Portrait sculpture in marble – direct carving

This is a portrait carved directly into carrara marble by UK portrait painter, commissioned in 2010
Jamie, Portrait sculpture, direct carving in Carrara Marble

This is one of my favourite portraits, carved in beautiful Carrara marble from Italy. Looking at it here I feel its got a nice sense of the person as well as a simplicity and wholeness. This was a bit of a fluke but I’m hoping to use it as a benchmark for future portrait sculptures. Its a challenge trying to capture eyes in monotone like this, and too much detail doesn’t usually work making the portrait appear ghoulish. Here though I was pleased with the result, and its something to explore in further work.

At first I had made a clay portrait of the sitter which I worked up from photos, but I abandoned the clay portrait and it lay in my studio for a good few months. Then I suddenly had the desire to carve the portrait, so using the clay model as a reference I carved directly into a block of marble I had lying around in the yard. I don’t use a pointing machine or anything when I carve, but I do use callipers to measure distances between say eyes to bottom of nose, width of mouth etc. There is an image below of some preliminary drawings I did for another sculpture in marble with various measurements of distances across the face. I’ve got no other ‘work in progress’ photos of Jamie’s portrait sculpture unfortunately.

The only problem I had with it was that I had bought the marble from a reclamation yard in Oxfordshire so it had already been out of the ground for over 100 years. This meant it had hardened to the extreme and was very difficult to work, or at least a lot harder than recently quarried marble. I’m not sure of the physical processes marble undergoes when it comes out of the ground, but freshly quarried stone has what masons call ‘sap’ in it. This is water embedded in the stone, and it makes stone softer to carve. Once it is dug out of the ground stone gradually loses this quality and hardens further, and with marble this gives it a very hard brittleness. Good marble has an almost buttery quality to it, and is very consistent, making it a joy to carve. Marble is definitely one of the harder limestones, but once you’ve got going its lovely hammering away and feeling the chisel cut into it! My neighbours didn’t like it too much after a while but all is forgiven now.

Preliminary measurements, grace portrait SMALL.jpeg

I hew off large areas first, for example from the side of the block the area between the head down to the shoulders can all come off at right angles, then the distance between the projection of the nose and the rest of the face, then down to the cheeks. You can see an example of this in the photo below of another portrait sculpture where the tip of the nose is still square. I carved down to the cheeks first and then began to round them.

Matt Harvey Devon sculptor at work SMALL
Should have been wearing goggles. Working from photos

This is a method I picked up when working as a stone mason in the Wells Cathedral yard, where I worked while taking a year out of art school. It’s a typically pragmatic way of working for a mason, and it helps a lot when working only from photos. Further on you should discard it and focus on the roundness and wholeness of things, so that a sculpture  doesn’t get too mechanical.  For a portrait you need to have a sense of precision and exactness to get a likeness so its a good method to use for that. I’ve been painting a lot recently and am looking forward to carving a portrait in the near future!

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