How I achieve ‘flow’ in my carvings

Focus on silhouette

Alan Moore, author of ‘No Straight Lines’ and ‘DO/DESIGN Why beauty is the key to everything’ asked me to tell him about the carving process and to try and describe the elusive ‘flow’.  As a subject it’s big and pretty intangible, but I’ll try to describe both how I achieve flowing forms, and how this leads me to get lost in the flow of the process.

I’ll write another time about the mechanical, physical act of carving – the flow and twists of the chisel and the rhythmic beat of the hammer or mallet, but for now I’ll talk about what my eyes focus on while I’m working and how I lose myself within this narrow field of focus.
I haven’t tried to put it into words before so I hope it doesn’t sound like gibberish!

When I carve my eyes  concentrate on three particular things (often alternating quickly, but not at the same time).

1.The outline.  The outline of a form changes every time you shift your viewpoint. To use the analogy of a pencil sketch on paper – it is as if every time you shift, even just by a fraction, you have a whole new line drawing in front of you.
I scrutinise the whole of the  outline from one end to the other checking where there’s a break in the flow of the line.  I jump forward with a waxy builder’s crayon in my hand and mark the offending bump. Then I shift my body by a fraction, or turn the sculpture on the turntable, and scrutinise the fresh view that I have. When the sculpture is scrawled with crayon I chisel away the offending lumps and bumps, and begin again the checking process. I do this hundreds and hundreds of times until I am happy with the flowing outline. People looking at the completed sculpture might be unaware of the purity of the silhouette but will subconsciously sense the harmony that a flowing line creates.

2. The flow of the surface.  I try and figure out how the form should flow between the external outlines, whether concave or convex, or  moving from one to the other.
To picture this flow, imagine holding a piece of paper in both hands and flexing it in different directions. I try to get this flowing tension in my form.
The truth is, if you use the first way of looking – eradicating the bumps that disturb the flow of the outline, the surface of the form gradually sorts itself out. But generally carving is a mixture of these two processes.

3. Carving with Light and Shadow. This is the Grand Royale of carving. It almost guarantees that one will achieve flow – both in form, and as in a particular state of concentration. When I have this I work without pause, instinctively knowing what steps to take, fearlessly hacking away great chunks knowing that every thing will meet up harmoniously in the end. Ah, blissful state!
The way shadow falls across the surface describes the quality of the form. If the outline of the shadow is crisp and flowing, then you can be sure that the itself form is fluid and taut.
A good light to carve by makes carving simple – you just refine the shadow (which is strong and easy to see), and the form resolves itself :>)
Bright, clear daylight – preferably raking from the side as in early morning or late afternoon- is best. Alternatively site lamps are good, but best used in dark conditions.

I think daylight is best but I’m not sure if that’s because it is more subtle, or because it is mostly fleeting. A shaft of sunlight falling across my carving, highlighting a flaw that might never be caught again (not until the sculpture is installed in situ and it’s too late to rectify!) prompts avid activity, total absorption while the precious light shows me what I must do.
Though I have used the word ‘flow’ many times, here and in the past, my friend Susan Harper pointed out that this state has been closely analysed by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. You can read his understanding of Flow and listen to his Ted Talk (the latter half discusses flow).

I hope my description sheds some light on my carving process.

Postscript: If you feel inspired to carve, come on one of my Stone Carving Workshops  :>)