Sep 162011


As a student I loved the process of carving but never seemed to like the resulting sculpture. After I left Art Schools I hardly touched carving, just a few wood carvings that simply confirmed that I was not a natural carver. Twenty eight years later there were no carvings in my retrospective exhibitions in Spain. At Camberwell Art School we were taught by a student of Eric Gill’s. We were taught to move round the piece nibbling off bits as we felt fit, reversing the process of modeling. This method does not work because you do not establish the scale of the piece from the beginning. It starts too big and as it dwindles the movement is lost and it becomes sadly disproportioned.

Michelangelo established the scale with the first limb he came across working from one side of the block only. He continued pushing into the block mainly from one or two sides. Not from all round. In this way he always had a reserve of stone to retreat into. We were told how Michelangelo did it; but were warned that he was a genius, where we were not. In fact, what we call the Michelangelo method was followed by most carvers in medieval times. It is just that Michelangelo left so many unfinished works behind that his procedure was obvious.

When I moved to Italy I did not immediately get into carving although the stone here is beautiful and inexpensive. A student wanted to try carving so I got her a piece of alabaster. It was obvious that she was not going to finish in the two week course so I began to help her. It felt good. I got a piece for myself as well. I dared try the Michelangelo method and found it worked! I was hooked. I had not even finished the first piece before it was bought by a passing German couple. That was very reassuring. Though this speed of purchase has never repeated itself to this day. Nowadays I guess I spend more time carving than modeling. Its a slow process.

Carving came to me as a new lease of life in my mid-50s. I do direct carving. That is the initial inspiration comes from the shape of the stone in front of me. The stone rarely speaks to me immediately. I have to work on it for an hour or so tidying up the crude quarried shape. Then I get a vague idea of what I am going to do. It is only a vague idea. Pay no attention to the historians’ optimistic theories that genius sees the whole thing from the very beginning. If they did there would be no fun in carving. The fun comes in giving concrete form to the vague idea. Paying strict attention to the forms which evolve as you work keeps one interested, indeed deeply engaged. There are moments when carving is just hard work but long periods when one is creating, not just copying a prepared model or a figment of the imagination. My imagination works on the concrete object that is taking shape as I work. It is as if I am watching the two protagonists very slowly embrace.
Each move I make helps or hinders the expression. You have to watch every move to see whether it is for better or worse. Carvers move forward by experiment, if the experiment is not working stop and modify it. Its compulsive stuff, hours of absorption pass rapidly. Its a way of life.

One of the great advantages of carving when teaching is that when one is interrupted one can lay down one’s tools and take a break. On taking up the tools again one immediately finds something to do. With modeling an interruption truly interrupts. As a good half of my students are usually carving alongside me, I give little demos as I go along.

As a modeler I work from drawings made from life. As a carver I am forced back onto memory and imagination because the process itself is so slow. It is important to realize that my imagination is fed by the physical shapes in the stone I am working on. I cut clear plains to get clear feed-back. I may have to re-cut the same plain 20 times in the process of finding the optimum expression. What’s the hurry?

My advice to students is not to worry too much about cutting away something vital. In every stone there are millions of possibilities, you are bound to strike one of them! Start on a stone by clarifying a movement that appeals to you. Then one thing usually leads to another, you will find your way. Cut clear shapes and you will get clear feed-back. It is wise not to define forms by cutting top and bottom which will pin you down to a form too thoroughly. Suggest forms by cutting the top and front. A fan shape of stone for a forearm allows and suggests change.

If you can see one step ahead take it and you will see the next step. It is only necessary to see one step at a time. Pay no attention to the historians’ theory that genius sees the complete composition before starting, look at Michelangelo’s unfinished Slaves you will see that it is not true. Like the rest of us he found his way by trial and error.

A book I would strongly recommend as a follow up is “Michelangelo Models, formerly in the Paul von Praun Collection” by Paul James LeBrooy (Creelman and Drummond, Vancouver 1972). There you will see what terrible losses have occurred as a result of the above theory. You will also get a good insight into how Michelangelo actually transmitted his anatomical knowledge to his carvings: first modeling from life, in clay; rather small, so that he could tie the fired terracotta up where he could refer to it as he carved. All so obvious and straight forward but the mythology has overwhelmed the truth.