Bas-relief Sculptures: Honoring Olympic Athletes

July 01, 2016



Anticipation abounds as the 2016 Track & Field Olympic Trials begin this week in Eugene, OR where people from all over the United States travel to the Pacific Northwest to cheer on their favorite athletes. The iconic Hayward Field has been home to the Trials a total of six times, this year being its third time in a row that they have had the honor of hosting such a prestigious event. What better way to honor the athletes, volunteers, fans and Olympic Games themselves then through art!

Sculptor Mike Leckie has worked with athletes before to capture their greatest moments in bas-relief sculptures. So let us explore the style of bas-relief and consider how this sculpture technique is used by Leckie to honor the hard work and determination of the athletes they portray.

What is Bas-Relief?

‘Bas-relief sculpture’ may seem like an unfamiliar term for some, but it is actually a form of sculpture that has connections to our everyday life. In fact, you may not know that you are carrying around a tiny bas-relief sculpture in your pocket right now! That’s right, that handful of change that has been weighing you down is actually a handful of miniature bas-relief sculptures. You see, the term ‘relief’ stems from the Italian word relievare, “to raise”, and refers to any sculpture in which the figure projects from a supporting background.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica there are varying degrees of relief sculptures;  

In a low relief, or bas-relief (basso-relievo), the design projects only slightly from the ground and there is little or no undercutting of outlines. In a high relief, or alto-relievo, the forms project at least half or more of their natural circumference from the background and may in parts be completely disengaged from the ground, thus approximating sculpture in the round. Middle relief, or mezzo-relievo, falls roughly between the high and low forms.

Sculptor Mike Leckie uses the technique of bas-relief to show athletes in motion and capture moments of victory. Without the need to focus on background details Leckie is able to portray the athletes’ movement and, in a sense, stop time in the middle of a race or as an athlete clears the high bar. It’s almost as if a two-dimensional picture was taken at that exact moment.

A Little History

Some of the earliest bas-relief sculptures can be traced back to ancient architecture where it was used as added adornment for buildings in Eastern and Western cultures dating back 20,000 years. It’s widely believed that bas-relief came before sculpture in the round, as it is easier to craft than a freestanding full figure and were used by many private artists to create commemorative sculptures for clients. Not only do bas-relief sculptures adorn architecture but they can be used to portray landscapes or architectural scenes, such as Leckie’s bas-relief sculpture of Hayward Field, as you can see pictured above. 

How It’s Made

The two main approaches to creating a bas-relief sculpture is to either cut away the material or add material to an existing background. Some artists will cut away the desired image from clay, then glaze and fire the piece in a kiln . This is typically used for decorative plates or small pieces. Another approach is to carve away the image in clay, create a frame around the piece, pour plaster over the clay and then once it is hardened you have a plaster bas-relief sculpture and a clay negative.

Sculptor Mike Leckie approaches bas-relief sculptures by adding to a background. Leckie begins by sketching his design onto a hard surface, typically wood, then building upon that with clay. With each layer he makes sure to pay special attention to fine details and ensure that the piece has proper depth. Once he has completed the clay form he then builds a wooden frame around the clay portrait and uses silicon to create a negative. Once the silicon negative is completely dry, he removes the clay portrait and adds a plaster mixture, which will then be the final product. After some finishing touches Leckie is ready to present his bas-relief sculptures of  Olympic Athletes.

 As the 2016 Olympic Trials get underway, or the next time you are watching your favorite team, try to imagine each memorable moment  captured in bas-relief. And don’t forget to visit sculptor Mike Leckie’s booth at the Olympic Trials and see his bas-relief artwork first hand!