Carving is the exact opposite of modeling. The sculptor modeling with clay or some other malleable material starts from the inside and works steadily outwards, until eventually he arrives at the outside surface. The carver does the reverse - he starts with a block of material, and cuts away until he arrives at the sculpture contained within the block.
The ability to look into a block and see contained in it a form, then to set about peeling off the surplus material surrounding it, demands an effort of three-dimensional imagination that is not often achieved without practice. Occasionally people have it inborn, or have developed it early for themselves, but for most of us it is an ability that we develop slowly. Modeling also demands a three-dimensional awareness of what the end product will be; but as we build, the awareness of what we are achieving grows as the sculpture develops, while the production of a carving, generally speaking, requires a much greater awareness of what the final result will be.
Here lies the challenge - we live in a three-dimensional world, but often we conceive in two dimensions only. How can we train ourselves to feel in three dimensions? Developing a three-dimensional awareness is not all the carving does; it helps us to appreciate the quality of materials - their texture, color, density, what they will do, how they are manipulated, what they are capable of.
Despite contemporary innovations in the artistic use of wood that have structural and architectural aspects, many sculptors still derive their greatest pleasure in carving from a log. The differences between traditional, primitive, and contemporary wood carving may be considered differences in purpose. Wood carving of the past was usually applied decoration; the intricacy of Gothic carvings, for instance, was admired for craftsmanship and technique. Primitive carvers created idols, headgear and totems for functional purposes and not for art's sake. The contemporary sculptor is interested in an expressive form that combines abstract and representational elements to portray powerful emotions.
The carver invariably feels an emotional involvement with the wood itself. He respects the shape of the log and works in the long, narrow format imposed by the nature of the material. He is usually eloquent about the natural beauty, texture, graining, tactile quality, warmth and aroma of wood. There appears to be an indefinable, mystical, sensual force in the carver's relationship to his material.
Sculpture is an art of volume, mass contour and surface treatment. A sculpture must have volumes organized in space, and the amount of space the sculpture occupies is limited by the original mass of the material. A sculptor with a log or block of timber may retain the greater proportion of the original mass, and the resulting form will be solid and weighty; or he may take away much of the material and thereby lighten the mass, even making negative spaces or holes that allow space to penetrate. When negative space is created, it becomes another element to be considered within the volume of the form.
The character of wood and the tools used make wood carving demanding, hard work. When an artist develops a visual image for a piece of wood, he must think of it in terms of being seen from all around, from the top and from the bottom. This concept is very different from a two-dimensional painting, for example, that is viewed from the front; and from the relief sculpture that is attached to a background and viewed from the front and sides.
When the artist draws an outline on one side of a piece of wood as a beginning, the outline soon disappears as he begins to carve. If he is working on an oddly shaped log, he is restricted as to design. If he begins to work and finds knots within the log, he may have to alter his form. But no matter what happens, he must consistently subtract material to release the form so it occupies space in a coherent composition. He must constantly refine the design and surface until he successfully transposes the form in his mind's eye to the wood.