The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond is exhibiting ten terracotta warriors (and a horse) from the mausoleum of Ying Zheng (259-210 BC), the first emperor of Qin, one of the seven states of the Zhou dynasty. 

I’ve never been to China and doubt that I’ll ever have the opportunity to visit so this exhibit was not to be missed. While the historical and archeological details are very interesting, my main curiosity was in how these life-size figures (some 6ft tall and weighing 400lbs) were made. The exhibit is well lit and the figures are presented in a way that allows the viewer to walk around the entire figure for an up-close inspection of all the details. This is what I learned about how they are made:  

Obviously, thousands of craftsmen were involved in making the figures in a process that was very similar to the one I would use today. The figures were made from the bottom up using a combination of clay coils and slabs. The legs and arms were made with coils and slabs that were rolled up into a tube and then attached to the feet and shoulders, respectively. It seemed to me that the body was made of slabs. The hands were created in three parts: the wrist and thumb, the palm and the fingers, which were attached to each other and to the arm. The head was made using two molds, one for the front and one for the back of the head, which were then attached and placed on the body. 

Thinking about my own hand-building process, my first thought was: how did they keep the clay moist during the production process so that all these attachments could be made? Clearly they didn’t have sheets of plastic from the dry cleaners! This made me wonder whether more than one person worked on each figure at the same time. Drying also needed to be controlled once the figures were made to avoid cracking before the firing. Round holes were visible in some of the figures that were made to allow air to escape during drying and firing and prevent cracking and breakage. 

The information at the exhibit noted that firing was at 1700 to 1900 degrees Fahrenheit. This is equivalent to bisque firing to cone 05 to 04. After firing, the figures were coated in a dark lacquer and painted using egg-based pigments in colors such as purple, red, blue, green, yellow, black and white. These colors are no longer visible as the lacquer has dried out and flacked off. However, conservators are attempting to reconstruct the painted layers.

It is a really interesting exhibit that goes through March 11, 2018. Go see it if you’re in the area! I posted photos of the figures at the exhibit on my Facebook page (