Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | January 5, 2011

Critique Your Own Woodcarvings

Like me, if you have been carving for any length of time, you have probably learned that it is a lot easier to critique another carver’s work, while it’s more difficult to get a true objective look at our own work.  Some of us are way too hard on ourselves and keep “over carving” a carving when it was just fine a few hours or days before.   There are also those personalities who overrate their own work – ignoring the fact that the piece has its shortcomings.  The rest of us fall somewhere in between the two extremes.

At the risk of offending someone reading this, I have never met a carving show judge that was not prejudiced to his or her own style.  Judges should remember that they are not judging their own style, they are judging another artist’s work.  Forget the judge and let’s take a look at our own work objectively.

Look At Your Work Objectively

We’re all different in our approaches to carving.  Some plan, make models and sketches — others just get straight into carving from start to finish.  There’s no sense in comparing yourself to other carvers.  You will always find carvers both better than you and not as skilled as you.  What works for you IS what works for you and what works for others, works equally well for them.  Accept your own approach and grow with it.

When it comes down to a final self-critique, before a carving is declared finished or goes off to a show, it is important that we have and use a set of principles to judge our work by.  Take your feelings out of the process, because feelings aren’t always accurate and can change from day to day.

Originality aside, here are some techniques and principles that may be useful in critiquing your own work:

1. Stand back from your work every so often.  It helps to work standing up sometimes; otherwise I tend to get lazy and resist taking a look from a distance.

2.  When you get out of bed in the morning, immediately go to your carving and look at it with the day’s fresh perspective.  My bet is that it will appear differently than when you last worked on it.

3. Turn your carving upside down and sideways, look at it in a mirror, or photograph it and flip it backwards in your computer’s photo-editor. You’ll be amazed at how different the composition looks, and furthermore, problems that other viewers would see (because they’re seeing it for the first time) will become quickly apparent.  Look for balance.  “Out-of-whack” composition will become obvious when a carving is  upside down or on its side.  Unequal eye or “off” perspective facial features become obvious.

4.  Look for a “squared” appearance.  Unless we are carving a box, most things are not squared off.  Animals, birds, and human bodies are rounded yet it is easy to make them square.  If you are carving a human, hold a photo of a real human up against your carving… what do you see?

5. Does your carving have a center of interest (not all carvings need one) and does it should stand out as a focal point?

6.  Are your cuts clean or are burrs, chips, and sanding scratches apparent?  Are the cuts deep and crisp or shallow and vague?

7. Detail: In my opinion, good detail is a real eye catcher.  How is your detail presented and finished?  Is the detail clear and in proportion to the balance of the carving?

Many years ago, I was sitting in a caricature carving work shop with Cleve Taylor at the helm.  I forget what caricature we were carving but the subject had hands.  Everyone was busy carving away and chatting as happens in a workshop.  In making his normal rounds, Cleve stopped at this one fellow and noticed that his carving’s hand had its thumb coming squarely out of the back of the hand.  In carving, the student had completely lost his prospective to the whole carving.  It is important for us to constantly take a good, fresh look at our work.  While I have never done anything quite like the chap in Cleve Taylor’s class, I have made some mistakes that I could laugh about.

Do try to employ the critiquing techniques that I discuss above.  And remember… enjoy the process.

Thanks for reading.

Happy Carving and Keep Sharp!

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