Learning to See

learning to carve consists to three elements, namely learning to use the tools, learning to sharpen the tools, and learning to see.

  • sharpening the tools, is a skill which can be learned just by practicing it once one has understood the basics of how a sharp edge should look like. i believe, that every method works, a little perseverance is all it needs to get the tools properly sharpened.
  • using the tools, can be learned easily in a few days , just by trying out the different ones, see how the cuts are shaped they are producing, trying them out in different directions to the grain, flipping them over so that the bevel is upwards, and trying them this way and observing how they now can be used to shape a ball, say,,, etc. it is basic skill, with no problems, just a little testing the tools and off you go …
  • the essential in learning to carve however is learning to see… and, that is not easy, and never stops…

now, what does this “learning to see” mean ? and why is it important for carving ?

unfortunately, it is not so easy to describe, but in this article i want try to give some aspects of it, and some suggestions for how you can start learning to see to be able to carve what your heart desires … the aspects i will address here only are the more “technical” ones which one can “practice”, and with these alone you will be able to carve much better,,, and, finally, i will conclude this article by giving a few books and general hints for learning to see.

first, i want to talk about why looking is not seeing…

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30 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. ChuckT
    Jul 03, 2009 @ 14:34:09

    Thanks Doris – very interesting article. There is a website out there which has a game that helps with certain geometric eyeballing practice: http://woodgears.ca/eyeball/index.html

    It is a lot of fun and really helps to see how far off we sometimes are with our “eyeballing” practice. The game IS addictive though – so watch out!



  2. markyundt
    Jul 04, 2009 @ 08:23:01

    Yes Doris,, you are so correct. I’ve gotten in the habit where I no longer see just a flower, a leaf or whatever. I’m already “translating ” it into forms and shapes. I’m looking at not my yard but the interplay of mass and shapes and how they relate to each other, texture and form, balance and harmony. I see subtle shifts in just the way the lawn flows,, slight dips and rises.
    Faces become a topographical map of hills ,valleys,bumps,hollows and creases. One thing exists only in relation to another,,not on it’s own. Everything else around a nose,,or an eye helps to define that particular element. That’s why elements on their own can be difficult to carve.
    I remember having difficulty carving a simple leaf and how the edge curled over on itself. I just couldn’t get the carving to happen. I sat on my deck literally for a half hour staring unflinchingly at the leaf until I no longer saw just a leaf in my hand,,I was aware of a “shift” in perception,,,the leaf changed before my eyes… I saw a form,,simple and easy to carve.Essential shapes relative to one another. The carving was so simple then to do instead of trying to carve a leaf. Literally and figuratively a no brainer.
    It’s similar in my experiences as if you repeat a word over and over again until it looses all the meaning you thought it had,, and it becomes simply a sound without any connections to thoughts about the word . It almost sounds foreign in a way.Gibberish,,Lose the connection..hear the sound. See the form,, ignore what you thought it meant.And according to your experiment ,, we don’t even do what we thought we did very well. In a similar vein,, they are finding that “eye witnesses” aren’t very reliable as they once thought they were. People don’t see as well as they think they do.
    Even when you can easily prove them wrong,, they still cling to their cherrished beliefs about their ideas and thoughts. Took the church 275 yrs after his death to say Galileo was most likely correct in his proof that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe.. ,, they admitted it in what,, 1985. They believed what they thought they saw..not what was true.
    And the saying about art… “It’s a lie that leads to the truth.”


    • dorisfiebig
      Jul 04, 2009 @ 13:33:44

      thank you, mark,,, you mention much more elements of seeing than i have addressed in the article, and rightly so,,, ah, the eye witnesses, the police needed learn that they cannot rely very heavily on what eye witnesses told them,,, and i know myself that i often cannot tell what it was i looked at… lol … but, as soon something catches my interest, i do see the forms in a similar way you describe, i study hills and valleys, how the smaller forms are combined to make the bigger one, all that ,,,

      what i find interesting though is, we cannot well see as my example with the experiment, or the eye witness, demonstrates,,, but we can one thing amazingly well : if you see on a street a friend approaching, far enough that you hardly can make out the facial features, you still can recognize the friend. our brain knows to process the litte subtle data that distinguishs your friend from other persons, in a split second, and even if many of the data is missing since the friend is still too far away to be well seen… this contrast, recognizion ability is very high in people, but “seeing” ability is very low, i find truely fascinating …


      • markyundt
        Jul 04, 2009 @ 18:40:14

        Yes..my connection to what you say is back when I was an avid skier. I could pick out,, among hundreds of other skiers my father and brother just in how they moved. Color of jackets and such were out as most people at those distances were just moving dark objects. Skiing also helped me “read” the slope and pick out slight changes in the surface to aid in tricks or easier turns. I too find these things fascinating We all have these abilities,,we just don’t include them into our art and seeing abilities to translate these subtleties into our carvings. Nuances,,


      • ChuckT
        Jul 07, 2009 @ 17:28:28

        Yep – I have often been waiting for a friend on the crowded street in Manhattan and picked him out blocks away. Reminds me a movie or story I read about fighter pilots being trained to recognize specific friendly and enemy aircraft silhouettes in fractions of a second (like 1/10000!). My parents had a photographer friend back in the 70’s who when he did corporate slide shows would flash very briefly a slide of the naked female & male forms on screen (again – in fractions of a second) to keep people attentive. He said he always had a rapt audience. 😉 People would “see” it – but then would be too embarrassed to say anything and would question “did I really see that”? But he could tell from their body posture and reactions that they did.


      • dorisfiebig
        Jul 07, 2009 @ 19:49:57

        ah, chuck,,,but that was a trick of advertising in that time too, showing , say icecream, in a split second while showing a cinema movie, and when is break all people head to the shop to get ice cream… that is differernt however, since those people “saw” the icecream not conciously, but only their brain registered… in germany, that is forbidden now, (but i dont know if it is lived after …lol…


    • ChuckT
      Jul 07, 2009 @ 21:01:18

      Right – it was called “subliminal advertising” and it was outlawed here too.

      But it seems counter to the point you were making. i.e. In some situations the brain “sees” way more than we are conscious or aware of – enough to . So Mark talks about “thinking” less and getting the mind out of the way in one of his posts here, and on the other you are referring to the fact that we need to train ourselves to be more conscious of what is actually there. These are seemingly contradictory.

      However, I think what is happening is that the mind sees general patterns or characteristics of of an object, but when we are trying to duplicate that object in our carving – we need to get the general patterns out of the way to see the underlying detail and form.

      For example: visually we can recognize a CAT very quickly with no need for deeply seeing the particular cat and it’s positioning. Short pointy ears, rounded face, approximate size, long skinny tail, furry, etc. But to carve a good representative cat in wood, we must observe “see” much more than the simple characteristics that let us quickly recognize the pattern – CAT.



      • dorisfiebig
        Jul 07, 2009 @ 21:45:13

        yes, chuck, you explain yourself very precisely why it is not contradiction :

        the word “see” describes two different aspects, one is recognition (you recognize your friend in manhatten, even from far away,,,we recognisze the ice cream in the split second it is shown inbetween the movie pictures) the other is knowledge (you know how the anatomy of the cat is, and so you can carve her, you know how a leaf looks similar to a bookshape, and so you can carve it, despite all leaves look slightly different, but you “see” the essential what lets you know it is a leaf and you know what this essential is)
        can you tell immediately, right now without thinking, what the eye color of that friend in manhattan is ? maybe not,,, probably, without reference fotos, you could not draw a faithful portrait of that friend even though you never would mix him with another person…you recognise, but not see)…

        recognition is what you can train a computer to have, but “seeing” in the sense we mean here for wood carving, that is out of reach for a computer (yet), since it involves abstraction,ignoring the details that not make the forms,,,though, i know machine learning theory, and it is rapidly evolving, but this is guessing on the computer part (testing with a low error rate actually), and not knowledge…ah this goes offtopic…

        recognition is nice, and very important for our survival as species, but its nothing worth when we want carve. for that we need know how to see the forms, not how to recognize.

        and, i am not contradicting mark either, i too carve this way without thinking, but that needs the preparation i talk about in the tutorials, to study the reference pictures, the clay model, what ever, so we know (!) what we want carve. here we need the awareness i talked about, to be able to see the forms… then, when start carving, don´t think anymore, since carving is not only copying the reference material, but also carries the feeling, and this is possible when we know what to carve. now in carving process it is …then the chisels can do their amazing dance, and the carving evolves… when i am badly prepared or my mind is in bad state carving is tedious, and the result is oohhhmm, better not show anybody… and from the many projects, you can see mark works same way, he prepares his carvings very well, and then finally he takes up the chisels, and the magic begins, look at eve and you see it,,, mark talked about studying his own foot in a mirror (awareness!) but then he carved eves foot,,,can you see what he did ? it is great ! ….well, mark can say that better than me…


  3. Ralph Giarnella "doc"
    Nov 15, 2009 @ 14:48:08

    Excellent observations and discussions. As always I learn a lot when coming to this site.
    I would like to add an observation of my and that is perhaps seeing too much.

    I find that some times while carving a particular small part of a carving that if I am not careful to take a step back the part becomes disproportionate to the rest or looks better than it realy is.

    I find that not only do I have to step back to get a full perspective on how that part fits in with the rest but at times I have to walk away and come back at a later time. When I come back I see things I did not see previously.

    I have also found that if I take a photo of the project I will see problems or defects in my carving that I did not notice while carving. We see what we want to see but the camera captures, to a certain degree. what is really there.


    • dorisfiebig
      Nov 15, 2009 @ 15:18:35

      hi doc, you make some very important observations here, and in a sense they are manifest of what i said about looking and seeing… when we look at our work for a long time, in particular at a small area to add detail, we get so used to what we are looking at, we start to “not-seeing” again as our brain “fills in” what it learned in that short period of time… yes, you are right, coming back to a carving, after a break, lets us look with fresh eye and mind again, and we can notice things we previously overlooked …

      yes, taking fotos is good idea to help seeing. another nice trick is the mirror too : hold your carving to a mirror, and look at the mirror image instead of your carving. you will be amazed how many flaws you now can see easily that previously slipped your observation.

      thank you for your thoughtful additions to the article, they are very valuable.


  4. Doug Duffield
    Nov 29, 2009 @ 03:41:39

    A friend of mine and I were talking about drawing and carving. He is a retired illustrator, who worked in the advertising field. He loaned me the first series of lessons from the 1950’s Famous Artist Course to work through. I started reading the lessons that started out with learning to use the pencil, brush and pen. In the drawing lessons, the student is taught to draw the back of the object (non-visible side) as well as the visible side. In a grouping, this allows for space for each object and allows the student to visualize the changes in perspective of an object.

    I worked through some of the ‘assignments’ (with much difficulty) and found I have trouble seeing the objects correctly so I can draw the entire object.

    This week, I was able to purchase the book by Betty Edwards. Her approach to learning to draw is as you describe above. In only a few hours, I was drawing much easier. Learning to see the shapes and not the ‘symbols’ that the left side of my brain names. In step by step examples that the reader is walked through, I really did experience the shift to ‘right side brain’ seeing.

    I’m sure that being able to ‘see’ in this way will help with carving the form of an object, but for now, I’ve got a lot more to learn. It really is true that the symbols we learned early in our childhood actually hinder our seeing.


    • dorisfiebig
      Nov 29, 2009 @ 13:05:50

      hi doug, wow you made my day ! thanks ! yes, you are right, now that you started to learn to see, you will be able to draw whatever you desire to draw, and you will be able to carve whatever you desire to carve… as you experienced, learning to draw by exercising technique is not a good way. its tedious, frustrating, and one does not learn the most essential, namely to see. taught in this way, a student will always need his teacher to help him…when you learned to see, you don´t need teachers anymore at one point, you can see what to do, what to draw, what to carve and how… thank you so much for sharing your experience, i am very happy for you


  5. markyundt
    Nov 29, 2009 @ 07:37:52

    I have been a champion of that book for many years and suggest it regularly to carvers. Many a post has been devoted to that book. Now , instead of drawing , what if it was applied to carving?


    • Doug Duffield
      Nov 30, 2009 @ 02:13:20

      I was ,and still am, surprised that looking at the negative space around the object or looking at the object upside down – allows the shift to ‘seeing’ the form. Now, here’s where I don’t quite understand using this new knowledge in carving comes into play. In a drawing, I’m putting a 3-D object into a 2-D space, so the mind will play tricks and things aren’t what they seem, so the shift into ‘right side’ really works in placing the object onto the 2-D paper. In a carving, I’m transferring a 3-D object to a piece of wood and making a 2 1/2-D ‘image’ of the object. Wait a minute … duh! … correct me if I’m wrong, but the same mind tricks can be played on me as I’m looking at the object in my normal mind frame? I will ‘see’ the wrong angles – not the perspective angles … I will see too many details and revert to the ‘symbols’ that have been stored for so many years? Will I then try to carve the form incorrectly because I don’t really see the form, just the ‘symbols’ that my mind has already labeled?

      Ok, so how do I ‘learn’ to shift into carving ‘sight?’ Can I carve the negative space around the object to produce the edge – line – between the negative and positive spaces? I don’t think looking at the object upside down will work too well, as I carve by rotating the wood constantly … but then I could be wrong … and am most of the time!

      If I sit quietly and look at the carving outline, will the form of the object suddenly become apparent? Hummmm, I’m rambling too much … how about a suggestion of some type to put me on the right track.


      • dorisfiebig
        Nov 30, 2009 @ 10:29:28

        hi doug,,,first, let me say i am not the best to explain what you see in carving, as my vision is not the same as for most people. i work from my vision, and that is flat, and has some other defects, ah well… never mind,,, but, we are not talking about how your vision, or mine is, but how we perceive the objects we look at, how we can translate that correctly into a carving … you are talking of a carving as 2 1/2-D image of the object, and i must admit, that is confusing me completely… why 2 1/2-D and not 3-D ?? afterall, the objects we carve are forms in space, thus 3-D. even if you carve a bas-relief, its 3-D, but of course, the depth is strongly compressed necessarily.

        i don´t think the carving outline will tell you the form of the object. you need study it from all sides, from left and right, from top and bottom, from all angles. only this way you can see how the forms are truely, and how different forms of the object interlock in space… yes, i do sort of negative space things on carving too,,,for example when i see an object has a depression, i try to describe it by what i could put into this depression to understand the form of the depression. can a ball sit inside the depression ? or an egg ? or is it somehow distorted from an egg ?, how ? and how deep can i put the ball, egg or whatever into the depression ? is it rather flat, or really so deep i hardly can see the bottom ?…

        all these questions occur somehow automatically, i don´t really think them, i did “think” them in the beginning, but now i just look, and turn the object around and try understanding the forms … and see

        yes, we need forget all the details to understand the forms. and, as with carving we are approaching forms from outside necessarily, i often think of the object i want carve wrapped first by a towel, this way i can see only the big shapes and the big changes in directions. no detail visible, and i know the object is inside so i try carve that first. this ensures the proportions get generally correct true. a major issue in every carving…when i have done that, i imagine the object wrapped with something thinner, like a cloth of silk or such. now, nore transitions of forms become visible, still small detail is not visible. i carve that next… and so on… and, in helping to see these “wrapped” objects, a play with the clay is very useful, as it lets you quickly check if you see the “right” way…


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