Saturday, September 25, 2010

Artistic License

My friend, Dyami Plotke, sent a book to me entitled "The Artistic Crafts Series of Technical Handbooks—Wood Carving: Design and Workmanship."

It was printed in 1903 and focuses on relief carving—from choosing and sharpening tools to the do's and don'ts of the craft.

The author is very opinionated (alluding at one point to his distaste for a new trend in artwork which he finds to be without merit—presumably Art Nouveau) and points continually to older artforms created in previous decades as objects worthy of study.

I love this book. The man who wrote it, George Jack, and I would never have gotten along. His "this is the correct and only way to do this" approach would drive me nuts. However, the language he uses and his instruction are excellent.

It's motivated me to try relief carving again, so I spent time searching for a centuries-old print to use as a model. I found one on Peter Follansbee's blog which depicts a cooper in 1485, tightening the hoops on an inverted bucket.

The artist had a wonderful eye for balance, negative and positive space, and format. Your eye is first attracted to the face and the central spot in the drawing—his workpiece—then your gaze moves down the cooper's body to the axe on the stump, then circles to the left to view the bucket, and sweeps back up to the hammer. This circular shape is underscored by the arch in the doorway.

Upon closer scrutiny, the seemingly crude sketch (in ink, I'm guessing) shows someone who, with use of minimal line, is able to suggest heavy, thick folds in cloth, and who had an eye for detail of a craft which he did not thoroughly know. Check out the shaving horse. It has a dumbhead and footrest, but no bridge, and a gaping space in front of the dumbhead. Unless there was some insert (i.e., ramp or raised bed) that fit into the empty space, this shaving horse appears to be unusable. Plus, as Peter Follansbee pointed out, there is no front leg or pair of legs.

However, the artist does illustrate details like iron hoops hanging from the wall and a few of the tools a cooper would use. I was not able to determine two of the items on the rear table, to the left of his swinging hammer. One might be a cup because there is a pitcher nearby. The other looks like a pastry bag. Or corn cob. I opted to change those two objects to a drawknife and head shave.

Another thing I changed in my version are the parallel and horizontal lines. I used a plastic T-square and plywood triangle to square up the image. Those things can be fudged in sketches, but, to me, they would look sloppy in a carving.

What makes this a nice piece to use for relief carving is the perspective. As Mr. Jack explains, the rules of perspective that apply to painting are not the same as those used in carving: "...all such features [in the artwork] must be treated in a way entirely different to that adopted by the painter—that is to say, in detached groups, each having some due relation to the original surface of the wood, and only very little to their perspective positions."

He goes on to say that objects that point directly toward the viewer, in severe perspective, simply will not work in relief carving.

The artwork that I have chosen to carve reflects this concept. The elements in the workshop seem to be stacked on top of one another, rather than drawn in realistic perspective, and are in lateral and 3/4 view.

Now, let's see if I can do this wonderful little painting justice.


Nat said...

Good luck with this Kari. I have followed your blog for a while. I do a lot of relief carving myself. What you have chosen should be a fun challenge.


Dyami Plotke said...

I'm so glad you found the book inspiring. I can't wait to see your carving take shape.

Also, while I don't think he's ever done anything as complex as your image, relief carving is my Dad's carving of choice. I'm sure he'll be impressed too.

Eric said...

If it turns out anything like the rest of your stuff, you'll nail it for sure.
Thanks Kari.

Kari Hultman said...

Nat, thanks for the good wishes. This project will definitely be challenging.

Dyami, thanks again for the book. As with most (if not all) vintage writing about woodworking, the instruction is still relevant. You should post some of your Dad's work on your blog. :o)

Thanks, Eric, I really hope I can do this well.

Gye Greene said...


Yow! You ambitious thing, you!

("Hmm. Gonna give relief carving a try. A smiley face? A simple 4" x 6" oak leaf? NAH!!! Gonna carve me AN ENTIRE ETCHING!!!")

Naturally, being The Kari, you'll succeed... :)


Kari Hultman said...

Gye—hey, you only live once!

Anonymous said...

Boy, Kari, that looks pretty difficult. —Mom

Species: Cheekius_Geekus said...

For those interested, this book is also available in its copyright-expired entirety on Google Books:


Woodbloke said...

Interesting project Kari, looks like it could be a good'un - Rob

Gary Roberts said...


Just picked up a copy of this one. I had the bookbinding volume but not the carving. My thanks for enlightening me! It's a really interesting book.


Mark Hunt said...

I think its a great image, Im sure you will do a great job. I would be interested to see photos of the proccess.

Anonymous said...

hmmm....any progress ?


SteveR said...

Just a thought. I wonder if the objects behind him were purposely vague to keep the focus in the foreground.

Not much about that drawing makes sense but perhaps it wasn't supposed to. For example, the alleged shavehorse sticks out of the doorway but the bucket below it ( or in front of it) does not! The notches in the roofline make no sense except from a single perspective but is not the one depicted!

Good luck with your carving!

Kari Hultman said...

Species, thank you for posting a link to the book!

Rob, I imagine that it will be a real learning experience.

Gary, glad to hear you're enjoying it!

Mark, I will definitely take progress shots. It will be a little while until I can start carving. Just got back from WIA, so I have some blogging to do. ; )

Heinrich, unfortunately, I haven't started it yet. I might be able to start this weekend. (fingers crossed)

Steve, I would defintely say that's what the artist had in mind when he kept the background shapes lighter. I'll try to capture that in the carving. I'm wondering if this was a sketch or study for a painting and that's why there are some inconsistencies and inaccurate perspectives. I was sort of attracted to that, though. :o)

Dave said...

Have fun on your vacation! Hope you come back fully revitalized. I just discovered your blog and enjoy it very much. I'm a brand-new blogger myself, blogging about all things home-construction. Feel free to drop in when you are back: Comments and feedback (especially from one woodworking fanatic to another) are much appreciated.