Learning Patience from Sculpting

by DLSproule

I guess you’d have to say I have a squirrel mind. It jumps around a lot, first this direction and then the other. It doesn’t focus particularly well. In my lifetime, I have undertaken many big projects and have finished very few of them. I used to have a terrible habit at one of my old jobs of doing 95% of a task and then not doing the final 5%, because I was I such a hurry to get onto the next task. Sculpting has helped me beat those inner demons. It has taught me to come to terms with the fact that not everything can be done instantaneously – or even quickly. It has taught me to take my time and enjoy the process. Since I started sculpting, I have gone from finishing about 20% of projects I undertake, to finishing all of them. And the end product is much nicer than it would have been when I was young and impatient.

Lesson 1 – too much too fast

The extreme caution I had demonstrated on my first few sculptures was wearing off. I was no longer afraid to swing the hammer. In fact, I was getting downright hammer happy.

My first two sculptures were carved out of soapstone and the third was wonderstone. One out of the three was soft, the other two quite hard, but all of them chipped in mostly predictable ways. The third sculpture (the soft one) I had finished in a weekend. I was starting to feel like an expert. But with sculpting, it usually doesn’t pay to get cocky, to look for shortcuts or to assume that the stone is going to behave the way you want.

On my fourth sculpture, I was revisiting the theme/motif I had established with an earlier piece. It was the second of the half dozen “hooded figures” I have carved – this one was sitting down with his fist under his chin – or at least it would have been under his chin, if he’d had a chin rather than just an empty hood. I was working on the hood, thinking that with just the right stroke and the right positioning of the chisel, I could take off the little square of stone I needed to remove to create the impression of shoulders. Tap, tap…oh damn. The piece of stone that sheered off was at least three times what I had intended. There went the entire shoulder! Oh well. I just had to make my figure a little skinnier. And since the whole sculpture was smaller, I could go even faster. Tap, tap, tap, tap…you can probably guess what happened next. Half the sculpture came off and landed inches from my toes.

Somehow I managed to salvage what was left, creating a very skinny hooded figure. The effect was quite surreal and suitable for the subject matter. I was lucky that time. The most recent occasion when I was trying to carve too quickly, the beautiful stone I was working on split right in half, slicing the female figure I was carving in half at the waist. Another promising sculpture reduced to rubble by trying to go too fast. Three days of work and an expensive stone gone to waste!

Lesson 2 – too little too fast

The most common error caused by impatience while sculpting – is removing too little stone rather than too much. Nothing is more beautiful than a well-thought-out, skillfully executed stone sculpture. But when the sculptor is in too much of a hurry, they tend to skip steps:

  • Moving from a point chisel to a blade chisel before the proper shaping is done,
  • Switching from a blade chisel to a rasp when there are still too many deep grooves and bruises in the stone from using the point chisel or scutch hammer
  • Going from a rasp to sandpaper while the surface is still pocked and scored from the shaping
  • Not spending enough time with the rough grades of sandpaper in your hurry to polish a piece.

What you end up with is a sculpture that looks amateur. The stone may be nice, but it won’t be as stunning as it has the potential to be. The sculpture may have a nice idea or a pleasing shape, but it is far from reaching its potential. There are nicks and scratches on surfaces that should be smooth as glass. Edges and textures are sloppy. It’s like taking the foundation and frame for a mansion and turning it into a barn.

You may finish the piece and be moderately happy with it – for awhile. But if you do more sculpting and your technique gets better – your growing understanding of the process may allow you to look at the piece and see what might have been – if only you had been more careful, had spent a bit more time on the prep work or on the details.

You just may find yourself, as I did more than once, going back to “finished” pieces to fix the “mistakes” you made by hurrying. And when you see how beautiful you can make your art by taking that extra time, you learn to simply sigh and resign yourself to the notion that when you finish your piece will be just as beautiful as you had imagined when you began.

Lesson 3 – slow and steady wins the race

The final straw for me was working on a very,very hard stone. Did I mention it was hard. On the Moh’s scale where 2 to 6 is carvable stone – this was a 5.9. I was at a workshop and everyone else was whizzing along – while I grew more and more frustrated. Sparks would come off the stone if I struck it with the chisel at the wrong angle. But the most annoying thing was the way it fractured – especially along fissure lines. When I tried to smooth it, fingernail size pieces (or larger) would come off unexpectedly all along the fracture line. After a day and a half of bashing my head against the same problem (and my head by that point may have made a more effective carving tool than the chisels) I realized that the only way to smooth the stone without breaking it was with a rasp. And with stone that hard, rasping would take forever! The solution? I got the best diamond rasp I could lay my hands on and resigned myself to taking three times as long on the sculpture as I would ordinarily take. The result? A sculpture that shines like a jewel – but is filled with fascinating colours and patterns and occlusions. It shines like a mirror.

So there’s the lesson in patience – courtesy of sculpting “when you think you’ve done all you can do, and don’t think you can possibly work on it any longer – just shut up and keep working…slower rather than faster. It will get finished – next week rather than today – and you will be happy. If you take joy in the process, and the process takes forever – that’s one heck of a lot of joy! Especially when you see the fruits of your patience.”