This wire figure sculpture lesson is one of my favorite lessons of all time. It is engaging, challenging, and allows for students to explore personal expression. The artist connections are endless, and using the human body as a subject allows students to explore what it means to be human.
Do you have a short attention span like me? This quick video will give you a 35 second snapshot of this technique.
This full length tutorial will walk you through everything we do for this wire figure sculpture. It is classroom and Canvas ready, and my students use it frequently to review steps as they work.
Materials for Wire Sculpting
Buying the right wire will make the creating process more enjoyable. I have added a link to my favorite wire that I order from Blick Art materials. Pliers can make life a little easier, but I tend to mostly work without them. I cut the wire about a yard (both of your arms outstretched) for students to use at a time with just a heavy duty pair of scissors. If you cut too long of a piece, it can be really frustrating for students to wrap around their body parts. They seem to find it easier to just add more wire at key points instead of using one or two really long pieces.
I like to use a hand held staple gun to attach the wire sculptures to the base. The staples make it secure and balanced and I love how finished the painted wood looks. I have a woodshop at my school and scraps are easy to come by. I have also used thick foam board and styrofoam in a pinch, but wood is my preference
We start this unit by discussing human proportion and anatomy. Depending on the grade and ability level of the class, I will either have them draw the human body using references or we will trace a reference image in our sketchbooks. This will be used as a guide as they sculpt and as we draw/trace we discuss the key aspects of human anatomy. There are tons of guides and visuals on the internet for free. I am not going to add the one I’ve been using because it is not my original material and I have been too busy/lazy to make one of my own!
Gesture and Movement
I have also incorporated live gesture drawing after the previous proportion discussion. Again, it just depends on time constraints and whether it is an intro 3D Design course or a more advanced sculpture class. Another option is to have students copy gestures sketches in their sketchbook to get their brains thinking about how the human body moves and how that can express emotion.
Wire Figure Artist Inspiration
I like to teach using essential questions, and I will often ask my students to explore the question “What is it like to be a young person in the 21st century?” as inspiration for their sculptures. We look at sculptures by Elizabeth Catlett, Alexander Calder and Alberto Giacometti and discuss how their artwork is influenced by the time period in which it was created. I recently discovered artist Barbara Licha and I love how her wire figure sculptures occupy space with wire. Leslie Dill is another artist that is super inspirational and the meaning behind her work makes wonderful cross curricular connections. There are unlimited artists that sculpt the human figure and students always appreciate the challenge of representing the human form.
Time to Sculpt!
This free illustrated guide will help break down each part of the body. It is really helpful for students who want to work more independently, missed instruction or struggled during the live demo.
Students can feel a little nervous about wire sculpting, especially when creating something as recognizable as the human figure. We start out together and I demonstrate step by step using my beloved Elmo document camera. Ten years ago, before I had the love of my life, I would walk around the room holding up my wire sculpture like a game show hype girl. We start with the head and wrap 2-3 times creating an oval. Every student will be slightly different, but I try to get them to work on a similar scale.
Next is the torso. We reference our proportion guide and sculpt about twice the length of the head creating a triangle. It is important to loop wire securely two to three times to create a tight knot. If the wire slides around too much the body will lose it’s form.
Next is the pelvic girdle, which may be my least favorite word combination of all time. I call it the Batman Bikini because it gets a laugh from my students and immediately puts a visual in their head. We are talking about the crotch and the butt, so coming at it confidently with humor before the teenage mind gets there first puts me in control of the conversation. This area students tend to struggle with once we move down to the legs. It is a triangle just like the torso, but half the size. It needs to be the same length and approximate scale as the head.
Now that the upper body is complete, it is time to work down one leg at a time. I either travel from the point of the triangle down or the hip down to the foot. We get out rulers and measure from the top of our head to the hip (wide part of the triangle) of the Batman Bikini. Believe it or not, and many students do not, the hip to the foot is half of our bodies. It seems wild that our legs make up so much of our frame, but here we are.
This is a key proportion point in the sculpture and I make sure to visually check each one. Students will often make their legs much shorter. I will ask “Did you measure?” and I emphasize the importance of checking the length before moving on to the next step. It is really frustrating to unwrap wire and backtrack, trust me! I’ve had many personal wire fails.
Sometimes students will doubt the proportion to the point of making their legs too short even after demonstrating and checking their proportion guides in their sketchbooks. Some will say “Well, my sculpture is sitting down so the legs are shorter.” Which is a great segue to discussing how your skeleton won’t change no matter what position your body is in.
This is also a great opportunity to discuss body standards humans have imposed on ourselves. We discuss what it means to be able bodied and how proportion can vary from person to person. I grew up with a disabled parent, and watching my dad navigate the world as an “in-valid” (this is the term he coined for himself when he had to use a wheelchair) made me hyper aware of body sensitivities. Exploring deformity, disability and acceptance of our bodies is a huge theme in my personal art. I want students to be able to challenge what we accept as normal and be aware of how our own bodies navigate in the world.
If I have demonstrated and discussed and a student still is stuck on the topic, I will just say “Okay” and move on. The best way for students to learn is to do it themselves and make mistakes. If they see everyone else’s sculpture resembling an accurate skeletal frame and theirs looks a little off, they will usually come to the realization on their own (eventually).
After the length of the leg is measured, we make a small loop to create a foot and wrap it around the ankle 2-3 times. Next we travel to the halfway point of the leg, using our proportion guides, and loop 2-3 times to create the knee. Finally we attach to the pelvic girdle at either the point of the triangle in the center. It depends on where your wire started the leg. It should be thick and resemble a thigh. Sometimes students have just one leg starting and finishing at the point of the triangle. This is what I call uni-leg syndrome and will need to be adjusted before creating the other leg.
This is a satisfying part for students, because they can often make their sculpture stand on it’s on two feet (see what I did there). Depending on where the wire ends, we travel back through the waist and torso to create the arms. I recommend looping wire at each key point. It is important to remind students that after we make the skeleton we will bulk them up with muscle mass so this is beginning this process. We usually loop around the waist and either the neck or one side of the large triangle that makes the torso.
I have to remind students at this point not to overwrap their wire around the same areas. For example if you always wrap around the neck, the neck will become overly bulky. Balance is key!
We then move back through the pelvis and torso and loop to create the shoulder and arms. We loop our wire through the wide part of one side of the triangle and loop the hand around mid thigh.
Loop once at the halfway point and then connect to the triangle a little lower than the shoulder. You can create more or less bulk depending on how muscular you want your sculpture to look.
Adding Form and Musculature
After you have your basic skeletal outline, we move on to creating 3D form by looping a series of wire to each body part. I tell students to loop once or twice to each joint as they move around the body. I personally think the torso is the easiest place to start. The head is a little tricky, I tell students it should resemble a whisk or a beach ball. I prefer the look of longer vertical loops instead of really tight circular coils, but to each their own. Some students just two or three vertical loops to each body part and some add a bit more. It depends on their personal style and preference
At this point, students are much more comfortable with the material and work independently. Just like with any other technique, some students whiz through the steps and others stare blankly at their wire as if it’s a foreign language. (Which visual art is for most students, right?)
I have not made an illustrated guide for this step yet because….laziness? Procrastination? I will do a live demo and also show clips of my detailed video tutorial around the 10:35 minute mark.
Once their sculptures start becoming more 3D, we return to the discussion of expression. We have looked at many different figure sculptors at this point and have discussed themes through daily art history warm-ups using the artists listed in the beginning of this post.
It is so fun to watch students explore their own experiences and use the human body to portray emotion and mood. Their wire sculptures are so easy to move into multiple positions so they can decide which conveys their idea the strongest.
This short video about Rodin’s The Thinker is a great prompt to get students thinking about expression through the human body.
Once the pose is decided, we get out the staple gun and start attaching to our wooden bases. I like for students to paint their bases first, and we reserve a little paint to touch up staples so they don’t stand out or blend in with the wire. This is such a fun moment to see their sculpture fully formed and fully balanced.
Here is the latest rubric I’ve used for this assignment. It’s not perfect, but it helps students understand their objectives and it fits my district’s grading practices.
This is a tough assignment in many ways, but it has one of my best outcomes out of all of my sculpture lessons. Fighting with wire can be challenging as is understanding and applying typical human proportion. Expressing personal experience can be tricky for young artists at first, but I find that students rise to the occasion and their personal expression blossoms as they work.