Easy carvings,,no thought

Again,, so many things swirling in my head. A thought here,, a quote there. Random in appearance but are all parts of a puzzle. They show up for a reason. To me anyway.

I watch the tutorials Doris does so well. I remember posts and questions from other sites. I see and hear about frustrations new carvers have. Quotes such as ” An apprentice tries to remember all his master told him… a Master just practices his craft”.  I remember snippets from books,, one in particular Drawing on the Right side of the brain. Examples given there that I believe apply to carving. My recent additions to  “Tryptich” and the apparently off handed comment I made about not having to think when I carve.

Ahh,, it all came together and here is the story as I see it.

Do you want to make carving easier? Do you want to make better carvings? If you said yes… then it’s simple. Stop thinking about them.

If you watch Doris you will ( should) realize that she isn’t thinking about carving a mouth or an eye. What then is she doing to have it come out so well? NOT THINKING ABOUT AN EYE OR A MOUTH.

No,, she has her references and in a sense is simply COPYING  them.  She’s a human Xerox machine. A living duplicator.  She’s not trying to carve what she THINKS a mouth looks like. She’s making a copy of the one she is looking at. A Xerox machine doesn’t produce what it thinks the document is. It has no “thoughts” about it, it simply copies what it SEES. It knows how to print on a page,, just give it something to copy. Same for a carver. The basics of carving are learned very quickly, but getting your mind out of the way is what takes practice. There are no “magical” cuts.. no Voodoo here. It’s simply copying what you see, into the block of wood. Don’t think about it,,the mouth or eye isn’t what you think it is,, it is simply what you see. And what you see is translated into the wood, not your thoughts. You have to give the Xerox machine something to copy. You can’t tell it to just make something up without some reference point can you?

Why would you try and carve that way?

You might have seen faces all your life,, but when it comes to carving one,, you’re lost . Gee,,, haven’t you looked at them long enough to “know ‘ what they look like?  Basically,,, NO.

Everyone says for example a womans face is like a mans,,,only softer. Great,, what does that tell you? Nothing. Its absurd. Some post their work and say,, “I can’t carve a womans face,, where did I go wrong?”  Well,, where is your reference? People give suggestions on what to do based on their thoughts about a woman. I’m thinking Selma Hyak.. you’re thinking Cathy Bates. Everyone gives suggestions and you have a carving designed by a committee. Everyone’s opinion,, but nothing close to the truth. If you have a reference it’s easy then to say,, ‘Well the eyes should be like this,,the mouth doesn’t look like the picture because it’s not deep enough,,the lips aren’t full enough etc.”

It’s like trying to shoot a gun or an arrow. Hey,, you shot alright,, but at what? How do you know how close you came? How do you know what adjustments to make without a target? Everyone just guesses. And wonders why they miss. C’mon,, at least give yourself a target to shoot for! How will anyone know with any degree of certainty to tell you what to do? You want to do a “generic” face? Generic will end up being a mess. A waste of time which tells you nothing. It’s the same as shooting in the dark without a target no less. You have no point of reference to what you are trying to carve. Mouths..eyes,, faces male and female come in all shapes and sizes. Ever watch the late night TV shows and they ask people on the street to guess at someone’s photo and it’s all blanked out except for the eyes ,, mouth,,,etc. Sometimes it turns out not to be a man but a woman..and vice versa. Nobody has a clue and they fool you. That is what people are trying to carve,,, bits and pieces of nothing in particular. And don’t be surprised if that’s what you end up with.

Why carve that way?  What have you learned?  Nothing. You didn’t teach your eyes to see,, you didn’t teach your hands to carve. You’re shooting in the dark. Without a target. What do you expect to accomplish?

Back to Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Look at the examples of drawings by children. They draw what they know. If they are drawing a car,, they know it has 4 wheels,, and regardless of the perspective ( usually from the side) you’ll see what? Yup,, 4 wheels. They drew what they know about a car. Same for a table…4 legs. Now you know you don’t see all four at the same time. But they are there. We as adult carvers do the same thing. We carve what we know,,not what we see. A great exercise in the book,, as well as one taught in drawing classes is a Pure Contour Drawing. Basically you have to look at a subject,put your hand and pencil on a pad,, and not looking at the pad,, draw the contour of the subject you’re looking at. Try it ,, it’s hard. You want to look,, you think you need to think about what it is you’re drawing,, you think you need to “think” about what it is your hands are doing. You don’t. Once you let go,, and just look.. and let your hands do what your eyes tell them,, it’s surprising just how accurate you can do a pure contour drawing without looking at what you are drawing, ,, and have it come out recogizeable.

That can be carving. I don’t carve,, I watch my hands carve something. They carve what my eyes see. That’s how I’ve watched brand new carvers fresh off the street carve incredible things in the shops I’ve been in. It’s not a matter of years. It’s a matter of seeing.. and carving what you see. Nothing else.

Our thoughts get in the way.

Practice is not the answer. Never was,, never will be.

What should be practiced is not thinking.Just seeing.  But that’s what we’re taught all along isn’t it. So it’s our natural condition to do just that.THINK ABOUT WHAT YOUR DOING. Wrong..didn’t your parents ask you… What were you thinking?  Didn’t you think about what you were doing?..Do I have to think for you?  It’s how we are raised and taught. But unfortunately this way of going about it,, using your thoughts is like putting some filter,, or additional colored glasses on that Xerox machine. It colors and distorts what it is it’s looking at and trying to copy. It’s “thoughts” or filters etc. get in the way. Those are your thoughts ABOUT a carving. Filters or special effect lenses.

Now you can take measuring to an extreme and you will have a mechanical looking carving. In some cases measuring is fine. But in some , if not most cases, measuring isn’t feasible. So what do you do?  You relate one thing to another. Just like it’s taught in Drawing on the Right side of the Brain.

This corner of the eye is lower than the center… so make your block of wood look like that. The eyebrow is hign here and drops away to meet the upper eye lid,, so make your block of wood do that.

From your first moments with a chisel you learned how to gouge out a groove. One side is high,, the center is low,, and the other side is high. That’s the making of an eye. The moves a beginner makes is no different than the ones I, or Doris makes. We take off wood the same as everyone else. So where is the difference in our outcomes? We’re not thinking about everything our master told us… we’re not thinking about that,, we’re simply carving what we see. We’re focusing on our craft.

I’ve had the opportunity to work in full time carving shops. Every time not one of the carvers seemed to be paying attention to what they were carving. It was organized chaos. We talked about everything under the sun as we were carving stuff for mansions, billionairs, churches etc. without a thought about what we were carving. And it all came out great. It was mindless. We carved the forms,, the details fall inside the forms,, we were carving machines. Human duplicators. Human Xerox machines.

Now to many of you it may seem this takes the mystery , the allure  out of carving. It doesn’t. Are you unhappy with good carvings? We weren’t. That’s how they happen. You might think ,, well that’s not “artsy” enough for me. Fine,, go produce your art. You might think this is uninspired. How so?  Haven’t all the great artists past and present in a sense “copied” from nature,, a still life,, a human form,, a landscape?  Yes they did. And they did it well enough to hang in museums today.

Many let the wood “talk ‘ to them , and go from there. I’m not addressing this type of carving. Sometimes it works, and works well if you’re lucky,, and sometimes the wood talks back to the viewer as well,,, saying ” throw me in the nearest fire pit,,,please” Put me out of my misery.  Art to is in the eye of the beholder. But for the most part,, I’m talking to those who want to produce some recognizable piece of work. Not abstract. That’s another topic.

Do your carvings qualify?

If not,, why not?

Aren’t you too carving what you see instead of what you know?

Didn’t the great painters go out in the country to be able to paint a landscape? Didn’t they see one before and just paint what they know about one? Didn’t they use live models to copy the human form? Or did they just draw and paint what they thought a woman looks like,, a man,, only softer? How about doing a still life? What did they do ,, and how did they do it.? Did they buy or find a pattern? Did they buy a roughout? No,, they learned to see.

That’s what I learned and took me from a one year hobbyist to a full time carver. That is what Doris learned to do. I have to say it but it doesn’t come from a book.,,, another class,, another tool,,NOTHING!  You need to learn to see,, and not think about what it is you’re carving.  It works… just look around you . People with little potential to do good work. And look what they have done. Why?  They don’t look at things the same way you do,,and they don’t even THINK ABOUT IT.

Of course I have more to say,,, later,, let meTHINK about it….LOL,,,LOL,.,,this is too much fun!

29 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. john
    Jun 16, 2009 @ 11:02:53

    I follow that, I think. give me a day or two to digest it.


  2. dorisfiebig
    Jun 16, 2009 @ 12:27:19

    mark, yes, that is how carving works,,, and, i hope one can read this from the tutorials, they are not recipies to carve an eye, or mouth, everyone who has seen some of my carvings in earlier stages, knows i do carve eyes etc different on almost every carving. i dont follow a recipy, i follow what the reference is telling me, each eye is different, for each carving i need go about it in the way the reference requires, there is no fixed route to produce “an eye” … so, the tutorials are only to show about the importance of reference, and not thinking about what you “know about an eye” …

    and, oddly, that is exactely why the tutorials are so difficult to create … they force me to think about the carving, in a way i usually don´t do. i just start by carving, in the beginning i like to measure from the reference to get some points in about good relation ship, and from there it is, as you deescribe relating the forms in the carving to each other, this is higher that that in the reference, so i replicate this in the carving, etc… the carving speaks to me, in the sense that i watch it develop and compare with the reference, i see how the chisel traveling along its path changes a shape, immediately i can see this is going to be right or wrong, and make the chisel do its next action accordingly,,,or does the chisel do that itself ? hmm…
    when we draw we do similar, we first draw roughly, just to get an idea where things should be placed, and then by looking the reference, or the model, we approximate the drawing more and more, the relationships between the things become more accurate with each pencil line, the drawing sharpens up…
    same is when carving, we watch the relationships between the different forms, say eye corner, nose wings, and move them around on the carving, loosely, until they fall in their destination. its a dance of shapes, sometimes it looks weird, but eventually all comes together…
    but in the tutorials, even though i try doing the same, there is always the thought about, now i should show and explain why i do something,,,yes, and as soon as i think this, it comes into the way of carving,,, often i don´t know why i do something, but from the reference, and what i see how my carving looks, there comes what i do…


    • markyundt
      Jun 16, 2009 @ 18:13:26

      Yes Doris,,as you well know,,,that’s how carving works. I only had to look at your carvings,,even way back when,, to know you understood and followed the same process.And by doing that,,look how quickly progress is made.
      How much “practice” do you do? None,,you just carve. And the more you follow this process,, even by accident, your carvings keep improving. You’re not practicing carving,, you’re practicing letting go. Letting the thoughts subside and allowing yourself to see. The more you learn to do that,,the easier and faster it all goes. But there are ingrained habits we have learned and been taught that are hard to break. That’s why artists “SEE” thing differently. They don’t use the same eyes everyone else uses to just LOOK. The difference is day and night. One sees clearly,, the other is in the dark. That too is what makes a carving easy to read. A carving never lies,,,but is a lie that leads to truth.

      Look back over time. Every single artist used some model to follow. Michelangelo could have painted and carved very well just from his imagination. But he used models.
      I have a friend who is a professional painter and teacher at an art school. I see his paintings in many churches I visit. They are huge murals with dozens of people in them. And what , as I’ve commented on, do I see? People I know. He uses them as models. He could paint I’m sure from memory but doesn’t. Why? The paintings ,, though they might be good,, aren’t great. He needs a reference.

      And yes,, a good tutorial is difficult to do even if you’re doing something simple because of this fact. I can carve any old leaf from memory,, but if I want a really good one,, I go an pick one off a tree. And then copy it. Of course I add my little flairs here and there for “artistic license” But it works every time without fail.


  3. Claude
    Jun 16, 2009 @ 15:57:01

    Interesting thoughts 🙂


  4. Chuck
    Jun 16, 2009 @ 19:15:32

    Hmmm…all this ruminating about not ruminating is making my ruminator hurt! 😉
    So if all you are really doing is being human CNC machines, then why not just get actual CNC machines and let em rip? Then you can just make your final detail cuts to give it that “hand carved” appearance and ta da. So the “art” of carving is really in the design – and NOT the removal of wood. Right?


    • markyundt
      Jun 16, 2009 @ 19:49:56

      Ahhh,, a heritic in our midst. An you Chuck of all people? Why do you bother learning to play your guitar? Isn’t it simpler to use a computer program that sounds JUST LIKE A GUITAR and let it do the playing? Or why bother at all. Let a pro play and then all you have to do is pop in a CD sit back and play air guitar. LOL I do have a duplicator where and when multiples are needed..But for the one off,,let a CNC read the photo or whatever I’m using for a reference? Besides ,, have you ever seen some of the work put out on the market today done by CNC? Some is showing up at “another site” ,, To me,, it’s obvious how it was done,, but it’s marketed the same way,,”HAND CARVING” Many companies today do the same thing pioneered by a company in California. Many businesses I deal with use their products. But when it comes time for that special piece,,,they call me.
      Now I don’t want to hear another word out of you young man. Or now I’ll be able to ban you for a month instead of it being me!!!! I’ll slap your hand and send you to your room without dinner until you learn to behave Ha ha,,, lol…


      • Chuck
        Jun 16, 2009 @ 21:12:50

        Hehehe – just having a little fun stirring up your pot Mark.

        But there is in fact a point here. While the guitar analogy may begin to break down – there IS in fact a LOT of practice involved in learning to play “what I hear” and in making my hands DO what my brain “hears”. The artistry is in BOTH – the composition AND the execution (or interpretation) of the music. So I am not entirely convinced by your & Doris’ assertion that it’s simple and that you just have to copy what you see. I think your own ability has perhaps lifted you past being able to be truly objective about what skill is involved – both artistic and manual dexterity (feeling the wood, controlling the tool, hearing the cut, etc.).

        Though I DO absolutely agree that the smooth performance of a piece of music (whether a memorized piece or an improvization) happens best when you can get the brain out of the way. Like an athlete getting into the “zone” – your body memory takes over when the brain and thinking get out of the way and that’s when peak performance can occur. I see no reason this same phenomenon shouldn’t happen in carving as well.

        Very interesting posts. Let the rumination (or lack thereof) continue!

        ChuckT 😉


  5. markyundt
    Jun 16, 2009 @ 21:30:58

    The nature of any analogy is to break down. But funny how you answered your own doubts about our statements. And you’re probably right,,few people can learn to hold a chisel…hear the cuts,feel what the tool is doing,,learning to see anew. It’s not as easy as learning to play the guitar ( giggle,, poke)
    And you wrap it up with “getting in the zone,,body takes over when thinking gets out of the way,,” and especially,,, ” I see NO REASON this SAME PHENOMENON SHOULDN’T HAPPEN IN CARVING AS WELL”
    And I need to answer your question (doubts)that you already verified with your own admission? Hummmm Chuck,, just what have you been hitting with that mallet? LOL See your foot on the floor there,,,just shoot it. Once you overcome doubt and fear,, which are all in your mind and nowhere else, the rest can then have a chance to appear. Again, stop shooting yourself in the foot. You can’t dance with a limp like that.
    I have to remind Doris to shut the door. Geez,, the stuff the cat drags in here.


    • markyundt
      Jun 16, 2009 @ 21:55:34

      One more thought. Have you ever played a piece of music and everything was just perfect,, without effort that it surprised you? And when you tried it again and thought about what you just did trying to repeat it, was it as good?
      And if as you say Doris and I have some innate “ability” for lack of a better term is it really so? I don’t consider my carvings near the quality of say a Gibbons.
      Some play basketball,,but will they ever reach the level of a Michael Jordan? In some cases there is a natural ability such as Mozart playing concerts when he was 7. Michael Phelps,,, the list goes on.
      But my point isn’t natural ability. What if what we do, how we do it ,,if it is any good is the result of not so much ability,, but that during the course of our respective lives had always looked at things differently. Our mental approach is what prepared us for this stuff that we learned to do all along. WE applied it to other areas of our lives. WE realize that this approach and how we think ( or not ) about things is what is allowing it to occur. It’s all in our minds. And in many minds you can see the resistance that I talk about rear it’s head in others responses. Their rigidity is what is holding them back,, and looking for other easy answers. “God given talents” Or maybe we just conditioned our minds to look at things this way,, and others take a left brained view of it all.
      If you think you can’t,,,you’re absolutely correct.You can’t. And what did I just say? Your thinking stops you cold. You don’t have a chance. People don’t want to change their conceptions because of fear,, doubts etc. Tell a kid they’ll never amount to anything. What are their chances? Don’t do that,, you’re too little. No matter what,, there is negativity all around us. And negativity is merely a thought,, a perception. If you believe it,,, it’s a self fulfilling prophecy and you didn’t even get out of the starting gate. People love to sabotage themselves with thoughts. I’m not tall enough,pretty enough,smart enough,rich enough, I don’t have God given talent so I can never achieve whatever. What is stopping this train wreck? What is causing this train wreck?
      Change your perceptions and you change your world.


      • Chuck
        Jun 16, 2009 @ 22:26:37

        Just to clarify – I don’t think I “shot myself in the foot” – I was pointing out that there are nuances to this than just “getting your mind out of the way.” Though as I said I DO agree that this is perhaps one of if not THE biggest obstacle for many folks – including as you expanded on fear becoming self fulfilling prophecy etc. Totally with you on all of this.

        You stated “The moves a beginner makes is no different than the ones I, or Doris makes. We take off wood the same as everyone else. So where is the difference in our outcomes? We’re not thinking about everything our master told us… we’re not thinking about that,, we’re simply carving what we see. We’re focusing on our craft.”

        This sounds to me like you’re NOT making allowance for developed skills (seeing, physical, understanding form, etc.).

        My point was that there is some ground work that get’s laid – otherwise anybody could simply pick up a set of gouges and DO what you do DAY ONE. At times – it seems like this is what you’re implying.

        Skills of designing (even if carving from life and reference material the artistry is in new combinations or perspectives on the familiar), seeing underlying form and not just detail, understanding wood and what can and can’t be done, planning your cuts to achieve the form, sharpening, using the tools to make clean cuts, developing the hand strength & control, etc. – these don’t just all happen overnight if you “get your mind out of the way.” All of these develop over time. Granted – this may happen much faster if you get the mind out of the way and remove fear of failure and “just do it.” That – I think – is your point.

        So to me it seems there is a COMBINATION of innate ability, developed skill, AND “getting in the zone” (or achieving “FLOW” as Mihály Csíkszentmihályi called it – that state where you no longer are “thinking” about what you’re doing but are just DOING it – TOTALLY focused and in the moment).



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