This soap carving art lesson will show you how to sculpt an abstract design using Ivory soap. We focused on organic abstraction, negative space and how to create a sculpture that is in the round. I use this lesson with my mixed 9th-12th 3D Design course. There are quite a variety of student abilities in mixed together, so we practiced carving soap before we moved on to the more challenging plaster carving. Students loved how the soap felt (and smelled!) and the carving was successful and satisfying for all levels.
This post will describe everything we did in the classroom, but this video describes the carving process and is great for posting in Canvas for absent students or students that need to review steps visually.
Sketches and Research
Subtractive sculpture and abstract art are two concepts students find difficult to understand. We started the unit by studying Barbara Hepworth in our daily art history warm-ups. She is known for her organic abstract sculptures in a post World War II world. I used this video to help introduce her style of art and to give more context to why her artworks are so abstract.
First, we sketched six sculptures by Hepworth and Henry Moore that exemplify organic abstraction and negative space. I also had students copy these definitions in their sketchbooks.
After students complete their research and sketching, they traced their soap and created their own three designs. Students were given the option to go totally non-representational or pick on object to abstract. Most went non-representational just to focus more on their carving skills.
Once students have a basic design, we used the dot-transfer method to transfer their sketches onto the both sides of the soap. We used toothpicks, but needle tools work super well too. We used a variety of loop tools leftover from the clay supplies and they carved beautifully. It’s best to start out slow and carve the basic edges of the design saving the negative space for last.
Carving the Soap
After all the warm-up discussions and practice sketches, students tend to feel way more comfortable tackling abstract subtractive carving. Soap is not intimidating and the hand held familiarity works in their favor. I encourage students to start with the largest outer shapes and curves first, and to start slow. Many students want to start drilling into the soap and create their negative space, but I encourage them to wait for that step. I only had two students out of about fifty break their soap in half. These two students had returned from extended absences and missed some instructions as well.
I was so happy with how focused and excited students were while working. They all expressed that it was satisfying and really pushed their understanding of sculpting and creating a 3D piece that is interesting from all sides. The biggest struggle was helping students “break the rectangle” and push their design to incorporate the whole form, and not just four sides at a time. I like to use the loop tool to carve a recessed area that touches the front, back and into at least one of the sides.
We spent about five to six class periods total on this unit. The actual carving takes about three class periods and I felt the most confident I ever had starting our plaster carving artwork. More on that soon!
What is your favorite 3D lesson to teach? I’d love to hear from you!