Sculpting, much like any other profession is not without it's hard learned lessons. Sometimes we study in schools or go through an apprenticeship with well seasoned crafts people to learn by assisting and watching closely. Hopefully we pay great attention and ask plenty of questions. By the way, the most stupid question, is the one which is never asked. Because, even though we may believe we saw the lesson, if there is a doubt, a why or a what is the purpose, it is important enough to cause confusion or grief some time later. When we first begin to sculpt, every move, every chisel strike, will seem monumental. We even might close our eyes when the mallet strikes the chisel. But, gradually we begin to feel comfortable as we see the stone start to take the shape which comes from our mind's eye. A rhythm develops in our chisel strikes and it is almost trance like. Our only focus is on the stones shape and all else but the sound of the chisel, the feel of stone bouncing off of us and the gradual birth of our design matter to us. It is magic! It is funny how some of the cruelest lessons in life can come to us when we are in the middle of the most beautiful moments. But, then would we actually learn as fast without the intensity of consequence? Imagine for a moment, having worked a month on a certain sculpture, the roughing out stage is nearly complete. You just need a bit more off over here and then, there is a dull sounding chisel strike, a crash on the floor and viola! Your beautiful sculpture now has only one arm! Many of us have learned this way and its amazing how fast the lesson sinks in. It literally only takes the first time to get it. Then, you never forget! The ultimate lesson here is that there really is a time to put the chisel down and pick up rasps and riffling files. Throughout my sculpting years and in other tool oriented occupations I have learned that one needs the right tools for the right job. Sculpting is no different. Below is a small assemblage of chisels, rasps and riffling files needed to start sculpting stone. There are many tools to include those for roughing out, detailing, fine detail and finish work, from the bluntest instrument to diamond burs and micron polishing materials. Even with the best tools and knowing when to put the mallet and chisel down, the very best sculptors can and do have tragic sculpting moments.
Choosing your stone is as important as choosing your tools. It may be the difference between a sculpture and shattered stone! The process when choosing the stone is called,"ringing out". This process demands that one take a metal tool such as a chisel and begin to tap all around the stone surface and listen. When you hear a nice ringing with each tap, you can assume that particular section to be tight grained and presumably without fissures or cracks. In other words, good to carve. This would be particularly true of stones like Alabaster and Marble. It takes a bit of practice to do this, but it can also save you some heartache later on. You may work with small stones, but just imagine if your project is a large commission. How important could it be then? Even in the best of circumstances, with the best tools and the stone chosen correctly, the possibility of shattering can still exist. It won't happen routinely, but certainly, knowing when to put the chisel down is one more step in mastering the stone.
When we see a beautiful sculpture which has been so finely carved that it appears to be alive, it gives our senses great pleasure to behold. Rarely though, are we privy to what it was before it's transformation, nor the countless hours of absolute co-creation between stone and sculptor, willing it to live. I myself believe that every stone has its own life, it's own energy and beauty, regardless of anything being done to it. Each stone has its own unique history of creation reflected in the wonderful patterns, matrices, making it colorful and vibrant! The process of "roughing out" a sculpture on the surface would seem pretty straight forward. The goal, is to create the desired shape from which the details of subject and content can be manifested. As Shakespeare said,"Tis many a slip tweenst a cup and a lip." I just love saying that! When roughing out, there are a few unavoidable variables to consider. Size, is one of the first things to consider because, if the stone is too small you will not be able to carve your subject to the correct scale. Shape is a major consideration because if you are not starting with a stone which is in block form, again it may not hold the size and contours of your subject. The tightness or looseness of the stone's grain, matrices or density is of great importance when considering the detail of your subject matter. If the grain of the stone is loosely organized, the stone may be too fragile to try and carve intricate detail into. If the stone is too hard and tight grained, it may only allow for large scale sculpting with specialized tools. There can be many combinations of hard, fragile, loose or tight grain. Thats where sensitivity and practice come in. Also, the more differing types of stone that you work with, the more experience you will gain in understanding the nuances, properties of each stones matrices. This knowledge will give you insight into what design concepts and carving methods/tools to use. Detail at least for me, is a process of starting with a raw form of whatever subject I choose, then consistently carving the stone down to facilitate each new detail. In essence, each part of the subject is its own sculpture. Scale (size) perspective, proportion, symmetry or balance are but some of the aspects of detail to consider, particularly if your sculpture is going to be a representative work. For representative sculptors, correctness of detail is imperative...does it look like what its supposed to be. The closer one gets to the finished work does the finished work stand up to the scrutiny of the one getting closer or does it cease to represent? Detail, also provides for an important element of Art, that being rhythm. Art, is like music to the eyes. If the visual rhythm of your work is flat and lifeless, it may not hold the attention of the one viewing it. However, continuity of detail can hold the interest, indeed, create interest! I kind of look at detail like, zooming in with a magnifying lens or microscope. In fact, as I am carving detail, eventually I put on my magnifying loops and get even closer to the fine detail. Fine detail is the underlying support for the detail the naked eye perceives at a further distance. Fine detail could also be grouped with finish work. Finish work, in a representative genre, is so important. No matter what genre you would carve in, finish work is the indicator of an artist's experience and technical ability. The more you study detail, the easier it will become for you to choose your genre, your stone properties and the tools/techniques needed for your sculpture. Some might say that the Devil is in the details. I would prefer to say that it is the details which provide more visual information and add clarity and continuity to intended concept of your work. Have fun with this ...sculpting is an incredible teacher and journey which leaves visual proof of the experiences had. Enjoy the trip!
Even in our cave dwelling days, we have wanted to tell our story. We wanted to tell our story in a way that even though we perished, the memory of who we were did not. Until the bronze age, we were mainly either beating certain stone with harder stones or, using abrasive granules to grind, abrade patterns into surfaces. These evolved into what we would call high reliefs today. Even still, major stone sculpting was accomplished. This is evidenced by the Moai, giant statues created by the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island from 1200-1500 AD. Stone sculpting has been the permanent record keeper of gods, goddesses and rulers who believed themselves to be demi-gods Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, Roman, Greek and indeed almost every culture's leaders used sculpture as a means of immortalizing themselves throughout history. Sometimes, it would take years to finish one piece of sculpture, but in those days sculptors were treated like rock stars.
In more recent history, sculpture became fine art, as did painting and other mediums . There are a few differing forms of sculpting today, however, stone sculpting, is a discipline few seldom attempt. The reasons most artists avoid this medium are simple. Stone, varies not only in color, but in hardness. Also, the way stone is formed, can lead to differing matrices, veins of one mineral running through another, thus giving the stone the potential to break under the stress of chiseling. One must choose their stone wisely. Rock, for the most part is heavy and cumbersome. Transporting it can be difficult. Also, there is no such thing as a stone stretcher. You can always chisel, file or sand more from the stone, but it can never be added back once its gone. The work of stone sculpting can be heavy, tedious and time consuming. In short, every chisel blow, every rasp stroke and file drag must be correct, the first time, every time! Even when everything is done absolutely correct, a stone can shatter. Sometimes after months of work! So, why would anyone want to attempt this? For myself, there is a wonderful gift just under the rough exterior of each stone. Beautiful often brilliant colors and translucence owing to the differing mineral content, reveal themselves to me as I work the stone. Each stone knows what it desires to be. To bring that out, gives me great pleasure. A mentor of mine once told me," You don't choose stone sculpting, it chooses you. Then it teaches you patience. Because patience is needed to bring out the best in the stone...and the best in yourself." Steve Lynch, Sculptor/Artist 08/2014