Working with Levels

We received a very nice question from Vic concerning levels and a carving he is currently creating. Vic wrote:

“I still have trouble figuring out a “layering” method. I have read and re-read your macaw pattern simplification and when I start carving one I’ll probably see more what mean about grouping of layers. I am, however, in a quandary about how to go about figuring out how many layers a relief would have and how thick each one should be. I have been working on a relief 8″ x 8″ of Da Vinci’s St. Anne, basically a bust, and have tried to figure out a way to determine how many layers say how deep each should be.”

Let me assume that Vic’s St. Anne is sitting on a bench holding either a cross or the Christ child in her lap. I would plan for anything that is not St. Anne and seems to be behind her as the church window, drapers, and the bench as my first level. The second level would include all of her body from her farthest shoulder back. This would be the small part of her back or side, the hair or head piece she is wearing, the clothes she wears surrounding her waist and hips. Level three would included her face, her forward shoulder, and breast area, the hair that surrounds her face. If she is holding something I would make the forearms, hands, and the object level four, so this would include the Christ child/cross. This places her knees and legs as the next level, number five. Finally I would plan her toes and any draping that falls forward from her feet as level six. You now have St. Anne in the central layers with an added level to include the baby …. a total of six levels.

Note that it is St. Anne’s face that I have placed as the third level, for most portraits it is the face and especially the eyes that become the main focus point. The Christ child is a secondary or special focus point and the number of levels used increases to accommodate this element.

By working with layers and levels a carver can avoid two big problems. One big mistake we make is getting so far into the carving that you are past the point of no return then realizing that you have some how carved the belly of your macaw deeper than the back wing. Ooops …. and of course, you will never have enough wood left behind that back wing to drop the wing down lower. Using the idea of levels on your pattern before you pick up the tools will eliminate this common mistake. Second, using layers and level avoids the problem of not carving deep enough to create any dimensional look to the pattern. If you start your detail carving for every area on the same depth of wood you end up with a simple but flat rounded over carvings. Levels add that three-D look.

As for how deep … hate to sound like a broken record but … it depends of the depth of the wood blank. On a 5/4 board (1 1/4″ thick), I never carve an area that I have not left at least 1/2″ of wood behind it. So this allows me 3/4″ of carving area. Beyond 1/2″ I have found problems with warping over the years. In this example I would use about 1/8″ for the first (first layer – background) carving details and 1/8″ for the foremost (fifth level) carving details. That leaves me 1/2″ to spread the three central focus levels – more wood for the most important part of the carving. With thicker boards you have a lot more lea way. On a 8/8″ board I would only leave maybe 3/4″ at my deepest point, so now I have 1 1/4″ inches to play with … The wider the board, the more I tend to break the levels down into multiple layers.

So, in my humble experience, five layer works great every time with a sixth for special emphasis. The patterns on our site are basically five layer patterns (because that’s the way I ,as the artist, thinks when designing). Each layer will now be broken into three levels or more. By the time you are done you will have a nicely dimensioned carving.


Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: