The Little Book of Tomisms


Welcome to The Little Book of Tomisms.  In here you will find many jewels; fragments of a beautiful mosaic that form Tom’s teachings on sculpture and on life.  Many of the ideas expressed in these quotes came from Tom’s teachers, especially Antonio Datillo Rubbo (who studied under Domenico Morelli) and their teachers before them.  In this way, these fragments are part of a precious golden thread of artistic wisdom that can be traced back to the great classical masters.

For those who studied with Tom, these quotes will be a soothing reminder of Tom’s presence and may add to your individual library of Tom’s teaching.  For those who have come later, the quotes (together with the guidance of our School’s teachers) will mean you won’t miss out on the core of what he taught.  The quotes will be useful for both teaching and learning.

All of us might find a quote here that will hold the teaching we need to solve a niggling sculptural problem we’re dealing with now,  bring a work suddenly to life with just a small piece of clay, or find the inspiration we need to keep improving our art.  Ultimately, many of these quotes will help us to see!  Yes, there is magic to be found here.

Many quotes are self-explanatory.  But, some are like riddles.  We may need to turn them around in our minds many times, write about them, and discuss them with our teachers and friends.  But, when the meaning becomes clear, we might see the world a little differently and our sculptures will be all the better for it.

The quotes show that Tom was not only a rare and remarkable sculptor and teacher but had a next-level wit and sense of humour as well.

We’re very pleased to launch The Little Book of Tomisms in Tom’s centenary year.  Enjoy and may we all “get it”!

BeomJin (BJ) Kim
Editor: The Little Book of Tomisms and TBSSS Board Member

December 2016


Acknowledgements and notes

A big thank you must go to Theo Kennis, whose thoughtful notes provided a good number of the quotes for this book and Dr Margo Hoekstra (of course) for her Tom quotes and oversight of this project.  A very warm thanks to all the other contributors (past, present and future), Melanie Watkins for her coordination and pulling together the ebook, and Eleanor Dunlop for her assistance with administration.  Quotation marks have not been used where we have been unsure of the exact words used.  The quotes have been organised into headings but this has been a bit of an imprecise exercise.

Future contributions

The Little Book of Tomisms is a work in progress and a living archive.  If you remember or have some notes of Tom’s teachings, please email them to us (at so that we may collect a few more pieces of the mosaic that is Tom’s teaching and share them with everyone.  One day soon we would like to turn this collection into a proper book with illustrations and everything.  If you have some ideas and would like to help, please get in touch!


On Art and Sculpture…

“Sculpture is about capturing the essence of things.”

“The truth is not to be found in the external appearance of something.”

“You’ve got to find the internal essence of the thing, and express that.”

In sculpture, creating the illusion of what is represented plays a vital part.

Art to me is a suggestion rather than a blatant description. Let the mind fill in the detail.

We are not dealing here with making things look like things, only to suggest what’s there .We are dealing with another kind of reality, suggestion rather than duplication, the imagination  does the rest.

Sculpture is drawing in three dimensions

“Art is primarily a matter of groceries.”

As an artist (or teacher) you don’t give people what they want, you give the what they need.

“Creativity is a way of thinking and it influences everything you do”

(When asked was Peter good at sculpture and Tom’s response was that Peter was such a creative force although he wasn’t at that time sure where or how it would be expressed.)

You have to be patient and become what you know.

On Drawing…

“Drawing is thought made visible.”

On Armatures…

“The armature is the initial drawing”

Make it flexible and strong

“Never let the armature boss you around!”

“Love your wire!”

On Seeing…

“See the abstract – take the labels off.”

In Michelangelo’s day there wasn’t a word for “abstract”, but Michelangelo knew what it was when he said “You should be able to break a sculpture into a thousand pieces and every piece would be just as beautiful.”

Look and see what’s really there and not what you think is there – don’t make it up.

Use observation as the key to your action, not conditioning which tends to go on what your thinking tells you.

“You have to see not just look”

If you’ve really seen the form you should be able to turn your back on the model and make it (In regard to the life study.)

On Modelling…

“We don’t so much want to get it right but rather to get the spirit of it.”

  1. The Spirit exists within the form.
  2. Follow what the Form (Spirit) is saying. Don’t copy from the Form (picture).
  3. Recreate what the form says.
  4. Don’t start with the detail and don’t get caught up in details, create the Essential Form first, impose the detail later.
  5. Find the sculptural interpretation.
  1. Don’t reproduce exactly what’s there but see the form and what it suggests rather than what it looks like.
  2. Each form must work on its own so that it makes an individual statement but is part of a harmonius whole.
  3. Sculpture is a translation of the form into another language from the picture, maquette, model, drawing etc

“We don’t make it look the way it looks, we make it work the way it works.”

“Let the form do the work.”

Tom:  “Look at the form!” Student in response: “I am looking at the bloody form!”

The structure within the form has to work and be seen to exist.

I am a great believer in letting the form do it rather than the line.

“Let this subject express itself through the sculpture.”

“I smell-a de maps!”

(Referring to Rubbo’s distaste for delineating forms.  Rubbo actually challenged Julian Ashton to a duel over the subject of whether line, form or tone should dominate.  Meldrum was also involved.)

The law of alchemy: only that which is first divided can be properly put back together.

You learn more from the profile than the detail.

I don’t model it – I draw it.

“I hates ya ‘coz ya feet’s too big.” (Fats Domino)

Tom: The lips are too static.  Student:  What do you mean by that?  Tom:  Well, are they saying: “let’s get up and go!” ?

“Tout ensemble.”

(The “overall picture” in French.  Tom often used this quote to encourage students to try to see a work as a whole.)

“I’d be terrified to run into a woman with a jaw like that!”

Always ask yourself is this a nice shape, a worthy shape, does it say what that’s saying.
(Referring to the reference or model.)

“What part do you like and what part don’t you like?”

“When in doubt, leave it out!”

“You have to find an analogy for what you are wanting to express.”

(When referring to hair, the way it moves and the lightness and air in hair.)

“You build up a library in your head from sculpting from so many years and you pull out the reference when you need it” (When asked how did you know to move that bit of clay there?)

“When in doubt, taper.”

All forms taper.

(Referring to the life study.)

“Parallel lines are boring.”

Proportion comes when you stop measuring.

If you measure you don’t develop a sense of proportion.

Let go of the idea that everything has to be symmetrical.

“Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.”

(Fats Domino.  Tom used this expression often to refer both to positive form as opposed to negative forms (space) and to life in general.)

“Junctions make the negatives, when you make the forms the junctions make themselves.”

“Too many notes Mr Mozart. Too many notes.”

(Tom referring to the need for a form to not have too many details – there is a need for some straightening to make the form dynamic.)

Too many curves becomes monotonous.

You achieve Simplicity, you don’t just stick it on.

“Simple is not so simple” (Referring to Brancusi.)

“Less is more.”

(Attributed to Bauhaus architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) and also a favourite of Tom’s.)

“Forget getting it right! That’s neither here nor there, what you’ve got to do is simply get it! Make it do what it does!” (On modelling the Life Study.)

“Don’t get it right – get IT!”

Don’t try, do it!

 “Use the light!”

“Rob Peter to pay Paul.”

Don’t remove clay willy nilly.  Usually all that’s required is to move around what’s there.

“What’s this spaghetti you’re making?”

(Dissaprovingly referring to thin rolls of clay being used to model.)

“Smooth is a dirty word.”

“Smooth is not a virtue.”

“We don’t smooth – we perfect the form.”

“It’s not car duco.”

(In reference to the finish of a sculpture having natural blemishes etc, adding character to a sculpture.)

“Thumbs are for using.” (Whilst using the magic Tom thumb.)

“What did God give you the fingers for!”
(Always uttered with an Italian accent in reference to Dattilo Rubbo.)

On Bases…

“Your base has to be a beautiful shape.”

“I think Brancusi was right. He made a sculpture of the base.”

“Your base should be part of the sculpture.”

On Mould Making and Casting…

“Never leave your plaster.”

“It’s set in stone for eternity once it’s in Bronze.”

(Referring to a head with the eyes not quite right.)

Don’t pollute the world with (inadequate) bronze sculptures.

“Full of vitamins.”

(Talking about the pollution of Broadway or the hazardous dust of plaster.)

On the Studio…

This is a sacred space…

“We will take our magic with us.”

(On the move from Broadway to Erskineville.)

Student: “Why does the silt trap smell so much?” Tom: “It’s full of dead sculptures.”

On Tools…

Can you pass me the “flexible abrasive tool”?

(A term for sandpaper coined by Cliff Axelson to fly under Tom’s radar, as Tom deplored the use of sandpaper on sculptures.)

On the Process…

“Nil irreperable!” (Nothing is irreparable.)

“Go back to tors.” (ie. The Beginning.)

“A blind man on a galloping horse would never see it!”
(Probably from Tom’s mother “She was a great collector of tit bits”.)

“Keep at it!”

“Are you having fun yet?”

“Don’t fall in love (with it) too early.”

Don’t fall in love with what you have done.

“Never discard anything just put it aside and then take the bits you love about the sculpture and use them in another sculpture.”

(When asked when do you discard a sculpture.)

Student:  Tom, when do you know when you have finished a sculpture?  Tom: “When it is the best that you know you can do”.

On the Simple Pleasures…

“There’s fire to be eaten.”

“Next job is lunch!”

“Relief is just a sip away.”

(This was the quote on Tom’s mug.)

Sculpture is ultimately a matter of groceries.

“Jacobs Creek is the wine I have always drunk.”

“My skeleton is held together with sugar (2 spoons) and Merlot.”

On Life…

Student:  “What’s the secret to your longevity?”  Tom:  “Meat pies and red wine.”

“I’m a great believer in a monodiet.”

“We live in hope, but die in despair.”

(Tom quoting his mother quoting T.S. Elliot.)

“A good day is one with challenges.”

“We are only undefeated because we go on trying.” (T.S. Elliot)

On Making…

You can’t make a cake without breaking eggs.


“Be calm Bass, like the moonlight on the lake.”

(Rubbo to Tom as Tom was caught in a jam of frustration.  The “the old bastard” may also have been mentioned in the same anecdote.)

Thank you for visiting!