Life carved in stone by Sam Eller

Our latest Dragon’s Lair Gallery exhibition Life carved in stone is a collection of works by sculpturist Sam Eller. This exhibition highlights how Sam has developed his knowledge of the human figure and his portrayal of relationships and emotions in stone. The skill of carving stone comes through dedication, time and passion, and the development of Sam’s carving skills can be seen in the range of types of stone and the complexity of carving in his first solo exhibition. We were able to ask Sam some questions regarding his practices and he kindly shared with us his sculpting techniques.

Image courtesy of the artist.

Can you give us an insight into your artistic process? Is your work pre-planned or created intuitively? How long does each work take to complete?

I prefer to carve figurative sculptures that show emotion or relationships and have an implied narrative.

The best subjects come from observing fleeting moments in the people near me, or from cinema or TV. These can be caught by camera or most often by sketching afterwards.

From an initial sketch one can advance to more detailed studies – then determine the scale and find a suitable piece of stone. I seldom order a block of stone to size, so the sketch is adapted to suit the selected stone. The quality and type of the stone determines the level of detail and finish of the sculpture.

From the sketch I often develop a clay model (later cast in plaster) to resolve issues of interaction of limbs, body language and relationships between major elements. It helps if you are confident the sculpture will “work” before starting carving. Carved sculpture is very much an interaction between highlights and shadows, if these don’t “work” the sculpture will be unsatisfying.

Can you explain your technique; how you manipulate the medium?

Often you have a piece of stone and you need to develop a sculpture to suit the shape of the stone and bring out its special characteristics. Sandstone can have wonderful bands of colour and some shadows. Alabaster can have wonderful translucency and highlights – but almost no shadows. Marble can support wonderful detail and finish with both distinct highlights and shadows. Often there is an idea in the back of your mind and the stone will “talk” to you and lead you through the carving process to a fairly spontaneous and satisfying outcome.

Stone gets heavy. Up to 40 kilograms can be managed readily, more than this weight you need lifting equipment. The transition to large sculptures in stone is a big step. The use of power tools and dust management becomes necessary. In figurative carving often more than half the stone is reduced to chips and dust.

A simple 10 kilogram alabaster sculpture can be completed in 16 hours carving. A complex 10 kilogram marble sculpture would often take over 100 hours. Mostly the time is in the detail.

Do you keep some kind of ongoing drawing book or diary? Or a collection of images or photographs for inspiration?

It is usual to start with photos or sketches. As the idea of the sculpture develops more references are acquired. Where anatomical details are required, I usually photocopy the pages out of reference books to save them from dust damage.

The same for searches on the web for details of existing sculptures to see how other sculptors handled details of hair, jewellery and clothing. At the end of the sculpture most references are folded up, bundled and placed in a storage cupboard.

I make a number of photographs of the finished work in various light conditions. I seldom take photographs as the sculpture progresses.

Nowadays anything that catches my eye is a possible source of information for a sculpture. I capture photos on my mobile phone. I browse through these photos when I feel the need for inspiration and any photos of interest are transferred onto my PC.

Who are your favourite artists? Who do you draw inspiration from?

George Rayner Hoff is undoubtedly my favourite Australian Sculptor. He completed his training in England after WW1 and came to Sydney as Head of Sculpture at East Sydney Tech. His work was very much into the Art Decco period. He had a vitalist and classical outlook on the flowing lines and beauty of the human figure. His major works were the sculptures at the Anzac Hyde Park Memorial. Also I am indebted to the legacy of sculptor Tom Bass. His sculpture studio school carries on the traditional teaching sculpture from life models in clay and plaster and developing abstractions from them.

Stone carving techniques

Sam has kindly shared his stone carving techniques:

All original stone carvings follows a number of basic steps, from initial blocks to finished sculptures. This generally applies to all types of stone. When creating a sculpture, it is preferred to complete each step before moving on to the next.

This block of coarse grain Naxos marble weighs about 30 kilograms, which is as heavy as can be conveniently handled on the bench. It is not suitable for fine detail carving. The basic carving tools are arranged alongside. The weight of the hammers is matched to the size of the chisels. The block is checked for defects, bruises and fractures. These are identified and removed or incorporated into the sculpture.

The block is progressively marked out with selections of material for removal. The area to be carved is marked out with a pencil. For this demo it is intended to transform the corner to a rounded form and then carve a simple flower.

The initial strikes are made with a 1.5 to 2 kilogram hammer onto a pitching tool. This tool has a wide flat face and a sharp corner. It shears off relatively large pieces of marble with little effort and quickly removes unwanted material. It is ideal for removing the corners and edges of rectangular blocks.

The block is placed on sandbags to a comfortable working position. The point chisel has a sharp pyramid shape point. By using a 1 – 1.5 kilogram hammer, this breaks into the surface of the marble and blasts away largish chips. It generally cuts grooves across the desired form until the final form becomes apparent.

The tooth or claw chisel has a number (from 3 to 7) of separate points. It is used to remove the marble damaged by the point chisel and level the surface to near the final form. Marble can be bruised which show as white marks below the surface. To avoid these marks the tracks of the tooth chisel need to be removed.

The flat chisel has a sharp straight edge and is used to remove the marks of the tooth chisel and initially smooth out the form of final surface. Carbon steel chisels are fine for carving marble but need constant sharpening. Flat chisels particularly need to be kept sharp so they cut through the stone in preference to crumbling the cut line. Tungsten carbide flat chisels are often used as they stay sharp longer.

To achieve a good form it is necessary to remove any high areas and reduce the stone so that any flat areas are worked into the final shape, soft sandstone blocks work well. The quartz crystals are sharp and harder than the marble and grind the marble away. The weak binder in soft sandstones allows the sandstone to wear away to follow the shape of the form so that larger shaped areas are in contact and a uniform shape without high or low areas can be developed.

Once the shape is finalised the process of removing scratches begins. Ordinary sandpapers from 60 grit (very Coarse) to 180 grit (relatively fine) are used. Each paper removes the scratches left by the previous paper.

Silicon Carbide (carborundum) papers are used to produce finer finishes. Normally starting from 220 grit and progressing thru finer grits to 600 or 1000 grits. The finer grit papers are best used wet with water. As I am caring a relief, I have stopped at 240 grit dry paper.

I have drawn a simple hibiscus flower using pencil which will be carved with minimum detail. I will use a selection of small Tungsten carbide flat chisels which vary in width from 3 to 12 mm.

The outlines are cut with a 5mm flat chisel.

The background is cut away with a 12 mm flat chisel so that the flower stands out the required depth. You can see the initial profile of the petals is formed.

The background is blended into the form of the corner using a large riffler. Rifflers are available in a huge variety of sizes shapes and coarseness. The final form around the flower is finished.

I continue carving detail into the petals using small and large flat chisels.

The whole corner is then finished with sand paper and rubbed over with finer grades of wet and dry paper. The finer grade wet and dry paper finishes make the marble smoother, increase the effects of highlights and reduces the impact of shadows on the sculpture. Final finishes of wax, oils or sealants are then applied.

The above work titled Griffin sail which is on display in Life carved in stone was carved using all the steps described above. This is medium grade Italian Carrara marble. It allows highly detailed carving and finishing.

Sam will be at the Gallery on 14 February 2021, 2.00 – 5.00pm for ‘An afternoon with the Artist‘.

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