Can there ever be too many ways of learning to carve acanthus leaves?
My new book, “Carving the Acanthus Leaf,” has full and complete step-by-step instructions on how to carve a variety of different historical acanthus leaves using hundreds of detailed photos and drawings. However, as we all have different styles of learning, sometimes written instruction is not enough to fully comprehend the carving process. So in addition to the book, I am now offering full HD video lessons and resin study casts that go with Chapters 4 through 16 of my book.
If you are familiar with my Online School of Traditional Woodcarving, the video lessons are similar in teaching structure style, showing real-time video with close-up details and tool identification throughout the lesson. Also, if you are a Premium Member of my school, you will receive a 15 percent loyalty discount to these video lessons.
The resin study casts are direct replicas made from the original wood-carved leaves from these chapters. Having something that you can view, hold in your hands, and study the details can greatly help in the learning process. (Or … you can use these as decorative details in your home.)
One way or another, you will learn to carve acanthus leaves!
When I first stepped into one of Mary May’s architectural woodcarving classes, I had some vague notion of what it would be like to carve wood. Though I had some interest (I’m interested in making just about anything with wood), woodcarving had never ranked high on my list of interesting avocations, much less passionate ones. But after two days of her instruction, I walked away with an entirely different appreciation for woodcarving and for what Mary had to offer.
As readers of her book, “Carving the Acanthus Leaf,” will quickly find out, Mary is not simply a person who happens to carve wood for a living; she is a woodcarving master par excellence, a truly gifted soul whose work is an expression of some deep passion, driven by faith, and guided by years of diligent apprenticeship and experience.
To most of us, acanthus leaf carvings are a familiar albeit barely understood adornment to historic architectural woodwork. We’ve seen them in the mighty cathedrals of the European Renaissance and in grand public buildings of the 18th and 19th centuries. We’ve probably even seen them on ornate pieces of Chippendale cabinetry. But what Mary May shows us through her book is the robust history of the acanthus leaf from its early Egyptian beginnings through its history in Grecian, Roman and Byzantine architecture; its influence on (though absence from) Viking woodcarvings; its rich revival during the Renaissance; and, ultimately, its decline in the 20th century “machine age.”
As with many aspects of traditional craftsmanship, acanthus leaf carvings have enjoyed a renewal of interest in recent years, perhaps as we humans struggle to maintain our identity amidst an increasingly technological ubiquity. To that end, Mary has offered a gem.
While the book can be through of as nothing less than a how-to guide for woodcarvers, it is much more than that. Steeped in detailed instruction on carving numerous styles of acanthus leaves, Mary’s book weaves the reader through a complex array of history and tradition, of love and romance, and of skill and passion for the art form. This is a uniquely personal text through which the author walks the reader through her own history with woodcarving as a means of inspiring others to take the leap into what may prove to be a highly rewarding journey toward mastery of a new skill. Relating her friendship with Bill Cox, who, at 89 years of age, took up woodcarving and served as her shop helper for six years, Mary encourages others to take up the craft. And, by relating some of her own mistakes along the way, Mary reminds us that we are all human, including the masters.
If you have ever looked at ornate woodcarvings and found yourself at awe of the skill it took to produce them, buy this book. Read it. Get some tools, pick up a piece of basswood, and start carving. You won’t soon regret the experience.
Various styles of rosettes have been used since the Roman Empire as decorative accents and are often used as appliqués (applied to a surface) to adorn furniture and architectural features.
Here are some of the design elements for rosettes:
• They are symmetrical and can be circular, oval, square or rectangular.
• There is a small bead in the center that is either plain or carved.
• In oval or rectangular designs, this center bead is also oval.
• Square or round rosettes that are symmetrical can be turned on a lathe before carving to establish the basic profile.
• There are typically four primary leaves evenly positioned around the rosette.
• The leaves start at the center bead and flow outward toward the edge, with the tips of the leaves defining the outer edges.
• For square or rectangular rosettes, the tips of the leaves end at each corner.
• The midribs or center stems get narrower as they reach the ends of the leaves.
• They often have small, secondary leaves that are between and appear to be positioned under each primary leaf. This example does not contain these secondary leaves.
HOW TO DRAW THE LEAF This design has similar structural elements to other leaves, but some details, such as positioning the eyes, will need to be visually located without guidelines.
STEP 1: Draw a square. This example has slightly curved edges. Draw the center circle and the midrib (center stem) of each leaf ending just before each corner. Notice for this design that the midrib connects from one leaf to the next. This is often done to create a continuous flow between the leaves.
STEP 2: Draw the eyes close to the center circle. These eyes represent where two leaves overlap.
STEP 3: Draw eight circles as shown that intersect and slightly overlap at the pointed end of the eye. These locate the edges of the overlapping lobes.
STEP 4: Erase the parts of the circles that are no longer needed. The remaining lines should extend from the pointed end of the eyes. The dotted lines represent the edges of the lobes underneath.
STEP 5: Erase the dotted lines. Draw the two eyes on each leaf about a third of the way up the leaf at a slight distance from the midrib.
STEP 6: Draw circles as shown that represent the overlapping secondary lobes. The edges of these lobes should extend from the eyes drawn in STEP 5. The dotted lines represent the parts of the lobe that are underneath. Sometimes drawing the edges of the lobes first can help locate the eyes, so steps 5 and 6 can be reversed.
STEP 7: Erase the dotted lines. Draw the pipes that start from the eyes drawn in STEP 5 and curve and flow them alongside the midrib.
STEP 8: Draw the lines that locate the serrations as shown. These are typically positioned perpendicular to the center veins on each lobe, but in this design there are no center veins on the side lobes. Draw these lines at an angle located approximately halfway between the eyes and the tip of each lobe. Note that the center lobe has two of these guidelines that are perpendicular to the midrib. After learning how to position the serrations in the next few steps, these lines are usually no longer necessary as guides.
STEP 9: Take a deep breath. It really isn’t as complicated as it looks. Draw small circles that locate the serrations along the edges of the leaf. These lines should start at the edge of the leaf and curve down to meet the guidelines drawn in STEP 8. The dotted lines show the correct direction of the curve. These circles are simply used to show the curvature of the serrations. Erase the parts of the circles that are not necessary. This process of drawing the circles is often not necessary after learning to understand the shape and position of these serrations.
STEP 10: Erase all lines that are no longer needed. Complete the edges of the leaf by connecting the serration lines as shown and also complete the tips of the leaves.
STEP 11: Erase any unnecessary lines.
STEP 12: Draw lines starting from the inside corners of the serrations that flow down each lobe. These lines represent a high edge (or high corner) in the leaf.
Walking through a historical journey of the acanthus leaf has its challenges, as the different art periods often overlap and the styles frequently migrate from country to country. There are numerous volumes written on the history of decorative arts, and this brief explanation is not intended to be an exhaustive historical account. Focusing on the acanthus leaf and its significance in architecture and furniture, we will follow the leaf as it evolves through each identifiable art period. At times, the design transition spans multiple years, and there are periods where this motif is nearly unrecognizable or almost disappears, only to regain in favor again in the following art period. There are certain art eras that I have omitted because of no evidence of acanthus leaf usage in their design. I hope this brief historical overview builds a curiosity and desire for further research and discovery.
THE EGYPTIANS (3200 BC TO 332 BC) Ancient Egypt was not plentiful in trees, so the use of wood in furniture making was reserved strictly for the wealthy. Many of these pieces of furniture were well preserved in the low humidity of the Egyptian tombs. Native woods included acacia, sidder and fig, while ebony, cypress and cedar were imported from Syria and Lebanon. Ebony, ivory and bone were often combined with wood and overlaid with gold and silver. Lion paws, bull feet and goose and duck heads were carved into the legs of stools and armchairs. There is no evidence that acanthus leaves were a design element during this time in either furniture or architecture, but the lotus, papyrus and palm were common.
THE GREEKS: (1600 BC TO 100 BC) The art of furniture making, which often included woodcarving, was highly valued in ancient Greece. Influenced by Egypt and the Orient, much of the early furniture was ornately decorated with marble, bronze, inlaid ivory, ebony and precious stones. Because wood is not as durable as stone, few remaining examples of woodcarvings from this period are available, and are mostly made of cedar, cypress, oak, maple, beech, citrus and willow. Even the famous Greek author Homer remarked that car penters were “welcomed the world over.” There are examples of the legs of some of the couches (“kline”) or chairs having carved animal legs and feet, with the backs shaped like a snake or horse head.
The first known example of the acanthus leaf as a decorative architectural element was in the Corinthian capital, originating in Greece in the 5th century BC. Based on the anthemion design popular in Greek architecture, the first carved acanthus leaves contained sharp points, deeply carved corners and sharp ridges between the lobes, creating clear shadow lines that were visible from a distance. Most examples of this early style of acanthus leaf are found as architectural stone carvings.
THE ROMANS (146 BC TO 337 AD) After Greece came under Roman rule in 146 BC, the Greek decorative arts were eagerly absorbed by the new Roman Empire. Evidence of early Roman wood carvings show that arms and legs of chairs and couches were often carved to represent the limbs of animals, while chair backs and table supports were of carved griffins or winged lions. Common motifs used in architectural details are the anthemion, the scroll, the rosette, the acanthus, birds, cupids and reptiles. Woods used in carved furniture during this period were cedar, pine, elm, ash, beech, oak, box, olive, maple and pear.
The Roman period produced a richer, more flexible acanthus leaf, where the sharp points of the Greek style became softened. With its endless and varied possibilities, the acanthus leaf reflected the Roman love of art and beauty, and was incorporated into a wider range of decorative ornament. The details of the leaf contained deep “eyes,” which represented holes where the different lobes of the leaf overlap, and sharply defined ripples in the leaf, giving a dramatic feeling of movement. The leaf took on a more naturalistic feel, with the tip of the leaf often curling and twisting in a lifelike manner. From the Roman era on, there was scarce a time where the acanthus leaf was not a significant part of Italian ornamental design.
I am pleased to announce that Mary May and George Walker will be at the Lost Art Press storefront on Dec. 9 to celebrate the release of their new books.
Mary, the author of “Carving the Acanthus Leaf,” and George, one of the authors of “From Truths to Tools,” will each give a short presentation on their work that evening, answer your questions and sign books. Lost Art Press will provide drinks and snacks for this free event.
Only a limited number of people can attend (fire marshal’s orders), so we will offer free tickets to this event starting at Friday at noon Eastern time.
Note that Saturday, Dec. 9, is also the last open day for 2017. So if you need books signed by me (note: I am happy to fake any signature, including: Tommy Mac, Roy Underhill and André Roubo) that’s the day to do it.