Jay Hanna ends his handy book on Marine carving with a story. It seems that he was interested in how a talented shipbuilder had accomplished a particularly masterful bit of carving. The old gentleman reflected for a while and then commented: “Well, it wasn’t easy.” That’s the story behind this hoop tray portrait ordered by a cardiovascular surgeon from New Jersey. Poor photos, off angles, no information on the builder, year of construction, model, or any of the usual stuff you expect for a commission. I had to correct for perspective on the design because he could never seem to get me a photo in the real profile. Somehow I finalized the design and carved this portrait. When asked by a friend how I had managed to do it, I thought about Jay Hanna’s story and said: Well, it wasn’t easy.
The surgeon was overjoyed at the portrait but not sufficiently that he paid the balance due. I was grateful that it has always been my practice on this sort of commission work to take a substantial deposit up front to cover materials, research, and costs. Since then, if a prospective client balks, I walk.
For further information, read my post on putting curses on sales until paid for:
About twenty years ago, I gifted some early works to interested friends and family. I had withdrawn them from use at the shows because my work methods had changed. They weren’t bad, I had moved on and they no longer reflected current work.
I’ve always preferred cherry for my mast hoop portraits. Cherry is durable, has beautiful grain that gives you sky and water, and lends itself well to detailed carving. A principal difference that cropped up as my methods matured was how I carved or didn’t carve water and skies on the portraits. Early on, I attempted to carve ripple and wave patterns in the water, and similar effects in the sky. Eventually, I decided that I’d let the wood do the work, and avoid the tool marks. That I changed my techniques was a matter of personal evolution. The portraits didn’t sell any better or worse for the change, and none of my clients commented on it. But (let’s run the laugh track here), if in a century a collector of my work was to write a critical article on evolutionary trend in my style, they might wonder at the “early” versus “late” Carreras – you can groan now. It was just that I came to appreciate the smooth over the textured. For those of you who are artists and craftspeople, you can probably pinpoint similar moments when something changed for you. I am not a super fan of Bob Dylan, but a line from one of his songs has always summed it up for me: ” He not busy being born is busy dying.” Grow, change, keep being born.
We all want to be instant experts. One of my sensei describes this in terms of the training montages that are standard fare in martial arts movies; the neophyte progresses from clumsy beginner to skilled pro in thirty seconds of cinematic snapshots. The rest of us suffer from dissatisfaction and disappointment from being less than optimal for much longer. Not every time, but more frequently than I’d like, I get confronted with the unique. And, all of a sudden I am a neophyte once more. Incorporating new materials, using new types of paints, complex constructions, and most especially very small parts that need fabrication all create confrontations with the problematic.
When I was doing banners, quarter boards, transoms, and the odd eagle, the problems were mostly mechanical – design layout, curvature to fit, and calculating shadows in carved lettering.
Boat and ship portraits offer many more issues. I am presenting a practice piece of the very first boat portrait I ever did. Remember, practice pieces are exactly like the rough sketches you do of a subject before you paint – the practice is to work out the approach, shapes, and rendering before you start the actual work. Being that carving is subtractive, this saves you from ruining expensive wood and wasting time.
Over the years, I’ve done many portraits. I’ve borrowed techniques from model makers, painters, and illustrators. I’ve also had to develop some tricks of my own. The single most important thing will seem trite: challenge is what differentiates those who are growing from those who are standing still intellectually and as artists.
There are about two years between my first practice piece and my rendering of a cat boat for a mast hoop portrait. Principal carving is complete, finishing the coaming and adding some details are all that’s left before fitting into the hoop
The photo for the featured image was just taken this morning. I was finishing a batch of cherry treen. If it’s fall it’s time for me to start making treen for those friends who’ve requested spoons, spatulas, or spreaders for the holidays. The image illustrates four of the reasons I love cherry.
Cherry has a lovely color repertoire depending on the circumstance of the tree’s growth. Color, grain and hardness vary widely. Cherry is durable, and moderately hard to carve, but not so hard that it’s a a trial. In addition to treen I’ve done chip carving in cherry, and it’s my “go to” wood for ship and boat portraits. There is no other wood that I have had such an intimate and long lasting relationship with. I love our native New England cherry and I’m excessively fond of the Alleghenny cherry that I get from Pennsylvania.
In recent years I’ve had difficulty getting the wider planks I prefer for portraits and now regularly joint panels from narrower stock. Perhaps, that is a fifth reason why I love cherry; once glued properly it holds together well.
If you haven’t tried cherry because you thought it too hard I’d advise getting a sample and allowing the wood to appeal to you.
Much of my business in the past 27 years or so has been portraits of ships and boats. It all began at a crafts show at New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. I had been making trays out of mast hoops for some time. I carved a variety of themes including an elegant Compass Rose design I had created. Towards the end of the day, a woman stopped by and asked if I could carve her husband’s Eltro 19″ powerboat onto a tray. That was the tray that started a line of products that have proven to be a gratifying part of my business. I’ve even made some money on it.
I have carved portraits in hoops from eight inches ( internal radius) up to about twenty-seven inches. Not all designs look great when overly compressed, and you have to be honest with potential commissioners about what is realistic in a standard size hoop. A carving of the Titanic won’t work in an eight-inch circle! Most people want something modest in a twelve-inch hoop. I try to avoid anything smaller than a ten for a portrait.
I prefer to carve my portraits in cherry. Carving in cherry is not for the faint of heart who do their carving in basswood. Cherry is hard, durable, and it is tight grained. Cherry takes and holds fine detail, an important consideration when carving a hull which might measure out to be six inches in length. The cherry grain pattern behind the boat gives the appearance of water, waves, sky and horizon lines; saving you from having to carve in those features. Nature’s provision looks more natural than what you can carve with a tool.
I’ve selected a series of pictures from completed portraits to illustrate boat portraiture in wood. No robot carving.