This article was co-authored by professional sculptor, Sarah Hempel Irani. You can visit her website here.
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Getting a custom-made sculpture or statue made to your specifications, commonly known as commissioning a sculpture, is a tradition that has been practiced for centuries. Whether you want a custom life-size marble sculpture to commemorate someone special; or a miniature custom bronze sculpture to give as a personal gift to someone you love, a professional sculptor can turn your request into a real, handmade sculpture from your photos (or ideas).
The price of a custom sculpture typically relies on 4 factors:
The price range of a custom sculpture starts at $1,000 and can go as high as $500,000.
Let's dig a little bit deeper into the various components that go into the cost of a custom sculpture.
No doubt you’ve heard the phrase, “That’ll cost you an arm and a leg!” There is some debate as to whether this saying originated with portrait artists or during the US Civil War, however any sculptor will tell you that, quite literally, adding an arm or a leg will definitely cost more! Pricing a sculpture is one of the most challenging aspects of running a sculpture studio. The math is simple: cost of materials + labor = price. While this basic formula holds true for sculptors, figuring those two factors can be multifaceted and complex.
First, the sculptor has a conversation with a client in order to ascertain what it is that they want. This conversation also serves to set expectations and ensure that the client understands the process. Remember that a custom work of sculpture is meant to last. The artist will ask questions about the desired subject, the scale, the setting, and the material.
The initial phase is an exciting time of idea generation and story-telling. What story do you want to tell? Custom sculptures are deeply meaningful to people and it’s important to take time and attention to get it right from the outset. In the idea phase, anything is possible. The sculptor will often produce a smaller, miniature clay scale model, explained further below. The model ensures that the client knows how the final piece will look in terms of pose & theme, as well as helping the artist properly price the full-scale sculpture.
That brings us to scale and setting. A larger-than-life bronze monument for a city park will be a much more complex project, and cost more, than a table-top figure. A half-life sized figure may look better in a small garden than a larger sculpture. The setting of the sculpture will determine the scale and the scale will determine how much time and how much materials will be used. The beauty of creating custom artwork is that it’s perfect for your home, your garden, your office, your community.
The raw materials are a big factor in determining the cost. For an outdoor sculpture, bronze, stone, and steel are built to last for generations, but are material and labor intensive. Lower-cost options such as plaster or resin are not as durable and cannot be placed outdoors. In an indoor niche, however, a plaster sculpture might be the perfect choice!
Once the client and sculptor have decided upon the concept and design, the size, location and the material, then it’s time to get to work. Depending on the location of the artist, renting a studio space is the most basic - and sometimes most costly - operating cost. Sculptors work in three dimensions and need to be able to walk around the sculpture as it progresses, compared to, say, a painter who is well served with an easel and quality north light. In a sculpture studio, you will find over-sized tools such as arc welders, table saws, grinders, drills, an air compressor, and the like. So the studio needs to be adequately large. Then, of course, they pay for utilities and insurance.
Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that to become an expert, a person needs 10,000 hours of practice. In order to have facility in clay, a sculptor must commit their lives to learning the skills of the craft. The level of expertise and training that a sculptor undergoes cannot be understated.
It goes without saying, but you should always & only choose a qualified sculptor. If you need help finding one, contact us and one of our curators will happily assist.
The second-largest expense is labor. The size and complexity of a sculpture determines how many hours the sculptor will need to spend actively working in the studio, modeling clay with their hands and wooden tools. This is the best part! In addition, for very large projects or multiple projects happening simultaneously, the sculptor may employ assistants to help.
In order to build the sculpture, the artist begins with a scale model in clay. This is called a maquette. Figurative artists hire life models to pose in the studio. Even if the sculpture is of a particular individual, the artist will choose a model who best matches the look and proportions of the subject. This ensures that the sculpture is well proportioned and that the drapery hangs properly.
In order to enlarge the sculpture, the artist may choose digital enlargement or do it by hand. The digital enlargement saves time, but not necessarily money. Depending on the scale, a digital engagement may not be the best choice. In order to create the clay sculpture, the artist builds an armature made of welded steel, foam, and wood. The armature acts as a skeleton that holds up the clay and gives it structure. Sometimes a professional welder is hired to build the armature! Many sculptors use an oil-based plasticine clay that is reusable. A very large or multi-figure sculpture may need extra clay as a budget line item. Creating the clay model takes a tremendous amount of concentration and time. Smaller sculptures can be completed in a matter of weeks, but life-size or larger will need months, sometimes years.
While sculptures can be made from almost any material, for the purposes of this article, we will focus on bronze, steel, and stone.
Once the clay sculpture is finished, a mold is made. Layers of liquid rubber are painted over the surface of the clay sculpture, which is then layered with molding plaster to create a hard shell. The clay and armature are removed and recycled, leaving a negative impression of the sculpture. One of two things happen, the mold is sent to a bronze foundry (they also pour stainless steel) or a plaster cast is made and the plaster is finished for an indoor location or is sent to a marble carving studio to be cut in stone.
Once the mold arrives at the bronze foundry, it will undergo a lengthy and labor-intensive process that we know as “lost-wax casting.” After pouring wax casts, a ceramic shell is made over the wax. This becomes the final mold once the wax is “lost” or melts away in the kiln. The raw bronze is melted with intense heat and poured from a crucible into the ceramic shells. Once the bronze cools, the shells are broken off and the bronze is worked by a team of professionals. Once the sculpture looks like the original clay model, it’s sandblasted and treated with a patina.
(In the case of stainless steel, it’s poured the same way as bronze, but it is polished and instead of receiving a patina, it is either painted or left to shine!)
Since the initial cost of creating the sculpture and making a mold is such a tremendous undertaking, many sculptors will issue limited bronze editions. For example, the artist may limit the edition to 25 casts. The mold can be re-used and the bronze foundry can cast the work 25 times. The upfront cost of creating the mold can be spread out among all 25 casts, thereby reducing the cost of each cast by up 25%! Sculpture has the added expenses of a fluctuating bronze market.
In the case of a stone sculpture, a figurative sculptor may choose to send a plaster “carvers model” to a stone carving studio. In Italy, the carving team uses a pointing machine, or macchinetta di punta, which is not really a machine at all, but rather a measuring device to copy the carver's model into stone. Some sculptors prefer to carve the stone at their studio, but they will still start with a model because there is very little margin of error with stone!
Once the sculpture has been cast or carved, it will need to be created, delivered and installed. Smaller works can be shipped, but larger works will require specialized transportation. Oftentimes the site will need preparation: landscape design, hardscaping, lighting, and irrigation. Bronze, steel, and stone sculptures need to be set on a concrete footing, the depth requirement of which is determined by local governments. Most outdoor sculptures are set upon stone pedestals. These stones are so heavy that we have to rent special equipment to place the work. The installation crew is an added expense.
Artists are entrepreneurs and need the same back office capabilities of any small business: website development and hosting, advertising, professional organization membership fees, conferences and workshops, and a good accountant for tax preparation. Artists will also have industry-specific costs such as studio expenses, insurance, and documentation (photography and videography), as well as life models, costuming, creating and shipping, foundry visits. Then, of course, there are taxes. Because artists are sole proprietors, we pay federal and state income tax, plus social security, as well as an additional 7% to social security because it’s not being matched by an employer. On top of taxes, artists do not receive matching funds for retirement savings or group health insurance.
As you can see, commissioning a sculpture is no small thing. It takes careful planning, plenty of expertise, many hours in the studio, and a complex fabrication process, not to mention transportation and installation. Keep in mind that when you purchase an original sculpture you are buying something that will outlast us all; will continue telling your story long after you are gone. Sculptures are part of our human legacy and every care must be taken to do them thoughtfully and well.
Sarah Hempel Irani has been sculpting expressive figures for over twenty years. Originally from Michigan, she moved to Maryland to apprentice with a master sculptor and study public monuments in the Nation’s Capital. In 2022, Sarah installed a 7’6” bronze monument to fashion icon, Claire McCardell, in a city park. Previously, Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church in Potomac, Maryland commissioned Sarah to create two larger-than-life-sized sculptures cut from Carrara marble. Sarah earned an MA in Medieval and Renaissance Studies from Hood College Graduate School. She works out of her studio in Frederick, Maryland. Follow Sarah on Instagram.