Carve the form not the details

This is a common topic where here I will expand a bit on my reasons for carving a form and not the details as is so often the case. Many new carvers will see all sorts of details in a piece and in their efforts to carve will gravitate to these areas trying to mimic what they are looking at. They aren’t carving what they see in the essential form of the piece. Carving the form is what makes a carving good, if not great. Here is what I mean.

Lets take a square block of wood for example. If I plan on carving a cluster of grapes for example and I immediately start carving little balls to represent the grapes… I’ll end up with a square block of grapes not looking anything like a real cluster. Then too , if I start with a flat board as if I was doing a relief of grapes and carved beautiful grapes right on the surface I’d end up with what looks like a collection of bottle caps arranged into what should be a grape cluster. The overall form wasn’t found first.

Taking that same block of wood and turing it into a head. If the forms aren’t found first you’ll end up with a square block of wood covered with what should be hair. Even carving hair for example, all the bulk forms and shapes , without detail, should be arranged in the overall shape of the way hair falls. Only then do you think about actually carving in the hair details.

Or in the example that was in question , a bird. The determining factor in carving a bird ( or a human body for that matter) is all the major forms have to be in their proper place in order for the details to be added. If the piece is left completly smooth you should instantly recognize that the shape is either that of a parrot or a finch. What’s great as well as difficult about a bird is every Robin for example is exactly the same. They all fit the same pattern unlike a human body. Why is this difficult when you think this eliminates problems? Well, if it doesn’t fit that pattern exactly all the details in the world won’t make it look like a Robin.. it’ll look like a mutation. People don’t fit in the same patterns.. some are fat, short,tall etc. and variations can be written off. Not so with a bird. I’ve entered super detailed pieces in the World Championships and lost before the judges were within 20 feet of the piece. I didn’t understand how I lost with pieces more detailed than the next which won. Why,, my piece didn’t say “Mallard” to the judges from 20 feet away. It didn’t have the characteristics of how a mallard holds itself. Every bird carries itself in particular ways and fits in the same pattern.

Now here again consider this. Everyone looks for the details to judge a carving. I believe that’s wrong for many of the above mentioned reasons. Also,,details aren’t all that important and are the last thing to consider. Too many stop carving the form and start addding details way too early and spoil what could otherwise been a great carving without details. Why don’t you need details especially early on? Simply because they fall with the boundaries of the major form itself. There is always plenty of wood left to include details if the forms define a shape. Details don’t define a piece or shape,,they only serve to accent it.

This philosophy is everywhere in our lives.

You have a badly planned yard but a nice rose bush…. does it make the yard flow in harmony?

You have a bad piece of steak,,soggy vegetables but a nice garnish,, does it make the meal palatable?

Put a custom made Italian suit on the Elephant Man,,, does it work?

You get the point. So,, If I carve basically forms that without any details you can say that could be a cluster of grapes if you carved actual grapes… THEN it’s ready for me to carve in the grapes. Think about it,, all the grapes fall within the major shapes of the clusters of grapes. If you could wrap plastic wrap around a cluster of grapes, this is the form you should be carving grapes into..because all the grapes are within the perimiter of the plastic wrap. All the wood is still there for you to carve grapes .

Carve a bird . Are the wings originating where they belong. Are the cape feathers grouped where they belong before you actually carve them in. On a duck , are the side pockets where they should be as a major group indicated by their distinctive bulge before you carve a single feather? Is the bird standing on it’s display in a natural position without looking like it’s ready to fall over? These things have to be planned ahead to make the most natural looking bird and pose. Too many times the base is an after thought with a bird stuck on something just to hold it and it looks that way,, just because someone wanted to carve a bird.

And this takes the most knowledge if you want to make good carvings,, birds, humans, pretty much anything. In the case of the bird you need knowledge to produce the basic pattern that says “Robin” Without it you have what is a generic bird that you’re trying to pass off as a Robin.

Or a square block of wood you’re trying to pass off as a cluster of grapes.

You need to see the major forms and carve only them. The details which everyone seems to love,, but ignores the forms,, makes so-so carvings. The forms are the most difficult. The details are the easiest to learn.

If you can carve a form that says Robin so clearly that even if you painted it black people would ask ” Why did you paint that Robin black” before you put in the details ,,, you’ve got it right. That takes knowledge to carve what you see,,,not what you know to be a Robin,, or feathers.

Why didn’t you carve grapes into that grape cluster? Ahh,, your viewer sees the form. They already know they are grapes and guess what,, their imagination already saw the “details” of the grapes already there without carving a single grape. Do you need details? Not really ,,your mind fills them all in.

Play a song one note at a time.. you know the song. All the other instruments fill it out. If you don’t follow the form of the melody,, nobody will recognize the tune

As I said,, this philosophy is all around us and what makes our world recognizable.

25 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Larry Armour
    May 26, 2009 @ 02:38:15

    Philosophy verses mathmatics – Oh how I struggle with this sometimes. But I do understand the difference {dicitomy) – I was going to use this nice big word until I googled the definition and found that I was – wrong! 1 part of me has a pragmatic organized side and the other really goes bipolar and seeks out to confuse me with concepts. We are taught to trust the calipers and the math behind the form without actually looking at the form. Yet if I look at a tree – its not symetrical but chaotic and still the form is asthetically pleasing either by itself or as a group. I remember (back in younger years I was teaching social and ballroom dance to people out of a studio in Vancouver. As every beginner is taught – you start with the correct foot placed in the correct place at the correct time . . . . . Then – throw all that out the window and ask them if they are having fun yet? The best approach was (and still is) feel the music and move with it. Unless you are competing – it should be about holding a beautiful person in your arms nice and close for 3 to 4 minutes and being swept away walking about together. (Form = Feeling) I am not suggesting that people would succeed at carving, dancing or anything else without the structure, disciplines or rules etc that go with them . . . but that fingerpainted stickman on the fridge that says Daddy underneath requires no other embelishments in order to have made me smile.


    • markyundt
      May 26, 2009 @ 05:27:56

      Yes Larry,,you understand the concept perfectly! Just minutes ago,on another post I used the analogy of carving BEING A DANCE!!! Sometimes I lead, sometimes the wood leads and others the chisels tell me what I’m doing wrong and what needs to be done. I’m not important at some point in time.
      If a ballroom floor was covered with painted foot prints telling you where to go the dance would be robotic and jerky. The fluidity would be lost as you well know. But you’re right..the rules have to be know in order to break them. Or at least bend them to our will. And knowing my will I tend to break rules all the time…. otherwise I wouldn’t get banned from some sites, LOL… oh well,, we do what we have to do.
      Another item you mentioned that I like so much is the fact that nature seems to be organized disorder. We can’t carve it that way because it ends up looking like a mess. The artists job is to make sense out of what is seen,,capture the essence or what is important and capitalize on that. Then it makes sense to us and looks “natural” even though it’s not. Funny how that works out the best.Calipers vs. intuition. Right brain vs. left. It’s the classic battle. Most function left brained. Artists right. the key is the integration of the two. I use calipers to find my artistic side. My artistic side already knows the dimensions and wants to discard the calipers and go from the heart. My brain says I’m not really sure you both have valid arguments. The left is demanding.. the right is soft spoken but insightful. Balance the two and you have a winning combination.
      And why does that fingerpainted stickman on the fridge work so well? It’s pure and done from the heart. That says all it needs to say.
      Thank you for your comment. I enjoy knowing someone gets it.


  2. Vicky Price
    May 30, 2009 @ 20:20:59

    Thank you for the reminder. I am new to woodcarving, and find myself moving too quickly into detail from time to time. It was a problem for me when I began painting also. I learned to hold off on the details by forcing myself to use the larger brushes. With carving, I am aware of where things need to be, in proportion to one another. The project I am working on now is of a running dog. While I have been moving in on the entire form to capture the life in this pup, I can see that I have’nt quite placed the eyes deeply enough into the skull. Until I get them where one expects to see them, he just won’t be right. I’m going slowly because I know it is easier to remove wood than replace it. It can be difficult, though, to resist laying in detail with eyes, because they help to convey the excitement of the moment. Again. Thank you for providing such helpful resources.


    • markyundt
      May 31, 2009 @ 20:37:43

      Yes Vicky,, you understand the concept very well. The life of anything is in the form, the details are accents. All the accents and details in the world didn’t make Charlie Browns Christmas tree great. This is also spoken of with homes… they have “good bones” as they say. Or something has potential..why,, the basic forms are there to build on , finesse and detail to really bring out the beauty.
      Eyes are the windows to the soul as it is said. My birds ( which I first started with in carving) always looked dull and lifeless until the eyes were put in.But everything else had to be there first.
      Even when they were being painted I’d prime and paint right over the eyes. The entire bird could be finished but still didn’t look good at all until the paint was removed from the glass eyes,,,THEN they came to life. I understand your anxiousness to get the eyes in place. That’ll happen in it’s appropriate time.
      One caution to which I think you’re already in tune with.Get everything in place first. I say this because in the case of the birds,, had I always looked at the eyes ,,,, and had them clear and visible as I was painting,, the bird in some way would have always looked alive and good since they could easily capture your imagination and have you believe the piece was complete by your imagination filling in all the missing details.
      All things happen in their appointed time. I’d love to see your “pup” when it’s completed.
      Thank you for your comments and stopping by our blog. It’s much appreciated.


    • dorisfiebig
      May 31, 2009 @ 22:21:32

      hi vicky, thank you for letting us know that our information is useful for you…. what you say with the larger brush in painting, you can do this in a carving too, by using chisels or gouges with larger width. that automaticaly makes you look differently at your carving. if you have, say a 2mm gouge in your hand, you want carve small, but having a 10 or 12mm gouge in your hand makes you look for broader shapes,,,just what you need in the early stage when developping the forms…then when the basic forms are there, you can go to smaller width gouges… as with the brushes, this is a simply way to stay focused on the forms and not the detail


  3. Glenn
    Aug 28, 2009 @ 21:10:48

    Very interesting. I’ve been carving for 1 year + when time permits. I’m the kind of person who needs to know why I’m doing something to do it well. I’ve had a few people tell me about basic forms but never the way you explain it here. Your philosophical approach makes sense to me and gave me the “why” I needed. I’m currently going through your eyes, nose and mouth tutorial’s and will apply them soon. I’m in the process of trying to find my place in carving like what I may focus on. Your thoughts on the importance of form will help make carving more meaningful. I too have the habit of reaching for the details too quickly but I think after reading this I feel inspired. I’m currently carving an elephant and boy, this would have made a difference if I read this first. The basic form of the legs, their motion and toe’s could be better. I was thinking of details too soon. Well, Thank you for this wonderful site and the great info here.


    • dorisfiebig
      Aug 28, 2009 @ 21:59:31

      hi glenn, nice to meet you. i am so glad you find answers to your questions on our blog… yes, mark has explained it so well with why it is necessary to carve form, and not detail. you will see this very thing happen in the eye, nose, and mouth tutorial i did, and, in my opinion, that is what these tutorials are about. i was trying to show, how you can approach a carving to find the forms which are essential. … yes, i think most of us, want carve details first when we begin to learn carving, the details look so impressive… but, as you learned now with your elefant project, the difficult part is the underlying form, get that right, put the extra effort to get the legs of the elefant right,understand how and at which places they bend, how the general shapes are, carve that, and the toes and skin folds etc all fall into place and just look beautiful. … thank you for commenting. it feels good to know our information is useful to some.


  4. Glenn
    Aug 31, 2009 @ 15:50:01

    Nice to meet you too. I was just surfing the net for some good carving info and that’s how I found your blog. And I told a friend. Thanks again.



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    Sep 14, 2009 @ 06:16:15

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