All You Need to Know about Stone Sculpture
A popular choice for sculptors for many centuries, the stone is valued for its natural elegance, sturdy nature, and versatility. The history of stone sculpture takes us as far back as to the Paleolithic era, and it is regarded as the oldest mobiliary art in the history of civilization. Selecting rough natural stones and shaping them to a predetermined design is an art mastered and practiced by many ancient societies, and the durability of the material made it possible to take a peek into their unique cultures and artistic practices. While wood and ivory carving are also practices of the old times, wood is too perishable and ivory can be used only for small-scale figures. From early representations of human and animal forms to the more modern ones, artists have shown their skills in stone creating immortal art as a legacy for future generations. During the 20th century, artists began making abstract stone sculptures breathing a fresh air into an ancient practice.
A Short History of Stone Sculpture
The earliest stone sculptures ever produced were Venus figurines that began appearing across Europe from around 30,000 BCE. Another popular feature of pre-historic art, stone relief sculptures can be found in the caves such as the Cap Blanc, Roc de Sers, and Roc-aux-Sorciers. Stone statues and reliefs were also widely used in cultures of Egypt, Persia, Mesopotamian, and Assyria, with these ancient masons and craftsmen being a key influence on Greek sculpture. The famous Colossus of Rhodes, a monumental stone statue of the god Helios and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was one of the greatest sculptures ever seen before it collapsed during the earthquake in 226 BCE. The peak of stone sculpting occurred during the period of Romanesque art, followed by the Gothic architecture period that gave birth the greatest collection of three-dimensional religious stone pieces ever seen in the history of sculpture. The Easter Island in Polynesia is a home to particularly stunning pieces of Oceanic art that includes 887 of Moai monolithic human figures, also known as Easter Island Heads. Carved out of the volcanic tuff between years 1250 and 1500CE by the Rapa Nui people, these monumental pieces present the living faces of deified ancestors. A certain decline occurred after this peak period, but stone remained one of the foremost mediums for large-scale outdoor works.
Up until the 20th century, almost all greatest sculptors of the modern era have practiced with stone before progressing onto other materials such as marble or bronze. Some of them spent their whole lives working with stone as their material of choice. The artistic practice of the 20th century completely reconsidered, redefined and reworked the very concept of the sculpture by introducing abstraction, but it also brought new approaches to working in stone. Introduced by Constantin Brancusi in 1906, the process of direct carving sparked a revolution in the tradition of carved sculpture. While earlier carved sculptures were always based on a preconceived model and were often carved by the craftsmen employed by the artist, the new method proposed that the actual process of carving suggests the final form rather than a carefully worked out preliminary model. Advocating the respect for the nature of a carving material, direct carving was also employed when working with a wide variety of marble and wood. This practice was soon adopted by other prominent artists such as Barbara Hepworth, Jacob Epstein, and Henry Moore.
The Process of Working With Stone
The stone is relatively easy to obtain and carve, and it opens up a wide range of possibilities as it can be rough-hewn or delicately polished. It comes in many different varieties, providing artists with a wealth of choices in terms of color, quality, and hardness. Whether working in igneous, mineral, sedimentary, metamorphic or semi-precious stones, the end result varies. The softer the stone, the easier it is to work with. While soapstone is the softest one and is commonly used by beginning students of stone carving, the hardest and most durable is igneous rock, formed by the cooling of molten rock, and includes granite, diorite, and basalt. Stones such as the alabaster, limestone, sandstone or marble occupy the middle part of the spectrum.
Unlike the direct carving where the natural quality of the material largely influences the artist’s choice of design, the indirect method involves a detailed and a clearly defined model that is being copied in stone. Usually made of plaster or modeling clay, the model is copied onto a suitable stone by measuring with calipers or a pointing machine. In ancient stone sculpting, the pointing was done by hand and it involved setting up a grid of string squares on a wooden frame and measuring the distance between individual points that instructed the carving.
In addition to traditional tools such as the point chisel, tooth chisel, the flat straight chisel and a hammer, all of varying sizes and weights, present-day artists also use many power tools such as pneumatic hammers, a diamond-bladed angle-grinder, and numerous hand drills.
Roughing Out the Stone
The making of a stone sculpture begins with roughly pitching larger chunks of the excess stone with a point chisel, a wedge-shaped pitching chisel or a mason’s driving hammer. The edge of the pitching tool is placed against a selected part of the stone and swung at with the hammer using a controlled stroke. The sculptor must be very careful when working with these tools, since the smallest mistake can damage the stone.
Refining the Shape
Once a rough shape of the sculpture emerges, the sculptor makes precise markings with charcoal, pencil or crayon on the stone and uses other tools to refine it. Tools such as a toothed chisel or claw chisel are generally used to create texture within the work. At this point, the artist works with shallower and more subtle strokes.
Final Stages in the Process
When the general shape of the sculpture has been formed, the artist uses rasps and rifflers to amplify the shape of the finished work. With broad and sweeping strokes, the sculptor removes the redundant stone in the form of small chips or dust. A riffler is used to create delicate details in the piece. After the sculptor is finished with the shaping, the sculpture is then polished with a sand paper or sand cloth. This process emphasizes the color of the stone, reveals patterns in the surface and adds a shine. Artists also employ tin and iron oxides or diamond abrasives to create highly reflective surfaces.
Introduction to Stone Carving Tools and Techniques
Famous Examples of Stone Sculpture
It was the famous Italian sculptor Michelangelo who saw the trapped sculpture he needed to release from the solid marble block. The released figure from the stone was later named David. The stone was defenseless to the chiseling of the master who was not only releasing the figure from the stone but who was also paving the way for a new understanding of sculpture making. As we mentioned above, it was centuries later and in the hands of Constantin Brancusi that direct modeling was acknowledged. The beginning concept of breathing life to something hard and still and the need to work with the material and to attack it, polish it, and re-work it over and over again, is what unites the artists and famous works which follow bellow. These are considered to be some of the most memorable examples of modern and contemporary stone sculpture.
Auguste Rodin – Christ and Mary Magdalene
For many, Auguste Rodin is considered a father of modern sculpture. He never consciously attempted to break away from the traditional understanding of carving and modeling, yet his focus on realistic depictions of human figures transcended his time. Christ and Mary Magdalene mark the essence of the artist’s style at the height of his career. Depicting a dying man mourned by a woman, the high contrast of the highly polished stone surfaces of the figures, and the unfinished effect of the hewn marble surrounding them is in fact where the mastery of this piece is hidden. This contrast echoes Michelangelo’s non finite effect that Rodin adopted and admired so much. This marble group of figures is exquisite for one more thing, it is, in fact, one of the few that he never cast in bronze, making the sculpture a truly rare and remarkable example.
Constantin Brancusi – The Kiss
The Kiss is definitely one of Brancusi’s well- known works. This limestone sculpture is a delicate example of true interests and understandings about sculpture which the artists promoted. The attempt to retain materiality is displayed in the bend of the arms that follows with the edges of the limestone block. The simplified carving of the stone is visible in the hair, and in the fact that only one single line divides the two figures one from the other. The celebration of the union between the male and female, and the reflection and research into the human condition with great respect paid to the material itself is what Brancusi was famous which is so remarkably done here.
Jean Arp – Ptolemy
The research into the relationship between nature and harmony is inseparable from Jean Arp and his creation. This time, his highly polished limestone twists and shapes itself in between and in relation to the emptiness of its center. The title of the piece Ptolemy is given after Greco-Egyptian mathematician and astronomer who was interested in the reflections and research of nothingness. The simplicity of the shaped stone and the silk-like and delicate surface of the finish, along with the contrast of the material and emptiness makes this one of the famous pieces produced in stone.
Henry Moore – Recumbent Figure
At the time it was made, the Recumbent Figure was in fact the largest commissioned public sculpture created by Henry Moore. Made out of a huge rectangular block of Green Homton Stone, the reclining female figure actually echoes the surrounding landscape and the setting it was commissioned for. The home of architect Serge Chermayeff is the inspiration behind the soft and organic forms that Moore was so famous for, echoing the organic shapes of Pablo Picasso and Jean Arp’s creations. The sculpture actually inside its surface has a number of fossil inclusions as well as iron metals that give it that characteristic gray-green and brown layer. For the creation of this piece, Moore in fact needed to create a small model since the final size he needed to master was one of the biggest he faced. In the end, the sculpture is created from three layers bonded with an adhesive. The joints are visible- one runs horizontally through the center of the body and one through the neck.
Barbara Hepworth – Nesting Stones
Sculpture created by Barbara Hepworth is usually described as organic, abstract and suggestive of the human figure. Of course, these are the qualities of her famous Nesting Stones that many reference to O’Keeffe pregnant rock forms. The one block of the polished serravezza marble suggests two figures, of mother and child. Hepworth abstraction, stylization of the human form and direct carving method, shared with Henry Moore, and most from our list of examples, earned her a position of one of the leading figures of 20th century sculpture. Her experimentation with abstraction in stone and her pioneering piercing of the block went hand in hand with her experimentation with collage, photograms, and prints. Standing as one of the leading female sculptors, in a male dominated world she creating at the same time delicate and strong pieces and right until the end, she kept a hands-on approach to material and craftsmanship.
Jacob Epstein – Genesis
Jacob Epstein was one of the first sculptors to research and look beyond Europe for inspiration. This could not be more evident than in his marble sculpture Genesis which presents a highly pregnant woman, with exaggerated thighs, hands and stomach, and a face reminiscent of an African mask. This is considered to be one of the most controversial pieces of the artist’s production and was seen as combining two highly opposite things at that time, nobility and ugliness of the distant civilizations. To Epstein, this concept was strange as he was a firm believer and promoter of human life with all its passion. As yet another important figure for the development of modern sculpture, his contribution is seen in his reflections regarding the act of direct carving, and his respect to the material itself which this piece beautifully illustrates.
Ivan Mestrovic was a highly recognized Croatian sculptor and architect of the 20th-century. Learning his craft from a stonecutter in Split, Croatia, stone and bronze followed him throughout his long career. His bold presentation of human form echoes the grandeur of Rodin’s public pieces. In Croatia and Serbia, he is most famous for his monuments that were celebrated internationally as well gaining recognition and praise from none other than Rodin himself. His monumental pieces often exist at a crossroad between the celebration of the political power and religious more subtle themes, such as the Grand Widow (Velika Udovica) .
Isamu Noguchi – Smooth Stone Sculptures
Gaining knowledge about stone sculpture from Constantin Brancusi, Isamu Noguchi worked with this material all his life. His entire production was done with a desire to create art for social space and to challenge the boundaries of art and design. Merging in most successful way surrealism and Japanese influences, geometrical and organic forms his creations in stone are some of the most exquisite examples. It was under the influence of Surrealism and biomorphic forms that Noguchi developed his free-standing sculptures. Much attention he also placed on the issues concerning positive and negative space and upon coming face-to-face with his smooth stones one is left wondering how they stand so still. Known for combinations of different stones, which were often viewed to represent his Japanese and American heritage, Noguchi has left a legacy in design works as well.
This unique piece of contemporary African Artshowcases how two different surfaces and treatments of stone finish stand beautifully side by side. Known for usually working with Springstone, type of hard serpentine rock that is mostly used by Zimbabwe artists, Colleen Madamombe is celebrated for her depiction of women and their Shona culture. Often using rough and polished stone side by side in her creations, she purposely leaves parts of the surface of the stone in its untouched and oxidized form and uses it to achieve color for the hair or as elements of clothing. This effect she contrasts with highly polished black stone used to emphasize the expression of the face or to help form parts of the body. This combination of various color stones and approach to sculpture making is Madamombe’s trademark approach, evident in her sculpture Sisters.
As the most contemporary example on our list, Emily Young, perfectly describes the importance of a classical understanding of stone sculpture and its lingering importance. As part of the last year’s exhibition Call and Response, Young managed to combine the ancient and the contemporary as her work was said to reflect that traditional static feeling and the expressive force. The spontaneous moment, the lack of planning of the sculpture by creating small models, and the desire to represent to the viewer pure celebration of the material is what makes her half –finished head sculptures so astonishing.
Truth to the Material
Longstanding is the tradition of direct carving into the stone. Many 20th century sculptors, like Jacop Epstein, referred to this method of working as paying respect and providing truth to the material. The importance of the actual process of making a work of art, be it painting, or print, is in most cases highly regarded by the artists as well as the public. Most of us like to see marks or traces of the author’s hand or tool. We feel that it helps us reach into a deeper part of the creative soul. In the past carving and modeling by hand was much more regarded. This may not be the case today, since contemporary sculpture often mixes the latest technological devices, such as 3D laser cutters for example. The basic materials such as stone, bronze, marble, clay, or plaster, regardless of the trends of the day, will never get ‘old’ as they stand at the root of what we know sculpture to be and help to form its character that stands as the root of one of many faces sculpture has today.
The author of the book, Milt Liebson is a noted sculptor himself and has managed to create a perfectly balanced book which tells a tale of the history of direct stone sculpture on one side while also offering practical guidelines to the act itself. The differences between various types of stone, different tools, and in-depth explanation of all the steps in production, such as lamination and repair, are also beautifully illustrated with 47 pictures that aid anyone on their journey to the discovery of stone sculptor. For anyone that has wished himself to try something new, or has wanted to learn to curve, this book is perfect for.
Featured images: Jacob Epstein – Doves, 1914–15, via tate.org.uk; Jean Arp – Coryphée , 1961, via natalieroussi.com; Ivan Mestrovic – Well of Life, via thalo.com; Isamu Noguchi’s gardens in Costa Mesa, California, via thetastesetters.com; Henry Moore – Reclining Figure, via theglobeandmail.com; Emily Young – Little Cloud Head I, via bowmansculpture.com; Barbara Hepworth – Doves (Group), 1927, via astrofella.wordpress.com; Agnes Nyanhongo Sculpture, via agnesnyanhongo.com
- Liebson, M. (1991). Direct Stone Carving, Schiffer Publishing.
- Anonymous. Stone Sculpture: History, Types, Materials, Techniques: Famous Stone Statues, Reliefs, Visual Arts Encyclopedia [September 13,2016]
- Cook, R.M., Greek Art, Penguin, 1986 (reprint of 1972)
- Callaway, E. (2012) Easter Island statues ‘walked’ out of quarry, Nature [September 13,2016]
- Liebson, ibid.
- Somervill, B. (2005). Michelangelo: Sculptor and Painter,Compass Point Books [September 13,2016]
- Mitchiston, D. (1998) Celebrating Moore: Works from the Collection of the Henry Moore Foundation, Henry Moore Foundation