To sculpt like the Egyptians

Learning lettering

Apprenticeship in Scotland

I studied at the Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop in Scotland with Simon Burns-Cox. He took me on in an intensive individual training.

As a web developper, everything I create is obsolete after a few years. I wanted to learn how to do something that would last: bas-relief sculpture in limestone. I imagined this to be easier than full-fledged sculpting, and therefore a more realistic goal.

My hometown of Hays, Kansas has limestone sculptures by Pete Felten everywhere and I see him as a role model. I love his work, and he looks the part.

Pete Felten, the Kansas sculptor who inspired me.

I imagined learning incised-relief (like Egyptian hieroglyphics) but didn’t know the term at the time. I was taught bas-relief which is similar and possibly more difficult due to the removal of more stone.

Exercises on limestone. Learning to move the chisel as you make a curve, and how to make sharp joints without breaking off the thinner edges.

Letter carving

Simon Burns-Cox is a specialist of letter carving (imagine inscriptions on memorials), and he suggested I learn this too. It is similar to typography which I studied in university.

The origin of typset letters?

I had always assumed the serifs and joints of typeset letters were side-effects of calligraphy and pen or brush position, but now I think it must be inspired by the chisel marks of engraved letters. After all, which is more ancient, writing on parchment paper or carving in stone? In fact, the earliest “writing” was around 3100 B.C.E

Characters are formed from the wedge-shaped marks which a corner of the reed makes when pressed into the damp clay - a style of writing known as cuneiform.
Cuneiform example: Inscription of Xerxes, written in Old Persian, Babylonian and Elamite (from left to right)

Pressing a reed into clay is similar to carving, in that the tool leaves its mark. So it seems it was indeed the tool that initially determined the form of letters, not a designer who had legibility in mind — that would come later with calligraphy, movable type and ligatures, for example.

Sculpture tools

I purchased special tools from Rome and France and and have continued working on my own. Simon taught me not to get carried away with tools: you only need a few high-quality chisels and a few hammers.

Stand-up work

Carving stone is physical but relaxing. That’s great if you sit too much at a computer and work with language. Stone carving exercises a part of your brain that’s not occupied reading text, or writing computer code.

Moby Dick

I didn’t want to limit my learning to abstract shapes so I came up with a design.

It was important to imagine where the relief would be (light) as opposed to the subtracted parts (darker) — except for the lettering which is all subtracted and just shows light and shadows.
Imagining how each letter might be. Manual letter carving is not exactly like a typeset font, where each letter is always the same, designed for a body of text. Carved words end up being treated more like a logo with special attention given to each shape. For example, we decided to make the O smaller, the C to have a sharp point and the B to be separated into two parts. The curvy K did not end up in the final design
Looking up the White Whale, especially because I couldn’t imagine how to draw the tail.
A day of heavy hitting to remove stone with a big chisel. Bas-relief requires everything from delicate tapping to entire days of fairly muscular effort to remove stone.
The first removal was not deep enough because I was afraid to crack the slab. Experience will reveal the limits of the stone
Rounded edges and some depressed areas on the tail
The low area smoothed with a grinder. This was the only time a power tool was used
Letters positioned, but with a few adjustments because the slab did not have the same exact dimensions as the drawing due to my faulty assumptions
The word “Moby” carved
Pencil marks from the instructor on the O and in the crevasse of the Y where material needs cleaned up
Pencil marks on weak areas: the thin I and not-quite-round-enough C
The near-complete project cleanup up and sanded

When you think you’ve got the hang of limestone, try carving on marble or granite. Marble feels to me like a very dense plastic. The sound is different.