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The Secrets Of Wood Carving

Jan 22, 2008
For the sculptor wood is only one of the media in which he works. Stone, cement, plaster, wax, metals, and in recent years plastics, are some of the diverse materials that come under his hand. He is likely to have a bias towards certain media, a liking for one or the other. During some periods he will prefer one medium, or circumstances may alter his course of work.

To make a living as a sculptor he will often have to be ready to tackle any material. This is not necessarily a bad thing as it widens his powers and experience. He would be a superman if he knew all the answers to all questions involved in the use of every tool and all materials in such a wide field. He is gathering knowledge all the time but never knows it all. He may not do more than one wood carving a year but because of his natural aptitude for design and appreciation of form he can produce sculpture in wood.

The wood carver specialist, on the other hand, carves wood all day and every day, and is usually quite an expert at carpentry. He may be attached to a firm of wood carvers or run such a workshop himself. His skill is admirable. He can carve the most complicated ornament with sureness and dexterity.

In the speed of carving ornament he can make rings round many sculptors. He is chiefly concerned with traditional wood carving design and is engaged in copying and restoration work. He does not make his living by creating new works of art but by repeating forms already established.

From the aesthetic point of view it can be argued that there is an over-emphasis on craftsmanship to the detriment of creative work, and the cleavage between such craftsmen and sculptors may be great, and not easily bridged. We can look back to a time in Europe in the fifteenth century when the wood carver was carpenter, designer and creative artist in one, an ideal state of affairs.

There is perhaps little profit in looking back and if we then look at things as they are now in America, we can say there are pockets where traditional wood carving is pursued and native skill and craftsmanship flourishes.


From earliest times the human anatomy has been studied and used by the artist. Canons of proportion have been worked out by the Egyptians and the Greeks. The study of the living and the dead in humans and animals has been part of the artist's experience for many centuries. This interest waxed and waned. The great artists of the Renaissance such as Leonardo da Vinci dissected the human body in a spirit of scientific discovery.

Dissection would certainly be repugnant to most artists today. Perhaps the spirit of inquiry is less intense. George Stubbs (1724-1806), the great English painter was the last artist anatomist to undertake exhaustive research in this field. The study of the living model is still a valuable part of the student's training today. This and the study of works of art is the food his creative power needs in order to grow.

The beginner who wishes to carve figures would certainly profit by some drawing from the model. If it is not possible to attend classes, he should draw his family and friends. An anatomy book is of little use unless allied to observation of people. In books you will find the average proportions of men, women and children. This does not mean that your aim should be to carve the average man. To work with the latter concept in mind is likely to produce the dullest work.

We can say that knowledge and interest in structure is valuable but that all such knowledge must be re-created by the artist. In the stone figures on Chartres Cathedral in France we see elongation of the figure, the head enlarged and the shoulders narrow. Here we have a superb example of sculpture and architecture perfectly related.

The wood carver is able to carve any subject he can think of, but the human figure is a very good place to start. Good luck!
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