Types of Metal Art and Sculpture
Metal artworks are creations produced for both practical and aesthetic purposes; designed purely for decor items, ornamental pieces, or functional objects that are beneficial and useful to us all. These works are made from metals like bronze, silver, gold, tin, copper, lead, brass, and iron.
From wire metal filigree works and cast metal sculptures made from bronze to ancient hammered metal cups and fine gold Egyptian jewelry, the resilience of metals and their malleable nature has made them one of the best materials to make beautiful works of art and crafts.
A majority of treasures and artifacts to survive the pyramids of Egypt are variations of metal artwork. They include metal statues, jewelry, gold ornaments, coins and funeral masks.
The magnificent statues still standing today in Greece and Rome were cast in bronze while the ancient American civilizations (the Incas, Mayans, and Aztecs) made hatchets and ceremonial implements through hammering of copper.
Objects of the faith like crucifixes and sacred art were also crafted to exquisite perfection by monks in their monastery cells and the spectacular Statue of Liberty in New York Harbour is created from copper and wrought iron.
Today, there is a renewed interest in metal artworks, especially for decoration and adornment purposes. Jewelers, just like in the days of old make beautiful jewelry produced with ornamental precious metals enhanced with precious (or faux) jewels or enamel motifs.
And interior designers, decorators now more than ever, utilize metallic items for wall art, sculptures, statues, wrought iron furniture, decorative hardware (for doors, windows, metal hinges, etc...) and ornamental table décor pieces.
Metals Used for Decorative Arts
1. Iron Ore
Of all the known metals, iron is the most abundant of all and can be found in almost all elements; water, soil, and rocks.
It is known to be a prized material from ancient times and iron objects have been discovered in Nineveh, Egypt, Roman Britain and ancient China.
This metal isn't exactly pure because it contains some silicon, sulfur, carbon, and phosphorus, with the three principal varieties of commercial iron . . . cast iron (pig iron), wrought iron, and steel containing various degrees of carbon compounds.
All artwork and sculptures, including other iron objects, are likely to rust when they get exposed to damp air, moisture or water. However, because iron ore is prone to rust, it can be prevented when coated with non-oxidising materials like tin, brass or zinc.
Iron is made into personal adornments, hand tools, cooking pots, garden sculptures and drinking vessels, along with ornamentation of weaponry, horse-tacks, boats and other functional items.
The amount of carbon in cast iron, wrought iron and steel is what determines their character, strength and working qualities. Wrought iron contains the least amount of carbon while cast iron contains the most.
From larger than life sculptures to irresistibly petite decorations and art forms, all the different types of iron artwork are made from one of these three:
- Cast iron – It contains a good amount of carbon which gives it a brittle quality. It cracks easily if hit hard is extremely coarse, and cannot be stretched or bent. Cast iron isn't really used in the decorative arts because of its roughness but is mainly used for ornamental firebacks and facings, fireplace accessories and traditional stoves.
- Steel – Steel’s hardness is a mid-way between wrought and cast iron so it possesses characteristics of both. It has a finer grade and is lighter and malleable if exposed to very high temperatures. With sudden cold temperatures, it becomes extremely hard. Steel has a shine and though it is used majorly for structural works and reinforcement materials, it is also used for contemporary artwork and sculptures.
- Stainless steel - Alloying chromium with steel helps to prevent it from rusting and retain its lustre and stainless steel is alloyed with 10% to 20% of chromium. Its lustre, non-rusting qualities, and its beauty make it suitable for exquisite cutlery, staircase railings, decorative hardware, and jewelry.
- Wrought Iron - Wrought iron has fewer carbon impurities than cast iron and is softer in nature. It is easily rolled into plates, hammered into bars and drawn into wires. Its malleability allows it bend into any shape or form, Wrought iron items can be painted with brass and various thicknesses of the iron can be used for cheaper hardware, braces and brackets, garden furniture, outdoor ornaments and garden sculptures, fireplace linings, railings and balustrades, grilles, and affordable light fittings.
Tin is majorly used for metal wall artworks, plaques, figural sculptures, hanging ornaments, tin wall signs, busts, decorative badges, water vessels, ornate vases, candlesticks, and tin foil art.
Tin in all forms have been used for recycled art with some of the most awesome metal art formed this way. Recyclable tin materials include bottle tops, sweet tins, food cans, and the like.
One of the least known but beautiful expressions of metal art are the tin artworks first produced in Mexico around the 16th century.
Because tin was not only available and inexpensive, it was light and malleable. This made it easy to shape, crimp, stamp, punch, and cut into a wide variety of decorative and functional artwork, and paint in pleasant colours.
Tin’s shiny surface that looks similar to silver is what likely contributes to its appeal for making art objects and sculptures, regardless of its tendency to rust.
Copper is a metal that is found in its pure state, just as silver, gold and tin and pre-dates iron in terms of its use. According to the history of art, most nations used copper extensively as materials to make coins, weapons, statues, décor, and household items.
It is also claimed that the ancient Egyptians used copper chisels hardened by a now unknown process to cut their granite.
This metal is used for both decorative and industrial arts and is favoured for its strength, durability, and its workability. The ease with which copper can be molded (it can be hammered or cast) into any desired shape or form makes it a useful and great metal to use for the following:
- Sculpture works
- Wall art
- Table ornaments
- Vases and urns
- Display pedestals
- Lighting fixtures
- Kitchen utensils
- Ethnic jewelry
Jewelers combine copper with silver or gold to harden them for jewelry making. Copper is also alloyed with nickel and zinc to make beautiful pieces of German silver.
Because copper is very durable, it is used extensively for the production of small ornamental objects and for structural objects that can’t endure excessive strain.
4. Bronze Metal Art
Nearly all the ancient civilizations used bronze in their art even as its discovery dates back to the time of the Sumerians around 3500 BC.
Harder than iron with anti-corrosive qualities, it is the most popular metal for cast metal sculptures and statues and was used mainly as Roman weapons of war in ancient times.
Bronze is strong and durable and can be cast with ease in the most intricate delicate patterns or imposing and magnificent forms, all in a great variety of colours, shapes, and styles. It is more popularly used than copper (and brass) to create metal ornaments, sculptures, statues, figurines, plates, chalices, and unique hardware.
The surface finish of bronze works are obtained by dipping the finished object into a 'bath' of various types of acid but the finishing results are only light veneers and soon wear off if the object is knocked about, handled too frequently, or exposed to harsh weather conditions.
Bronze artworks include:
- Ancient Greece busts
- Religious vessels
- Metal plates
- Monumental castings
5. Brass Metal and Art
Brass was discovered much later than bronze, around 500 BC, and is a bright yellow tinted metal that can be polished to a high shine and because it tarnishes easily, it requires a high level of polishing to keep it looking bright and lustrous.
Traditionally, metal craftsmen protected its shine with a coat of lacquer. Though this may have prolonged its shine, it still didn’t stop it from tarnishing.
Brass is soft and malleable and can be rolled into thin sheets after which designs can be etched, stamped, hammered out, and ‘spun’ while shapes and forms can be easily created.
It is also used as base materials for decorative metal ornaments and jewelry that are thinly or thickly coated in silver or gold.
Brass art and decorative items include:
- Wearable brass art
- Vintage brass motifs
- Musical instruments
- Brass stampings
- Antique padlocks
- Door knockers and other intricate and decorative ironmongery
- Retro hardware
- Brass statues and sculptures
- Furniture and furnishings hardware
Other Metals Used for Decorative Arts
There are a number of metal objects of art that are greatly valued for their craftsmanship and designs. They are not necessarily valuable metals but they possess great decorative value. These metals include antique silver, pewter, classic Sheffield plate, and lead.
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