‘ Famous Faces ’
By Peter Paces
(and ruthlessly edited by Woodcarving)
" woodcarving ain't easy "
IN THE BEGINNING...
It all started in the Autumn of 1992 - nearing the second anniversary of yet
another redundancy and of diligent job searching, I realized that I was
obviously no longer wanted in electronics at the age of 47; so I decided that
the time had come to start something completely different!
As I was born in Czechoslovakia which, along with other Eastern Block countries
was going through fundamental political and economic changes at that time, it
seemed a sensible idea to try to start some enterprise there.
Unfortunately, after a few visits to that country, it became crystal clear, that
my business acumen is on the par with my capacity for not getting made redundant
every five minutes!
However, during my search for ideas and opportunities, I came across a rather
brilliant woodcarver named Jarda, who lives in the West Bohemian town of Plzeň (Pilsen
to you lager drinkers).
Walking into his flat was like entering a woodcarver's Aladdin's cave ….. there
were woodcarvings everywhere and his 'working' room was overflowing with
detailed and beautifully executed figures and high reliefs. The sizes ranged
from 6 to 36 inches, and the subjects varied from intricate table lamps to
religious scenes and statuettes.
There were also several marionettes of various sizes suspended in midair.
I learned later that making them was Jarda's way of taking a rest from carving
other, more serious pieces, as he could let his imagination run riot!
Admittedly, I did not fully appreciate the skill involved at first; nevertheless
I took a lot of photographs, a set of which I would use in producing a kind of a
'portfolio' for Jarda, as he had kept virtually no record of his creations.
With his reluctant approval, I hoped to use another set of the photographs while
attempting to sell some of his carvings in this country.
His initial attitude towards me was that of suspicion: after all he had been
through all this before with German arts dealers from the neighbouring Bavaria,
whose motives were not always honourable. He had obviously failed to see the
purity of my soul!
Back in England, I had the thankless task of going round various art shops
trying to stir up interest in those truly magnificent carvings ... alas with
no result. Even getting people to look at the pictures was an ordeal.
The reactions I came across varied from a complete lack of interest to
'unbridled' greed, when a dealer would be willing to display / sell at a
vast profit to himself (normally expecting a 50-50 split) without any
commitment and while carrying no risk at all!
Quite astonishing, though apparently not uncommon. Understandably, Jarda was
not very keen on this as he would have to part with his precious carvings
for an indefinite period without getting paid for them.
I also tried a large, South London based supplier of religious hardware and
was informed, to my amazement, that the materials currently preferred for
religious figures are fibre glass or plastics, but certainly not wood! That
was the last straw (or rather the last strand of glass fibre) and I threw
the towel in.
....and the lime trees are blossoming and growing wider to the delight of
every woodcarver! One rather minor benefit of being unemployed in Croydon
used to be, and perhaps still is, the availability of some Adult Education
courses to the lucky unemployed either free of charge or at reduced rates.
In the spring of 1993 I happened to come across a copy of Croydon's CETS
prospectus and noticed that an evening Woodcarving course was available at
the Ashburton college and that it was just about to start; and I thought: "
I should try this! "
My passable ability to sketch and draw could come in handy and my ever present
desire to 'create' would be satisfied. To a degree, the latter was already
being fulfilled in my incarnation as an electronic designer, but woodcarving
... that was something different! Hopefully, there was also some inherited
flair for creativity; my late mother was very much accomplished at drawing
and embroidery and often designed her own patterns.
BLAME THE TOOLS
So, I enrolled and joined a splendid bunch of woodcarving enthusiasts to be
tutored once a week by the equally splendid Mr. Tony Webb. I bought a few
old woodcarving gouges from a second-hand tool shop in Thornton Heath to get
me started and turned up at the first evening class, not really knowing what
to expect. However, thanks to Tony's refreshingly practical approach to
teaching, myself and the other newcomers were working right from the start,
which was rather pleasant.
Our first project was a stylized flower in a moderately high relief and, as
expected, my effort was somewhat pathetic. Being thoroughly disappointed by the
result, the obvious hara-kiri with a parting tool was averted only by a
life-saving thought: .....blame the tools! So I did just that.This was despite
the fact that Tony generously provided a set of his own, good quality tools for
general use by all of us. Unfortunately, due to the number of pupils, one was
usually stuck with his own tools. Blaming the tools was easy; the trouble was
proving it to myself in some way. Sadly, as a good quality toolset was a bit on
the expensive side, the verdict had to be:
a woodcarving failure in the 1st degree ! ....
LIME CHOCKS AWAY ...
Then I remembered Jarda from Pilsen. Perhaps he could put me onto some useable
tools that would not cost a fortune. And, perhaps, let me borrow his hands! So
with some repidation, I approached him during my next visit to the Czech
Republic (this time pleasure, not on any ill-fated business). It turned out,
that he makes his own tools and they are, in my view, superior in many respects
to the most of the tools one can buy here. Furthermore, what are regarded here
to be 'micro' tools are to him standard sizes, which suits me admirably.
He embellishes the tool handles with elaborate patterns, thus making them truly
unique. The range is, quite understandably, not very extensive, but adequate.
Woodcarving knives play a very important role in his 'armoury' and he owns and
uses a large number of them. And so do I, nowadays!
He let me have a good selection of the tools and I could not wait to get back to
my garden shed, alias 'the studio', to have a try - and suddenly it all fell in
place. A few days and several stab wounds later, I realized that it was 'lime
chocks away' for me and now I wish for every day to have at least 50 hours ....
Thanks to this experience, I have come to the conclusion, that there must be
many undiscovered woodcarvers walking amongst us; the problem is unearthing
them. It seems relatively simple to judge if a person can draw: give him or
her a piece of paper, a pencil and an eraser. Dead easy! Corrections and
other attempts present no problem and assessment is possible within a few
hours or, at most, days.
Not so with woodcarving. You have to have a set of good quality, specialized
tools (not cheap), a lump of wood (also not cheap) and a suitable project.
Corrections may not be possible as with drawings and other attempts may require
new lumps of wood. Therefore, just discovering that one is no good at it may
turn out to be quite expensive, hence the odds are stacked against people trying
Acquiring suitable wood can be a bit of a chore especially if one lives in a
large town. There aren't many lime trees left in the middle of Croydon, folks !
In my case it usually means a trip to a sawmill near Ashford in Kent, where
prices are almost sensible. Normally, their lime is only rough-sawn without
being machined into perfect blocks; but who needs that anyway?
Nowadays, I think twice before bringing the subject of wood supply up, because
well-meaning friends and acquaintances tend to arrive on our doorstep with
freshly felled trees. One of my friends even donated a car boot full of
pear-tree logs chopped-up into firewood. Made some very small penguins indeed!
Lime is the wood I have been using so far and to my dear wife's ecstatic
delight, the spare bedroom is now a treasure trove holding a small selection of
lime blocks of various sizes. Needless to say that, despite this I hardly ever
have a piece of lime to suit the next 'masterpiece'.
IDEAS and IMAGINATION
Dreaming up suitable projects is also a bit of a problem, unless one is blessed
with persistent admirers who shower one with endless commissions and, hopefully,
with specific requests as, I am told, can actually happen!
Joking apart, I am constantly on a lookout for new ideas and inspirations and my
'library' of magazine cut-outs and picture books is now quite extensive and
In general, I prefer good drawings to photographs, because half-tones and
shadows usually present in photographs invariably obscure some important detail.
I tend to carve things I can hold in one hand, hence the size is usually limited
to a 'handful of lime'.
My favourites are high reliefs that can be used like pictures, as opposed to
anything that requires a standing room.
The real reason is the size of our house
or rather the lack of it.
It is called
and the heads measure 3 x 4 inches each and are
removable from the frame so that I can change the ones I become unhappy with.
The overall size is 18.5 x 12.5 inches.
Small to medium sized heads are particular favourites of mine and an 18-head (in
a 3x6 matrix) picture in wood was my first major project. The frame was made out
of stained Ramin mouldings and the idea was to fill the cells with various
heads, human or others.
It is called
The heads are 3x4 inches in size, some of them are stained, some are oiled and
all are waxed. As time goes by, the ones I am not too happy with get replaced by
new versions, hopefully of a better standard. Each head is held in the frame by
a single screw, so that it can be removed and displayed on its own. The house is
littered with loose heads! The first face I ever carved was as flat as a pancake
but the fifteenth one looks OK, I think.
A FINE MESS
I also made a 2-cell picture of Laurel and Hardy using the 'matrix' idea, called
fine Mess and a 4-cell picture called Four
female heads depicting 4 different stages in human life. The hats Laurel and
Hardy wear, were made separately and stained almost black and waxed and polished
to a satin-like sheen.
The faces presented a bit of a problem, because though I had a lot of
photographs, I really had no good profiles and guessing what somebody looks like
from the side just by looking at the front is not easy. A bit like imagining
what TV presenters look like from the side; we do not often see their profiles,
Nevertheless, the end result is quite reasonable, I think. The portraits created
a lot of visitor interest at the Woodcarving competition at the 1995 Woodworker
Show, though they did not impress the judges. So this year, I entered them in
the 'Loan' section.
The number of reliefs in my collection is quite respectable now and besides the
heads mentioned above, the subjects range from the relatively simple :
Tom in the process of strangling Jerry
Popeye & Olive
Popeye squashing a
spinach tin, admired by Olive
sea horses and fishes
to the more difficult :
John Wayne having a smoke
Make My Day!
a gunman giving us an evil eye
We'll Meet Again
war-time sweethearts saying
Can't Buy Me Love
a girl's face with flowers,
inspired by a picture on a Czech 500 koruna banknote
a trotting work-horse with a
the quite difficult :
a hairy lady from a shampoo
a couple of horses' heads
shepherd in his robes
Make My Day! started off as Clint
Eastwood but as I came across the already mentioned problem of imagining the
profile, he soon deteriorated into a 'general purpose' villain. I also found
that I did not know how to show Mr. Eastwood's spiky hair.
was inspired by an old photograph of a statue of Christ somewhere in Copenhagen
but was never meant to portray Christ. The robes were the main attraction and
also the main difficulty.
To introduce some variety to the finishes, I
occasionally experiment with wood stains. I prefer spirit-based products as they
do not 'raise the grain' like their water-based alternatives. I used a mahogany
stain on the
Eagle Eyes to camouflage some flaws in the wood, and the
was treated with a walnut stain to give the heads
a rich, brown colour (Note 2).
The usual 'final touch' is a good soak in linseed or teak oil and after drying,
a liberal coat of a mixture made out of bees and carnauba waxes dissolved in
genuine turpentine. Once the wax dries, a polish with a soft brush and a cloth
A 10" cowboy in the process of drawing his six-shooter was my first attempt at a
full, 'in the round' figure, and it seemed quite good at the time.
It is called Gunsmoke
or High Noon on a sunny day. Now I can find about ten things wrong with it:
one arm is too short, the face is too ugly, the boots look like 'wellies' etc.
This was followed by a scene from the musical 'Oliver' in which Oliver begs for
more food and Mr Bumble goes berserk at the audacity of the little fellow. The
scene is called
. The two figures and the furniture were made separately, which will
lose points in the eyes of some purists.
The reasons for separating them were twofold: firstly I had no piece of lime big
enough, and more importantly, I simply chickened out. Being a beginner is always
a good excuse !
The current Oliver is actually a stuntman because the original figure I
'created' was so atrocious that I beheaded it in disgust.
Further stab wounds and many penguins later .... the latest project is a scene
depicting a muscle-bound dragon slayer confronting a hapless lizard / dragon.
The title is
Come and Get it !
figures were made separately for reasons similar to those given above plus
another, rather more valid, namely that the composition of the scene requires
some space between the two adversaries.
Various body-building magazines and books provided an invaluable source of
relevant pictures for the muscle-man, especially as I was looking for something
bordering on the grotesque. The dragon is a pure fantasy, though.
Curiously, in some respects I am finding carving reliefs more difficult than
figure carving, particularly if perspective is involved. One simple and rather
invaluable piece of advice Jarda gave me regarding reliefs, was to make sure
that the depths of the details (in some way related), always reflect their
respective distances from the viewer. In practice this means that, what is
further from the viewer should be deeper in the relief than that which is nearer
to the viewer. This may sound obvious, yet it is surprisingly easy to get things
completely wrong by not following this simple rule. Of course, it is also
relevant when dealing with the problems presented by perspective.
I soon learned that " face on "
heads look ridiculous in relief because the shortened nose appears as if broken
and beautiful fairies end up looking like professional boxers! To my mind, the
only way of overcoming this problem is to adhere to a full or a 3/4 profile or
to have enough depth of wood for a proper length nose.
Another problem with reliefs is in producing good, clean backgrounds. I am
hoping that it will get better with experience.
This uncertainty is I think, possibly the main difference between a beginner and
a maestro, all other things being equal. Also, to put it crudely, not knowing
what one can " get away with ",
which usually manifests itself in getting bogged down in unnecessary detail. As
well as undercutting too soon, too far etc. And away from the technical
problems, not being able to convey the spirit / essence of the subject.
Alas, not all of these problems can be overcome by all of us, but let's have a
jolly good try!!