For several years I taught marine woodcarving at a boatbuilding school in Maine. The first day of my week-long class was typically spent teaching tool sharpening, basic knife techniques, and chip carving with the knife. On the second day, we moved on to lettering and carving a quarter board.
On day three, most people were game for larger projects and went into the backroom for relaxation and inspiration. I had set it up as a combination gallery and Library. So there could be found all the samples and patterns I brought and dozens of books on carving.
That day, a student approached me with a small eagle billet head. He asked me if I had freehanded the design on the wood. I had a pattern for this, but it was one of the few patterns left behind at home. Digging around in a toolbox, I pulled out a pair of proportional dividers. I demonstrated how to use them to measure and transfer the critical dimensions to wood. Then, he was off to carve a credible eagle head with some freehand drawing, the dividers, and French curves.
The next day he was back asking for advice on carving feathers without a peep about the technique I had taught him.
Almost Forty years prior in Baltimore:
In 1966, my friend Bill decided big money could be made carving Tiki statues for Polynesian-style restaurants. As the better scrounger, I was detailed to run around town and see if I could liberate free wood for our business. One of the places I wandered into while scrounging was the workshop of a master carver, chaser, and engraver. Let’s call him Warburton. After refusing my request for free wood, Warburton gave me a relatively complete description of his skills. He was had mastered many modes of chasing and engraving and was a skilled carver of religious sculpture. While he would not offer me the tiniest scrap of wood from his scrap bin, he did offer to allow me to clean his studio for free. Why would I want to clean an egomaniacs workshop for free? It must have been that he immediately began teaching me essential concepts in art and craft. He taught me about – Hagiography and Iconography on the first day. This was the beginning of Warburton’s influence on me; the gift of knowledge. For a time, I just thought he was weird. Warburton could tell you why Saint Cerbonius was always associated with wild Geese. What need did I have for that information?
I began to go to Warburton’s occasionally ( in those days, I did little regularly). I swept, stacked, sorted wood, and dusted the diverse casts, models, and half-finished works that seemed to litter the lower level of the workshop. There was also a substantial mezzanine ( another word Learned from Warburton)that also was full. Throughout all this, I was never shown how to use a tool or draw a line.
I was yelled at for stacking walnut with mahogany. Also for not stickering green wood correctly, not knowing what boxwood was, and its use by medieval and Renaissance carvers.
When this last became, apparent Warburton seemed to grow angry and told me to visit the Walters Museum and not return till I had been at least twice. I went at least four times dutifully to take in all the wonders that the Walters had to offer me. Leinberger’s Memento Mori in boxwood was exquisite, and the Walters has many more like it.
On my next visit to his shop, Warburton was unimpressed and set me to sweeping up. Finally, he grew agitated and told me that proportion and perspective were the keys to artistic rendering. Was I familiar with Manetti, Vasari, or Brunelleschi? “Who?” Calmly Warburton walked me over to a workbench; this is it, I surmised. He’s really going to teach me the “Secrets of the Masters.” Warburton picked up a pair of proportional dividers and pointed to a small model. After showing me briefly how to set and use the dividers, he says: “Copy this. It’s one of the classic techniques used by all the masters.” He then walks away and says nothing else to me.
Back to Maine
The school I taught encouraged students to file evaluations on the courses they took and evaluate their instructors. With the student’s knowledge, the school shares the assessments with the instructors. Each class is one to two weeks of intensive work. During the week of my class, I worked very hard to ensure my students received the best foundational course in woodcarving possible. I’m pleased to add that I received outstanding ratings. That year among the praise was a brief comment from the student I had taught the dividers technique to: “I had hoped that he would spend time teaching us more of the “Secrets of the Masters.”