Michelangelo was one of the champions of sculpture over painting. He would go to the quarries to supervise the excavation of the marble blocks. He stated that looking at a block of marble was akin to watching someone soaking in a bathtub. When the tub is filled, none of the body is visible. But as the water is drained (the marble chipped away), the body is revealed.


A key example of subtractive carving is Michelangelo’s David, 1501-4. The sculpture was actually begun by another artist, but due to the tremendous expense invested in the marble, the patrons were nervous that their investment would be wasted. So Michelangelo was called in to save the day. The block was 18 feet tall but quite narrow. The artist had to visualize the body of David within the partially carved block. As finished, the statue’s shape still implies the original dimensions of the block. Excess marble had to be carved to reveal the legs, arms and head, and the subtle hills and valleys revealing and defining the musculature. As the statue was carved from a single block, the marble is consistently one color. Rather than resorting to changes in value or color tone, as a painter would to define and distinguish surface details, Michelangelo actually had to turn the hills and valleys of actual anatomy into changes in elevation within the stone. Value change is created through shadows cast by natural light, not by coloristic devices added by the artist. Another concern is texture. Michelangelo needed to manipulate his tools and polishing instruments to distinguish between the surfaces of hair and flesh.