Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | August 10, 2009

Wood Carving Subjects and the use of Patterns and Rough-outs

It is not unusual to be asked where I get my ideas for carvings.  Ideas come from many places and resources.  They may come from something seen in a museum, a movie, a magazine, or they may spring from a dream, or something in nature.  From a mental picture, I will often either draw the subject or find a pattern that represents the idea move it to a suitable piece of wood.

Once drawn on the wood to satisfaction, I cut it out on a band saw, cut away excess wood with a gouge and mallet, or even use a chain saw.  If it is small, I simply cut excess wood away with a knife or palm gouge.

I find that it is difficult to find patterns that adequately match up with most of my ideas and desires.  However, it is often easy to find pictures that I can use as a reference and draw my own pattern.  An important point to remember is that the picture or pattern that you use to apply to the wood does not need to represent the detail or end result of your carved subject.  Detail can come later.  It must only be accurate as to major aspects of the carving subject such as the outer profile and the location of arms, legs, antlers, talons, etc., depending upon your subject.  As an example, if carving an eagle, you must make sure that you have left adequate wood for talons and wings, etc.  Once the wood is cut out or roughed in, you can begin to add the detail.  I will often hang a collection of pictures in front of me that I use when carving.  I find these pictures work quite well for references even though they may not be the exact model for my carving.

There are a number of books of patterns for sale on virtually any subject matter.  And all of the carving magazines offer patterns as well.  There is no shortage of patterns for those wanting to use them.  A popular author/artist by the name of Lora Irish has published a large number of books of woodcarving patterns under the Fox Chapel label and she is an excellent artist.  While I do not recommend it, carving magazines also have pictures of carvings by others which can be copied.  Rather than copy someone’s carving, I suggest using pictures of other’s work to be an idea generator.

My experience is that finding and using patterns generally does not adequately represent my own idea.  Also, if choosing to use a commercial carving pattern, you will likely see several carvings from the same pattern pop up in shows and woodcarving magazines… so much for originality.  Still, patterns, like a picture can be a good idea generator.  For instance, you might look at a pattern of a dragon and conclude that a dragon would be a good project but you may have a better idea for a dragon than the dragon pattern that you saw.  And, looking at the pattern(s) can be a big help with drawing your own dragon.

Pictures found in children’s books, such as coloring books make excellent patterns as the pictures are generally simple yet provide a good representation of the subject.

Many years ago, I saw (in Chip Chats Magazine and saved in my “ideas file”) a cartoon of an eagle carving a Roman nobleman.  It was titled The Eagle Carver.  I really enjoyed the concept and, even more so, the actual title.  However, I was not so enamored with the subject matter.  So, I re-drew the cartoon to be an eagle carving a female torso.  I first drew it on paper then I moved it to wood by using carbon paper.   So, I did my own eagle carver and I like my own much better.  Still, the cartoon that I saw gave me the idea which I may not otherwise have had.  I don’t mean to diminish the original cartoon in any way.  It was great.  It just did not touch my own passions.

Eagle Carver

Eagle Carver

A particular good resource that I have used is the works of Alphonse Mucha.  Mucha was a great Czech Art Nouveau artist of the early 20th century.  He died in 1939 leaving an incredible legacy of art nouveau work behind.  Mucha was most famous for his women wearing long gowns and were often surrounded with an abundance of flora.  When looking closely at his drawings, you see many wonderful subjects for carvings.  Mucha used designs from nature such a ornate seeds, flowers, leaves, and bugs.  Even the simple free flowing lines from art nouveau art are good subject matter.  I find Mucha’s work to be a great inspiration.  From his work, I learned to look more closely at nature and often whittle the simple designs found in nature.  I suggest that if you want to practice varying cuts with a knife, go outdoors and pick up an item from nature and carve your own representation.  Items from nature flow and twist in wonderful ways and in intriguing patterns.  Working with those types of lines and form is an excellent exercise in knife use.  Although Mucha is long dead, books of his works are commonly found at book stores.

There is no doubt about it; I have been influenced by many wonderful artists and wood carvers.  Still, I consider my work to be original as it is my work and my very soul and personality are evident in my own work.  I recall once commenting to the late, great, woodcarver Dudley Carter that my North Coast Indian looked a bit animated and lacked an authentic look.  At that time, Dudley was in his late 90’s and he smiled at me and said: “You know, I can’t carve like you.  Your work represents your personality.  You should be proud of it.”  I have never forgotten that conversation and I treasure the memories of it.

Ideas for carvings are limited solely to what one can see or imagine.

One thing that I can guarantee you is that if you carve something from your heart and soul, you will have much greater success than caring “just anything.”  Carve what you love and what is important to you.  Believe me, it will show in your finished work.

One can buy rough-outs of many carving subjects.  I used to think using a rough-out was cheating; but since having worked with many, I quickly learned my thinking was incorrect and cheating was not the case at all.  Ten people can sit down with the same rough-out and not one will be finished in the same manner.  They may be similar but they are not the same.  A rough-out provides a basic roughed out blank that one can finish in any manner she or he desires.  Using a rough-out does away with a lot of the less fun labor involved in carving.  I am a firm believer that rough-outs provide and excellent resource to a new carver.  They are available form several resources as listed below.  On the down-side, it may be difficult to find a rough-out that meets your truest carving desires.

I also suggest classes to the new and seasoned carver alike.  I am always learning something and it is a lot of fun carving with others.  Instructors often have a pre-determined subject ans supply a rough-out of that subject.  The instructor will also have one or more finished pieces to use as a reference.  I think the first rough-out that I ever used was a mountain man in a Cleve Taylor class.  That experience corrected my thinking on rough-outs and hooked me on caricature carving.

Rough-outs are widely available in various subject matter.  I suggest doing an Internet search for “Rough-outs.”  Another good resource is at carving shows in the vendor area.

Keep sharp, be carveful, and happy carving!

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