What is Wildfowl Carving?
Wildfowl carving is an art form which requires a combination of many abilities, of which most would be fortunate in mastering just one. The renaissance artists of old created beautiful depictions of everything the eye could see, the heart could feel, or the mind could imagine. They created beautiful two-dimensional paintings on canvas which looked alive with depth, color and form. There were masters who created three-dimensional sculptures in stone and wood, and some crossed over and did both painting and sculpture.
While fine art collectors vie to collect the two-dimensional and three-dimensional works of the early and modern masters, there are those collectors who have found a new source of masterpieces being created by the master wildfowl carvers throughout the world.
It was the old masters who paved the road for an art form, by sculptors otherwise known as wildfowl carvers. Modern day wildfowl carving; the sculpting of birds from wood, grew out of decoy making in the United States, beginning in the late 1960’s. Decoys had been made by hunters of wildfowl and used in the field for centuries. The making of decoys was largely considered a “craft”. Then there were a few of these hunters who found their own art, in their decoys. They began to focus on abilities toward replicating birds as they are in life, as sculptures in wood, right down to every feather quill and barb. The “craft” had evolved into true art form.
At one time, decorative wildfowl carving became so popular, it began to be included at the hunting decoy competitions across the USA and Canada. Those who win, are rewarded with ribbons, trophies, and cash awards.
Having all of the skills required to be a wildfowl carver is not as common as one might think. These skills include research, sketching and drawing, pattern making, sculpting, engineering, painting, and even photography.
Reference & Research
An education must be gathered for each carving to be used as reference for the creation of a clay model in some cases, and pattern development in all cases. Reference materials include, photographs and videos of the live bird, study skins, study castings of actual specimen bills or beak, and feet, and actual measurements of the species to be carved. The carver must also study the specie’s lifestyle, life cycle and the different life stages, as well as its habitat in which it lives, and its appearance and behavior during the different stages of life.
General knowledge of bird anatomy must to obtained to accurately create wildfowl carvings. The carver also must study in great detail, the anatomy and unique differences in the individual species depicted. Knowledge of the different feather groups, structure of individual feathers, and behaviors unique to the species, are gathered by the artist gaining intimate knowledge of their subject, through in-depth study of the chosen species.
Once the artist has selected the species of bird to be carved, some create a clay model of the bird or birds using measurements and other reference materials. Creating a clay model allows the artist to view the subject from all sides, insuring a pleasing view from all angles. A clay model can also serve as the reference model and is tool in developing a pattern. Throughout the sculpting process, the carver refers to the clay model as a visual aide, and will take measurements from the clay model and transfer them to the wood the sculpture. The artist also must plan on the depiction of the wildfowl and how it will be displayed; perched on a tree branch, sitting on nest, defending against a predator, or as the predator, there are endless scenarios. All of these aspects must be considered and decided prior to creating a wildfowl sculpture pattern.
Some artists have the ability to draw patterns without the use of a clay model. A pattern of the bird as viewed from above (top) must be created and then a side view correlating with the top view is created. The outermost dimensions of the clay model are used to create the templates, which will be traced around, onto the squared-up block of wood, as guides for the band sawing process which removes the excess wood, prior to sculpting it into the round.
Wildfowl carvers use a variety of different wood types to create wildfowl sculptures. Clear wood, free of knots and hard grain lines is used by the masters to create their wildfowl sculptures. Basswood, Jelutong, White Pine, Cedar, and Tupelo wood are popular in the USA, and Lime wood is used in the UK. Premium wood is very costly everywhere in the world, especially the large pieces a wildfowl carver needs to create large life-size wildfowl sculptures. When premium clear wood is used, the carver can freely create without being interrupted by knots and soft spots.
The excess wood from the rough block used for the sculpture is removed using a band saw, though there are those who will use a hatchet for rough out. Having a large band saw is best for the largest of carvings to be created, especially one-piece sculptures which often require larger pieces of wood. The skill of band sawing is an art in itself.
Wildfowl carvers are creating their carvings and decoys using traditional methods of knives and gouges, and more modern methods employing the use of high-speed rotary bits and power tools. Both methods are respected and, in the end, the result is the same. When the basic form has been achieved, the wildfowl carver begins to carve and shape the individual feather groups and in decorative sculptures, the carver creates feathers from head to tail, replicates the bill or beak, and inserts the highest quality glass eyes, creating the life of the bird.
The decorative aspects of wildfowl carving are defined by the amount of detail. There are smooth carvings, where paint is used to define the details of individual feathers. With decorative carvings the individual feathers are carved, and feather detail is added with texturing stones and wood burners create quills and barbs, essentially replicating the structure of the feathers found on the live bird.
Creation of Habitat
Decorative wildfowl carvings most often require a base for their display, reflecting the habitat the bird or birds. The habitat is hand formed by the artist and must be just as accurate to nature, as the depicted wildfowl is sculpted after the live bird. To create the fauna and flora of the wildfowl sculpture, the artist hand forms branches, leaves, lichen, bark, flower buds, petals and blooms. Often, the creation of the habitat for a wildfowl sculpture is just as detailed and often more time consuming than main subject.
Engineering Flotation and Self-righting of Decoys
Correct flotation of decoys is a requirement in competition. One step further, is the engineering of the decoy to self-right, with or without a keel. This can be a challenge involving many test flotations before achieving perfect flotation and self-righting.
Once the details have been achieved, colors and the subtle shading and highlighting found in nature, are painted onto the 3D canvas, according to the bird and the habitat depicted in the sculpture. The artist may use oil paints with various mediums, or acrylic based paint. The same color theory and methods used by the old masters are used to paint wildfowl sculpture. In decoratives, the artists use a variety of techniques to achieve the look of the live bird amongst a convincingly realistic appearance to the habitat it is interacting with.
Wildfowl carving and decoy competitions are held throughout the US, Canada, Europe, offering a chance to earn titles and awards. Many choose not to compete for titles and awards. Competitive carvers earn the title of master when their wildfowl carvings have an impact on the viewers, collectors, and connoisseurs of this fine collectible art form.