What Shall I Carve?


What Shall I Carve?
Peter Benson looks at choosing a subject for carving.

Working on part of a carving based on a painting by Guy Coheleach with his kind permission

One of the most common difficulties hobby carvers face is choosing what to carve and how to portray the chosen subject. In most cases I suspect they take the line of least resistance and copy something they have seen in a magazine or on the internet. There is nothing wrong with this if you are only trying to hone your skills, but you do miss out on what is the real joy of carving – the satisfaction and pleasure when you finish a carving that started only as an idea in your head. Not only that, you miss the opportunity of going where the wood pattern and grain lead you, or taking advantage of ideas that come to mind while carving. There is no doubt that ideas change in the time taken to complete a piece of work and, very often, by paying attention to these, the final piece can not only be slightly different from the original but an improvement.
Why, then, do so many carvers copy pictures (often very poor ones at that) or the work of others? I think it is in the mistaken belief that they haven’t any creative ability – what absolute nonsense. I accept that seeing a picture or sculpture by someone else can get the mind working, but without original thought the resultant piece of work is only ever going to be a poor substitute for the original. Taking that initial leap of faith is probably the most difficult part but, from then on, the process can be very rewarding and enjoyable. There is no shame in failure. Each time you fail you learn something and progress. Your pride may be hurt a little but that is all it is. Pick yourself up and modify your carving if possible, if not, start again. I very much doubt that any of the great masterpieces were produced at the first try.
You may find some of the suggestions that follow help you on your way but, if not, please consider doing your own original work – if nothing else you will avoid the minefield that you enter with copyright legislation when you copy photos or the work of others.

So, where do we start?
Basically, the general rule is that you should only carve something you like and have a reasonable knowledge about. At one time, when I was asked to do a particular subject as a commission, I spent months learning as much about the subject as I could before even thinking about a design. Many of my subsequent carvings were done using what I had learned for the first. Although this doesn’t mean that you have to keep carving the same thing, the research you do for one person or animal will be of use when you carve anything similar in the future. The skeleton of the human figure varies little from one to the next, at least from the carver’s point of view, and the proportions are very easy to remember. The female is around seven-and-a-half heads tall and the male is eight heads tall. From this information it is not difficult
to work out all the other proportions and modify for individual variations.
Similarly, once you understand the basic skeleton of one mammal it is only necessary to make, sometimes, very small adjustments for other examples. My advice would be to learn as much as you can about skeletal structure before setting out on carving living creatures.

Many of us have a head full of ideas for carvings that we want to do while others struggle to think of anything that they would like to work on. If you have this problem, look at as many pictures as you can or trawl through the Internet. There are thousands  of pictures of everything under the sun something is bound to inspire you eventually. Many of these pictures are copyright-free and you can work with these to develop your own carving. However, do not ever use pictures that are subject to copyright except with the express permission of the copyright holder.
If copyright -free pictures, or images or sketches you have taken/done yourself are going to be the basis of your carving, make sure there is no perspective or foreshortening that distorts the shape of the subject. Remember that if your subject is a four-legged animal, all four legs have to be the same length and all meet the ground at the same level. You will almost never see this in a photograph – those legs further away from you will appear shorter. If you are taking your own pictures of an animal for reference, either get down low and take the picture at ground level, ensuring that the bottom of all four feet are at the same level or, alternatively, take a photograph from a distance using the zoom on your camera. This will minimise any foreshortening effect or perspective. You can always get closer for any detail you require. However you get your pictures, avoid any that are taken from an angle – photographers love three-quarter view pictures which can be a nightmare for carvers. Use only those taken side-on or directly from the front.

The legs are at different heights and the body is at an angle

The legs can easily be adjusted and the body is square on

Chance is our dog – from this angle the legs are different heights

Very close to being usable

Once you have chosen your subject and, perhaps, the pose, check that it can actually be carved in wood. This may not always be the case. There may be areas where it is impossible to get a tool or make any sort of clean cut. It is a good idea to avoid areas where you need to cut directly into end grain as it is very difficult to achieve a clean finish – there are few tools that can be used with a pull cut that would be needed in this case. Check that you have suitable tools to get into any difficult-to reach-areas. If not you may be advised to modify your design.
The easiest way to carry out all the necessary checks is to make a simple model, or maquette, of your proposed subject. I find that, by doing this, I can select the tools I need, try them on the model and make any adjustments that I feel necessary. The easiest way to do this is to use modelling clay or plasticine.

Create a maquette

Carved cheetah

This way you can minimise the problems that you may encounter in your final carving. You can also carry out much of the necessary basic research to ensure that the anatomy and proportions are correct. Don’t worry too much about the detail at this stage because it is more necessary to get the basic form right before any attempt is made to add any detail. Most novice carvers will be tempted to add detail far too early in the mistaken belief that it is the detail that gives the carving ‘life’. As an example, a hand must look like a hand before the fingers are detailed or it will never look right, and a face can even have expression without carved eyes and mouth. You can always draw detail in if you feel it is necessary to give a particular feel to a carving.
If you are not sure about any particular detail of your carving, don’t experiment on the actual carving – try doing it on a separate piece of wood or even try modelling it. The classic example of this is adding eyes to a face. Many carvings are ruined because several attempts have been made to get the eyes right going further and further back into the face until the end product looks like something from a horror movie. It may only take, perhaps, an hour to get it right on a piece of scrap wood, but it will save a lot of heartache and effort to right the damage you could do to your precious carving.

A basic face shape with no detail carved

Visualising designs
 My own feeling about any design that I wish to carve is that I need to get a clear picture of the finished piece in my head. Sometimes this can take a considerable time and, often, some sleepless nights, but I know that it would be pointless to start on anything until the picture is established. After many years of practice I am now able to visualise the finished result of any carving I intend to do once a decision is reached. Not everyone can do this as it can take a very long time, but you should be able to get some idea what your carving is going to look like, even if it is only a vague shape. By doing your research this will become clearer as you go along. Don’t ignore what is right in front of you. You are walking around in what is the best reference for carving human figures – your own body. Your family and pets can also add to the information you need – use them.

The pictures show simple rough carvings of a hand with any finger detail drawn in with a pencil to be carved later. If this is carved too early the hand can easily lose any real life and credibility

If you really think about your design you will probably have an idea what colour the finished piece should be – dark or light – and this will guide you to the correct choice of wood. You might also get a feel for whether a strong-grained wood would enhance or detract from the design. A very intricate carving generally looks much better in a wood with little obvious grain pattern, whereas something stylised or abstract can look much better with some noticeable grain showing.
Finally, you learn most when you are looking around you as well as when you are actually carving. When you are travelling about, look at what is around you, when watching television, look at faces and what makes different expressions and moods. If you see any pictures that grab your attention or that you think might be of use later on, collect them in a folder for future reference.
Most of all, keep carving. If you can’t think what inspires you to undertake a major project, carve something simple. Christmas figures or small animals and birds are quick and easy to carve, yet they make very acceptable gifts for friends and family, and you will learn something from every one you do.
A great friend of mine who is an amazing carver once said to me that there are four things a carver should always remember. Keep your tools sharp and practice, practice and practice.
You can’t go far wrong with that.


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