How sculptors must envy painters! As painters, we pull together our finished works through many different processes. But the two most critical points are the beginning and the end. It could be a photo, a drawing from life, a scene painted on location, or just simple "inspiration" but we all have our sources. And just as important as the process of getting ready to paint, is that moment leading up to the last stroke- when we are in the process of exhausting our last drops of genius and making the ultimate decision regarding the work—"it’s finished". In between, from preparing the canvas, to drawing, and through the whole painting process, there is room for lots of trial and error; and seldom is there much of a possibility for a single mistaken stroke bringing the whole thing crashing down around our ears. It's little wonder then that an artist such as Michelangelo, the sculptor, would consider mere painting such a trivial pursuit and find the need to work on paintings of such enormous scale in order to challenge his genius.
As a sculptor, Michelangelo began planning his work much as he would if he were painting it. He started with drawings, often several, depicting various parts of the work, evolving it into the completed design. As the idea grew in his mind, so did the scale of his drawing until it was the actual size of the final sculpture. (Michelangelo planned most of his works from a single viewpoint.) As he made the arduous journey into the Apuan Alps to Carrara to select his stone, he must have envied the ease at which a wooden panel or bare wall could be plastered, ready to paint. He would spend days and weeks choosing the stones for a large commission, looking for faults, discolourations, and other defects. Then the stones had to be carefully cut free and moved down the mountain on skids, managed by huge ropes and lots of human muscle, whereupon each was loaded onto a sturdy wagon to be pulled by a train of up to ten teams of stout oxen, each team with a driver mounted on their yoke to "encourage" the animals to move the great weight. And if the ground was wet, forget it!
Imagine the skill and care it must have taken in those days to load a ten-ton block of marble from a wagon onto a barge for the final journey to Rome or Florence, and then to reverse the whole process in getting it from the docks to Michelangelo's workshop. Massive and heavy, yet fragile, any mishap could result in it being broken and made largely worthless. Once in place, ready to be carved, Michelangelo transferred his full-size drawing to the front of the stone, then began work, hacking away at it. Unlike many sculptors before and since, studies of his unfinished pieces tend to indicate he liked to work primarily from the "front" of his work toward the back. It's believed he may have used a visual aid in working on the sculpture--a wax model, lying on its back, submerged in a container of water scaled to the outside dimensions of the stone. As water was dipped from the container, it exposed the front of the model allowing him to see that part of the stone which should be cut away to "free" the figure trapped within. Michelangelo was one of the fastest "marble cutters" of his time, yet, even with this little "trick," a smartly trained eye, a decade of experience, and a workaholic lifestyle, it took him three years to carve his David. Now, aren't you glad you're a painter?