always as dynamic as the figure(s) it's supporting, but it's every bit as crucial to the success of the completed piece. Like good anatomy, it takes time and lots and lots of practice, but the ability to create a thoughtful, well-executed base is a skill that every up and coming sculptor should aspire to.” – Troy McDevitt

So getting an early start on the base design is certainly a good idea. In my sketches, the base starts to come to form right away. Sometimes it even starts to show up in the very first drawing. I think the sculptor in me wants to ground the figure to the page, so that’s why I start so early. It goes through many revisions throughout the process, but it’s always on my mind as part of the design. I’m far from a great base designer, in fact I’d say it’s one of the weaker elements of my compositions, but it’s something I continue to work on. And as I look out into our vast cyber space world, and poke my head into on-line galleries and forums, I see that I’m not alone in being in need of better base design. I see pieces like Tim Bruckner’s “Dynamics” series for DC and stare in awe at the beautiful composition of both figure and base as they’re fused into one. I look at one of my favorite pieces, Ray Villafane’s “Batman vs Killer Croc” (designed by my friend Walter O’Neal). That base is as alive with energy as any I’ve ever seen. So many great works of art and so many things to draw inspiration from.

I’ll leave you with some final words about the importance of base design. Not from me, but from some friends with far better ideas than my own.

AP: How important is base design?

“An amazing veteran sculptor, that I very much look up to, recently told me that he thought I did great bases. This really took me by surprise as bases are always the most difficult part of the sculpting process for me, and I'm rarely happy with my end results. My focus tends to be so zeroed in on the character themselves, I often leave the conceptualization and design aspect of the base as the final part of the project, when, in reality, I really should be more conscious of it throughout the entire sculpting process. Despite my own shortcoming in this department, I do feel that a good, well-designed base is absolutely crucial to the look and feel of the end product. A great base can take a sculpt to a new level, pulling you in to an environment that the figure cannot entirely do, and a poorly fashioned base can break the entire illusion of being immersed in whatever fantasy world the sculptor was attempting to recreate. The secret is knowing when less is more, and when more is more. Sometimes it's important to just do a very simple flat base to highlight nothing but the figure. Other times you want something detailed and complex to tell more of a story about the character's past, background or current situation. Skimping on the base is like not painting a new car after it rolls off the assembly line. You can still drive it, but you're really missing half of what makes it look great.” – Troy McDevitt

“I think base design is very important. Especially for the "Pop culture", comic/fantasy/movie character type sculpture. It serves as an environment to help tell a story as well as support the figure especially for action poses. I do think about the design of the base as I'm working on the figure. It should help balance the sculpture and help fill in the negative spaces and aid in moving the viewers eye around the sculpture without overpowering the whole piece. Then there are the simple flat platform type bases...BORING!! Although it serves a purpose for character design maquette type sculpts acting simply as a surface for the figure to stand on.” - Mark Newman

“Its critical. The base can make or break a piece. The sole job of a base is to not only support the figure literally but visually as well. To showcase it without overwhelming or distracting from it. The height, visual weight, contour, movement, has to complement and focus the eye on the main figure. If it’s an architectural element; pedestal, column, box, tiered shaped, visual weight and height are most important. If it’s an environmental base, then not only does it need to set a context, but has to be secondary to the action/composition of the figure(s). And all the above is tough to pull off, especially if you're hands-for-hire, and your AD wants something more substantial than the piece can handle.” – Tim Bruckner

“A base can be very important, depending on the subject matter and the character of the pose. From my humble point of view, if you are going for a static, stoic pose, the base can be more elegant. However whenever I do an action pose I try to incorporate the base as part of the environment, then again it can always look elegant and still be an environment base.” Erick Sosa

So there you have it, some great thoughts on a part of our work that seems to get very little thoughts so often. I hope you enjoyed the read. Be sure to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Until next time, Cheers!!