Dancing in the Wood/ Composition For Woodcarvers:

Two Basic Questions

A tutorial...Caril Chasens

Composition is the art of arranging and selecting within a design, of deciding how the parts will fit together to make a whole. There are some very useful principles - but not absolute rules. Or, if there are rules, they are very, maybe infinitely, complicated. Nevertheless, some simple principles can be valuable.

When one begins designing a carving with an awareness of principles of composition, one can save oneself a lot of trouble, by avoiding design problems. (Or, one can at least be aware of the challenge one is in for.) If the wood and the subject of the carving don't immediately create the inspiration for the design, one can begin with a deliberate use of composition. This can fire a creative flow, because inspiration and imagination work better with something than with nothing.

People often design well without studying or deliberately using composition. However, a knowledge of it can help explain what instinct and inspiration provide, and a knowledge of composition can be an enormous help when, as happens, one is stuck.

In situations where something is wrong - the design does not look good, doesn't accomplish its purpose, doesn't look right - the craft of composition can be an enormous help in finding and fixing the problem.

Some of it boils down (when boiled for a long time) to two very useful questions:

So, does everything fit? One considers this in terms like balance, rhythm, harmony, unity, movement, direction, line, mass, shape, color, woodgrain, surface. An essential trick here is that if something feels wrong or out-of-place - if one doesn't want to simply remove it - one can sometimes bring it in by echoing it with something similar in the rest of the composition. Sometimes, one can improve a problem area by changing it so it sings with the rest of the piece, or one can change or add to other areas. If this seems obscure, it might help to think about in terms of a real problem that you care about.

And, are there elements that are too much alike? Often, proportions (or whatever) within a design would benefit from being made more different. This principle includes issues of contrast, balance, and what has been called dominance. (I find the term dominance misleading. The concept simply implies that there is definitely more of something, not that the something necessarily oppresses, suppresses or bullies something else.) Often, when something is close to the center of a line or area, or when lines or masses are close to the same size or the same shape, or when other factors are too much the same, the viewer's attention bogs down and the composition simply fails to look good. Very often, when a composition doesn't look right, one can spot something - line lengths, directions, distances, masses, depths, spacings, areas of color or tone, areas of distinct cut or texture, individual tool cuts - that would look better if made more different. One need not follow this principle slavishly, but when the nature of the design doesn't call for centering or repetition, one can often avoid problems by keeping things from being too similar. And, a centered repetitive design might well benefit from a definite sense of gravity in color, tone, direction pointing in or out from the center, carved vs. uncarved area.

To use these two questions - simply go ahead and use them, as casually or compulsively as you please. One can study them simply by thinking about them while looking at designs one likes and designs one doesn't like. And, deliberately working against any principle is one way of exploring both its limitations and its power. Other media may be easier to use than wood is for this. For instance: drawing, clay modeling, observation, imagination. I want to stress that I am suggesting these principles as useful tools to be picked up when a tool is wanted, and not as rules that must be followed. Not all successful designs answer to these two principles.

Woodcarving and sculpture tutorials

Sculpture in Wood, Caril Chasens