Carving Techniques

etched, incised, set in a panel or bas-relief

When creating a piece of work that is essentially in relief as opposed to a fully three dimensional sculpture there are different ways of incorporating the various elements. Elements such as form, shape, texture, carved imagery and lettering all need to balance to make a successful design.

Different projects bring different possibilities and one must adapt the design to suit the specific setting and the chosen material, while considering scale, lighting, durability and the visual impact. Some materials are well suited to fine very detailed work, whereas others will require a bolder approach, a heavier hand so to speak. Below I will try to illustrate how different techniques work in different stones, focussing mainly on etching or incised work, carving within a panel, and what we often call raised carvings, or low relief or ‘bas-relief’ (from the French for low).

Incised carvings

Incised carvings are literally cut into the stone, a form of engraving. This can be a purely linear expression or a more textural approach but the surrounding surface of the stone, outside the outline of the image, is left untouched. This can be a useful technique to employ when the image to be carved is delicate, such as a dandelion seed head for example where it would be difficult to carve between all the hairline thin elements. Another example would be a dragonfly for example, where although it would be possible to have raised material to describe body, the legs and antennae would present quite a challenge and sometimes a combination of raised and incised can work in these sort of instances. Fine-grained materials like slate are great for this delicate work as small details can be shown clearly, whereas in a coarser stone like York stone, this technique needs to be scaled up somewhat and can be a little harder to see. Here are a few different examples of incised carvings in different stones:

Carving within a panel

This is a really effective way of creating a bolder, more striking image without having to carve back the whole surface of the stone (which you will see is necessary in the raised carving section below) and this is therefore a less time-consuming method. It also means that a good depth can be achieved in the ‘negative space’ around the image. This negative space is important – it should be seen as an important part of the whole design. This extra depth means more shadows – which is really what you are observing when you look at a carving – and a more sculptural form, as can be seen below:

Raised relief carving

This is the most sculptural form of carving that is possible without making a fully three-dimensional carving. With this technique, the outline of the sculpted element is drawn out on the surface of the stone, and then the surrounding stone is carved back to a different level, thus creating a raised area on the stone. This makes the carved element more of an object in my mind, with more presence. See there examples:

Sculpture ‘in the round’

This technique is quite self explanatory really, the carving is three dimensional and not set on or attached to a background but seen from every angle as a three dimensional freestanding object. The examples below illustrate variations of this.