A career in figure sculpture

 1 July 2011

Nikki Taylor is a sculptor, creating beautiful and expressive sculptures of the human form. She works mostly with woven wire mesh, and also in bronze, from her Surrey-based studio.

Nikki works freehand and direct with the wire mesh, with no moulding or casting.
Nikki works freehand and direct with the wire mesh, with no moulding or casting.

Nikki studied at Wimbledon School of Art as a mature student, where Allan Sly, one of the country’s top figurative sculptors, was head of department. Graduating in 2003, Nikki has developed a successful career in the highly competitive field of figurative sculpture.

Nikki sells her work through galleries and exhibitions and also produces commissions for individual clients. She has created a series of life-size wire mesh sculptures of Olympic athletes, including the diver Tom Daley and gold medallist sprinter Jason Gardener. Nikki was invited to produce these sculptures for the ‘Sculptural Celebration of Sport 2012’ by Art at the Edge.

Choosing a sculpture material

Nikki’s early sculptures were in bronze resin. This involves making a clay original sculpture, then making a mould in fibreglass and rubber before casting in the chosen material. Bronze is much more expensive, so in the early days most sculptors do their own casting in resin.

“I love what I do. The reward of making sculptures that other people enjoy is wonderful."

“Mould-making and casting in resin is an unpleasant job as the materials are toxic and messy. Protective clothing, a mask, and preferably an extractor fan are all necessary.

"If you are earning enough money it is infinitely preferable to have the job done for you by a specialist, or to have the work cast in real bronze by a foundry.”

Most of Nikki’s outdoor sculptures are made in stainless steel mesh, which has been industrially coated with an architectural waterproof metallic finish. Indoor pieces are generally mild steel.

Nikki works freehand and direct with the wire mesh, with no moulding or casting involved. The mesh is specially woven and imported from overseas. A life-sized figure takes about five square metres of mesh.

“The colour of the mesh is chosen according to the exhibition venue or the final site. The Olympic athletes will be shown in Bath, which has predominately pale yellow stone architecture. A dark colour for the sculptures was therefore best. For a sculpture seen against dark woodland, silver would be the more likely choice.

The sculpture process

The first stage of making a sculpture involves taking lots of photos and detailed measurements. In the case of Tom Daley’s sculpture, Nikki visited him at a swimming pool in Plymouth.

“I took measurements and numerous photographs whilst Tom revolved, in pose, through 360 degrees. I take photos from above and below as well, so I have information from all angles right around the body.

"Once I am back in my studio I print the photos onto boards and surround myself with these and as many real action shots as I have been able to get hold of. I also blow up a couple of key shots to life size. In making the final sculpture I combine all this information to create the pose I want.

"Differing thicknesses of mesh are used, depending on the size of the sculpture. This is then shaped using my hands or my own specially-devised tools. For fine mesh I work largely with fingers and thumbs, but for larger pieces and coarser wire I use things like gate finial balls, over which I press the mesh to shape it.

"Wire is not a user-friendly material and the cut edges and ends of any gauge can cause cuts and scratches. I always work in gloves, even if the finger ends are cut off.

"Wire mesh itself is difficult to work with, but there is a lot of satisfaction in creating sensitive work out of unlikely industrial materials. Most life-sized sculptures take around six weeks from start to finish. I mostly concentrate on one large piece at any one time, although I may have some smaller jobs on the go as well.

"My life-sized figures in mesh are still relatively new and my work is continually evolving. I find most of my more interesting projects come unexpectedly through my website, and aren’t something I can plan for.

"Being invited to design a piece for a prize-winning garden at the 2009 Chelsea Flower Show was one such occasion as is my current Olympic work. Each project adds to your portfolio and builds your credibility as an artist.”

Changing to a sculpture career

“The foundation course was a wonderful voyage of discovery and gave me the confidence to progress on to a degree."

Nikki came to sculpture fairly late in her career, embarking on an art and design foundation course in her late-forties.

Her first career was in advertising, where she worked as an account handler for ten years after graduating in the social sciences. Nikki decided to leave the world of advertising behind once her two children arrived.

“Whilst my children were small I wanted to find something which fitted around them. So I did a short course in interior design. I built a successful business, which then evolved into kitchen design and supply. But something more artistic and creative beckoned and I had taken my kitchen design business as far as I could go.

"Since childhood I have been a prolific maker, from making tiny dolls and animals with moving parts for myself through every medium I could get my hands on over the years. This generated surprisingly little interest on the part of my parents!

"As I grew up I never really thought that an artistic career might be possible, and traditional art or craft disciplines that I was aware of didn’t particularly appeal."

“The foundation course was a wonderful voyage of discovery and gave me the confidence to progress on to a degree. I wanted to learn the traditional skills of figure sculpture, which was uniquely possible at Wimbledon School of Art on their Technical Art/Special Effects BA (Hons) Course. This is no longer possible in Fine Art Sculpture courses where the ethos has shifted towards conceptual art.

"There are no recognised career paths in sculpture. I was really fortunate in that my first opportunities to exhibit came along really quickly, but it took time to develop my identity and establish a direction. I also took on some part-time teaching in adult education whilst I established myself.”

Running an artistic business

Nikki works by herself, which means she is solely responsible for all aspects of running the business including marketing, accounts and dealing with clients and agents. She does employ someone to handle her tax return and annual accounts, but keeps careful records of all her finances through the year.

“Effective time-management is essential! I tend to spend mornings on admin work, research and visiting agents or clients. I aim to spend each afternoon in my studio, until about 7 pm. At about 10.30 pm at night I usually catch up with emails and other admin at home for another two hours.

"Spending time visiting agents and attending art fairs is important, as these activities all help to build my business. Events like the Affordable Art Fair in Battersea and Bristol are a good way of selling smaller items.

"The bigger pieces usually come through commissions. I also sell via art galleries, which take 50 percent of the selling price as their fee. It is best to start with smaller galleries and then progress from there. For me, my website is now a very effective marketing tool. My background in advertising has also helped me with the marketing side of my business.

"Running a sculpture business presents many challenges. The creative development side is often overlooked, as you spend time concentrating on other areas such as marketing and distribution. Finding the right work for the right outlet is paramount. The technical side of sculpture is also a big and exciting challenge, which includes research and developing processes and tools.”

Nikki started out working from her own home, but now rents some studio space which also accommodates two other artists in adjacent rooms. Nikki enjoys working alongside other artists and found working at home isolating.

“I love what I do. The reward of making sculptures that other people enjoy is wonderful. I produce unique pieces which often have special significance to buyers, and that is very satisfying.”

Advice for a sculpture career

  • You need to be proactive and develop every opportunity that you can. Opportunities will only come if your work is out there somehow
  • Once you have the sculptural skills then you can learn the techniques. For this particular work, a background in sculpting with clay was really important
  • Push the boundaries and be prepared to take risks.

See more of her work at Nikki Taylor's website.

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