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Dancing in the Wood

- Composition For Woodcarvers -

Two Basic Questions

by Caril Chasens

Composition is the art of arranging and selecting within a design, of deciding how the parts will fit together to make a whole. There are some very useful principles - but not absolute rules.

Pictured above: "Runners"

When designing a carving with an awareness of principles of composition, one can avoid a lot of trouble and design problems, or one can at least be aware of the challenge one is in for. If the wood and the subject of the carving don't immediately create the inspiration for the design, one can begin with a deliberate use of composition. Tinkering with composition can fire a creative flow, because inspiration and imagination work better with something than with nothing.

People often create good designs without studying or deliberately using composition. However, a knowledge of it can help explain what instinct and inspiration provide.

In situations where something is wrong - the design does not look good, doesn't accomplish its purpose, doesn't look right - the craft of
composition can be an enormous help in finding and fixing the problem.

Some of it boils down (when boiled for a long time) to two very useful questions:

* Are there elements in the design that don't fit?
* Are there elements in the design that are too much alike?

So, does everything fit?

Things fit when they have balance, rhythm, harmony, unity, movement, direction, line, mass, shape, color, woodgrain, surface. An essential trick here is, that if something feels wrong or out-of-place, - if you don't want to simply remove it - you can sometimes bring it in by echoing it with something similar in the rest of the composition. Sometimes, you can improve a problem area by changing it so it sings in harmony with the rest of the piece. Or you can change or add to other areas.

And, are there elements that are too much alike?

Often, proportions (or whatever) within a design would benefit from being made more different. This principle includes issues of contrast, balance, and what has been called dominance. (I find the term dominance misleading. The concept simply implies that there is definitely more of something, not that the something necessarily oppresses, suppresses or bullies something else.) Often, when something is close to the center of a line or area, or when lines or masses are close to the same size or the same shape, or when other factors are too much the same, the viewer's attention bogs down and the composition simply fails to look good.

Very often, when a composition doesn't look right, you can spot something - line lengths, directions, distances, masses, depths, spacings, areas of color or tone, areas of distinct cut or texture, individual tool cuts - that would look better if made more different.

You need not follow this principle slavishly, but when the design doesn't call for centering or repetition, you can often avoid problems by keeping things from being too similar. And, a centered repetitive design might well benefit from a definite sense of gravity in color, tone, direction pointing in or out from the center, or carved vs. uncarved area.

To use these two questions - simply go ahead and use them, as casually or compulsively as you please. You can study them simply by observing designs you like and designs you don't like.

Deliberately working against any principle is one way of exploring both its limitations and its power. Other media may be easier to use than wood is for this. For instance: drawing, clay modeling, observation, imagination. I want to stress that I am suggesting these principles as useful tools to be picked up when a tool is wanted, and not as rules that must be followed. Not all successful designs answer to these two principles.