High Relief vs Low Relief – How to Know All about the Two Most Popular Sculpting Techniques?

bas relief and high relief in sculpture

The relief technique for all known relief sculptures has several varieties. Among them are bas relief and high relief in sculpture. Their common feature is the presence of fragments protruding above the background surface. But there is also the difference between a bas-relief and a high-relief. Let’s take a closer look at each type of such an image and find out the difference between them.

What Is Relief?

Let’s start by defining the word “relief”. It was formed from the Latin “relevo”, which translates as “lift”.

The first relief sculpture examples of art using relief techniques were created back in the Paleolithic era, more than 10 thousand years ago. This direction of art received the greatest development in ancient times.

There are four types of relief:

  • bas-relief;
  • high relief;
  • counter-relief;
  • copy anaglyph.

But the most widespread are:

  • high relief;
  • bas-relief.



Bas relief technique (low relief sculpture) as a type of sculptural art is created from stone, wood, plastic and clay. Applying sculpting or carving, craftsmen transform the material in such a way that a voluminous plot is obtained.

People tried to master low relief sculpture examples back in the Stone Age. Then the mighty rocks were the working surface. Turning to the culture of the Ancient World, we can also notice how important the bas-reliefs were occupied there. Bas relief sculptures, for example, decorated the pediments of temples, which was evidence of the greatness of such structures.

The art of bas-relief did not cease to exist in the Middle Ages, as evidenced by the surviving samples. And in our time, when any handicraft is highly valued, there are craftsmen who are capable of turning an ordinary surface, be it a monument’s pedestal or part of a building’s facade, into an exquisite work of art.

Distinctive Features of the Bas-Reliefs

  • there are no free-standing figures;
  • the figures are sunk into the background;
  • there are no elements that would protrude strongly above the plane – if there is a spear or a whole horse’s muzzle that protrudes perpendicular to the background, this is already a high relief.

The pediments of temples were decorated with bas-reliefs in the era of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. Colorful sculptural compositions were the hallmark of the building. But the walls are not the only background for the bas-reliefs. They can also rise above columns and other parts of the sculpture.

High Relief

High Relief

A bit about high relief art definition: From French haut-relief the word is translated as “high relief”. Such a sculptural composition protrudes above the plane by more than 50%. There is perspective in the image, anatomy is sometimes neglected, but this technique is less common.

To create a high relief sculpture, you need the same materials and techniques as for a bas-relief. Its first samples also appeared a very long time ago – in ancient art. In ancient Rome, volumetric molding and high relief carving were often used to decorate triumphal arches. And in modern times, you can find a duplication of this use of high relief – magnificent plots appear before us when looking at the Arc de Triomphe (Paris).

Distinctive Features of High Relief

  • issued above the background by 50% or more;
  • freestanding figures may occur;
  • strongly protruding elements that are almost not in contact with the plane are not prohibited;
  • more attention is paid to perspective and anatomy.

So, what is high relief? High relief is used to create complex compositions with many characters. The technique is also suitable for displaying landscapes if you need to convey perspective in them.

High reliefs are found on colonnades, triumphal arches, ancient and modern temples, and altars. Round statues that are not physically connected to the wall, but are tightly attached to it until the creation of a single composition, are also high reliefs.

Comparison of the Two Techniques

And now let’s move on to the main thing and identify the difference between the bas-relief and the high-relief. It can be judged by the second names of these types of sculptural images – low relief (bas-relief) and, accordingly, high relief (high relief).

There are differences and similarities between high relief vs low relief.

But the unity lies in the following features of high relief vs low relief:

  • varieties of sculptural technique;
  • inextricably linked with a flat background;
  • originate from voluminous rock paintings.

But the difference between works of art is much greater.

Consider each difference in detail:

  1. The ratio of volume and plane. The high relief has more than 50% volume, the bas-relief has less. The bas-relief looks like a round sculpture buried in the background. The high relief, on the contrary, seems to be tending to separate.
  2. Perspective. When creating a high relief, its principles are strictly observed. In bas-reliefs, perspective is neglected in order to save time and resources for making the sculpture.
  3. Free-standing elements. In bas-reliefs, the details do not protrude much above the base. They seem to be flattened, pressed into it. And in high reliefs, there are often elements that are barely connected with the background. They can be extended even to the entire length of the sculpture, but they are connected to the plane by a thin isthmus and at the same time belong to the relief sculpture.
  4. The complexity of creation. High reliefs are more difficult for craftsmen, so they appeared later. The technique of bas-reliefs was also used by cavemen in the Paleolithic era.

What about Freestanding vs Relief Sculpture?

Their main distinguishing criterion is the ratio of the working background and the volume of the depicted elements. If we imagine the full volume of the figures, then in the bas-relief it protrudes above the background by a maximum of half, and often even less. The high relief is more convex – the viewer can see a significant part of the elements’ own volume (more than half). And some figures can even exist on their own, completely separated from the background. This is considered almost the only, but defining difference.

Other Types of Relief

Other Types of Relief

The counter-relief is something like a “negative” of the bas-relief. its imprint deepened into the background. Counter-relief is used in matrices and seals. A different understanding of counter-relief can be observed in the avant-garde art of the 20th century, particularly in the works of V. Tatlin. Here the counter-relief is interpreted as a “hypertrophied” relief that has completely got rid of the background – the exposure of real objects.

A coy anaglyph is an image carved into a plane. It does not protrude from the background and does not go deeper into it – only the contours of the figures deepen. Such an image compares favorably with the bas-relief and high relief in that it is not threatened with chipping, therefore, it is better preserved. Coyana Glyphs are found in the art of Ancient Egypt and other civilizations of the Ancient East.
So, we found out the main difference between low relief sculpture and high relief sculpture examples. Otherwise, from our point of view, these types of images of sculptures are very similar.

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