Back to Colorado - Part Three: The Rock

The bird isn't the only part of a complete sculpture. To wrap up his canyon wren project Jerry demonstrates how to rock out.

By: Text and Photography by Jerry Simchuk

The couple who commissioned the canyon wren asked if I would place the carved bird on a favorite rock they had collected from their former home in Colorado. I told them I would carve a replica of the rock instead. That way I could make the bird and rock form a cohesive unit. After all, the habitat is a part of the sculpture so if you want to control the overall composition and balance it is important to carve the habitat, too.

The rock that provided the model for this project is a type of sandstone found in the eastern parts of Colorado. This particular rock had additional interest beyond its own shape and texture because of the variety of lichen and moss on it. For this sculpture, I wanted to replicate not only the rock but also some of the lichen and moss.



  1. Reference Material
    Nothing beats having the real thing sitting in front of you. When that’s not possible you can use photos of habitat you wish to replicate. As with bird reference I make it a point to surround my work area with photos, magazines, books, and habitat samples whenever possible. On a bulletin board I pinned up photos of the sample rock from various angles and lighting conditions. I also found a good sample rock with excellent examples of moss and lichen.

  2. Rock Design
    Before cutting wood, I needed an idea of the size and shape of the rock. Keeping the rule of thirds in mind (see “It’s the Thought That Counts” in the Winter 2008 issue of Wildfowl Carving), I didn’t want to center the wren on the rock. Sketching ideas on paper and using the pattern will give you some sense of what the finished piece will look like. You can also take this a step further by making clay, foam, or even cardboard models to help the visualization process. In this case I used the side- and front-view sketches as my pattern. I found a block of tupelo that fit both the profile and front patterns and I used both views to cut the profile on a bandsaw. I didn’t worry about the top view, as I planned to cut this in free form with a Foredom to give me freedom to evolve the rock form as I worked.

  3. Rough in Front View
    Once you’ve cut out your block on the bandsaw, draw the front view on the cutout. Begin cutting the excess away. As I cut, I keep in mind the top view shape I would like to see evolve. In this case, it is a triangular shape that’s wide in the front and comes to a point in the back. I will cut the triangular top view shape out using the bandsaw. With a small rock you can work with a Foredom to remove the excess wood. With a larger rock you might want to go to a side grinder.

  4. ​Rough Cut and Refine
    As the basic shape takes form I purposely leave rough and jagged surfaces but I provide a basic flow for them. The rock should have a flow that works with the bird’s shape and posture. Once you’ve established the rock’s overall shape and size go back and refine the surface shapes.

  5. Check with the Bird
    Place the bird on the rock to get an overall impression. Look at the piece from various angles to see if you need to make any adjustments to the composition.

  6. Refine Surfaces
    Once you are happy with the rock’s overall look begin refining the surfaces by simply removing deep scratches and cut marks. Create varied or irregular surfaces using a carbide cutter. Don’t try to make the surfaces perfectly flat. Variation is good.

  7. Flatten Bottom Surface
    Use a belt sander or a sheet of sandpaper on a flat surface to flatten the rock’s bottom.

  8. Establish Cracks and Crevices
    Add interest to the rock with cracks and crevices. Make the initial cuts with a mid-size diamond flame and then go back and refine the cuts with a smaller diamond flame. If we were creating a lava stone this would complete the rock.

  9. Texture Surface
    With the sandstone I use a three-part texturing process. The first part is to cut many dimples over the entire surface area using a medium sized diamond ball.

  10. More Dimpling
    I next dimple the entire surface area using a small diamond ball. I do this by hand rather than cutting them in. This process is to pound or stipple. This step helps create more depth and variation to the overall appearance of the surface texture.

  11. Final Texture
    The final stage of texturing the surface is to soften the overall look with a larger diamond ball. I also do this by hand rather than cutting. Pound or stipple to soften the look of the textured surface to the desired look.

  12. Create the Lichen
    The sample rock contained a lot of small, gray, leafy lichen (a common species of crustose lichens). There are a number of ways to create this type of lichen. I used Apoxy Sculpt epoxy and a clay or dental tool. Use the tool to apply flat pieces of the epoxy to the rock in a random and layered fashion. Then go back and indent the edges of each layer to create an irregular leafy look. You might have to use a pointed tip tool to lift the layers a little bit.

  13. Create the Moss
    The sample rock also had some moss. I thought its yellow-green tone would make a nice complement to the rusty tone of the bird and rock. As with the lichen, there are a number of ways to create moss. Try applying five-minute epoxy in an irregular shape on the rock where you want some moss. Before it dries, sprinkle some chunky sawdust on the epoxy. (I found a Typhoon bit creates the best sawdust.) Be sure to cover all the epoxy with the sawdust and push the sawdust into the epoxy a little so it will stick. Blow off any loose sawdust once the epoxy dries. Decide if the moss is high enough and covers adequate surface area. If not, you can add another layer of epoxy and sawdust. You should need only one or two applications to get the desired look and feel.

  14. Completed Rock
    This completes the rock and its coverings. You can always add more moss and lichen.

Legs and Feet

Now that you’ve completed the rock it is time to place the feet and legs on it. In the following steps I will summarize the process of creating the canyon wren’s legs and feet and fixing them to the rock.

  1. Leg Sizing
    When making the legs you want extra metal to extend up into the bird’s body and down into the habitat. This extended portion resides above the ankle bend and below the bottom of the foot. Select rod that is at least one size smaller than the narrowest part of the leg so you will have room to build up the surface. For this bird you could reference a pair of Carolina wren cast legs, as this will get you close to the right size.

  2. Drill Leg Holes
    With both legs visible and no radical stance, place the leg holes into the body based on where the ankle meets the flank feathers. Cut these holes straight up into the body based on the final stance you will adopt. Place the feet under the bird’s center of gravity so you have a balanced bird.

  3. Establish Legs on Rock
    Set the legs on the rock where you want the final placement. Mark the location and drill the holes straight down into the rock. Allow about 1/8" or so extra metal below the bend just above the rock. This will give you room for the toes and some bend at the base of the toes.

  4. Final Stance
    At this time you can make final adjustments in the leg bend to get the final posture and stance you want.

  5. Create Toes
    Use brass rod for the core for each toe. Mark each joint on the rod for future reference. The ends will represent the talons. The size of the rod is based on the minimum thickness of the toes. I make sure to go smaller than the thinnest part of the toes so I have enough room for the epoxy buildup.

  6. Shape Talons
    Use a hammer to flatten and thin the talons. This will provide plenty of height and depth to the talons when you cut and shape them with a carbide bit. Make sure the talons’ tips are thinner than the bases. Once you’ve established the proper width, cut and form the proper profile shape. Be sure to leave the bottom cut flat while rounding over the top after establishing the proper top edge.

  7. Shape & Set Toes to Habitat
    Bend the joints of the toes to fit around the habitat.

  8. Build up Legs and Toes
    Using a two-part epoxy (Apoxy Sculpt), build up the fleshy portion of each leg and toe. Look carefully at your reference for thickness and shape. Use dental tools to form the epoxy around the legs and toes. I leave extra thickness as I will grind things down to size after the epoxy has cured.

  9. Block in Legs and Toes
    After the epoxy has cured I block in the size and shape of the legs and toes. Make sure the profiles and top views are correct for each.

  10. Shape Legs & Toes
    Round the tops and bottoms of the legs and toes. You will need to add the pads between the joints of the toes.

  11. Texture Legs
    Create the scales and texture for the legs and toes. Use a diamond cylinder to create the scales on the legs and toes and a small diamond flame for the pad texture on the toes. Be sure to reference the cast legs for the placement of the scales.

  12. Set Toes to Legs
    Secure the toes to the base of the legs with super glue and/or five-minute epoxy. Make sure to space the toes properly based on where they would be in relation to the leg. Don’t be afraid to make the spacing irregular from one toe to the next.

  13. Refine Joints
    Apply the two-part epoxy (Apoxy Sculpt) as a final step for joining the toes to the legs. Shape and texture using the dental tool to get the scaly look blending into the toes and legs. After the epoxy has cured, go back and make any final touch-ups to the texture and shape of the joints with the diamond flame.

  14. The Finished Legs
    Here is a close-up view of the finished legs/feet.

Ready to Paint

Acrylic paints are durable and work quickly and I use them for all my sculpture painting. For this project I used Jo Sonja’s Artist’s Colors, which I like for their realistic matte finish. Some paints will leave a slight sheen to the finish. I want to control the sheen on my painting, so I add a varnish in specific areas that need it.

For the habitat and legs I used warm white, smoked pearl, carbon black, burnt umber, burnt sienna, raw umber, raw sienna, ultramarine blue, moss green, pine green, yellow oxide, and yellow deep. I also used other Jo Sonja’s mediums, including matte varnish.

  1. Sealing the Habitat & Legs
    Seal the habitat and legs so that you have a consistent surface. Apply your first coat of sealer fairly heavily as wood will soak up a lot. I typically apply three good coats. Be sure to at least wait 15-30 minutes between coats. I usually allow the final coat to dry over night before applying any paint.

  2. Base Color the Rock
    This particular rock has a dominant raw sienna base tone. Apply raw sienna to the rock with the goal to cover it in a single application. In order to create some variation of tone with the base coloration for the rock, apply some raw umber, burnt sienna, and warm white at random (one at a time) as you apply the raw sienna. Be sure to work these other colors in well so there is a nice blended tone. I tend to dapple or stipple the colors as I apply the paint. I avoid the legs, lichen and moss as much as possible.

  3. Base Color the Moss
    At this time give the moss a dark color base. Apply washes of raw umber until you get a uniform dark tone.

  4. Raw Umber Wash Rock
    In order to show off all the texture apply a thin wash or two of raw umber over the entire rock. Let the color settle into the texture.

  5. Highlight Rock Texture
    The rock now looks a little dark so we need to lighten it by dry brushing highlight tones over the textured surface. Create a mix of warm white and raw sienna. Adjust this color mix until you have a nice highlight that’s neither too subtle nor too light. You could start off with a 50-50 mix and adjust from there. I tend to use two or three color tones for variation to the highlighting.

  6. Moss Coloration
    Now bring the moss to life with color. Dry brush all the colors on using a stiff bristle brush. Apply raw sienna first, covering the entire moss area, and then put moss green over top of that.

  7. Moss Highlights and Shadows
    Time to fuss with highlights and shadows on the moss. This may require going back and forth with colors until you get what you want. Start by applying pine green on high areas to darken the overall look. Use yellow oxide to lighten portions of the moss or tone down the green. You can also use yellow deep and raw sienna to get a deeper yellow tone to the moss. Dry brushing on some raw sienna here and there will create older or dry portions of the moss.

  8. Refine Rock Coloration
    A thin wash or two of burnt sienna here and there adds more color depth to the rock where you want a redder tone. A thin wash or two of raw umber at random will give you a darker tone and shadow effect. After applying these color washes I found it necessary to re-highlight the texture using the warm white and raw sienna mix from before. This completes the rock coloration.

  9. Lichen Coloration
    Base color all the leafy lichen with a pale blue-green mix of 6–8 parts warm white, 1 part ultramarine blue, and 1 part pine green.

  10. Lichen Shadows
    The shadow tone is a thin wash of raw umber. Be sure the wash is thin enough to flow into the lichen’s textured shape, yet not so thin it doesn’t leave some tone on the open surface area. Highlight the lichen by dry brushing the texture and edges with the base blue-green color mix. Then add some highlight variations by using warm white here and there to catch the more dominant edges.

  11. Dark Lichen Creation
    For the small dark lichen (common species of crustose lichens) randomly stipple on a dark mix of 1 part burnt umber and 1/2 part ultramarine blue. Adding this lichen is a great way to tie the leafy lichen and moss together with the rock.

Painting the Legs

The final stage in the painting process is the legs and feet.

  1. Base Coloration
    Base color the legs/toes and talons with a rusty brown tone made from a mix of burnt umber and burnt sienna. Make sure the brown has a slight red tone, but not too red. Apply this color uniformly.

  2. Highlight Texture
    Highlight the texture of the legs and toes with a gray mix of warm white and raw umber. Start with a 50-50 mix and adjust until the color is not too light or too subtle. If the overall look of the legs and toes appears too light go back with a thin wash of burnt sienna for a red tone and raw umber to pull it towards the brown tone. You may have to re-highlight the texture again if the washes are too heavy.

  3. Talon Coloration
    You may have to apply the base color on the talons again to assure they have a solid reddish brown tone. You can add more life and realism to your talons by using the highlight and dark tone. The highlight color is smoked pearl, applied near the base of the talon and lower edge. Wet blend the highlight color into the talon for a soft color transition. Apply a thin wash of carbon black down the top center of the talon. Wet blend the black down the sides so you don’t get a hard line.

  4. Heel Coloration
    The heel area will blend in with the wren’s flank and belly coloration. You might want to wait until you have the bird painted before proceeding with the step. The base color for the heel is raw sienna. Paint in the texture with a mix of raw sienna (1 part), burnt sienna (1 part), and raw umber (1 part). This will leave a lighter tone in between the texture. With the bird set on the legs you can determine if you need to lighten or darken these feathers. To darken, apply more of the above mix; to lighten, apply some raw sienna. Finish the heel by lightly dry brushing on a mix of warm white and raw sienna to highlight the texture a little bit.

  5. Seal and Shine Rock and Legs
    When you’ve finished painting seal the habitat and legs with Testors Dull Coat. Once the sealer dries you can go back and apply some shine to the legs. Apply one or two washes of a 50-50 mix of matte varnish and water to the legs. Then apply straight matte varnish to the talons.

  6. The Finished Habitat
    This is what it looks like when it’s all done—a taste of Colorado for a home in California.

Jerry Simchuk:  Since entering his first competition in 1994, Jerry Simchuk has competed regularly at toplevel bird carving shows around the country. A full-time artist since 2004, Jerry has started creating wildlife art sculptures in bronze. He and his wife, Kate, live on a small farm in Kalispell, Montana, where Jerry continues to build his reputation as a wildlife artist, carver, judge, and instructor. You can reach him at Jerry@Simchuk.com.


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EXCELLENT ARTICLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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