Perspective in Relief Carvings

Monday 9 July 2018

I have never been able to understand why so many aspiring carvers start with relief carving projects. Perhaps it is because thin pieces of wood are easier to come by or, simply that they think copying a picture or drawing is the easiest way to start.

Unfortunately, many find the results disappointing and don't try again. This is not really surprising as effective relief carving is certainly not easy, and there is not a great deal of helpful information available.

Good carving in relief is all about creating the illusion of depth which is the very thing that is missing. This is important in all types of relief carving but especially so with landscapes and architectural subjects, where buildings, trees, roads, rivers etc are involved.

This can be achieved in several ways. Variations in texture, size, detail and colour all make a tremendous difference, but by far the biggest and most important factor is perspective. The secret here is about apparent and actual angles.

Let us look, therefore, at a few examples of different scenes and how attention to perspective can contribute to the overall effect.


What exactly is perspective and how does it affect what we do?

Every picture has its vertical elements and its horizontal ones, and each of these can be affected by perspective. To try to cover all the implications would take up a whole book but I will try to cover the parts that apply to the woodcarver.

Let us view what is required in very simple terms. Everything we look at in real life has some depth to it and we are made aware of this in a variety of ways.

As things get further away, they appear to get smaller and closer together. When you get a chance, look at a tiled floor and study the lines between the tiles (see photo 1).

Vanishing points

Depth also causes things to look smaller and closer together in the distance on vertical lines, like the walls of buildings, telegraph poles and trees. This reduction in size isn't random; it follows a simple pattern, which is all based around what are known as vanishing points.

Take a basic picture of say, a street scene, and draw a line along the bottom and top of the buildings. These lines will meet at a single point somewhere around the horizon. This is what is termed as the vanishing point.

A difference of angle or level of buildings can cause some lines not meet at the same place. If this happens, you will usually need to take the general location to fix your vanishing point.

In photo 2 the vanishing point is a little complicated as the picture is on a hill and there is considerable height difference. You would need

to take a level roofline and the top of a wall to get an idea. The resulting vanishing point is inside the picture towards the centre. Adjustments would need to be made for the hill.

Note – you cannot use the road lines for your vanishing point as they are not level.

Tackling verticals

This vanishing point is very often completely outside the picture. In addition, there can be as many as three vanishing points in one picture: one to the left, another to the right and one at the top. Each of these will add a different effect. These points are known as one, two and three point perspective.

For most carving, we only need to consider one and two points as, very often the inclusion of a third point (upwards) can give the impression that the carver has got his verticals all wrong, or that whatever has been carved is falling over. Look at the picture of the church to see what I mean (see photo 3).

This image has a vertical vanishing point and this shows an apparent taper to the church tower. This can be used for effect but can give the impression that the building is falling backwards. It is probably preferable to make these lines vertical before starting your carving.

One and two point perspective

So, let us now consider the vanishing points in one and two point perspective.

These points can be moved up or down to give different effects. The lower they are the more dramatic the angles, and the higher they are the more the picture will appear to spread out below you

Once these vanishing points have been established, all horizontal and vertical lines should meet one or other points. Vertical lines should remain vertical, although they will diminish in size as they get further towards the back of the picture.

If we look at some very simple drawings of blocks or buildings, you should get the general idea (see photos 4-7).

Tackling a multitude of vanishing points

While vanishing points are very important to get the right effect

in your carving, each subject will

be affected in different ways, so you will need to be sure before you start carving just how much this will apply to your picture.

Look at the following two images of Bodiam Castle and a street scene in Swanage in Dorset.

Bodiam Castle

In the case of Bodiam Castle (see photo 8) the left and right points

are well outside the picture on each side. There is also a hint of a third point above, making the verticals slope somewhat.

It is worth looking at a picture like this and comparing the effect of sloped or vertical lines before drawing up the pattern for your carving. Just because it looks right in a photograph doesn't mean that it will look right in your carving. It might even look better, of course!

Swanage street scene

In photo 9 of Swanage, there are actually two points of perspective but they are independent of each other. One affects the right-hand side of the picture and the other only affects the buildings on the left. Each is equally important to get the overall effect.

On a perfectly flat and straight picture, these two points would coincide, but as we know, life is seldom that co-operative.

Try to locate these points yourself. You will find one is inside the picture and one is outside.

Setting out work

When the time comes for you to start your relief, begin by marking the major components onto your block so that you can establish important angles. Ascertain where the deepest part of your picture will be and remove any wood that you can, down to that point, including any background. Don't worry about cutting accurate outlines, just get near with a veiner or V-tool.

In essence, a relief is carved from the back forwards. Most novices will try to carve the front first and then work back, with the result that the picture will tend to be carved only in the first 6mm (1/4in) or so.

In the case of this simple cottage illustrated here (see photo 10), the sky is the deepest point and once the waste has been removed, you can start to mark your angles (see photos 11-12).

At the same time, you should allocate wood for any parts of the picture, remembering from the floor tiles that everything in the distance needs less wood than anything in front of it. As long as you don't do any undercutting, you can make any adjustments as you go along. Photo 13 shows all the angles established, before adding detail in photo 14.

Potential problems

There are two problems that occur in relief pictures. The first is that shadows appear on the background; not good, or possible, if the background is distant or represents the sky. Anything likely to do this should be cut back as close to the background as possible. Correct perspective should give the effect you need with no shadow.

The second and more common problem is that the foreground looks unnatural because anything vertical and in contact with the ground, appears to be falling over backwards. This is overcome by cutting back the bottom of any of these verticals to create an angle, giving a more realistic effect and more wood for the foreground.

Points to remember

1. Perspective will make objects appear smaller and closer together as they get further away and all horizontal lines will meet at one, two or three vanishing points in the distance or to the side. These points may become less distinct and accurate if there is variation in height and angle in your picture.

2. Not everything is conveniently vertical or horizontal. Objects to the front of the picture will show more detail than those in the distance.

3. When starting a carving, make sure you establish all your angles before adding any detail.

4. Be careful if you are carving reliefs of people, in particular, from photographs where there is any foreshortening due to perspective. This may be fine in a 2D picture but once you give the picture a third dimension (depth), this foreshortening will be exaggerated and will look distorted.

5. Lastly, bear in mind with carving, that it is not an exact science. It is rare to get a scene where vanishing points fit conveniently into the theory. Houses will have strange roof lines, sloping walls and oddly shaped gables, roads bend as well as go up and down hill, and verticals will not be vertical and horizontals will not be horizontal. Be flexible and adjust the picture to suit your requirements. Stand back and look at the result. Once you appreciate the theory, you will quickly recognise when you have got it right or wrong.