Materials and Process

I keep a sketch book where I record ideas for sculptures as thumbnail sketches. As I’ve explained in the section on content and concept these ideas are generated by all manner of visual stimulus. So I always take a sketchbook on holiday. The thinking is done with a pen on paper. Ideas are generated, measured, discarded and added to, reduced until I reach a point with which I’m happy. Often I’ll make dozens of little doodles. I tend to work slowly, taking weeks or months, working out the best option.

For carved and painted sculpture I’ll work up the next stage as little scaled drawings. Since I was trained as an architect I’m most comfortable working on a drawing board. All my life I’ve worked with pencil and tracing paper overlays. At this stage a sculpture can be worked out in whole or part. I like to keep the options open and even at this stage a piece can often change dramatically before the end.

Next, I’ll enlarge the drawings to full scale and work on them again, refining them until I have what I would call “working drawings”. These get transferred on to wood blanks which will usually be lime or oak in kiln dried slabs 50mm -150mm thick. For strength and to even out the stresses, particularly with oak, blanks are laminated together with high performance boat building adhesive.

I’ll tend to use oak for strength and weather resistance if it is to be placed outside. Lime is the woodcarvers wood. It is stable, knot free, easily sanded and holds a cut line very well. It is not however very strong. I’ve also used pine which is economical and strong.

I use a large bandsaw to cut out the shapes on the wood blanks. If the design is complex I will usually have made decisions on where joints are to be. In common with carvers from the earliest days, hands, heads and feet are usually worked on separately and laid aside to be assembled later. With larger figures I use the same technique as the medieval carvers and form the body as a “box” additionally secured with stainless steel screws. For an outside piece I might make a discreet hole and inject expanding foam into the cavity.

Actual carving is done with a wide variety of tools but usually power tools which cut, sand and file. After the initial carving I will assemble, dowel and glue the components together. With this technique arms, legs, hands and feet can be “articulated” to give more evocative or natural positions. At this point there is often additional carving needed. Thereafter the whole piece will be sanded down to a smooth finish.
Pieces are given a number of primer coats. For inside work I’ll occasionally use the centuries-old technique of applying gesso. Rabbit skin glue is heated over a double boiler and used to size the piece which is then left to dry. Gesso is made from the glue heated up with a white powdery chalk called whiting. A number of coats of gesso are applied to the piece which is then set aside to dry for a day or more. The piece is sanded with various grades of sandpaper to give a smooth finish and then gets at least two coats of primer.
I’ve used all kinds of paint at one time or another in various combinations – Acrylics, oils, household paints, microporous paints and stains. A piece will usually have 5 or more coats of paint. To finish the work I’ll use a clear sealer. Maybe wax for inside. For outside I’ll use 5 or 6 coats of a clear two pack polyurethane with UV inhibitors.

The making of driftwood pieces is simpler, quicker and intuitive. I’ll have a rough idea of the type of ship or setting which I want to create. There will be certain pieces of wood I’ll have selected. Next heads are selected for bodies – ears and noses added, eyes and mouths formed. From there it is trial and error to fit the pieces together with a glue gun. I’ll try to mechanically fix pieces together with screws for added strength. Within reason, my driftwood pieces come with a “return to base” lifetime guarantee!

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