Advice for beginner
My beginner students love this article! It is interesting to compare similar subjects carved in wood and stone, or modelled for bronze. When bronze has been worked on with tools and files after casting, it has something in common with carving. I have advised you to get ideas for wood carving from the works in that material. As you become more familiar with wood carving, you will recognize forms that can be translated from stone or bronze to a carving in wood.
Structure in design
If we accept that good design springs from an appreciation and some understanding of organic form, some acquaintance with structure in plants and animals will be of real value to the carver. The sculptor is often primarily concerned with the human form but, as we have already seen, there are many less complex living forms that can aid and inspire design.
The structure of a building is first apparent in the scaffolding. In animal life, bones are the scaffolding. In the skeleton we have the key to proportion, articulation, movement, balance and scale. The importance of these things cannot be over-estimated. The reader may never have attended an art school or looked at an anatomy book and the structure of muscle and bone is a highly complicated affair.
Do not let this deter you in your attempts to design, but it must be remembered that muscles, features and fur are all controlled in shape by the bone-structure. In the diagrams of simplified skeleton shapes, the bone-structure of animals is indicated. It will help you if you notice the points where the bone is almost on the surface of the form, e.g. the skull, shoulders, spine and at the joints. The inability to draw in a realistic way can be partially overcome. If you plot these points in making your design.
Hard start for beginners
Whenever possible this should be allied with observation and drawing of the living animal. The skeleton diagrams in no way indicate the full anatomy and are only intended as a guide to right thinking and planning of animal shape. There are great pitfalls for the beginner as forms not based on structure can be weak, dull and repetitive.
In a limited way, the amateur can begin to design his carving, but he must start with fundamentals. If you are a beginner, remember that ‘fools rush in’, pause to think, and start with structure.
Design and carving progress together
It should be obvious from what I have said, that you must be interested in the shape of your carving from the very beginning.
During the first stages of carving you may have something resembling a snowman, but you are from the outset experimenting with form. You must give yourself your own limits of expression. Through the ages there have been wide deviations from the literal presentation of natural form. This is legitimate and modern artists go very far in this direction. With experience an artist will know what weakens or strengthens, and selects by instinct. A very abstract design may well have its roots in organic form and will be all the better for that. Consistency is something that should be aimed for, I think, in treatment of the carving. If it is a very long and thin figure, then the arms and head must be in character with your conception of the whole. At the same time, do not allow monotony of form to creep into your work.
When carving a figure in the round try to think in terms of sections and not only in silhouette. Take for instance the arm.
Look at your own arm in the mirror. It could be treated as a cylinder, the same width all the way down, but this would be a dull form. A tapering cylinder would be nearer the truth and more interesting. Look at your arm again and you will see how the cylinder is modified by flatter facets at the wrists and inside the upper arm. You will see swift curves on the lower arm terminating in the fine straight lines in the bones of the hand.
Notice how the forms twist with the movement of the hand. Movement is something we must consider here. This does not necessarily mean movement of an active kind, as for instance a running figure. Look for movement in the shapes. For instance, a figure can be said to have movement if the weight is on one leg, one knee is bent and the head turned. In the case of an animal, movement may be introduced into the flexible spine. Do not value symmetry too much. In nature one side of a head is never exactly like the other.
Work on the whole sculpture
As you carve do not attempt to finish one part but keep the whole design as far as possible at the same stage. This is very important, particularly at the beginning. The amateur is overanxious to see the end-product quickly and usually gets too interested in the face and tries to carve this long before the shape of the head as a whole has been established. Keep the head large at first because the features and line of profile need a fair amount of wood. On the other hand, do not be hypnotized by the idea ‘I must not take off too much, I cannot put it back’. If you know that the shoulders must be lowered two inches in order to get a head and neck then cut the spare wood away without hesitation.
One of the difficulties for the beginner is to form a clear idea of the completed work. Therefore, do not be too ambitious at first and stick to your idea. It is far better to complete the first carving and if you are not satisfied, then do another. It often happens that a student develops ideas while carving and fails because he cannot make up his mind, is afraid to commit himself, and continues to travel hopefully but never arrives. As the figure appears from the wood you may be depressed by the result, but
if you persevere, you will find in time that the carving seems to take charge and you are working more by instinct and feeling than by intellect.
Different way to help
To return to the design of the carving. Apart from drawings and diagrams, you may find it very helpful to make a small model in clay, plasticine or plaster for guidance. For instance, if you intend to carve a figure 24 in. high, a model can be made 12 in., or even 6 in. high. This will help you form your idea and also help you to decide whether it is a good one. You can make a full-size plaster model which can be quite rough. In fact, this is often better as you should feel free to re-create the figure in wood.
The model should be regarded as a pointer only and put aside fairly early and all attention should then be given to the carving itself.You may find the early exercises I am going to suggest, such as an egg, completely uninteresting. However, as a carver you will discover that shape and form are enjoyable. I will not press this point as many readers will wish to make carvings with pictorial content. The most important consideration is that the carving should be enjoyable. Therefore carve a design that interests you.