Welcome to the #8 email in our series on Sculptors' Materials. This week we are looking at sculpting in stone.

The history of stone art takes us as far back as to the Palaeolithic era. Using rough stone and shaping it into a work of art has been practised by many ancient societies, and the durability of the material has allowed us, thousands of years later, to take a peek into their unique culture and artistic practises.

During the Stone Age, many used this material to make little figurative carvings, which began appearing across Europe from around 30,000 BCE. Since their creators were always on the move, the works were made on a small scale, in order for them to be easily transported. These richly coloured portable figurines often depicted themes of fertility as it represented prosperity and expansion of the tribe, which is thought to be why many female figurines were created at that time.


The Venus of Willendorf

c. 28,000 – 25,000 BCE, Oolitic Limestone, Approx 10 cm high, Naturhistorisches Museum Wien, Austria

Prehistoric female figurines were often made from soft stone such as steatite, calcite or limestone. The Venus of Willendorf measures just over 10 cm and was discovered in Austria in 1908. Carved of limestone and originally tinted with red ochre, she is believed to have been made between 28,000 and 25,000 BCE, making her one of the world's oldest known works of art.


One of the most famous stone structures in England is the historical landmark Stonehenge, in Wiltshire. The monument consists of a ring of standing stones, each around 13 feet high, seven feet wide and weighing around 25 tons. It was built in several stages: the first monument was an early henge monument, built about 5,000 years ago, and the unique stone circle was erected in the late Neolithic period about 2500 BC. There are many theories about Stonehenge's original purpose – it may have been used as a meeting or celebration site, or even as an astronomical calendar.

A popular choice for sculptors for many centuries, stone is valued for its natural elegance, sturdy nature, and versatility. As it is relatively easy to obtain and carve, it opens up a wide range of possibilities as it can be rough-hewn or delicately polished.

Different types of stone were used in different regions as sculptors used materials that were available nearby. A variety of limestone was employed all over Europe, and alabaster was popular in England, northern France, the Netherlands, Germany and Spain. Marble was commonly used in Italy, and exported to northern Europe from about 1550 onwards.


Michelangelo (1475 - 1564), David

1501–1504, Marble, 517 cm × 199 cm, Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence, Italy

It was the famous Italian sculptor Michelangelo who saw the trapped sculpture he needed to release from a solid block of marble.
“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”


Whether working in igneous, mineral, sedimentary, metamorphic or semi-precious stones, the end result varies. The softer the stone, the easier it is to work with. While soapstone is the softest one and is commonly used by stone carving students, the hardest and most durable is igneous rock, formed by the cooling of molten rock, and includes granite, diorite, and basalt. Stones such as alabaster, limestone, sandstone or marble occupy the middle part of the spectrum.

The tools used for stone-carving have largely remained unchanged since antiquity. A mason’s axe cuts out the basic form of the sculpture. This is further shaped or roughed out using picks, points and punches struck by a hammer or mallet. Different sizes of tool are used throughout the carving process to achieve different effects. Roughing-out tools leave deep, uneven grooves, whereas flat chisels achieve finer results and are used for finishing the surface of sandstone, limestone and marble.

Further smoothing is achieved using rasps or rifflers (metal tools with rough surfaces), or minerals such as sand or emery (stone grit). Polishes can then be applied to fine-grained stone after it has been abraded. Marble and alabaster are polished with pumice, producing a smooth, translucent and reflective surface. They can also be left partially unpolished to create different textures.

The 20th century completely reconsidered, redefined and reworked the idea of using stone in sculpture. Constantin Brancusi introduced the process of direct carving in 1906, where he would carve directly into the stone without carefully working out a preliminary model - usually made of plaster or modelling clay - beforehand. This practise was soon adopted by other established artists such as Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.

Despite similar tools being used to make stone sculpture today, we can also see a development in the making of stone work with the use of power tools and technology.

This beautiful marble sculpture was one of the highlights of ‘Divine Principles’, an exhibition by Zachary Eastwood-Bloom for the culmination of his year as Pangolin London's Sculptor in Residence in 2017. His work explores the intersection of the physical and immaterial, the historical and the cutting-edge, referencing classical imagery and adopting digital aesthetics to create his work. ‘Venus Celestis’ is a combination of the mythological figure, the personification of the planet and the surface of the planet itself. With this sculpture the philosophy of the ancient Greek is brought up to date by using exquisite CNC milling techniques.

Stone of all hues and textures has been carved into different shapes and forms over time. Chunks of dunite, marble and sodalite are re-imagined as figures and other abstract forms in the sculptures below.


1. As stone is so heavy, stability is important. Many free-standing marble figures in dynamic poses are portrayed with tree trunks or columns attached to the legs in order to provide a stable base.

2. In 2018, Facebook censored the image of the 30,000 year-old Venus of Willendorf, deeming it inappropriate and 'pornographic' content.

3. 90% of the carving for Mount Rushmore - which includes sculptures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln - was done by dynamite. With 450,000 tons of granite to be removed, chisels were definitely not going to be enough. Lincoln Borglum decided to try dynamite on the 25th October 1927. With practice and precision, workers learned how to blast away the granite, getting within inches of what would be the sculpture's "skin".

4. Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, is a tiny remote volcanic island in Polynesia, known for its archaeological sites including nearly 900 monumental statues called moai. These famous monolithic figures were carved between 1250 and 1500 CE by the Rapa Nui people and represented the living faces of the deified ancestors of the local population. Apparently each statue took about one year to complete by teams of five to six men using basalt stone hand chisels. Most were carved from volcanic ash known as tuff, while others were carved from red scoria, trachyte, and basalt. They range in height from under five feet to 33 feet tall, and often rest on massive stone pedestals called ahus.

5. One of the 10 most expensive sculptures sold at auction includes a 73 cm high stone sculpture Tête carved in 1911-12 by Amedeo Modigliani, which was sold at Christie’s in 2015 for $70.7 million (£44.2 mil). Today, most of Modigliani’s work can only be seen in museums, and very few pieces are still in private ownership.



January 13, 2021