London Ambulance Column

I’ve got a passion for old photographs, always have had, to this day it still fascinates me that people (that are now long gone) have been preserved in an instant of time. As a modeller and sculptor its also the best resource that I can pull on for reference and inspiration.

Imperial_War_Museums_logoOne of these vast pools of resource is the Imperial War Museum collection. Based in five locations around the United Kingdom, the IWM records the  civil and military war effort of Britain and its Empire from the First World War, to the present day. If you are a scholar of modern history, these collections (on-location and on-line) are a must see!

Its from the IWM that I found inspiration for the next sculpt…

The London Ambulance Column

Women in uniform during the first world war © IWM (Q 30349)

Formed in the August of 1914 by members of The City of London Branch of the British Red Cross Society, the London ambulance column was a voluntary civilian organisation who transferred wounded soldiers from trains arriving at mainline London stations, to various hospitals within the London area.

Under the direct control of the British Army through the General Officer Commanding London District based at Horse Guards, these volunteers helped to released members of the Royal Army Medical Corps to work overseas. By the time of they’re disbandment in 1919 the column had transferred over 700,000 wounded soldiers.

First Steps of the sculpt

Its wise in relief sculpting to think ahead. Unlike subjects in the ‘full round’ genre, you only have a certain amount of depth to play with. This can (if you’ve little or no art training) cause problems when you are figuring out how to make the subject stand out, look natural and not look as though its been run over by a steam roller!

So – how do we achieve this?

contour-mapContouring – rather like a contour map, we’re looking to define the levels (or heights and depths of a surface). However, unlike a contour map we are limited in the amount of contours by the type of relief sculpt we choose to create (in this case a maximum of 4 millimetres – so 4 levels).

Now – you may say “Isn’t this just over complicating things, why don’t you simply slap some clay down and get on with it?”. Been there, done that, spent more hours in frustration than I want to return to. Contouring for me produces templates, defined areas that I don’t have to find in the clay, levels that will blend into each other naturally.

Imagine it this way. On the first level a shape is cut from a layer of clay (this is the silhouette of the figure). From this we can remove material to create the deeper recesses (on this figure, the legs). Add clay (to build up the face or chest), or cut other layers out that can be overlaid to in the shape of arms and hands. The beauty of this technique is that your not using dividers to measure proportions constantly, the shape is 100% defined and accurately in place.

Sure – you still need the practised skills that come with sculpting but, this way makes the process a lot less frustrating knowing that the initial shape and proportions are handling themselves.

Contouring also helps in the choice of the subject, once you have this simple process in your mind, every potential subject can be evaluated to see if it is viable for relief sculpting.

The best part of this technique? – You can cheat to your hearts content!

If your not a natural artist or hate drawing, all you need is access to a computer/printer. Hit the Internet highway, find your subject (photo or painting), download it, reduce it down to your preferred size (Photoshop or a free online photo editor link Pixlr), then get to work without all the worry of proportions, perspective or the ability to draw like Leonardo!

A word of  warning!

If you are going to use any image from the Internet, get permission from the copyright owner for its use (especially if your sculpture is to be cast and sold!). A lot of  images that are thought to be in the public domain are not and you could be infringing copyright by producing “a likeness” of that person. Please take care in your choice of image or painting, in both reproduction on websites and social media. The image I am using on this project is available to share and reuse under the terms of the IWM Non Commercial Licence.

Contouring the process…

You’ve got your print out, its been reduced (in case the figure is going to be a 120mm high) its now time to evaluate what you want to bring forward and what you want push back.

contour-mapIf you look at this image you can get to grips with what you need to do. With nothing more technical than a few highlighters I have defined the areas that need to be foremost, those than need to be recessed. The main body is around 3mm thickness . The ankle will go down to about 2mm, but the front shoe will come out to 4mm. The left arm 2mm, the hat rim, coat hem, water bottle and right arm 4mm.

With the thickness’s defined, we now need to create templates (outlines of the various areas of the figure) that will be our guide as we flatten clay out, shape them and stack them like a layer cake.

Print out enough images that are to the same scale (I can usually do this on one or two sheets composed in a Word Doc or Open Office).  Cut the images out separately, then put them aside as we are about to hit the clay. For this project I’m using Sculpey Firm a polymer clay that can be hardened in a conventional home oven.

First stage

On evaluation, I thought it wise to create the hat first. Its far easier to carve an object like this in a harder substance, than it is to push clay around in a vein attempt to create a smooth, hard surface.

hat-carvedTo do this I rolled out a lumpy of Sculpey on top of a ceramic tile under cling wrap (to stop it sticking to the rolling pin) to a depth of 4mm. I then cut out the shape of the hat from the from one of my print outs. The paper image was laid on top of the clay, then a scalpel was used to cut around the the paper template.  What we have is an outline of the hat in clay. The ceramic tile (nothing special, a kitchen/bathroom tile from the hardware store) is used as it give a flat clean surface that can withstand the heat of the oven.

hat-closeThe hat was then fired in the oven,  after cooling overnight I shaped it with a scalpel and needle files. This will have all detail added latter, but for now this will be put aside as I get on with the main body of the figure.

On to the main body of the sculpt…

Taking another wall tile I soften up a large lump of Sculpey, formed it into a fat sausage shape, then rolled it out under cling wrap to a depth of 4mm. The wrap is then removed and the first part of the contouring takes place.


At this point I have to give credit to Gary Dombrowski. Its Gary’s work that not only got me into relief sculpting, but also outlined the foundation of how I approach my work. Kudos to you sir and full credit goes to all your techniques!

The contouring however is mine 🙂

With the clay rolled out and the cling wrap removed, I positioned the image of Ambulance woman over the Sculpey so that it is well within its border,  I then taped the image to the tile so that it did not move.

Using a sharp object (I used a compass) the outline and all main parts of the image were defined in the clay by poking through the print-out into the clay.


What results when the print-out is removed, is the outline of the figure perforated in the clay.


Using a sharp knife the outline is cut out  (leaving the silhouette of the figure). All excess clay is then removed leaving the first layer of the relief.


For the next step I took the top section of one of my print-outs and cut out a the outline of the hat, head and shoulders. This was taped on the tile to get position over the clay silhouette, then the face and hat could be removed from the clay. The partially finished hat was then laid into position within the paper guide and clay was blended from the neck into the hat.


The fired clay was roughed up prior to more clay being added, so that it would grip better. When fired in the oven the clay surfaces should adhere to each other.

Note: I have found out since that there is a glue that promotes adhesion (Sculpey® Translucent Liquid). I will be using this in future, but as this figure will have a mould made directly over the sculpt on the tile, I’m not overly concerned about the extra bond. However I would recommend you to use this medium if your wishing to remove the finished work from the tile.

So, this ends part one of the sculpt.

In the next part I will go into how I commence the roughing out of the sculpting and how the other layers of the relief stack up as the figure takes shape.


References and notes

  1. “WOMEN IN UNIFORM DURING THE FIRST WORLD WAR | Imperial War Museums.” Accessed April 13, 2013.
  2. “Introduction – London Ambulance Column.” Accessed April 13, 2013.
  3. “Gary’s Miniature Sculpting.” Accessed April 13, 2013.

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  1. Rich, great tutorial. I have had a picture of Superman I’ve wanted to try this forever. You make it look simple, but ai know better. Thanks for posting your work.

  2. Penny Meyer

    I love this figure I will buy one when it is done!!!
    Also, your tutorial might give me the courage to try to sculpt. I am looking forward the the rest of the tutorial!

  3. Gary Dombrowski

    Rich, Very nice work. I’m humbled that my work inspired you to give reliefs a try. Your step by step will no doubt prove inspirational to someone contemplating the creation of a relief of their own. ~Gary

    • Rich Odell

      Gary, so pleased you dropped by to see the website – thank you once again for re-kindling my love of sculpture. -Rich

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