This section is from the book "Feeling Better? Amusements and Occupations for Convalescents", by Cornelia R. Trowbridge. Also available from Amazon: Feeling Better.
YOUR creative eye may discover all sorts of things if you turn it upon a piece of soap. If the cake is long and narrow, set it on end and you may see within it a sleek cat seated on its haunches. Is the cake thick and square? Perhaps there is an elephant standing inside it on four stout legs. Send to the laundry for a piece of yellow soap and look for the fat pig that one artist in soap carved. Inspired by an advertisement of blooded poultry, another artist made from white soap a sitting Leghorn rooster with a high arched tail.
A knife, such as is used for paring vegetables, or a penknife and one or two small pointed pieces of wood, like orange sticks, are the only tools needed.
The technique is quite different from that of clay modeling described in Chapter X (How To Do Clay Modeling), though the effects sought in both mediums are similar. You are not working in a plastic substance shaped with the hands. Tools are used at every step. To correct mistakes or repair mishaps will be harder. Forms must be cut out from a solid block, not built up by modeling.
It will be a help to sketch the figure you have decided to carve from various angles before you begin. Make the drawings correspond to the size of the block. Avoid at the beginning such difficult subjects as, for example, a standing deer. If you are carving a deer from transparent green soap, let your deer kneel with his long, thin legs tucked under him. Get the larger masses first in their right relations and proportions. The sculptor's chief problem is to discover the planes which enclose the three dimensions of a figure. In modernistic art interesting experiments are being made in simplified planes with all possible details omitted. The exaggeration and even distortion of its forms result from the search for essential lines and significant masses.
When you have the planes clear in your mind, block them out around your sketch. Then study the cake of soap from every angle to find where the planes come in relation to each other. It is well to mark on the surface the parts to project farthest from the mass and make the first cuts accordingly. Note at which points the cutting must go deepest and decide on the angles at which the planes reach these points. At this and at every later stage, turn your figure about frequently. The two cardinal principles of all sculpture in the round are to look at your work repeatedly from every angle and to get all the planes blocked before finishing any detail. When you are ready to add details, lay aside the knife for the tools of wood.
Always work from a model in the round, if possible. Pictures may not translate well into three dimensions. Animal toys, which can be bought very cheaply, will serve your turn well. Carved peasant toys are simple in line and suggestive of ideas. The family pets can pose for you.
If you are a beginner, you may prefer to start with something simpler than carving in the round. In schools, where soap carving is put to a variety of uses, children often are given first a thin slab of soap, threeeighths or half an inch in thickness, to be cut in silhouette. A design is drawn directly on it or transferred from a drawing the exact size of the slab. The drawing is fastened in place with thumbtacks pushed into parts that will be entirely cut away and the outline is gone over with a sharp, hard pencil. The faint lines this leaves on the soap are incised to the depth of a sixteenth of an inch with the tip of a knife blade or some other very sharp point. It may be a help to have the design repeated on the opposite surface of the slab. In transferring it there keep the reverse side of the paper uppermost. The soap is cut away around the outline, leaving half an inch outside it to make the next step easier. The edges of the silhouette are then cut close to the lines of the design. Details are incised in the flat silhouette or the slab is rounded into high relief, with the back left flat. To experiment thus with thin slabs is a good way to learn how to handle the medium, how hard it is, how sharply it can be carved. You will want designs with few lines and simple masses. You may find them in the pictures of animals in children's books or the comics in the Sunday papers.
When you are ready to advance to carving in the round, your design may be outlined on the cake of soap just as is done for a silhouette, if you do not feel equal to the bolder attack already described. Any lettering or figures stamped on the soap must be shaved off to leave a perfectly smooth surface. The steps are the same as for a silhouette until you have before you the roughly cut-out mass. Now a new problem confronts you. So far you have been working only in two dimensions. From this point you must translate the design into three dimensions. As you carve, the lines traced will be cut away and you cannot rely on them for guidance. It is better to forget them entirely and to work from the actual model or the visualized image you are trying to reproduce. Study the figure from every side and work on it as a whole, with the planes blocked in first and no details added until the large masses are right. If your first experiments are failures, do not try to correct them. Soap fortunately has other uses than for carving and they can go into the dishpan or the washtub while you begin again.
For a bas-relief, in which the slab is kept for a background instead of being cut through, the design is sharply incised to about half the thickness of the slab. The surface outside the design is cut down evenly to the same depth. Then the relief is modeled with wooden tools, the masses to stand in highest relief being rounded very slightly and the details carved in their varying depths. Watch carefully for the effect of shadows in revealing or obscuring masses and lines. For suggestions on technique it is worth while to study the delicate gradations in some low relief, like a tile or a vase ornamented with a raised design.
The process of finishing is the same for all soap sculpture. After the details are completed, the carving should dry for a day or two and then be rubbed with a soft paper napkin or the fingertips. Soap will take on a soft and beautiful polish, almost like that of jade or ivory or amber. It can be painted, if you choose, with ordinary water colors or opaque tempera paint. A coat of white shellac will give it a glistening and durable finish.
A slab of soap may be used as a base for mounting your sculpture. Corresponding grooves should be cut in the bottom surface of the carving and the base block, pieces of toothpicks set upright in them and the grooves filled with soap melted to a jelly in hot water. The two pieces are then to be pressed closely together, forcing the rows of toothpicks into the figure and its base respectively.
An annual competition in soap sculpture has been held for ten years by the National Soap Sculpture Committee, the headquarters of which are at 80 East Eleventh Street, New York. Some charming and very original work has been shown at these exhibitions. The lists of sponsors and judges of the competitions and of prize winners include names of well-known artists. Information in regard to the conditions for entry and also pamphlets containing illustrated lessons in soap carving are sent on application to the headquarters. From the same source you may learn of other uses for soap cutting, in block printing and the making of architectural models.
Various materials similar to soap in texture may be used for carving. A plumber's candle may be carved into a chubby Santa Claus or a tall thin Gothic saint. Some materials more durable than soap have been put on the market, like "Milcarbra," which has veining like marble and can be carved in very fine detail. "Toy Craft Soap" comes in bars with figures of animals partly blocked out by an ingenious process which will give the beginner helpful practice for more creative work later.
Publications of Proctor and Gamble, Cincinnati, Ohio, sent on application to them or to the National Soap Sculpture Committee, 80 East Eleventh Street, New York:
A Little Book About Small Sculpture, Ernest Bruce Haswell.
Soap Sculpture Extension Course, Juanita Leonard.
Bulletins on stage and garden settings and school projects. On Soap Sculpture, Lester Gaba. Henry Holt and Company, New York. 1934.
Practical and suggestive.
Milcarbra: Milton Bradley Company, Springfield, Massachusetts.
Branches in all large cities. Toy Craft Soap: National Handicraft and Hobby Service, 210
North Wells Street, Chicago.