Since ancient times, artists, especially sculptors have been doing carvings on stones and rocks. In this form of art, artists carve on the stone, and carve out an image out of it. The image so produced is slightly raised above the background. This type of sculpture where the image protrudes outside the background is called Relief.  

File:Relief Art Wall - Chengdu Culture Park - Chengdu, China - DSC03953.jpg

Relief Wall Art in Chengdu Culture Park, Chengdu, China

What is Relief?  

Relief also called relievo, (from Italian word relievare, which means “to raise”), is an ancient sculptural technique, which has been practised since time immemorial. This relief sculptor may be done on stone or wood. Traditionally, in relief sculpting, the artist imagines an image in that piece of wood or stone and starts carving the flat solid surface. While doing so, he chisels away the ‘extra’ and ‘unwanted’ material. This is quite a time-consuming process. But, when the work is complete, it gives the impression that the characters are raised and give the impression that they are ‘coming out’ of the background. This type of art is called relief art.  

Sometimes the artists use another technique to give depth to the artwork. They make art and then add depth and texture to the flat surface giving it a three-dimensional (3D) look. Many different materials can be used to achieve this 3D effect.  

So, a relief is like a picture with a hint of three-dimensionality, just like a proper sculpture.  

Types of Relief Art:  

There are different types of relief sculpture, which depends on the degree of projection, height or detachment of the sculpted form from the solid background. The different types are relief art paintings are given below. Often the Italian and French terms are also used along with English terms to denote the different types of relief art:

  1. Low relief (basso-relievo, or bas-relief): Here the degree of projection is very low and the sculpture projects only slightly from the background surface  
  2. High relief (alto-rilievo, Haut-relief): In his type of relief art, the degree of projection is more than 50% and the relief may have undercut areas and may have some areas that are completely detached from the background.  
  3. Middle relief (mezzo-relievo): This style, where the degree of projection falls roughly between the high and low forms].  
  4. Sunken relief (coelanaglyphic or intaglio relief): In this style, the carving is sunk deep even below the level of background. The sculpted image is contained within a sharply incised contour line that acts as a frame. The surface surrounding the main sculpture is kept untouched with no projections. Such type of relief carving is found a lot in Egyptian art and to some extent in Indian art also, where beautiful carving is done on ivory.  

Advantages of Relief Sculpture:  

  1. In the relief art, the sculpted elements remain attached to a solid background of the same material. This does away with the need to create a background for the art. Not only this, the art is less fragile and attached more securely to the background, especially in standing figures carved out of stone, where the ankles are a potential weak point.  
  2. Reliefs can portray a far wider range of subjects as compared to a statue, due to economy of resources. For instance, a battle scene can be rendered much more easily in relief.   
  3. Since the relief is attached to its background, there are no challenges of weight and physical balance  
  4. Since reliefs are carved directly onto walls, ceilings, floors and other flat surfaces, they are more suited to architectural projects.  


Relief is a sculptural technique which involves a considerable amount of cutting away from a flat surface of stone, metal or wood. Thus, the relief sculpture gives an impression of the sculpted material raised above a plane background. It’s less fragile and more firmly fixed than a sculpture in the round. Reliefs are classified according to the height of the figures projecting from the background. In a low relief, the forms project just slightly from the background whereas in high relief, the designs are at quite a height from the background and at parts can be completely detached from the ground. Middle reliefs fall roughly between the high and low forms.