Beneath the Surface: How Stone Sculpture is Made

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” – Michelangelo

The act of transforming a rough piece of stone into a work of art predates civilization itself. Though sculptures can and have been crafted of wood, metal and various media, nothing achieves the same level of refinement and longevity as stone.

Creating a stone sculpture takes meticulous planning. Careful measurements and artistic judgments are being considered throughout the process, which can range from weeks to years depending on the specific material, subject, techniques and tools used. Though individual stone artists have their own preferred methods and methodology of creating a fine art sculpture, the process can be divided into four general categories. From choosing the raw materials to the finished work, let’s explore what it takes to make a stone sculpture.

Depicting the Roman rulers of Otho and Tiberius, these remarkable busts date to the 17th century and exhibit the masterful sculptural qualities synonymous with Italian workmanship. The beautiful, slightly later carrera marble heads are precisely detailed and rest upon remarkably worked 17th-century alabaster forms the robed chest and shoulders of each commanding ruler. Depicting the Roman rulers of Otho and Tiberius, these remarkable busts date to the 17th century and exhibit the masterful sculptural qualities synonymous with Italian workmanship. The beautiful, slightly later Carrera marble heads are precisely detailed and rest upon remarkably worked 17th-century alabaster forms the robed chest and shoulders of each commanding ruler.

Selecting the Stone

One of the advantages of working with stone is the variety available to the artist. A nearly endless list of possibilities exists in terms of color, patterning and hardness. Many sculptors approach a project with a vision of what their subject will be and choose their stone accordingly. Others, in line with history’s most legendary sculptor Michelangelo, allow the stone they select to influence what they create. In reference to the figure of an angel he sculpted, the iconic artist stated, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

The type of stone selected can have a tremendous impact on how the artist works. For instance, materials like alabaster are relatively soft and thus more prone to breakage when working. On the other hand, a very hard stone like granite requires specialized carbide-tipped tools, diamond saws, and does not allow the same freedom with details as other stone choices. Marble, however, is considered an ideal medium, as it possesses a durability, variety and subtle translucency while also allowing for great artistic freedom.

This Art Nouveau bust of a classical maiden in repose was created by Italian sculptor Giuseppe Gambrogi from elegant alabaster and onyx. Circa 1910 This Art Nouveau bust of a classical maiden in repose was created by Italian sculptor Giuseppe Gambrogi from elegant alabaster and onyx. Circa 1910

Roughing It

Once an artist has selected a stone, then he or she must begin to consider the particulars of how they will create their work, which of course is a matter of preference. There are two basic approaches to stone carving: indirect and direct.

With indirect carving, the artist first begins by sketching out what they want to make, focusing on basic geometric shapes that will aid in the basic shaping of the stone. From there, the artist will form an accurate clay, wax or plaster model of the subject. From this, the artist will use tools such as the compass, proportional dividers and the pointing machine to take precise measurements of the model at prominent points that can then be transferred to the stone sculpture.

Direct carving is a more intuitive process. An artist may have a rough sketch or model to go by, but the vast majority of the work on the stone is done purely by instinct.

Once an artist has a plan in place, the next step is known as “roughing out”. The largest portions of stone are removed at this juncture, and it is where the final form first begins to take shape. Careful attention to angles and form are critical. For roughing, an artist will use tools such as the point chisel and pitching tools paired with a mason’s driving hammer to easily remove sizable sections of stone.

An enticing nude Venus strikes an unabashedly coy pose in this remarkable marble sculpture by Antonio Frilli. Mid-19th Century. An enticing nude Venus strikes an unabashedly coy pose in this remarkable marble sculpture by Antonio Frilli. Mid-19th Century.

A Matter of Refinement

At this point, the artist has the rudimentary form of his or her sculpture in place. The artist may pause to gather further information from the initial model, placing points with a small point chisel, auger or even pencil upon the stone to indicate depth measurements and placement of particular elements, like eyes, nose or mouth.

The tooth or claw chisel is the tool of choice for this next step, known as “refining”. The artist will work in measured segments at a time, using a small hammer with either a soft steel or wooden head to taking shallower strokes to further refine the form and remove any rough portions left behind from the roughing stage.

Flat and round chisels of various sizes are then used for smoothing out the textures left from the tooth or claw chisel. It is at this point the artist’s vision comes to life. Elements such as eyes, folds of skin, clothing and more begin to emerge. Rasps and rifflers add further details by taking small chips and thin sections before sanding away stone to aid in final shaping of the stone carving. The course surface of these tools allows for the texture of hair, veins, wrinkles and the like to be achieved at this stage.

Skillfully crafted of carved nephrite jade, this one-of-a-kind sculpture is a fantastical recreation of the tomb of Napoleon on St. Helena, the island of the Emperor’s final exile and eventual death. Circa 1830 Skillfully crafted of carved nephrite jade, this one-of-a-kind sculpture is a fantastical recreation of the tomb of Napoleon on St. Helena, the island of the Emperor’s final exile and eventual death. Circa 1830

The Finishing Touches

The final stage of stone sculpting is “finishing”, which refers to the smoothing out and polishing process. How far the artist proceeds in this step depends on the desired outcome. The sculptor may wish their piece to have a mirror-like gloss, or simply a velvety, more natural surface texture.

The point of finishing, also known as “abrading”, serves two purposes. Not only does it give the piece a more “complete” appearance, but it also allows the stone's color and patterning to become more prominent. Tools such as silicon carbide sandpaper (used with water) and emery stone add wonderful smooth polish. If used in conjunction with tin or iron oxides, the artist can attain a stunning, glassy sheen.

The result of this intense process is a work of art that has the ability to last generations. In the case of marble, as the finished work ages, it actually becomes harder and more resilient, versus metal or organic raw materials such as wood. Under typical climate conditions, marble - and granite even more so - is far more resistant to weather and can be perfect for garden statuary with the proper care. Within an interior space, the impact and elegance of a fine art sculpture cannot be underestimated. Whether you lean toward classical figures and busts or modern geometrical creations, stone allows for a lasting expression of the self for both artist and connoisseur alike.

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