The following is excerpted from Mary May’s “Carving the Acanthus Leaf.” Learning to carve the acanthus leaf is – for carvers – like a pianist learning a Chopin étude, a young oil painter studying the genius of Rembrandt or an aspiring furniture maker learning to cut dovetails by hand.
For carvers, especially those who focus on Classical Western ornament, there comes a time they will inevitably encounter the acanthus leaf, learn it, master it and finally incorporate it into their own designs.
“Carving the Acanthus Leaf” is a deep exploration into this iconic leaf, which has been a cornerstone of Western ornamentation for thousands of years. May, a professional carver and instructor, starts her book at the beginning. She covers carving tools and sharpening with the efficiency of someone who has taught for years. Then she plunges the reader directly into the work.
It begins with a simple leaf that requires just a few tools. The book then progresses through 13 variations of leaves up to the highly ornate Renaissance and Rococo forms. Each lesson builds on the earlier ones as the complexity slowly increases.
Drawing the Details of the Leaf
The details in the leaves can often be formed using geometric techniques, but not always. There is scant detailed instruction available on the specific techniques of drawing historical acanthus leaves, but the following step-by-step instructions explained in each project chapter work well for many designs. The process of drawing that I have shown in each chapter may not be the best technique for everyone, as we all think and design differently. The instructions are presented for the mathematical mind with a desire to discover the “formula” for designing and drawing the acanthus leaf. This is to satisfy those who have ruler and compass poised and ready for battle.
There may be others who wish to learn to draw the designs freehand, discovering this leaf’s deep secrets by observing, studying, tracing and drawing the leaf multiple times. Refer to the drawing instruction shown in each chapter to understand the positioning of the different details of the leaf and the curvatures of the lines. If you choose to draw the leaf freehand, you may find it easier to identify the overlapping lobes first, before locating the eyes. The geometrical process I have shown is reversed where the eyes are positioned first and are based on various guidelines drawn.
Drawing a Symmetrical Leaf
The following is an overview of how to use geometry and guidelines to draw a basic, symmetrical acanthus leaf. You can see a more detailed explanation of how to draw this particular leaf in Chapter 4. Some designs easily fit into this “formula,” while others vary depending on their shape and application. The main variation would be the number of lobes on the leaf, with the general rule being the longer and more stretched the leaf, the more lobes there are. Keep your eraser handy, as many of the guidelines used will need to be removed as the drawing progresses. Details such as eyes, pipes and overlapping lobes are discussed in more detail later in this chapter.
1. Draw a basic outline of the overall leaf with a midrib down the center that curves and splays out at the base of the leaf.
2. Draw four horizontal guidelines along the leaf, getting slightly closer together as they go toward the tip of the leaf.
3. Draw two straight guidelines starting at the tip of the leaf that angle out as they reach the base of the leaf.
4. Draw eyes at the intersection of the horizontal and angled guidelines.
5. Draw six circles, increasing in size as they reach the base of the leaf. These circles should touch the upper three horizontal lines, intersect with the outer edge of the leaf as shown, and touch the eyes at the approximate halfway point on the circle. These locate the upper, overlapping edges of the lobes. Once these are located, erase the parts of the circle that are no longer needed (dotted lines).
6. Draw curved lines to complete the lower edges of the lobes. These should start at the pointed end of the eye and finish at the outer edge of the leaf as shown, joining with the line drawn in STEP 5. The dotted lines represent the parts of the lobe that are positioned and hidden underneath. Read more about the “eyes” later in this chapter to understand these in more detail.
7. Draw the pipes that flow down from each eye and flow alongside and blend into the midrib.
8. Draw the primary vein lines on each lobe curving in the same direction as the pipes.
9. To help locate the position of the small serrations on each lobe, draw lines halfway between the eye and the tip of the lobe. Position these lines so they are angled and roughly perpendicular to the primary vein line of each lobe.
10. To help find the correct curvature of the serration edges, draw circles as shown on the left side of the leaf above.
11. Erase the parts of the circles that are not needed. The resulting curve should start at the edge of the lobe and end at the line drawn in STEP 9. The dotted lines show the correct direction these serration lines should aim, and should flow toward and blend with the primary vein line of each lobe.
12. Complete the edges of the leaf by drawing lines connecting the inside end of the serration edges with the tip of the leaf.
13. Draw any secondary veins flowing toward and running alongside the primary vein of that lobe.
14. Draw any wrinkle cuts on the pipes.