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Tuesday 29 January 2013

Carving a self portrait in wood for 'Cornucopia' at the Grant bradley gallery in Bristol

I've been invited to exhibit in this show, which runs from the 9th February 2013 to the 2nd March. It seemed like a good opportunity to make a new piece of work, so it's also been a chance to get going on a project that I've been meaning to try out for a long time - a self portrait.

Self portraits are great in some ways, as the model is always there and works for free! However portraiture of any kind isn't easy and with a self portrait, the maker is presenting a bit more of themselves to the world in the work than usual.

The wood used

The timber used is a piece of Lawson cypress, which came from one of the 'big trees' felled at Ashton Court in Bristol five years ago. Although a lot of people seem to think they were all Wellingtonias, the local tree officer confirmed that this was a Lawson cypress. This photo shows the felled trunks where they had been left in front of the mansion.

The felling was part of a scheme to restore the estate to its original Humphrey Repton design, but was heavily criticised by some at the time. It's nice to be able to use a bit of one of these trees from Bristol's heritage for a creative purpose, rather than the timber being wasted. The wood carves okay, but you need very sharp tools and it takes a bit of time to understand how to work it so that bits don't chip or flake off.

Carving the self portrait

First of all, I needed some decent reference photos, which my partner took. Then, the chunk of timber used needed to be cut into a squared block to make it easier to work on.

I then transferred the outline from a couple of the images of the same size onto the block (face-front and profile), giving the outlines needed to bandsaw a rough shape out:

After that, it was a matter of drawing in the centre line for the face on the roughed out block, drawing approximate positions for the features (ears, eyes etc. measured off the original photo) then carving out the rough form, using a large number 6 gouge to start with. 
I also drew the centre line in the same place on the reference pictures, to give a point to measure off from.

It's a good idea to keep the carving quite general at first - no big undercuts - so that features can be moved about a little bit as carving progresses. Keep features such as noses larger than you need at first and then sculpt them down bit by bit. If you dig in deeply, its hard to move features about later on.

I like the idea that its best to 'creep up' on a portrait face- not to go straight in hacking out the main parts, but instead work the whole sculpture down slowly until the features kind of fix themselves.
Peter Benson talks about someone describing starting a carving as being like seeing a shadowy figure in a dark alleyway. As one carves, 'the vague shape is achieved and, as the light in the alleyway gradually increases, the form slowly becomes more obvious until all the detail is clear.'

The closed eye was the first to be carved, just because I was impatient to have a go at it. That's one of the reasons that I chose a winking face. The technical challenge, trying to capture the facial contortion of winking, appealed a lot. Also, many carved self portraits seem to be 'neutral-expression-facing-forward', which seemed a bit boring to carve to be honest.

Whilst working, the reference photos were in front of me, together with a mirror. The other tool that came in useful was my phone camera. 
Why? Try looking at your own ear, in detail, in a mirror placed in front of you!

Work became a bit more tricky when we had snow, which meant buses stopped running, driving was dangerous and the journey to my studio became a ten mile (about 16 km) round trip on foot on treacherous icy roads. Still, it was worth the hassle. Even so, eventually I had to bring everything back to my house in a large backpack to make life a bit easier. 

The hair at the top of the head needed to be sculpted using a Dremel hand drill fitted with tungsten rotary burrs, as even the most carefully sharpened tools seemed to tear the grain of this timber when cutting straight across it. 

The beard was a bit of a puzzle too. I had left a raised area of wood to show the beard's shape. At first, I tried carving sharply defined V tool lines in curves to show the direction of the hairs, but it didn't look right. Carving less sharply defined gouge marks gave a much better result. After all, most people don't see every individual hair in someone's beard.

Areas of skin were sanded to give a nice contrast to the hair, beard and jumper.

As the carving progressed, I noticed a strange effect coming from copying the reference photos. The face was more pronounced and the ears, for example, were hidden away behind it. I think of it as the 'Chuck Close effect', after the American artist who paints large portraits from photos and has discussed the facial distortion that this process gives to the paintings. 

The thing is, I like the effect! The face is slightly caricatured, but that seems to suit the mood of the piece. If you don't want that effect in your own carving, it might be better to take photos from further away in good light with a tripod and then use the zoom to focus in.

The Finished Piece

The carving is about 24 centimetres (about 9½ inches) tall and has a small carved plaque in the base, saying what the wood is and where it came from. It took a little over 42 hours to make, from start to finish. 

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