Phil Kemp is inspired by stone carver Simon Keeley’s introduction into how even beginners can transform a rough block of stone into a work of art.

The art of stone carving can be traced back over thousands of years and has laid an inspiring and fascinating trail throughout human history.

Local stone carver Simon Keeley, who is both award-winning artist and teacher, is an enthusiastic sleuth when it comes to finding examples of ancient carvings to inspire his own work and his pupils. He regularly researches at museums, but such is his dedication he also tours historic sites in Italy for a few weeks every year seeking inspiration from the ancients.

Simon’s life with stone started when he trained as a stonemason over twenty years ago, subsequently working in Lincolnshire specialising in heritage projects. However, his fascination of working with stone inspired him to train as a stone carver, for which he has built an impressive reputation. This has resulted in regular commissions and invitations to demonstrate his skills at high profile arts events throughout the country.

I was invited by Simon to join him at his workshop for a personal introduction to his world of stone, and to understand what drives a craftsman of his standing. Surrounded by examples of his work it also gave me the opportunity to see first-hand exactly how a stone carver turns a block of rough stone into a work of art.

“My stone carvings start with a drawing,” explained Simon, as he opened a large portfolio filled with sketches and photographs. “I studied at the City & Guilds Art School in Kennington where I had a fantastic drawing tutor who really got my drawing skills going. She taught us how to do three-dimensional drawings enabling us to give some real depth and structure to them, and gave us an idea of what 3D is all about.”

The drawing table we were chatting next to had several large sheets of paper taped to its tilted surface, and on which Simon has been sketching the detail for his latest commissions.

“It’s all to do with understanding form, the way it moves and turns in space. And here you can see I have used vertical and horizontal gridding on the sketch which enables you to plot exactly where things are in relation to each other.

“I moved onto sculpture after I completed an MA in Art & Architecture. The course involved a lot of interactive discussion as you worked your sculptures, and this helped me develop my communication skills to then move on to teaching others.”

Simon moved around his studio as he started to take me step-by-step through the creative processes he follows and those he teaches to his students at the regular workshops he runs.

“Having started with a sketch the next step is to do a clay model. I transfer this to the soft block of clay by overlaying the sketch and pricking through to give the outline. It’s the traditional method of transferring designs into clay for you to start creating your clay carving.”

We moved away from the bench, where Simon was demonstrating on the flattened block of clay, to the back of the workshop with its impressive array of models, casts and finished carvings.

“From the clay model you’ve now carved we then make a plaster cast which is more durable. Many stone carvers work straight from the clay, but having the plaster model is also a practical way of preserving the work.”

Having been side-tracked by me enthusing over an enormous clay of a boar’s head – complete with impressive tusks and a face so realistic I was convinced it was watching my every move – Simon continued with his explanation.

“I use a process where we make a waste mould, again using the traditional method and which incidentally they still use today at Madame Tussauds. I start by pushing a shim all the way through the middle of the clay model to create two halves. This is then coated with plaster mixed with gouache, a type of paint that creates a different consistency to the cast plaster.”

Simon pointed over towards some large buckets where he concocts his various plaster mixes. “After that I make an ice-cream type of plaster which we build up on the mould until we have two halves that we can later pull apart when it has dried. Having cleaned all the clay out of the mould we close it up again and completely fill it with plaster. Once set we can gently start to chip off the outer plaster mould watching out for the layer with the gouache mix – which warns us we’re getting close to the surface and to work carefully.”

“And from there you start to work on your stone, chipping creatively away to follow the shape and form of the plaster model next to you. There’s always freedom in your carving as you don’t have to be slave to the model.”

The short period of time I spent with Simon made me realise why he is so well-respected. And not just because he has worked on commissions at various heritage sites including Westminster Abbey, appeared on TV and won national arts awards – but also because he demonstrated just what an enthusiastic and skilled teacher he is too.

He runs popular stone carving workshops for members of the public and regularly undertakes commissions to work on everything from memorial stones and carved house signs through to classical and contemporary sculpture.

Phil Kemp is a Godalming-based writer and photographer.