Look Beneath the Surface

Learn the hidden order that speaks a common craft language.

by George R. Walker
pages 18-20

Wooden language. This simple yet elegant wooden bowl captivates both hand and eye. This piece, “Orange Bowl,” is by Jim Sannerud.

Wooden language. This simple yet elegant wooden bowl captivates both hand and eye. This piece, “Orange Bowl,” is by Jim Sannerud.

Jim Sannerud is a gifted artisan who turns wooden bowls that are inspired by the rich tradition of Scandinavian woodcraft.

Recently, I was admiring his work when the conversation shifted to clay potters who turn their work on a wheel. Jim looked up from the bowl he was working on and made a simple yet profound observation. Potters and turners share a common language and the two crafts have always shared ideas and inspiration.

Now this language Jim spoke about is not some secret jargon known only to bowl turners. We often think of language strictly in terms of words. But languages that express ideas can go far beyond the limits of words.

In Jim’s world, the language is primarily about describing curves. In truth, our spoken language has a very limited range of words that can describe curves: concave, convex, fast, slow etc. Yet the vast possibilities of curves and combinations of arcs are infinite. Words are inadequate.

Cross-pollination. Potters share a kinship with turners through their common pursuit of that elusive curve that sings.

Cross-pollination. Potters share a kinship with turners through their common pursuit of that elusive curve that sings.

To the potter or turner, this shared language is found in the work itself and is spoken primarily through sight and touch. A group of turners can pass a bowl from one hand to the next and share insights that an outsider would never guess.

A modern turner in Minnesota can gather ideas from a medieval wooden bowl and in a true sense the makers, although separated by centuries, can bridge time, place and culture. The physical objects themselves contain ideas, clearly passing the knowledge from one maker to the next and one generation to the next.

Turners who work at this level are members of a small, exclusive club in the woodworking world with some stiff dues for entry. This language they share is acquired after turning hundreds of bowls.

Gradually, their hands and eyes are able to look beneath the decorations on the surface and see the form itself.

A novice might look at a row of similar vase shapes on a shelf and hardly note any differences, while a practiced eye can pick out the one example that sings most clearly above the rest.

Change Your Default
I’ve met many talented woodworkers who have acquired this designer’s eye by a similar path. After years of handling and building many pieces, slowly their ability to discern was heightened to another level. But where does that leave the rest of us who have neither the time nor opportunity to learn by osmosis?

What lies beneath. These three simple proportional patterns – symmetry, asymmetry, and punctuation – are the workhorses in design. Look for them in the structure beneath any composition.

What lies beneath. These three simple proportional patterns – symmetry, asymmetry, and punctuation – are the workhorses in design. Look for them in the structure beneath any composition.

My answer has some bad news and good news. The bad news is that there is no magic sauce (or formula) that can give you that designer’s eye and judgment.

Design is always filled with sweat, challenges and failures. That’s also precisely why design has so much appeal. The amount of satisfaction is in direct proportion to the challenge.

Now the good news. There are a few simple techniques you can practice to change the way your eye sees. It is possible to shift your default way of seeing and look at things from a totally different perspective.

Let’s take a look at some combinations of curves and how to look below the surface to understand what you see.

More to it. Proportional patterns also apply directly to curves. To the unpracticed eye, they are just cyma curves. But now you know otherwise.

More to it. Proportional patterns also apply directly to curves. To the unpracticed eye, they are just cyma curves. But now you know otherwise.

Proportions & Curves
One of the most important things to note when a pair of curves flow together is how they relate to one another proportionally.

Proportion is how one part relates to another and how it relates to the whole. There are three simple types of proportion that are easy to illustrate by dividing a line as shown.

We can divide a line into two equal parts to create symmetry, each part mirroring the other.

Symmetry is often employed to carry our eye to a focal point.

We can also divide our line into major and minor parts to create asymmetry. Traditionally, designers used simple whole-number ratios such as 1:2, 2:3 and 3:5 etc. to create harmonious relationships between major and minor.

Finally, if we just divide off a small unit on one end of our line, we create punctuation. This is usually used to create borders and transitions, and is achieved by dividing a line into five or more parts and using the last part as a punctuation or border.

These simple proportions also apply to curves. In fact, the traditional way of laying out a curve was to draw a straight line, then divide it into simple proportions to locate the beginning and end as shown above.

StraightCurves3 StraightCurves2

Straight curves. Take a moment to draw the straight lines that lie underneath these curves. Does that help you to see them more clearly?

Straight curves. Take a moment to draw the straight lines that lie underneath these curves. Does that help you to see them more clearly?

Note how very different each of these paired curves appear, even though they all span the same distance. The next time you are looking at some curves on a design, try to imagine a straight line from where the first curve begins, through the transition point where they meet, and extending to where the second curve ends.

This will help you see clearly how the curves are woven together. Just for fun, draw in the straight lines in the examples below and see if it doesn’t help you to see the proportions underneath the surface.

Because artisans were able to look beneath the surface, they were able to innovate and keep the tradition fresh. They could see the simple shapes within a design and compare how the parts wove together to create a pleasing form.

I like to think they could see the hidden melody in a design instead of just an assemblage of parts tied to a style or fashion. This is a powerful skill that might seem like a mystery to the modern woodworker.

If you are thinking about venturing out and trying your hand at design, a good place to begin is to learn to see this hidden structure.  PWM

George is the author of two design DVDs (Lie-Nielsen Toolworks), co-author with Jim Tolpin of two books (Lost Art Press) and writer of the Design Matters blog.

From the February 2016 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine.