Last summer Mr. C and I took a sculpture class at BYU. Among other things, we got to spend a significant amount of time on stone carving, specifically in alabaster. While introducing the project, the professor said, “And don’t do a face. You don’t want to do a face. None of you [non-art majors on their first try] will get it right.”
So what did I decide to do?
A face. Of course.
I spent a long time staring at all of the available chunks of alabaster in the shed behind the shop. Finding something vaguely head shaped was much harder than anticipated, and since we had to purchase the stone at the pre-carved weight, I didn’t want to pick something I only wanted to use half of.
After staring at and turning over every single stone, I finally realized that one 40 lb monster could be half a face. It already had a distinct cheek-bone-y ridge near one edge and an indented area not unlike a jaw bone.
I admit, I was going for my face. My phone had probably a hundred photos of my face from different angles (and different lighting directions) by the time I was done. But instead I ended up with something that looks more like my monolithic Roman brother.
Stone carving begins with heavy metal chisels, all wedge shaped, some with a straight edge, some with little teeth (like those on a spork), and some with a curved edge. The toothed ones are the most heavy-duty and create the little striped gouges on the surface of the stone, as you can see in the photos above and below.
The piece is held in place on the table by resting it on big sand bags that conform to the shape of whatever side is down. The chisels are driven with heavy steel mallets. By the end of day one (and every other day), my arms were burning. And alabaster is called a soft stone!
The professor was right: getting the correct depth and structure was really hard! I had to move the eye twice and I probably spent a third of my time trying to make the cheek look right from every angle. I took dozens of pictures my myself in harsh lighting, trying to capture the contours of a surprisingly complex surface.
After the heavy carving is done and you’re within a millimeter of where you want to be, it’s time to break out the rasps and files. At this point you’re really just cleaning up the surface and bringing out the tiny details. Then it’s on to (wet!) sandpaper, going all the way up to 2000 grit.
Sanding may sound tedious, but it was also really fun! Up to this point, the surface of the sculpture has been mostly white from the rough, broken surface and dust. But the smoother things get, the more the natural color of the stone starts to shine through.
Throw a coat or three of Tung oil on at the end and voila! A glossy smooth surface to show off both your handywork and nature’s intricate beauty.
I was really proud of how well this turned out (and I also duly impressed the pessimistic professor). I love how the rough natural surface of the stone breaks through the smooth surface here and there–little imperfections that make the piece interesting. I can’t decide if it says “I’m not finished” or “I’m old and decayed.”
Also, I didn’t plan this, but it came out balanced enough to stand upright! When I have a mantle one day, you can bet this baby’s gonna find a home on it!