Let’s say you have a block of marble set up before you on a table or bench. And beside it sits your model—a clay model, for instance.
The first thing you do is measure to see if your marble block is big enough. Draw the outline of your model on the block itself with chalk or a crayon—on the front and on one of the sides (the front and the side view)—and see how it fits. Measure with a compass or just a ruler.
The next step—the first part of the actual carving—is to eliminate those areas of the block that you won’t need—that have nothing to do with your figure and are obviously in the way. If they are big areas, you can just start whacking away at them with a hammer.
If a hammer doesn’t get you anywhere you can already begin to use the pointed chisel—a big thick one.
Hold its point to the block and strike it with your hammer. If you held the chisel at an angle to the block instead of straight down, a little splinter or chip ought to fly up and sail across the yard. Isn’t that a
ridiculus mus after such a blow? And at this rate won’t it take forever to eliminate all the fat around your statue?
Yes, depending on what you mean by forever.
And so you begin to “carve”—that is, to chip. Little by little—a chip at a time—you get rid of all the stone on the outside of your projected figure, on the outside of that chalk line you drew.
When all the unwanted marble is gone, you can put the pointed chisel away and take up the second great tool—the fork-chisel or claw-chisel. That is the real sculptor’s tool, the one that will give you the feeling of “carving”. Your block is now roughly the same size and shape as your model but its surface is very rugged. The claw-chisel levels that rough surface, pushes down all the peaks or crests and leaves behind fine, shallow, parallel grooves that give your figure a wonderful “work in progress” look.
They remind you of the cross-hatching in some ink-drawings or maybe you think of Michelangelo’s
Slaves in the Accademia in Florence.
The Master himself stopped here as far as tools go. After the
David he never again used the flat chisel, which leaves the marble surface absolutely smooth. He thought the striations or little grooves the claw chisel makes gave greater life to the surface of his figures.
Though so far we have been talking about only two kinds of tools—the pointed and the claw chisel—understand that you will use various sizes of each.
You might start out chipping with a pointed chisel as big around as the neck of a wine bottle and finish chipping with one no thicker than a pencil. The same goes for the claw chisels, which come in all sizes. Michelangelo “finished” the details of his figures, such as the eyelids and the wings of noses and fingernails and so on, with very fine claw chisels. Most people—and he himself when he started out—would carve those with a fine flat chisel.
The fourth kind of chisel has a curved tip, curved like a fingernail. You use it in places where the flat chisel doesn’t fit because of its squareness.
Your statue is now carved. Probably you will want to polish it. Use files first, then take some rough sandpaper and start sanding. That rough sandpaper will take out the big digs in your surface but also scratch it all over. The next size sandpaper, a finer size, will take away the scratches the first one made—but that too will leave scratches. To get the surface faultlessly smooth—like glass or porcelain—you will need at least five or six sizes of sandpaper. The last ones are used with water. You can also grind up a pumice stone and make a froth of that. Some recesses are so hard to reach with your fingers—your aching fingers—that you will have to move the pulverized pumice around with a bamboo stick. Bamboo doesn’t scratch marble.
And that is all. Sculpting is simple and straightforward—no workshop secrets such as painting is full of, with its pigments and varnishes and transparent and opaque layers.
My illustrations are taken from Louis Slobodkin’s excellent book Sculpture. Principles and Practice, published by Dover publications, New York, 1949, and later editions. It is the best, most entertaining introduction to sculpture practice that I know.
This post was originally published on October 8, 2007.
Read about the carving and the polychroming of a seventeenth-century wooden figure, and watch a fascinating video here.