Summer Elf

Monday 9 July 2018

Joey Richardson, the prize-winning turner, came to my pencil drawing and woodcarving classes to improve her considerable skills, and we were discussing the merits of woodcarving and woodturning as an artistic medium. It seemed to us that things made from wood are often not considered to be art at all, indeed anything that has the label craft, seems to be automatically disqualified. We don't think this is fair or true in some cases.

Joey's work has taken woodturning to another phase with her addition of colour and piercing to her great technical abilities; influenced by her travels under the Bursary award she gained and in particular her studies in America with Binh Pho, a very special artist in turned wood. She also tells a story, as indeed I try to do too, to lift our mediums. In many ways we have the same vision for our respective arts, so a collaboration was suggested, the result of which is the Summer Elf.

Certain problems were inherent: I am used to working entirely alone, with no interruptions, and letting the work flow and develop into itself. Joey is the opposite and needs to discuss in advance the details, as she needs a clear vision from the very start, as woodturners need to do, for they have certain limitations we carvers do not.

This is very difficult for me as I get the idea and then let the work, the form, the line and the wood take over, so other than a vague concept, I too am often surprised at the result.

Any collaboration should be completely independent ideas that come together to be something else that is greater than the individual work – the result being that truly independent thoughts marry by joint input and agreement.


To that end, I carved an elf without Joey knowing what my vision was. It was then up to her to do her work in response to that, to ensure her independence of thought.

I had a sunflower in mind anyway, as can be seen from my initial sketch, but expected her to do a woodland scene or something of that order, so I was pleased with her choice, but it needed to come from her.

Having come to that, she turned a magnificent wafer thin disc with its perfectly fitting, central hollow boss that she pierces through as characteristic of her work, and I carved the petals to suit after we had decided their form.

The wings were formed by Joey turning a particularly shaped dish, that when I outlined the wings, would give the right flow and bend. I then passed them back to her for piercing to match the central part of the sunflower. She then coloured the whole thing in her style, with elements of that colour being applied to the elf's hair.

The glass beads representing dewdrops were carefully fitted to the central boss and suspended from the hand. These represent a further link between the two pieces.

The concept

The actual subject of the collaboration proved to be a problem – something that we could both contribute equally to without one dominating the other's work, was more difficult than we thought. I had been working on a series of elf drawings for a greeting card company and wished to give form to some of the delightful shapes I'd found, and simply did that. The concept of this was doodled on my pad (see photo 1), and I just followed it through.

Doing it this way gave me the lead, but someone had to start it off; next time it will be Joey, and I will carve an elf in response. If we do it like that it will ensure that the lead will come from us both equally over a period and sort of average itself out.

True collaborations with equal artistic input are very difficult to achieve, and if we are to continue working on such projects, we must be influenced but not dominated, by each other.

Carving process

Having selected a suitable piece of Limewood (Tilia spp), I drew directly onto the wood the lines, which I thought would flow well. I enjoy drawing directly on the timber as this helps me with the feel of it and its grain direction.

From this, I take a tracing for reference. It is always wise to do this because as carvers, we continually carve out our lines, and a tracing helps us to re-instate at will so that we don't lose direction (see photo 2).

You will notice that the block was not quite big enough to contain a hand and hand and arm. This I will deal with later.

Cut the profile with a bandsaw (see photo 3) if you have one – this saves time but you can reduce the block with a 1in No.6 sweep and mallet in the time honoured way.

Sometimes I prefer to do this as it gives you a feel for the timber and helps in finding the subject, and can be most pleasurable. I never tire of the sensuous feel of paring wood.

After drawing on roughly the shape from the front, I begin to take down the general form (see photos 4-7) until the planes are defined (see photos 8-9).

We then begin the rounding off process (see photos 10-11) in a gentle manner – effectively we are taking off the corners.

When reasonably happy with the shape, carve through the head and neck areas – this will free the arm (see photo 12). Be very careful here as the left arm is almost entirely on cross grain. Normally I would not do this but in this case, I wanted the left leg to be the line that flowed, and chose the grain according to that.

Continue refining the form (see photos 13-15). I always say that I carve a piece a hundred times. This is of course necessary, but in the end only the final cut is seen.

The hairline and face details are next defined (see photo 16). On this figure I wanted the main thing to be the sensuous lines and their flow. To this end, I have kept the hands and face details deliberately simple and stylised so that the flow remains always prominent.

Keep working on, refining, adjusting, and changing if necessary, until you are happy with things (see photos 17-19). I still use a penknife where practical for this process as it sometimes helps getting into awkward corners for minor cuts.

This then leads us to the additions of the arms. Using the off-cut waste, I very carefully match up the grain direction and pattern, then using the tracing, bandsaw into rough shape, refining as much as I can before fixing. For this I use small dowels – made from a cocktail stick – carefully fitted and glued into place, then simply carved in to the rest of the figure. Because there is a lot of cross grain involved, I support the arm firmly in the palm of the hand, and though it flexes a little, it is still remarkably strong and up to the purpose.

The wings

We are now ready for the wings. Using the disc Joey had turned (see photo 20), I drew on the shape and carefully bandsawed the outline (see photos 21-23). It was important to carve the edges so they appeared to be the same thickness all round the periphery. The wings were then dry fitted with a small dowel, and the figure was offered to Joey's turned disc for proportion and any adjustment necessary (see photo 24).

The sunflower

Before Joey could continue, I had to carve the petals, so laying them out in soft (2B) pencil by eye, I carved them in using a 70 V-tool (see photos 25-26).

The assembly was then finished from my point of view with the exception of carving the stalk of the flower to act as a prop. This was very important because the elf has to line up with the glass marble representing a dewdrop.

Joey then pierced, textured and coloured the whole piece in her own particular style: the texturing and piercing on the Sunflower linking with the same on the wings, the colour on the hair linking with that on the Sunflower, and the dewdrop on the flower with the one suspended on the elf's hand.


The finished work was displayed for the first time at the Worshipful Guild of Woodturners in the Apothecaries Hall, Blackfriars, and is now on show in Louisville, Kentucky, so it's getting around and arousing some interest.