Sculpting Character in Marble


There is nothing more interesting to look at than the human face. Believe it or not, you can study faces for hours and not grow tired. This may sound strange but in fact, we do this every day. Whether you’re walking down a busy street, dealing with co-workers, or sitting in front of the TV taking in your favorite show, we spend a great deal of our day scanning our surrounding looking for faces. This is ingrained in us, coded in our DNA. We need to know if we can trust a stranger… Are we being lied to? Is this someone I can trust, would I like this person’s company , find attractive?

So natural is this that our subconscious mind is constantly scanning while our conscious thoughts are focused on other matters. For me, I was chatting with a friend when I had this uncanny suspicion that I was being watched. Wondering who may be on the street, I stared out the window, and then within a few moments noticed the face of a child looking back. There really is nothing more interesting than the human face.

We intuitively know the emotions of a persons simply by looking. And this is why faces are so difficult to sculpt well. Sure, a manikin’s head may appear human, but would you want to be left alone in a room full of manikins?  Though the proportions may be correct, there is absolutely no life in those eyes.

This is the miracle gifted into Michelangelo’s work. Carving life into the stone. You can stare into the eyes of realism all day…  This is one of the raison d’être, the primary purpose of sculpture; to allow us the space and time to stare into the eyes of creation.

And, this is the impossible standard I would like to follow. to advance my rounded sculpture and add realism and emotion.  To try my best to have this cold stone warm with life.

As I mentioned in a previous entry, the face poses the greatest challenge. This is why I saved the hardest for last, hoping that my skills have improved.


This is the importance of following the original design directly from my maquette. Sure the instinct may be to start chiseling with wayward abandon, but then you risk running out of stone, or sending the nose off on the wrong angle. Once the stone is gone, its gone. This is why Michelangelo started with drawing, crafting maquettes and stayed on plan.

Carve a small section at a time, examining the features in the round. From all angles and sides. Trust your eyes ability to spot mistakes. Remember we naturally are aware of the human face. We intuitively know how this face should look. So while looking and carving, it is important to ‘feel’ the emotions your trying to emote… If your in an ugly mood, that what you’ll carve. Using hatch marks, you can highlight the areas that are two high… by moving around the statue, getting close, and stepping back, you can ensure all your angles are on their proper tangents. The angle of the nose runs perpendicular to the set of the brow. With continued work finishing and sanding, I’m 90 percent completed with the face.  And this is close enough for now.  The work is both mentally and physically exhausting.. At least for me, so don’t rush, and take as many breaks as you need… one mistake can change everything. Infact, as I’m happy with my progress as of this day, I’m going to stop and move on to Mary’s face… change is as good as a rest. More on that next time.


Michelangelo use of Models for Marble

It’s tempting to just release your artistic forces and throw caution to the wind; certainly it’s quicker… but then there is good reason to regularly revisit your original maquette design.

Michelangelo certainly invested much time into his smaller scale models, and from these he could ensure the grace and majesty he imagined would continue to transfer to his marble…

Michelangelo models maquette wax and clay

The model is key to ensuring your chisel stays on course.  Angles and expressions, curves and subtleties are often realized in the clay maquette, but lost in translation to stone.   You have devoted so much thought to your message….  The strength of sorrow,  the passion found in purpose, the embrace of life and death,  all represented within the pyramidal yin-yang.   This ideal is now trapped in the stone and is relying on you to release it from its bonds.

Michelangelo believed the artist ultimate purpose was to reveal the ideal human form that was trapped within the marble…  the stone did not inspire the vision, but was chosen because it conformed to his vision.  This is a significant difference from the renaissance style of sculpting to both modern and traditional art techniques. Continue reading

Michelangelo, working with the Chisel and Rasp

I have a special place in my heart for Michelangelo’s unfinished works… most abundantly found in the collection of statues partially carved for Pope Julius II Tomb. The series of six Slaves, to varying degrees, show step by step the masters creative thought, his planning and execution.

From the Awakening Slave still trapped within it’s megalith, through to the perfection of the completed Dying Slave, we see the unison of a singular method. Michelangelo’s gift from God, his representation of perfection within the human form. Classical Realism.

Michelangelo six slaves

Of these, Atlas is the finest example of Michelangelo’s method.  His effective use of available stone.  Blocking techniques used to anchor his modelled concept within the mass.  As seen in the partial carving of the face and initial rough cutting of the elbow.  This then is followed by the rounding of the stone; again evident in the comparative elbow and mid arm.  This was done with the point, toothed then rounded chisel, with the rasp smoothing out the surface.

Michelangelo Atlas work in progress

Its no wonder how many of his contemporaries and today’s art historians fall under the spell of Michelangelo’s ‘il terrible’ and consider his work as ‘non finito’. The master’s overpowering skill and creative flow lend even unfinished work the air of completion. Continue reading

Renaissance Realism

With my Pieta Amare fired to a bisque I can once again focus my attention to the marble Pieta Spero. April is a cool month here in Atlantic Canada, and with nights still dipping well below freezing and daytime temperatures just inching above zero, all I can do is prepare my stone work site and wait for warmer days just around the corner.

Having several statues on the go at the same time ensures that, regardless of the seasonal temperature, I’m always busy advancing my art, switching from one project to another.   The trick is to not get lost in the creative process, and never actually get around to finishing any of the work. Currently I have four statues on the go…. The Pieta Spero, and Pieta Amare, The Pear, and Bruisin

All are, to varying degrees, along the road to completion.

This is the difficulty with the creative mind… it’s leaps and bounds ahead of the creative process.  There are so many designs that I would like to do, but am trapped within this temporal egg timer.

Not enough hours in the day, not enough days or months; why are there only four seasons in a year, and so few years and just one life.

Michelangelo pined that if he could have more lifetimes to dedicate, he would carve a colossus from the cliffs of Carrara.

Time is scarce, and this is why many artist prefer not to finish… or ‘Non Finito’;  an artistic style that Curators and Critics applaud, and was credited to Michelangelo as its originator. What better way to witness the creative process than to trace the chisel marks or suppose what truths are trapped behind the un-carved stone.

In truth, the master had too many great ideas, too many commissions on the go, and was far too optimistic on how much he could actually complete. Pope Julius ll Tomb, was originally intended to have forty full figured statues, more than any one sculptor could complete in a lifetime. In fact most of Michelangelo’s statues were left Non Finito.

Michelangelo never intended to advance this unfinished style. When he had the time, he carved and polished to perfection. Consider; Vatican Pieta, David, Madonna of Bruges, and Moses. Also consider his monumentous achievement, The vault of the Sistine Chapel and The Last Judgement. His greatest works were all masters of completion. His Non Finito Style was simply a result of not being able to turn down a hefty commission.

In modern times, the non realistic statue is the norm; cubism, geometric abstraction, natural stone, rough, unpolished. All these expressions have the aesthetic value of balancing the visual with the emotional… but this was not the Renaissance way. As this period progressed from Michelangelo, to Giambologna, then transitioning with Bernini, the intent was always to compel emotion through captured realism.

Michelangelo Giambologna Bernini

Unfortunately, the Achilles heel to this Renaissance style is time. And this form of art is very time-consuming, and as such, very expensive.

As much as anything, the move away from realism to geometric modernism was a product of necessity. Non Finito is less expensive.