Design Matters: A Practiced Eye for Drawing Curves

Design Matters: A Practiced Eye

 In February 2013 #202, Popular Woodworking Magazine Article Index

Straight lines will help you generate pleasing curves.

By George R. Walker
Pages 18-20

I know a potter who’s worked clay on a wheel for more than a quarter-century. His practiced eye has a keen sense for curved forms, honed by shaping tens of thousands of pots. I admire his work and also the fact that he still gets excited at the thought that there’s more to be learned about curves.

That’s humbling and a bit scary. One of the most difficult things to visualize is a fair curve; it’s like a slippery snake that’s hard to pin down. I want to feel comfortable and confident designing with curves, but the thought of throwing a thousand pots is not an option. Thankfully, our woodcraft tradition offers powerful lessons that can help.

Visualize a Curve
One reason curves can seem so difficult is that we see them in an endless array. Nature displays curves with abandon; even our own human form reveals fluid curves. Here’s a little secret: The first step to imagining a curved line is to begin with a straight line.

Pre-industrial design literature is filled with examples of curved layouts generated with simple geometry using a straightedge and a pair of dividers. They might appear overly simplistic, but they contain valuable clues to help you design with curves.

Begin by learning a few simple curved notes, which are much like musical notes (as shown below). However, unlike musical notes that vary in pitch, our curved notes vary from slow to fast. A slow curve is a gentle arc like the far horizon line out on the ocean; a fast curve is a sharper bend, sort of like that tricky exit ramp on the highway that tries to sling you off the pavement.

Take a Closer Look
This sinks in better if you actually draw it, so pull out a straightedge and compass. Pick one of the simple constructions shown below, and carefully draw it on paper. They each use either the whole straight line or half the straight line as a radius to locate a fulcrum to form each curve.

Note too that our straight line is also a chord that’s spanned by our curve. From a geometry standpoint, these arcs have some unique properties and these simple curves are used endlessly in traditional design (see “Simple Curves are all Around Us”). Yet the most profound thing is not that you learned to draw a few simple curves; the real power in this is that you drew a curved line that visually references directly off a straight line. This is a big deal because you are giving your mind a way to compare a slippery thing (a curve) with a straight line, something we all can imagine clearly.

Blog: Read more from George R. Walker on his Design Matters blog.
In Our Store: George R. Walker’s DVDs, “Unlocking the Secrets of Traditional Design,” and “Unlocking the Secrets of Traditional Design: Moldings.”

From the February 2013 issue #202
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