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6 Technique

Control is easier in small clearly defined areas. This is where tools come into their own. The bigger the issue, the less possible it is to rearrange the world.  If the context is big enough, there is little choice but to adjust. Craftsmen who can take the hint will learn the ways of the material and then align their skill to it.  Words from the I-Ching seem to describe the most skilled craftsmen: … if he acts after nature, he follows the energy of nature; if he acts before nature, nature does not contradict him.   The ideal craftsman is so aware of the way the world functions that it is impossible to separate it from his being.  He doesn’t avoid mistakes through restraint, denial or imposed will but because every potential in the process has been internalised. We are reminded of Paul Tillich’s definition of the saint: “The saint is saint, not because he is “good,” but because he is transparent for something that is more than he himself is.”


In the new Cervietti workshop an artisan delicately abrades the marble surface of one of Marc Quinn's Evolution Series sculptures with a rotary grinder. Carefully following a curved line scribed from a template, a student in weymouth College shapes a block of limestone with the aid of a broad flat chisel and dummy hammer. Weymouth, England.


This way of looking at things puts learning itself into a different light.  The whole process of education then needs to be approached differently. Learning can no longer be a training in rules and formulae, because it is no longer concerned with conforming to an imposed norm.  How does one learn to listen so carefully and watch so intently that when effort needs to be applied it does not distort the best of what is given? The craftsman’s choice is to have no choice.  Anticipation is about alignment with what is likely to happen anyway. 

The use of irony is a deflection best reserved for another time and must not to be confused with humor or insight. At this point the only thing that needs to be said is that it is risky.  It may initially be seen as a comment, but it does not stay there. It releases attitude but not hope, which stays firmly hidden. Irony needs extraordinary skill because it can only rarely succeed.


"People often try to substitute criteria for the activity of distinguishing essentials and accidentals.  An essay may be judged to be good because of the journal in which it is published; a painting or building is praised because it costs a lot of money; an achievement is deemed good because certain people say it is.  The use of criteria is an evasion of the responsibility to think.  We must rely on criteria in many areas because we cannot become expert in everything, but if we have any responsibility for making a judgment in a particular domain, if our evaluation and decision make a difference, we are obliged to know enough about the matter, and to take sufficient pains to let the essentials of the issue assert themselves in our minds."

                                                 — Robert Sokolowsky, Presence and Absence, 1978


Qu Yang workshop, HeiBei, China - Stoneworkers carve a large relief in marble with amazing rapidity using industrial diamond cutting and grinding power tools.   A mason in the Delank granite workshop smoothes the surface of a carve form with the aid of a diamond-cup grinder. Cornwall, England.


The most dangerous risk to craftsmanship at the moment is not irony or a break in lineage but the growth of what has been called ‘deskilling.’ This is the process in which skilled labor and knowledge is eliminated by technologies that can be operated by less skilled or even completely unskilled workers.  The Wheelwrights Shop details how things were already drifting in this direction over a hundred years ago.  Deskilling may have crept into education, where the idea of a fungible student or even a fungible teaching staff is taking hold.  A protocol is an artificial skill that guarantees a level of functional competence regardless of the situation.  It goes hand and hand with standardised procedures and products. More and more protocol is being substituted for flexible response. Gresham’s law seems to be establishing the structure on which other things are being built.

"The phrase “workmanship of risk” means that at any moment, whether through inattention, or inexperience, or accident, the workmanship is liable to ruin the job.  It is in opposition to the “workmanship of certainty,” in which the quality of the result is predetermined and beyond the control of the operative.  These are incisive concepts that cut through much of the confusion generated by such multivalent terms as craftsmanship, quality-production, hand-made, and skill."

John Kelsey, Introduction to The Nature and Art of Workmanship, David Pye

The appeal of what David Pye calls the “Workmanship of Certainty” is probably irresistible in a risk-averse culture.  This means that education, which is messy, is replaced by the clean certainty of production.  The result is that education is pushed aside by training as set standards replace a vision of education as search and investigation.


 In the Karmenskola Masonry School young students initially learn to carve limestone by  using hand tools that reputedly date back to Roman times. Pucisca, Brac, Croatia A stone worker in the John Fyfe workshop expertly trims the edges of a granite memorial stonewith a club hammer and pitching tool. Old Meldrum, Aberdeen, Scotland. 


Most of the techniques of carving (splitting, chipping, or sanding) are forms of controlled breakage. Skill has to do with removing just the right amount from just the right place. Each stone will chip differently according to its internal structure and the angle of the chisel. For every desired action there is a precise direction that the chisel must to be pointed.  Freshly quarried stone may behave differently. It is commonly said that a ‘new’ stone is softer because it is full of ‘quarry sap.’ The metaphor of sap originates in the ancient belief that stone is alive and nourished like animals or plants. Roman travertine, a stone that weathers better than many apparently tougher stones, is said to be so soft before seasoning that it can be cut with a spade.  Few stones can be worked that easily and some are so intransigent that in order to shape them one must learn to identify and exploit their vulnerabilities. Not many stones are completely uniform and instead are peppered with weaker areas. A blow of identical force to different stones might give a different result; a careless blow on an unsuspected weak spot can transform a minor event into a disaster.  Identifying a stone’s vulnerabilities is a particularly useful skill to have if the weaknesses endanger a stone’s integrity.  Carving in such a case proceeds from a different premise.  The stone is carved so that any vulnerability will stay hidden, shaped so carefully that the weaknesses stay asleep.

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