Carver’s Corner


Creating Movement in Wood

By J. Christopher White

Imagine a falcon in a dive, his speed and control move you to awe, he has performed something amazing. A high speed film can catch the bird with crisp detail but it stops the bird. Slower speed film would leave a blur tracing behind the bird, the detail would be lost to a degree, but something of the movement would be captured.

The above is one form of movement, physical movement. To translate the awe inspiring speed of the bird into wood requires converting physical movement into the illusion of movement. This is done by adding a contrail to the bird and blurring the detail. Your eyes can’t pickup crisp detail on a moving target, only a profile of head of shoulder and wing. Crisp detail over the entire piece would make it static in this case.

The movement spoken of above is not what this article is really about. The movement I’m concerned with in sculpture is the type coming off the wing tips and flowing up the contrails. It is the type of movement that is often synonymous with fluidity, gracefulness and flow. It is the antithesis to the stiffness and annular massiveness often attributed to wood.

A falcon in a dive can’t be effectively portrayed without it, yet the illusion of movement of the dive, works hand in hand with the lines and planes of what I’ll call flow. This flow is achieved through the use of lines (particularly “S-curves”), planes and forms.

Lines are formed by the meeting of two planes. (i.e.: the edge of a box or the rim of a soda can.) However there is another line we need to consider, what I call the profile line. That is where the plane meets the room or wall or whatever sits beyond the object that you are looking at. The profile of a soda can is basically a rectangle from the side view, but is a circle from the top view. I guess it could also be a silhouette.

When a person sights down the barrel of a rifle, the eye, rear and front sight all line up on the target. You have to raise and lower your head and move it side to side to get everything to line up. Similarly, in observing the profile of a plane one must line the eye up with “where the plane meets the wall.” The flat plane of the wall hits the side of the soda can and forms a line. I am stating and restating this point for a reason. Hours of working and reworking a surface can be eliminated if frequent examination of the profile line while rotating the piece is employed. This is a sculpting tool no less important than the gouge or knife.

The pause to examine a piece from the six main angles (front, left side, right side, from beneath, from above and behind), is one of the best investments of time possible.

Take a face for example something is wrong with it, but what? A left side examination of the profile reveals the base of the nose is a 90 degree angle and not a 60 degree curve. Funny I couldn’t see that from the front view. Those perfectly symmetrical eyes that don’t look right are in reality on two different planes, the left a fall eighth inch forward of the right. It was the examination from straight beneath that showed that uneven profile to be there. And worst of a all a top view shows the entire face is hinged at the right temple and has swung 15 degree off perpendicular with the head. And it looked so good from straight on, well, “time” to redesign.


  1. What is Movement
    1. Physical movement translated to wood
      1. Illusion of movement
      2. Adding to the bird
        1. Contrail
        2. Extending and blurring detail
    2. Flow – mechanics of movement
      1. Use of S-curves
      2. Use of lines planes and forms
      3. Use of profile lines – sighting in – soda can
      4. Stopping to examine – the 6 sided exam
      5. Octagonal barrel – crushed can
  2. What’s Happening to the Eyes
    1. Lines draw the eye
      1. Around the sculpture
      2. To focal points
    2. Planes and repeated lines are more powerful than single lines
      1. Converging concave planes very powerful
      2. Planes make forms
    3. Spanning the gap
      1. A strong line can carry across a negative space
      2. The stronger the line the further it can span
      3. Repeated lines and planes jump further
      4. A pattern goes a great distance
  3. III. Creating a Negative Space (the Do’s and Don’ts)
    1. Don’t Carve a Hole
      1. A tube’s end profile is always a circle
      2. You mustn’t create a plane inside the hole
        1. Two planes meeting form a line
        2. A plane lining the sides of a hole will form a line at either end
          ie. “Knothole” affect
    2. Run a plane through the hole
      1. Find planes on either side of passage.
      2. Connect the planes
    3. Steps to creating a passage
      1. Find thin area (likely spot)
      2. Check structural concerns
      3. Consider masses in area
      4. Locate planes on either side
      5. Back up make room
      6. Use an S-curve to connect planes
      7. Shallow angles work best
  4. lV. Stopping (a Time Saver)
    1. Asking question
      1. About lines
        1. Where does it start?
        2. Where does it end?
        3. What does it do?
        4. What does it profile line look like?
    2. Profile the most important line
      1. What is it.
      2. How to check it.
    3. The six sided examination

A brief pause to go through the six side discipline would have saved hours.

Described above is a discipline, what I am about to describe is also a discipline, a series of stages of development, incremental steps that in the long run, not only save time, but become a source of ideas to enhance design as well. What I am talking about is the use of planes as a discipline to help you arrive at a surface that will allow light to glide across it, undistorted, that provides you with strong profile lines that successfully move around a sculpture. Planes can merge into one another and form not only powerful lines, but forms that can elude to habitat, for example, water or air moving across a fish or bird. These shapes can even form into appendages, robes or the fish itself. Every sculpture good or bad consists of planes, albeit irregular or distorted, they are a complex assortment of some collection of planes. Working with simple repeated planes will actually simplify a sculpture design, enhance its beauty and ultimately cause it to “move.”

Let us do an experiment, take your empty soda can again. It consists of basically three planes the convex plane on top, the concave plane on bottom and the big flat plane that wraps around to form the sides (we’ll ignore the little planes on the inside rim of the top, etc.). The cylinder is a simple form, we will now make it complex. Crush the can! Now straighten it out and count how many new planes have formed. How is the profile line affected. Hold the can up and” sight in” on the profile line, it is no longer straight. Now rotate the can by holding the ends (like it would do if it was rolled across the floor.) As you rotate it, look only at the profile line. It jumps around, doesn’t remain a nice straight line anymore. All those angles simply don’t flow. Now, another visual example, we’re going to make a gun barrel. We’re starting with a 2″ x 2″ three feet long. Do you start rounding that puppy right away? How will you know if you’ve taken too much off on one side? If we do this in incremental steps using planes we will have “guide lines” to assist us.

The four planes of the 2″‘ x 2″ are already straight and uniform. How do I know this? The lines found by the meeting of the planes are straight and true. If you hold the wood “against the wall,” you see the profile fines are straight as well. You can even sight down the barrel and check from either end. All square? Next step then. Divide the width of each plane approximately into thirds, draw a straight line down the length of a side, (these are guide lines), remove the wood from the full length of each corner of the four sides. You end up with an octagonal barrel, you now have eight guide lines to help you keep your planes true. Pick one plane check its profile line “against the wall.” Sight down either end, make sure that particular plane is true. Now look at the lines forming either side of the plane, are they straight? If you know that plane to be straight, yet the lines are not , then you can rightly surmise that the problem lies with the adjacent plane. Pick one adjacent plane and working on that plane straighten the line with a rasp. Repeat the process until lines are true. You can make a 16 sided barrel, and once it is true, a cylinder is just a matter of softening the edge. Ultimately, what you first did would be far less complex than doing from 4 sides straight to a cylinder. Don’t get me wrong a good eye and steady hand could do it, but your potential for error and all would be much greater.

To apply this same discipline to the complex curves used in movement actually simplifies your task and trains your eye to pick up irregularities. It is a very useful tool, especially if you don’t enjoy sanding, but do desire a smooth shiny piece. For a smooth plane is easier to sand, since the surface is close to finished.

What’s Happening to the Eye?

A lot more is happening to the eye of the viewer that he realizes. The viewers eye will be drawn along lines and planes much more forcefully than a person is consciously aware of.

Look at the maps at the theme parks or malls, hundreds of lines forming images, going every which way but strong bold converging lines point to the important information. True the arrow is an easily recognized symbol we all know how to read, but to get your attention on a busy map, the strong converging line works best. Same is true in sculpture.

Lines draw your eyes or you might say your eyes follow lines. A strong well defined line is more powerful than a wobbly line. Two lines running parallel are even stronger. A plane is more powerful than a simple line. A concave plane stronger yet. If you have three or four planes converging around a curve, you will most likely lean or physically move to see where they are going.

A good sculpture should not let go of your eye. You can use lines and planes to lead your eye toward the focal point of the piece, the face or a hand. Think ahead and use the lines to accomplish something even it if is only drawing the eye around the sculpture or through negative space the piece.

Stopping ……. a time saver.

At various points in the process we need to stop and check or examine the piece.

This is a good time to ask some important questions, let’s start with lines:

Pick a line in the sculpture and ask yourself …

  1. Where does it start?
  2. Where does it end?
  3. What does it do? (i.e.: What is its function)
    1. Does it point to the focal point of the piece?
    2. Does it draw your eye around or through the piece or does it draw you eye off and out of the picture?
    3. Does it give the illusion of speed?
    4. Does it parallel or repeat another line in the sculpture?
      (Remember repeated lines are good)
    5. Does it merge gracefully or is it kinked?

Now, since lines are formed by the meeting of two planes, lets ask the same three questions about planes.

  1. Where does it start?
  2. Where does it end?
  3. What does it do? (All of the above subject a-e)
  4. What is its profile? This forth question can only be answered by actually moving the piece and observing how the planes profile or silhouette changes as it move.

Take for example, a soda can. The side of the can is one big plane. Turn the can sideways and look at the line formed by the upper portion of the side, rotate the can. The profile line should remain a straight line as you rotate it. Now slightly dent the can in a couple of places. As you rotate the can the profile line should change (dip in) where you have dented it.

Say you have a conical plane wrapping around one side of the sculpture to the other, narrowing towards the top.

In rotating your piece you will be able to see the flat spots, unwanted high points and low points. Steady should be the operative word as the line changes during rotation. Flatness, sharp changes, lumps, bumps and inconsistencies should be eliminated by the rasp. Rotating the rasp as you use it helps smooth concave planes. Convex planes are the same, most of their irregularities show up as low spots or flat spots angular bumps in the profile. Low spots are eliminated by bringing the entire surface down to the level of the lowest spot. A hump is much easier to get rid of than a divot.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Creating a Negative Space

(Or a passage through the wood)

POINT: – Don’t carve a hole.

Don’t form a tube. A tube is a single plane that lines the sides of the passage. A drill bit forms a tube through your sculpture, it’s profile line will always be a circle from any angle. In fact as long as you have a plane that forms a line at its mouth (where it enters or leaves the wood), it will look like a hole even if it is oval or square.

This plane formed between the entry and exit hole is one of the main things to avoid because it limits the eye to a knot hole’s view through your piece. On the other hand, if you take a plane and extend it through the opening and out the other side without forming another line in the process, you can alleviate the knothole effect. Remember, lines are formed-where two planes intersect.

If you want to keep your plane on one side of the hole let it hit another plane, then, they will both stop and form a line. If you want your plane to go through the passage and flow into or merge into one from the other side then eliminate the tubular plane entirely. This is another reason to visualize and carve in planes. They are incremental steps, disciplines that help you over hurdles and allow you to create movement, they can be left defined or softened away into fluid motion.

When carving through to the other side find the thinnest area to go through, check for structural consideration. (Is this piece held together by the wood that I am about to remove?)

Consider what masses are surrounding this area, what forms do they make. Once you have determined what you want to leave and what basic shape it will be, then look for natural or present planes to enhance your sculpture.

Next, ask: Do they drain into this thin area or low spot? If that wood was no longer there what would this plane have to do to join up with this one on the other side? Would it have to twist move over a couple of inches or simply go through at an angle?

Your objective should not be to make a hole, but to connect the lines and planes on one side of the sculpture with the lines and planes on the other. You next step is to back up and make room to round the comer so to speak, give your tools room to work. Start visualizing this plane going through to the other side. You will need more than one plane to get both sides to connect, so carve with that in mind too. These planes will all have to flow together and will make forms (S-curves and concave planes work best).

Shallower angles, relative to the wood, are easier to accomplish movement with. For example, going straight in at a 90 degree angle to the “hole” is almost certain to create a tube. A slight angle will work much better. Two natural planes can be connected by a 45 degree plane going through them.


to be continued…

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