Marble Sculpture Part II: How Sculptors Shape Marble
Boxer Cat, Grey Italian Marble & Bronze On Swallow's Wings, Black Italian Marble
In Marble Sculpture Part I we discussed the basics of marble, from how it is formed to where it is mined and the different types. The topic of this installment is going to focus on why stonework artists choose marble and the process that reveals the sculpture.
Why Stonework Artists Choose Marble
Marble is an attractive option for sculptors for many reasons, as many historical sculptures have proved over time. Aside from availability there are several benefits to using marble, some of which will be discussed here. The first being the hardness and it’s ability to be carved into. Unlike harder stones, marble is easier to carve into rating as three on the Mohs Hardness Scale, and does not require special tools. Though marble is not as hard as granite or basalt, it becomes extremely hard and dense over time. Therefore, you have a stone that is easy to carve, yet will strengthen with time, adding to the longevity of the piece.
The ease with which marble can be carved definitely helps make it a favorite among sculptors, but so does its ability to be polished. With the gradual use of abrasives marble can be polished to a beautiful sheen.
Another aspect that makes marble an appealing option is it’s color. As mentioned in Marble Sculpture Part I, marble comes in a variety of colors and patterns. This allows each sculpture to have its own unique look, such as Mike Leckie’s piece Morning Sun, which is made from California Marble.
Though pure white marble is prized for its purity, some experts prefer to work with off-white or slightly colored stone when sculpting the human from. The white of the stone can make it hard to identify the curves and shapes of the sculpture. As you can see in Leckie’s sculpture Victory, the Pink Portuguese Marble gives the piece a warm glow that makes her skin seem almost real. This is a result of the calcite within the marble, it allows light to penetrate into the stone, resulting in a “waxy” look which gives the stone a human appearance.
Techniques of Carving Marble
Artists have been carving from stone for centuries, and in many ways the basic tools and techniques have stayed the same. Even with the use of power tools, most artists still rely on the basic tools that have been around since the beginning. The process has also remained the same, as carving from stone is a matter of removing pieces of the stone. Stonework artists cannot add to the sculpture, resulting in a careful game of elimination. Creating marble sculptures involves three main parts; tools, safety and carving.
The tools that stonework artists use have pretty much remained unchanged since antiquity, with the exception of a few power tools. Regardless, the process of carving away stone has remained much of the same. Here are some of the basic tools used by stonework artists.
- Mason’s Axe: used for cutting out the basic shape, usually by taking out large chunks of stone.
- Drills & Dremmels: used to excavate large pieces of stone or smaller details
- Hammer or Mallet: a key sculpting tool, used to strike picks, points & punches in order to remove stone. Can be used for large chunks or small details
- Picks, Points, Punches: are the tools used in conjunction with hammers and mallets. They come in a variety of sizes and used for different shapes and details.
- Rasps, Sandpaper, Files: these are used for polishing the stone and rounding/smoothing edges.
Stonework artists work with power tools, sharp rasps and chisels and amongst fine marble dust therefore, it is important that they take necessary safety precautions. Here is a list of some of the safety gear that a modern day stonework artist uses to ensure their safety.
- Gloves: protect the artist’s hands while working with sharp rasps, grinders and mallets.
- Eye Protection: helps keep the artist's eyes free of fine marble dust and other debris.
- Ear Protection: mainly for use when an artist is using power tools such as dremmels and grinders.
- Face Mask: this helps the artist breathe easy amongst the fine marble dust.
Many sculptors, such as Mike Leckie, begin the process of carving marble by first creating a maquette of the piece. Maquettes are typically made of wax or clay and are used to help the the artist know where to remove large chunks of stone and map out the fine details. With the maquette in place an artist will either sketch out a grid on the marble itself, or maybe even free hand it. By sketching out the grid on the marble the sculptor knows where to remove the stone and eventually, a shape begins to take form. The process of creating a grid over the marble is often referred to as pointing.
The next step is to remove the larger chunks of stone using a mallet and chisel combination or a Mason's Axe. This step may seem easy since the artist is not doing fine detail work, but keep in mind that stonework is a process of elimination, the sculptor cannot put the stone back once he has removed it. At the end of this step the sculpture is starting to take shape.
Once the excess stone is removed the sculptor is tasked with carving the more precise details of the piece. This involves using the various picks, points and punches discussed above. Modern sculptors can also use power tools, such as drills and dremmels to help them shape the details of their piece.
After the sculptor is satisfied with their work and the piece has all the necessary attributes, he begins the process of sanding and polishing. Some marble sculptures are left unsanded, either totally or in parts, depending on the effect the artist is going for. However, often times the sculptor spends a lot of time sanding and polishing to attain the perfect polish. One of the appealing attributes of marble is that sanding and polishing brings out the color of the stone.
It is at this point that the stonework artist may choose to mount their piece and add any final touches.
With the knowledge gained from learning about the types of marble and how the stone is formed, to the process and steps that a sculptor takes to complete a piece, one gains a deeper appreciation for the art of marble sculpture. In understanding that carving into stone is a careful process of elimination and that each change in color and pattern is a result of different minerals being pressed together over time, enthusiasts of art are able to see another life of the piece before them.