Children’s Facial Proportions

I’ve had several people ask for aids in carving a child’s head. The proportions of a child are quite different from that of an adult. For example, while an adult’s eyes are halfway between the top of the head and the bottom of the chin, a child’s eyebrows are at that halfway point.

baby toman

A baby has an under-developed lower half of the face. The neck is undeveloped and so the head looks like it projects in the back, and the neck seems quite narrow below the ears.

baby propkmpl

As the teeth come in and the nose and jaw areas develop, the lower part of the face becomes progressively longer until, at maturity, the eyes are in the center of the head.

baby to boyS


Male-Female Facial Features

Question: What suggestions can you give me for carving a woman’s face. All my carvings of women look like men.

Ivan Sez:

Because the general proportions of men and women’s faces are the same, it is key to understand the subtle differences between them. (Click on the illustrations to enlarge them.)

manwoman 001

>A face with sharp edges almost always looks masculine because the skull ridges show more on a man’s face. if your carving has a strong brow ridge, it will look masculine because a woman has a smooth forehead. The strong brow ridge makes a man’s eyebrows look straight across. The lack of a brow ridge makes a woman’s eyebrows arched. The hairline is important, too. A man’s hairline is higher at the corners, particularly as a man gets older. A woman’s hairline is more rounded around the face.

The nose of a woman’s face is narrower and softer, often upturned at the tip. It, too, shows less influence of the skull bones below the bridge. A woman’s jaw line is softer, the lower part of her face narrower. The mouth is fuller and not so wide as a man’s

A woman’s neck looks longer, narrower than a man’s, and, of course, she has no
Adam’s apple.
man to womanp


Q: I’m wondering at what point in your career you could look at a picture and visually picture it in wood? My question may sound unusual, but I consider myself a beginner after 7 years (it’s more than a hobby, but not a full time job) and yet this weekend I find myself looking less at the picture, and more at my next stroke with the gouge. Just curious on your thoughts.

A: That’s an excellent question. I think of it more of an evolution than an AHA! moment. For me the key was understanding that I was doing a carving (drawing, painting) and not a duplication of nature. When my subject was a leaf, for example, the result of my effort was a carving, not a duplicate leaf in wood. The object from nature was the beginning point, not the end point. I was then free to interpret, exaggerate, stylize, add, omit–do anything I wanted to as an artist. My concentration became the medium itself, and the process–what I could do with the material–rather than slavishly trying to duplicate something in front of me. I used the objects in nature as a means to arrange forms, play with textures, mess around with depths, in other words play around. It’s important to throw the critic out of the room–just mess around with the materials and have fun.C140 NestingQ
Not a real tree, not real leaves, not a real bird, just an arrangement of forms in, to me, an interesting pattern of shapes, layers and textures borrowed from (BUT NOT A SLAVE TO) those found in nature.

Follow-up Question from cupping blog below:

Q. Dang it, Ivan, your explanation of cupping is really complicated. You don’t have to start your explanation with Adam naming the trees in Eden! Can’t you pare it down a little?

A. Well, OK, Ivan, I’ll try. Those “it depends” explanations can get complicated. Trouble is, no two pieces of wood are alike, and the precautionary steps that will work for one, carving in from the heart side, for example, will not be enough for another. Many plaques will be just fine carved sapside down. Others, from the quarter-sawn section of the log will probably be stable no matter how you carve them. Those from the “B” section of the log (see illustration below) will probably cup unless you laminate them, flip-flopping the grain. It is always a good idea to “leave more wood than you take away,” not just to prevent cupping but for the general stability of the carving through time. Whew! (See blog below for the windy explanation of all this.)


Q. What can I do to prevent warping of some of my relief carvings? I add kerfs to the back, make certain I am carving on the proper side, and still some of the carvings warp. I use basswood almost exclusively, and most of my carvings are 8 X 10 X 1 inch.

Ivan sez:
Two important points here: Wood is a “living material.” It expands and contracts in response to the temperature and the humidity of its environment. Secondly, we’re dealing with a rectangular plaque cut from a circular tree with a variable ratio of sapwood to heartwood, depending on the size of the tree and the part of the tree the wood is cut from. Different boards from the same tree will cup at differing rates in different places. The main cause is “differential shrinkage” based on the position in the log each board is sawn from. In the hardwoods, tangential shrinkage is greater than radial shrinkage causing plain-sawn boards to cup towards the outside of the tree.
001  Log view
Of course you can use only boards with the rings 90 degrees to the surface of the board (quarter sawn) as A. However, quarter sawn wood is expensive. The generally available wood is plain sawn, or flat sawn, a good portion of it prone to cupping.

That said, there were several precautions that traditional carvers took to limit the checking and the cupping of their reliefs:
1.Leave more wood than you take away. Rule of thumb, the deepest point of the carving should be less than half the thickness of the wood. That may reduce some cupping but primarily keeps the thin parts from checking as the wood expands and contracts through the seasons. We know the thin parts shrink/expand faster than the thick parts, so avoiding extremes lessens the stresses which lead to checking.
2.On single boards (plaques that are not glued up), carve from the heartwood into the sapwood. (Put the cupped side against the bench, the convex side up.) A board cups towards the sapwood, and since a board may also cup towards the carving, the two forces may cancel each other out. I use “may” here a lot because, as above, the position of the board in the log dictates most of what happens to it.
3.On larger plaques, laminate the wood, flip-flopping the grain. A wide board can cup substantially, so to minimize the effects, it is cut in half or in thirds, depending on its width, the sapwood/heartwood directions are alternated so that the tendency of one segment to cup is counteracted by the opposite cupping of the next segment.
004 laminate
4.Carve away wood in the back of the carving to balance the stresses. This can work for some of the thicker carvings, but can be counterproductive if removing wood from the back gives you very thin areas that dry much faster than surrounding wood.

ILLUSTRATIONS:(Click to enlarge)

Here is a basswood board showing the tendency to cup towards the sapwood.
002 figure

This carving was from a single board 9 1/2 inches wide. Even though it was carved sap side down, following rules 1 and 2, it still cupped. The growth rings show that the board is from the B position of the log above, prone to cupping. 003 figure4
This carving, on the other hand, shows no cupping because it was laminated, alternating the sapwood/heartwood.
If the plaque is under eight inches wide and I don’t mind a little cupping, I’ll carve it sap side down, “leaving more wood than I take away.” This generally keeps the plaque fairly flat. However, if the plaque is wider than eight inches, and especially if the board is from a less stable section of the log, as shown by the pattern of the growth rings, I’ll laminate it, flip-flopping the grain. I’ll also leave more wood than I take away. That has proven the best precaution against cupping. I’ve done many reliefs using these two techniques through the years. Laminated reliefs that I carved 40 years ago still show no signs of cupping or checking.
Make sure the wood is dry and acclimate it to the shop environment before you work with it. Wood that has more moisture than the environment will lose it faster in freshly cut areas and therefore will cup even more into the carving than it would if dry.

Keep in mind that Wood shrinks and expands side to side more than it does the length of the grain. A large plaque can shrink or expand several inches throughout the alternating wet summers/dry winters. If put in a frame, the carving should “float”–that is set in a way that gives it space to expand and contract. (I once got a call from a church about an altar screen that would crack in the winter. They would fill the cracks, only to have them reappear the next winter. The solution to the problem was easier than they realized. After I explained that wood is a “living material” and needed space to expand and contract, they realized that the screen had been mounted wrong—someone had anchored all four corners against the wall. In the winter the carving shrunk but the wall it was mounted on didn’t. By slotting the mountings to let the screen float, the opening and closing of the cracks was eliminated.)
I’ve talked to carvers who said they’ve straightened boards by putting them concave side down on the grass. The sun dries out the top side and the grass adds moisture to the bottom. I’ve not tried that, though my concern would be that the cupping might eventually return. I’d prefer glue the plaque up for long term stability.


Question: If you don’t use sandpaper, how did you get the skin on a woman’s face so smooth? BTW, what’s wrong with using sandpaper anyway?

Ivan sez: First of all, to my knowledge, there’s nothing in the Ten Commandments prohibiting the sanding of carvings (and as a consenting adult what you do in the privacy of your own home is your own business anyway, so guys, you can quit hiding sheets of sandpaper between the pages of your Playboy magazines!). Seriously, after studying with Angel Lillo, who did sand his sculptures, and Eduardo Gutierrez who didn’t, I prefer the look of a tool finish over a sanded one. By filling the pores of the wood, sanding makes the surface opaque, and it also kills the crisp “making marks” that to me add interest to the carving.

tool cut, sanded(Yes, the “sanded” picture looks out of focus, doesn’t it? However, it’s the same camera, same lens setting. Here, I’ll put a dollar on it to prove it!)
(Click on the pictures to enlarge them.)
Of course, another carver may find the making marks distracting and thus sand them out. It’s carvers’ choice. It’s a matter of style, not “right or wrong.” If carvers sand because they like the effect, that’s one thing. If they sand because they can’t carve smoothly with the tools, that’s another. In the second case sanding is counter-productive. The grit in the wood and around the shop makes keeping a razor edge on the tools even more difficult. Sanding is best done as a final step and often in a different location to keep the sandpaper grit from dulling the tools.

The old carvers used to say they wanted their carvings to “throw the light around.” Like the facets of a diamond.the multiple tool facets of a carving create an interesting pattern of light and shadow.
C109 St. Francis With a male face I like to leave the making marks quite prominent. I really like the hand-hewed effect that creates. And, while it’s important to soften the facet ridges for a female face, I don’t want to eliminate them altogether.
C103 That Look2m I am making a CARVING here not trying to exactly duplicate the texture of hair and skin. I intentionally keep sharp ridges in the hair to create a rhythmic pattern of texture, twists and turns. And though from a distance the skin may look smooth, it still retains the “making marks” of the carving tools.
C103 That Look2mdetail

It’s possible to get very smooth surfaces with the carving tools. You systematically cut down the peaks of the facets by skewing across them with a skew chisel or even a shallow gouge turned bevel side up. While one hand is pushing the tool forward, the other hand is pulling the blade down across the ridge to be removed. The tools work in two ways, they trim down the peaks and they burnish the wood, leaving the cut clean, smooth, and shiny. In smoothing, it’s important to use a tool that keeps the corners free of the wood. For that reason a chisel doesn’t work very well in smoothing a level surface.

gouge level

For a convex shape, a shallow gouge or a skew chisel works fine.
convex gouge
convex skew

For a concave shape, it is helpful to use a 10 or 11 sweep tool so you can use the sides of the tool in the smoothing process.
concave smoothing

By successively making the ridges shallower and shallower, you can get the surface very smooth. However, I don’t want “billiard ball” smoothness–even for a woman’s face. I want even the fairly smooth surfaces to “throw the light around,” so I soften but not eliminate the making marks, enjoying the clean cuts that can only be made by a very sharp carving tool.

Carving Expressions

Gimme a smile! Do you feel the muscles of your face pull your features up and out? OK, now frown. Now your face muscles are pulling your features down and in. Facial anatomy can be complicated, but for us who simply want to understand how to carve expressions, it’s enough to think of facial muscles as belonging to two groups, those that draw outward or upward and those that draw downward or inward. One set of muscles, then, is expansive and the other set contractive in their effects. When the expression is happy, the expansive muscles are doing their work. When the expression is unhappy, the contractive muscles are doing theirs.
Of the expansive group of muscles, two pull from the cheekbones where they originate. A third is attached to the upper and lower jaw. All three muscles are attached to the skin of the corners of the mouth and lips. They stretch the lips over the teeth. Also, as they contract, they increase the fullness of the cheeks and put pressure on the lower lids. Also, the chin becomes more prominent, as the bone underneath the skin shows more because the skin over it is stretched tighter. The cheerful expression is due to the stretching of the muscles of the mouth, chin, nose and forehead as they are pulled from the midline outward and upward. This produces the expanding effect upon the form of the face.
AEXPANSIVE SMILE Expanded Face, Upward Pull

The contractive muscles act opposite to that of the first group. The brows are contracted and the corners of the mouth and lower lip are pulled down. Specific muscles of the eye and mouth contract the lids and the lips. Other muscles contract the nostrils and wrinkle the nose. With this group the direction of the action is downward or inward, producing a tightening effect. acontractive Contracted Face, Downward Pull

Anger, fear, sadness expressed through contraction of the features:
So, when we wish to carve a happy face, we expand the features outward and upward. When we wish to carve sadness or anger, we contract the features, bringing them inward and downward.
DIDJAKNOW? All through your body the muscles are inserted in bone, but in your face there are muscles inserted in skin, which makes the face capable of expression.

Carvers’ Questions (ask your question below)

Q.  I’m fairly new at carving and am having trouble keeping eyes, etc. from chipping out on my figures and animals.

A. Ivan sez:  I assume that you are using a knife.  If so, I have some ideas for you.  First of all, make sure that the very tip of the knife is sharp.  It is easy for a bur to form there, and while the knife seems sharp with the large cuts, that little tip that you use for detail can be giving you problems.  Once your knife is sharp, leaving the wood shiny across the entire blade, consider working on your “tip control.”  You should be able to control where the tip of the knife is at all times.  Beginners often struggle with that.  Here are a couple of exercises that will help you gain control of the tip of the knife:Image

1. Straight V cut.  With your knife tilted at about a 45 degree angle, make a straight cut across a scrap piece of wood.  Try to maintain that angle through a cut of a couple of inches or more.  Then turn the wood around and make another 45 degree angle cut into the first.  Work to make the V cut even throughout and the V clean and sharp.  Practice that until you feel you have complete control of the tip of the knife.



2.   “S” cut with the tip of the knife.  Once you feel comfortable with the straight V cut, try some curved cuts.  The goal is the same. Make a clean V, keeping the width of the cut even throughout the cut.  Learn to know where the tip of the knife is going at all times.

3. Another good practice exercise is carving a mound.  You start in the corner of a piece of wood and make two notches.Image

Then you form a mound out of the peak between the notches.  Work slowly, paring the wood away in shallow slices to get the feel of the grain and knowledge of the knife angle and force needed to make clean, smooth cuts.  Start with fairly large mounds and then carve smaller and smaller ones to test and develop your skill in handling the knife.Image

When you carve, then, think of making good, clean cuts just as you practiced above.  Most details are made up of a combination of the cuts you just practiced.



Q.  What’s a good wood for relief carving?  I’m having problems finding wood soft enough.

IVAN SEZ: Actually, woods that are too soft don’t carve as well as most hardwoods.  In fact, almost any hardwood works well for relief carving, especially if you use “mallet tools,” tools that you can grasp with both hands.  The woods I like to work with are butternut and basswood, both mid-density woods (25-35 lbs. per square ft.).  Walnut and oak are fine as well, but you need to use the mallet a bit more on them.  The key is to have sharp tools and to work with the grain–the cut should curl off the tool, NOT break ahead of it.  Also, don’t “horse” the tool through the wood, make even, controllable cuts.  Generally use the tool a third of its capacity, always keeping the corners of the tool free of the wood.  Secure the wood to the bench, using both hands on the tool for leverage and control.

All From a Single Block of Wood!

Most people who are familiar with Marv Kaisersatt knows he likes to carve his complex works out of a single block of wood.  This is, of course, a terrific challenge. One must create a design where all areas can be reached with the tools, and one must create a design that overcomes the limitations of wood.  As any carver knows, wood is strong with the grain but quite fragile across it. Marv is a master at dealing with these issues, and the result, partly because of his choice to carve from a single block, is a fine example of the carver’s art.  (Marv often works out his deigns in clay, see above).

I’d like to point out a few examples of Marv’s genius: how he uses negative space, the clever way he ties all of the fragile elements to a stronger structure, and how he creates multiple levels in his carvings.

USE OF NEGATIVE SPACE  If you squint your eyes to eliminate the details and just look at Marv’s work as an abstract, you will notice that the negative spaces (the open spaces in the carving) form an interesting array of shapes, all different.  The need to tie the elements together for strength results in the formation of multiple open spaces, a definite result of the choice to carve out of one block.
CONNECTING FRAGILE ELEMENTS  Because cross grain is weak, elements carved cross grain are vulnerable to breaking off both during the carving process and, of course, afterwards should someone bump the carving. Marv’s work is a study in managing fragile elements.  Notice that he ties the brushes to the birdhouse, the hands are all anchored, and even the handle on the pail is connected at several points. At first glance the carving looks airy and fragile, but close inspection shows it is quite strong.

MULTIPLE LEVELS  Here again, Marv’s choice to carve from one block (rather than assemble figures on a base) allows him to create many levels in his carvings. Here we have the ground level, the mid-level with the painter on the plank, and the upper level, the birdhouse focal point.  The converging lines of the pyramid-like composition leading to that point.

Marv’s humor is rare, his carving skill top-notch, but in my mind, what truly sets him apart is the artistic sophistication of his compositions–partly due to his determination to carve from a single block of wood.