John Fisher on Profile Carving


Profile Carving by John Fisher

I lived and carved in Italy for many years and believe there is another explanation of how Michelangelo and others worked. For thousands of years stone workers carved before there were safety glasses. Loss of an eye was unacceptable. With all the building and carved work to be done they could not afford to loose workmen to eye injury. The chisel when it is in contact with the stone is held at an angle such as you can say it has a leading edge and a trailing edge to the cutting surface. If you look at the front cutting leading edge you will quickly go blind. Where as if you look at the underneath trailing edge of the chisel you can carve all day and never get anything in your eye. It is said Michelangelo could cleave off massive chips several inches thick. He would have sent those chips flying safely away from him not wanting to risk his eyesight. In order to look behind and underneath your chisel and to cleave off the largest pieces possible with each blow, he carved only the extreme edge of the block, carving the profile of his figure. With every blow the point of the chisel slips behind the block and out of view. The chip is sent flying away.

When you look at the front of the chisel, you are looking at the waste material you are removing and so it goes in your face. When you look at the back of the chisel, you are looking at the material you are leaving, the sculpture itself, so you are exactly controlling the form. When you look at the front of the chisel, the force of the blow is actually bruising the stone, which will become your form, your sculpture. When you look at the back of he chisel and are carving profile, the blow of the chisel gives only a glancing bruise to your sculpture. The angle of the chisel is tangent to the form. The energy of each blow is put into removing waste material while only tangentially licking the outside of your sculpture with no risk of breakage.
Michelangelo was a draftsman so line was extremely important. He knew the figure from every point of view. The edge of the drawn figure is its profile. The profile of whatever you are carving is where the edge of the sculpture is and the background begins. If anyone knows how to draw and can say from this point of view, the profile of what I am carving is, “Here.” Draw a line. Now all the stone that is on the other side of the line must be removed. Put your chisel on the line or close to it, and blast away. When that profile is the way you want it, move 5% and new profiles will present themselves. One never carves the material in front of you, but only the material on the very edge of whatever you are making.



Before carving in 3D Michelangelo as well as others carved in bas-relief, even deep relief like Michelangelo’s second sculpture, “The Battle of the Centaurs.” The high wall would have eventually been removed if full 3D were desired. That wall of stone is a perfect place to draw your profile. The image above, of the prisoner at the Acadamia his right arm has a wall above and below. Michelangelo has driven his chisel into that profile. Once he gets that right he knows that all that stone above and below needs to go. Look at the Profile line running down from his clavicle over the breast, the rib cage, down over the hip and on down the leg. That line is so important that until he has established that line he doesn’t have a sculpture. Everything from that point of view hinges on that line. Having establishes that line he now begins the opposite line of the torso. Remember Michelangelo was a superb draftsman; line was his heart’s song. What I see in that photo is all his lines carefully drawn in.
 I tell my students to give me any piece of the figure and I can push my profiles and uncover the rest of the body. From the tip of a finger I can find the hand. Drawing is King. When I teach sculpture I also teach drawing.
Take a pitching tool or a point and place it on that back edge and blast away. The bend down and retrieve the chip and hold it up to the stone to see the break. I see that surface as a plane. If that break was on a true profile then the plane of the break is tangent to the profile of the sculpture, it does not cut into needed material. Most of the figure is round so the profile slips away from you. My experience is one of chasing profiles. I start on one profile and carve while moving my sight to another profile. Good crisp Italian marble will break very predictably, always on a plane. I believe everyone carved profile, not just Michelangelo, until the 1700′s, when the pointing machine made carving an industrial affaire and glasses became available. The only reason I have come up with for it not being written down is that it was so common that no one conceived it would be forgotten. Notice we never write down how to use a pencil. Everyone just assumes that it is understood. If you know how to draw, you know all your profiles and carving could not be easier. By carving in deep relief before cutting off the back the whole work is way stronger for storage and moving around.

Sighting down an arm or leg shows other kinds of profiles. Now take a bite out of an apple. If you look at the bite from the front, you cannot tell actually how deep the bite is. But when you turn the apple so the bite is on the profile you see exactly how deep you bit. So for safety sake and to better see how deep you are cutting carve profile. There is an old saying,” Cut from the weak towards the strong.” This is a small piece of the issue but does not cover the whole of profile carving.


I do teach now days. I watch people carve everywhere I go and no one carves profile, which is so weird as I think for centuries it was the other way around. I never pointed although I understand both that and compasses. But I never wanted to do it. If one starts with a model then that is all you can expect to get. When you start with no model or idea you open yourself up to a myriad of potential forms. Fear of failure pulls out the best in me. I do not get to see the sculpture until it is done, keeping my enthusiasm and excitement at a high level all through the carving experience.

When I teach I ask my students to stand behind me and sight right over my shoulder so they see what I see. It is suddenly obvious which stone needs to be carved away. I once heard that it was said that Bernini would get into one position and make marks all around him. I do the same thing. Say I put myself on my knees and lean into my figure, then freeze. From that position examine all the profile extreme edges of the sculpture. Every profile line is in relation to every other line so that all must be in agreement. The outside of an arm relates to the inside of the arm. Those two profile lines must remain in harmony while you move your head around the arm. The profile lines change as you move. But while carving one only need to concern yourself with one line at a time. From whatever point of view that I take I am confronted with many profiles. By attending to them one at a time I bring that point of view into harmony. Then I move to another position dancing around the stone, climbing up to look from above and getting on my knees to look up. The figure blossoms out of the block. If you are working around the block and you get back to a position you were in before, most of it should already be correct, perhaps a few adjustments, but by and bye everything falls into place and the carving experience just gets more fun. As I start to do delicate modeling I can look at the front of the chisel as I am removing only tiny chips and dust. At that point surface is more important and you cannot see that on profile. Instead you must consider the stone directly in front of you. Regardless at this point eye protection is no longer an issue.