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Notes From the Net Special-

A Word from the Pros

By Loren K. Woodard and Matt Kelley
Email Loren at woodcarver@midmo.com or visit his web site at http://www.woodcarvers-gallery.com/

The various woodcarving listservs are fortunate to number among their members several carvers who are true professionals - they make their living solely by carving wood and teaching. This special editon of Notes From the Net continues an occasional series devoted to the words of wisdom from those pro carvers.

This installment of the series again features Joe Dillett of The Carving Shop, Somonauk, IL and Ivan Whillock of
Ivan Whillock Studio, Faribault MN


Ivan Whillock on Relief Carving:

You can easily make a relief carving with a large uncarved frame. Just carve the section you want , leaving the rest flat (or decorated however you wish). In making the carving you don't work from the center outward, you work from the deepest point to the highest. Draw your pattern onto the wood and then carve the relief using these four steps:

1. Grounding out. In this stage you carve away the deepest point. For many carvings this will be the background. In a landscape the deepest point might be the sky section. Before you go on to any other step, carve away all sections that are on this deepest level.

2. Layering. Once you have removed the deepest section, you then determine the levels of the rest of the carving. For example, a landscape might have a sky, background hills, middle ground trees and a foreground animal. A flower carving may have leaves and flowers at various depths. You layer by taking away the deepest sections first and then working your way to the highest.

3. Shaping. The next step after you have done the layers is shaping. At this stage you round the branches, say, and put in the concave and convex shapes of the other elements of the carving.

4. Detailing. This is the very last step and should not be done before the other three steps. Here you put in the final touches: the veins in the leaves, the hair on an animal, the bark of the trees, etc. My advice: "Don't do the detail until you have to." Because many beginners find the detail more fun than the other steps, they often rush into it too soon and often have to cut away detail to readjust layers, etc.

As I said, beginners often jump ahead on the steps, finishing an entire section before grounding out another, or finishing the eyes before blocking out the whole face. Try to avoid that and follow the four steps in order. That will help you achieve balance and consistency throughout the whole carving and will prevent your having to "do over" sections that you jumped ahead on.

The best tools to use for relief carving are the full-sized tools that allow you to hold the tool with both hands, giving you complete control. Palm handled tools are more appropriate for one handed carving such as figure carving. They should also be malletable tools so that you can use the mallet for controlled plunge cuts into the wood. Most training involves learning to switch hands so that when the grain changes you can simply switch hands to carve in the other direction to adjust to the grain.


Ivan on Carving Red Cedar:

Red cedar is a beautiful wood (check out the red cedar carvings by Greg Wilkerson). It has very interesting color variations between the heart and the sap wood, and it mellows into a rich color. It is a fibrous wood, however. Cuts with a sharp tool made with the grain turn out shiny and smooth. However, the grain can break down on plunge cuts or with cuts across the grain. Therefore, carve with the grain as much as you can, and where you must work cross grain, try to skew the cuts so that you are slicing rather than compressing the grain. Cedar often has knots. They present a different challenge. You will notice that generally if you cut across the entire knot one half of the surrounding wood will be smooth and the other half will be rough. That is because there is a grain change around a knot. To deal with that, simply draw a line across the center of the knot. The wood around one half of the knot is usually in one direction, and the other half the other direction. The grain in the knot itself is often different than in the surrounding wood, so to carve the knot you may have to switch the directions of the cuts again. If you are carving with gouges, being able to switch hands is a great advantage. Cedar can test your carving techniques, but the beauty of the result is well worth the effort. (In my fantasy carving academy, one of the items on the final test would be carving a smooth surface on a piece of knotty red cedar. It can be done, but you need good technique to do it.)


Joe Dillett on Getting Ready For A Show:

How you get ready for a show is a long answer. I've been doing shows for over 30 years and many time I still don't get it right.

The answer is inside of you. You have to determine your goals and what you want to get out of the show. If your goals are to come out with lots of great comments about your work I'm sure you can achieve that. If your goals are to come out with good sales you can also achieve that if you prepare. These two goals are not always compatible.

Preparation includes selecting the right shows, enough inventory, getting yourself in the right frame of mind.

1) The type of show is important. You are competing for every customer's dollar like everyone else at the show. What will make you stand out from the other vendors? Selecting the right show includes picking a show where the people expect to spend the kind of money you are after. If the average person comes to the show expecting to spend only $30 you should have your average items prices about half of that. So if your average price is $100 you should be looking for shows that the average person is willing to spend more.

2) Enough inventory means enough to keep your booth looking like you have a good selection but not so full so it looks like you are not selling. You need to anticipate how much inventory is needed to replenish your display.

3) The right frame of mind means you are having fun and enjoying the people. If you are having fun and enjoy talking to the people, sales will happen. No matter how bad the show is never complain while you are at the show. Always act like this is the best show ever. Surprisingly it will turn out good.


Ivan Whillock on Originality:

Here's a rule of thumb: if you use a primary source it's original. If you use a secondary source it's not. Here's an example: Degas paints a ballerina by looking at a real dancer. (primary source). Sunday Painter, however, paints his ballerina by looking at Degas' painting (secondary source.) Even if Sunday Painter's version looks quite different because of poor technique or switching things around a little, it's still not an original--it's just a lousy--rather than a good--imitation. Another: You want to carve a dog, so you take pictures of real dogs (primary source). Someone loves your carving and takes pictures of it (secondary source) to carve their own version. Even if they change things a little bit, they're still using a secondary source (your original). It's not their original work.

Supposing along with taking pictures of real dogs you study pictures of dog carvings. And then you set them aside to draw your own pattern, being careful NOT to make your carving look like any one of them. This is considered allowable research because the point is not to copy any one carving but to learn about carving dogs in general. Your carving then would be your own original, based your research, even though much of that research was studying other carvings.

Supposing you took a carving class and did a mountain man from a roughout. Then you went home and carved a mountain man just about like it but switched things around a bit. You carving is still based on secondary sources: somebody else's creation.

Suppose, instead, you took a carving class and did a mountain man from a roughout. You put that aside--it was a great learning experience, not an original work that you can claim as yours. However, having learned how the teacher makes eyes, and the other features you now carve, not a mountain man, but a fisherman, using a picture you took of your neighbor in his old fishing cap. You have now turned the skills you learned on a secondary source into an original carving. And at the next show you can brag, "That's an original, man!"

It's a great question because I feel it's really important that carvers learn the difference between "original" and "copy" so that shows can justly reward those who go through the study and discipline of doing their own originals. Rewarding original work will advance the art more than anything else we can do. If the rewards are there, I believe, people who now exhibit mostly "knock-offs" will be inspired to move to the next level and develop their own ideas.


Ivan on Roughouts:

Roughouts teach you to carve like cake mixes teach you to cook. It usually turns out pretty good, but you just do the tail end of the process. Mixes are fine for someone who wants to get it done in a hurry, but to truly be a chef, you have to be able to start from scratch. If in all your classes all you ever get are "cake mixes" you never learn the whole process. Of course, there's nothing wrong with classes designed to give the students a product--if that's what they want (and, of course that's what many, if not most, do, indeed, want). Folks have the right to practice their hobbies any legal way they wish, and, for many, a box cake is just as tasty as one they could make from scratch. None-the-less, I'm pleased to hear that a few folks here and there continue to teach the complete process. Even in these days of fast cooking, we still need a few chefs.


Joe and Ivan on Commercial Art:

Joe said, (tongue in cheek)

The great minds, like Ivan, can do a better job putting this topic in perspective. I do much better trying not to analyze it. I'll just say it's all to do with selling. One you are selling your ideas and the other you are selling a product. Both cases you are selling a product.

(To which Ivan responded) OK, Joe, I'll try: In commercial art you mostly take classes that help you hold down a job in art--advertising layout, product design, illustration. Commercial artists use their skills to design products and/or to advertise those products. Virtually every object or product manufactured has been designed by a commercial artist--whether it's the shape of your computer or the icons and the type used in the programs. Everywhere you look--the design of the wallpaper, the shape of your clothes. Commercial artists design the products, the advertising of the products, the display of the products, the illustrations of the products. The shape of the cars, the buildings are all the province of commercial art. In fine art, on the other hand, you take classes that help you create a work of art intended to exist on its own, not in conjunction with a separate product. Fine art is, of course, bought and sold--and is often used to beautify a space. But the sculpture, painting, drawing, as they say, exists for its own sake, not to perform a useful function, or to beautify another product. Of course, definitions can be fuzzy where there is some overlap. Is a beautiful vase commercial or fine art? What if I never put flowers in it, just enjoy it for its beauty? Was Norman Rockwell a fine or a commercial artist? His paintings were intended as commercial art, but, they have received much admiration as fine art as well. Also, arguing whether fine art is nobler than (or more frivolous than) commercial art shows that some people may need to find a better direction for their energies.



Ivan on Artistic Goals:

The two main sculptors I worked with early on approached their art with a religious dedication. They took on their "mission" as artists very seriously. To call their art a diversion or a frill would get them quite stirred up. To them art was an essential part of life--one which ennobled the spirit. Art lifted humans above the other animals and was a vital part of civilization. To that end they had constant advice for me. Bits of advice they gave me:

1. Find your own voice. Every person is different, each with their own perspectives on life, each with their own life experiences. Speak from your own soul; let others speak from theirs. Don't "steal" other artist's subjects, styles or special techniques.

2. Honor the materials. Each medium has its own characteristics that demand understanding and special treatment. Wood has characteristics quite different from bronze which is quite different from stone. Each type of wood, even, has its own characteristics. Learn what they are and honor them. Don't try to make wood look like something else. Let wood be wood.

3. Challenge the materials. Understand the limitations of the medium, honor them, but still challenge them. Blocky carvings are easy; carvings with flow and motion are much more difficult. Don't be satisfied with easy.

4. Challenge your skills. Don't get into a rut by carving the same features the same way time after time. Avoid clichés--your own and those of other artists. Treat each subject you do with a fresh approach.

5. Respect the past. Learn about other artists who came before you. Understand the traditions of your art form.

6. Respect the future. Don't put out shabby work that will disintegrate in time--"what you do has to last 500 years." Don't do a glue job that may eventually split, a finish that will soon peel. A temporary finish may look good now, but art is created to last not for the moment, but for generations.


Ivan on The Most Important Thing For A Carver To Learn:

I think the most important thing for a carver to learn is to trust yourself. Even if your art is a bit crude at first, if it is original, if it comes from you, and if it represents the best you can do at your stage of artistic development, it enriches us. Find your voice and share it with us. You don't need to copy "accepted works" to validate your efforts. Technique will come in due time, but art history shows us that originality trumps technique nearly every time. Express YOURSELF!


Joe on Evaluations for Insurance:

Establishing a value on a carving for insurance purposes is not that difficult. Essentially what they really want to know is the replacement cost. The owner should be more concerned that the insurance company because the insurance company will just set a maximum value they will pay. The owner must make sure that the maximum value covered by insurance will replace the item.

What I've found is acceptable to both the insurance companies and owners, is to show them an established price structure that you use in determining the cost of a job. Show them several past contracts of jobs where you used that same method to determine the cost. As an example, I've been using $4 U.S. per square inch for relief carving plus material. I can show the insurance company many past contracts where $4 per square inch plus material was used to determine the selling price. Many of my items that priced below $5,000 are not an issue. Generally when the item if over $5,000 or the replacement cost is much higher than the original cost, such as a church where I've discounted the price, I write on the invoice what the replacement cost would be, over the next 5 to 7 years. If insurance companies request, I can submit several past contracts of similar jobs.

If you don't have past jobs that are similar, another option is go to an appraiser. I suspect that is what you did when it cost you and arm and a leg, you must of went to an art appraiser. There are other licensed appraisers here in the U.S. that insurance companies accept. These are the auctioneers that handle estates. In one case an art appraiser wanted to charge me $5,000 for an appraisal of a $10,000 carving. The auctioneer down the road (a friend of mine) charged me under $5. He had me write the letter outlining how I determined the value and the auctioneer signed it and put his license number on the document. It was accepted by the owner, insurance company and the IRS. That was 15 years ago and now they are asking for an updated appraisal. I plan to do it the same way.


Ivan on Power vs. Traditional Carving, Part One:

The beauty of this world is that there is room in it for an indefinite variety of opinions. I happen to be a professional carver who carves with hand tools. I can work quite fast with a large gouge and mallet, but speed is highly over-rated. I can't be in a hurry when I'm trying to create art. In fact, each project includes a substantial amount of contemplation time (not to be confused with "break" time).

It is faster to fry a steak in a microwave oven. But when the sun is shining, and the family is together and no one has to be somewhere else, most people would rather take a little extra time and do it on the outdoor grill. Is it healthier? Debatable. Does it taste better? Some will say yes, some no. In any case, time is only one of the variables. Ambiance, working conditions, the traditions one wishes to honor, and the spiritual connection one may have with the material and the process are all factors. We tend to be pressed for time these days, when we have more time saving devices than ever in history. (Someone joked just today: It used to take an hour to bake a potato in a conventional oven. Now it takes seven minutes in a microwave and THAT'S too damn long.)

You choose the instrument for the music you wish to play. I'm sure Bach played on an electric guitar would sound interesting, yet the concert guitarists still use those old-fashioned acoustical guitars, even with some notes being drowned out by a cough or a sneeze here and there. Maybe a future "Segovia" will do classical music with a telecaster so he can crank the volume, but I imagine there will still be an audience for acoustical performances.

I love doing "acoustical" carvings and have never felt so pressed for time that I felt I had to mechanize the process. Wood carving is an ideal profession for me because it allows me to do hand work in a peaceful, leisurely atmosphere. If I would have had to power carve in order to make a living I would likely have done some other art where I could work in the atmosphere I enjoy.

Fact is, time saved is only one of the factors governing one's choices.


Part the Second:

OK, I'll advance a bit of heresy: To carve more natural figures, don't use a band saw--or, if you do, saw only the sides but not the front or back. The reason: The bandsaw cuts all of the planes of the figure at 90 degrees to the table top, essentially creating a master with all of the planes parallel to the original surfaces of the wood--a definite no-no in classical carving where the carver usually tries to make NONE of the surfaces of the figure parallel to the original surface of the wood. For a more natural posture, the figure should be turned in the block with, say, the shoulders tilted at a different angle than the hips. Of course you can, in the sawing, leave extra wood to allow for turns of the shoulders or the hips, but most carvers saw right on the line, giving themselves little extra wood to turn the figure in the block. Thus you see carving after carving with shoulders, hips, and often knees parallel to each other, an event that happens in nature usually only when the figure is at attention. The term used to describe the carvings that result from parallel cutting or inadequate modeling is "it's still in the block." Many traditional carvers carve directly out of the block with no preliminary sawing, as Michelangelo did out of marble, working in from the front so that they can turn the head, move one shoulder ahead of the other, etc. By leaving the back wood on, they can fudge as much as they want because they have not limited themselves by removing the back wood too soon. (Of course no one will give up band sawing, but consider the point so that you can adjust to the band saw's limitations)


Part the Third:

(Someone wrote)

You also mention that "Many traditional carvers carve directly out of the block with no preliminary sawing, as Michelangelo did" That is true too. That is a hard way to go and time consuming too. For folks carving for a pastime or hobby this is the way to go. If you read more about Michelangelo you'll see he had a small army of helpers to rough out the carvings. Michelangelo did the finish work.

(To which Ivan replied)

Most of the trained wood carvers with whom I've visited--I've interviewed many both here and in Europe--use the method of carving into the front, as did Michelangelo (just to name the most identifiable sculptor), even when they don't use power or have an army of workers as Michelangelo had. It still works (even if you are carving a small piece without the army) to give you flexibility in manipulating the form. The point I wish to share is one that Jud made--each bit of technology has its artistic ramifications. Even our innocent and beloved bandsaw puts its character on the work. Understanding that, the artist can then accept or counter the limitations the mechanism imposes on his work.

Even speaking in terms of "production" and "time saving" has artistic ramifications. I can imagine Van Gogh and Gauguin sitting over a glass of wine, "you know, Vincent, I really need to increase my production." "I know what you mean, Paul. Ever thought of using a sprayer?"


Part the Forth:

I don't embrace hand carving simply because I am an artistic Neanderthal--which of course may be true:). It gets to the larger question of what is the place of art in our society. The social trend is towards automation, mass production. The benefits of this are great. But they also have a down side-- swallowing up our individuality, tending to turn us into numbers, components in a production line. To me art is the antithesis of all that. It speaks to our individuality, to our humanity. It serves as a countering force to the robotic trends of our society. For that reason in my own work I avoid the trend that would turn my art into a mass produced product, or turn the creation of it over to a machine. Just as we need wilderness to escape the city from time to time, we need art to help us escape the mechanisms of our society. The continuing mechanization of our lives will go on. We love gadgets and time savers. Lest we get swallowed up in it, however, we also need to preserve a few areas in our lives where we can escape from that. For me, art, which champions individuality, originality, and humanity, offers such an escape. That is why, even though my studio is wired for electricity, I continue to carve by hand. I'm sure others carve by hand for similar reasons.


Part the Last:

It is nearly impossible for the casual observer to distinguish contemplative time from break time. Suffice it to say, a well-rounded day allows plenty of both.

That wraps up this special edition of Notes From the Net. May you always strive to reach the next level with your carving efforts.

Loren Woodard and Matt Kelley

Please take some time and check out the wood carving lists on the Internet. There is a lot of knowledge free for the asking on all of the list serves.

For information regarding the various email lists for woodcarvers, visit The Carvers' Companion Resource Files, or click the links below.

Woodcarver's List - Woodcarvers' Porch - American Stickmaker's - Knotholes List - Fishcarver's List