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Soft and Hard Horizons

Really? Horizons? We're going to be gazing at the line where the sky seems to touch the land or sea? That sort of thing?

I'm carving in my workshop right now and, anyway, I've seen it!


There is another definition of 'horizon': the limit of a person's perception - the limits of knowledge, experience or interest.

Here I want to focus on that perception idea and use the term to look at how peceive the edge of an object, effectively its 'horizion', where space disappears behind it, beyond our preception.

This has great relevance to relief carving. The horizon of an object tells us whether we are looking at something thin and delicate (a leaf, say), or rounded and having mass (a cloud). Understanding this will really make your relief carvings pop.

Let's do an experiment:

  1. Find yourself something round, a bowl or your mallet for example, and find yourself something flat, such as the edge of the cutting flat tray or a plate.
  2. Close one eye.
  3. Hold the object away from you in one hand.
  4. With your free hand, extend a finger and pass it behind each object, like going over a horizon line
  5. Observe how it feels, how you sense the object.

With the round object, see how your finger sort of disappears slowly. You can sense the softness of the edge, like the earth’s curvature, with its fullness, mass and form.

With the flat object you'll see your finger disappears neatly, quickly; like falling off an edge

Here's the thing:

Your brain registers 'horizons', and not just the sky/land one. There are 'horizons' everywhere, behind which we cannot see, our perception ends. You could say that everything behind which you can't see is a horizon.

So what? Well, your brain mainly registers 2 sorts of horizons: soft and hard. In part it's the actual edge, in part the surfaces, lights and shadows that lead to the edge. And your brain is very good at saying, 'Soft edge? Must be something rounded and having mass. Hard edge? Something thin and sharp'.

Look around and test this idea for yourselves!

Importance to Relief Carving:

If you carve leaves with softer, rounded edges, they won’t look thin. Conversely, if you carve clouds with hard, sharp edges, they won't look fat and fluffy. I see this mistake often. 

In the picture of the dory above, the edges are hard. The left side is also undercut but the right side is very shallow - and sharp, telling you immediately it's the prow of the boat. And the rocks, see how they are different to the hills in the background - not much difference in the depth of carving.

And look at this dog portrait:

It's true there is a definite outline to this low relief carving but look at the soft head and nose. There's physically more of the dog right there - soft mass, rounding over. Look at the ears: hard edges - they must be thin, yes? and no doubt floppy.

As you look around the relief carvings on Woodcarving Workshops you can see this principal again and again.

Make conscious decisions. Do you want fullness, mass? Or thinness, more delicate?

Look to your horizons!

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