Have you ever wanted to teach sculpture, using subtraction techniques, but couldn't find a time-efficient, easy clean-up, done in two class periods, inexpensive, type of medium? Here is the answer...SOAP! With my elementary school age students, I am able to do just that, and at the same time, have them begging to do more. It has been amazing how intense they get while carving and how excited they get when finished. Yes, we have a few casualties as the soap breaks or crumbles where we don't want it to.... but the students seem to come back the next day with several bars of soap in hand to start again! And what happens to the pieces??? We send them home in a baggie to use for washing hands! Recycling at its best. The really great part of this lesson is the students can do it at home, as well as in the art classroom, without having to buy special art supplies. The best soap to use is any soap that is rectangular, so that there will be a flat base so the sculpture will stand. Some soaps are softer than others which does help make carving more easily accomplished. Buy a few different bars and try it out yourself? You may find you are hooked on this very relaxing process. hint: try dollar stores for a inexpensive source for bars of soap.
I started the lesson talking about sculpture and form and how these are three-dimensional and must be observed from all sides, not just one. We talk about positive/negative space and what is meant by "subtractive techniques" (where the medium is"taken away" in various amounts to form the image.) The students trace their bar of soap on a piece of paper so that they can come up with ideas for their sculpture. This gives them a starting point, even if the sculpture changes as they go. I provide one bar of soap per student. If theirs breaks and they can not figure out a way to make it work, then they bring in any additional bars of soap to carve. We use small plastic knives and wooden popsicle sticks as the main carving tools. Other tools can be plastic spoons, forks, and wooden skewers (for helping with internal negative space). There are probably hundreds of other objects that can be used as well. Students begin working on the negative space that is in the interior of the sculpture first, and then work on the outside edges. They can move on to creating different levels on the surfaces for interest, once the main form is established. Encouraging students to create different surface textures, using various tools, can add interest to the overall appearance of the final piece. If the final piece does not stand on its own, then a small block of wood with a nail driven through, allowing the soap to gently be pushed down onto the nail, can solve that problem.
If you try this out in your classroom, please leave a comment and let me know how it went. My 4th grade students have really enjoyed it and the classes that have not done it yet are begging to have a turn at this sculptural process!