The Art and Science of Ice Sculptures

23 January 2012

You might not know it, but we are living in an ice age that started about half a million years ago - glaciologically speaking of course. This is because ice sheets still cover parts of the northern and southern hemispheres. We all know that these glaciers are in danger of a severe meltdown, but there is still time to enjoy the beauty and science of one of the most versatile and mysterious resources known to humankind – ICE!

And now another kind of ice age is upon us – ice sculpture season: Around the world there are ice sculpting competitions for those brave enough to tame large blocks of ice into beautiful works of art. From the Harbin Ice Festival in China,to Sapporo, Japan, throughout northern Europe, to the World Ice Art Championships in Alaska - ice sculptors are revving up their chainsaws and sharpening their chisels to create often gravity-defying sculptures.

In Canada, we are no slouches in the ice sculpture arena either: Canadians have continuously placed in the medals at major ice and snow sculpture competitions around the world. Our ice sculpture festivals in Niagara Falls, Banff, Quebec City and Ottawa are famous across the globe. Ice carving has become a Cultural Olympiad event at the Olympic and Paralympic Arts Festival since the 1988 Calgary Winter Games in Calgary, AB. The famed Ice Hotel located just outside Quebec City is the first of its kind in North America. It has over 85 beds made completely out of ice!

Ice is an extremely technical medium to work with: volatile, changeable, and beautiful. Only those that can respect and master both the scientific and artistic aspects of ice can transform huge chunks of ice into artistic wonders. It takes more than a chainsaw and a gentle hand to get it just right.

In order to sculpt ice it is important to first understand the mysteries of ice. What is ice, anyway? Are we talking just frozen water? i.e., the cooling of water below 0°C (273.15 K, 32°F) at standard atmospheric pressure? Ice is actually much more than that.

Ice exists in at least thirteen different phases depending on its crystalline structure. Ice is a transparent, crystalline, soft and fragile solid. Its appearance is wide-ranging, from hail, to ice cubes, or even enormous glaciers.

Did you know? As a crystalline solid, ice is considered a mineral.

Ice has physical properties that are still not fully understood. For example, ice frozen at a pressure of one atmosphere is some 8% less dense than liquid water at 0°C). When ice melts, it absorbs as much heat energy (the heat of fusion) as it would take to heat an equivalent-mass of water by 80°C, while its temperature remains a constant 0°C.

Did you know? Water doesn't necessarily freeze at 0°C. It can exist in the atmosphere as a liquid down to temperatures as low as minus 40°C; when it does it is known as supercooled water (source: BBC Weather).

Ice also has the ability to reflect light. This makes ice sculptures truly unique depending on the angle, lighting and time of day that the ice sculpture is viewed, and helps to create different moods.

Did you know? The word "crystal" derives from the Greek word for frost.

So how do those masters of ice manage to carve seemingly gravity defying sculptures?

Ice used in ice sculptures is usually made artificially. This ensures that the ice will be crystal clear, allowing for a higher degree of control and light reflection. Natural ice often shows imperfections or is affected by water pollution.

Did you know? Pagophagia is the term for the compulsive eating of ice.

Making ice is a slow and careful process so as too minimize bubbles and fractures. White or opaque ice is made by trapping air in the ice, but this also makes the ice weaker and more difficult to work with.

It is at this stage that colour or vegetable dyes can be applied to the ice. However, this can often make the sculpture look muddy and artificial lights are often used to achieve coloured affects.

Ice goes through different stages of workability: In the deep freeze, for instance, ice is often brittle and difficult to work with. That is why it is often ideal to work on the ice outside or better yet, in a controlled environment.

Ice is dangerous and can burn even at the melting point! Sculptors will often wear a combination of ski, sailing and freezer gear, to avoid unwanted frostbite.

Once the ice block is in place, the fun begins. The sculptors use a variety of tools. In the beginning large hoists and ice dogs (tongs) are needed to manoeuvre whole blocks around. A chainsaw is often used to rough out the form of the ice.

Chisels and irons are used to do the fine work. Some sculptors use handmade ice sculpting chisels and handsaws that are made in the same tradition as samurai swords, i.e., using laminated steel.

Artisans work for hours,days and even weeks to create monumental ice sculptures – sculptures designed to self-destruct. But many artists do not mind, it is all part of working with ice. In fact, sculptures are supposed to melt, and often look their best after a few hours at room temperature.

Did you know?In 400 BC Iran, Persian engineers mastered the technique of storing ice in the middle of summer in the desert: They transported ice during the winters from nearby mountains and stored it in specially designed, naturally cooled refrigerators, called yakhchal. This was a large underground space (up to 5000 m³) that had thick walls (at least two meters at the base) made out of a special mortar called sarooj, composed of sand,clay, egg whites, lime, goat hair, and ash which was resistant to heat transfer. The space often contained a system of wind catchers that could easily bring temperatures down to frigid levels in summer days. The ice was used to chill treats for royalty during hot summer days.

“It should be considered like a performance – where works evolve and change in fascinating ways,“ says Duncan Hamilton, a veteran ice sculpture artist. “An essential characteristic of ice is its transitory nature -and if that leads to a touch of disappointment that carvings cannot last forever, then that simply adds to their beauty.“

Ice sculpture has certainly come a long way from its culinary beginnings on buffet tables, to being used in films, music videos, advertising and even performance art.

It may take years to master the art of ice sculpture but another winter means another chance to use your samurai chisels to tame the mysteries hidden within ice.

Photo credit:

Sonya Poller is a journalism student at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her passions are documentary filmmaking and jazz music. She recently lived in Germany for over four years where she learned the joys of language, culture – and great food!


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