Level Changes and Floating Elements for Dramatic Shadows

Introduction of Dramatic Shadows
Undercutting Technique for Dramatic Shadows
Level Changes and Free Floating Elements for Dramatic Shadows
Dramatic Shadows Pattern Work

Note that the example used for this part of the article is still in the process of being carved. Because I will be adding wood burned texture throughout the piece then dry brushed oil coloring, this intermediate point, where to work is still in the carved uncolored basswood stage, offers the best chance to show the impact of shadows in carving. So you will be seeing lots of wood fibers and rough areas that have not yet been cleaned up.


The example of the fox curled up in an old tree stump is carved on a pre-routed manufactured basswood plaque that is only 3/4″ thick. Because the available carving space can only be 1/2″ maximum, using this plaque greatly limits the amount of working area. Yet, I want to imply that within that 1/2″ space there is room for a grassy bank, tree stump, and the fox kit. I can do this by planning in advance that a few of the elements within the scene cast dark and dramatic shadows.

As you look at the fox carving you will note that there are a few selected spots of that have extreme dark shadows. These areas of focus are the grass and leave that lies in front of the fork of the tree stump, the grass blades that lie to the fox’s left side below the tree branch, and the cluster of leaves on the tree branch above the fox’s head.

Although I have will not be showing you a photo, the area below the fox’s chin where his side burns meet his tail is also a dramatic shadow area and the instructions below apply also to this section of the work.

Each of these areas have two things in common. The main element that is carved, i.e. the grass blade or leaf, are left near the original surface of the wood. The background surrounding these elements are carved as deeply as possible into the plaque.

So, the edge of the sample grass blade shown to your right is only about 1/16″ deep from the original surface, just enough wood has been removed to round over that high edge. Yet what is carved behind it drops down to the 1/2″ depth.

This dramatic drop casts a very dark shadow and gives the viewer’s eye one small area within the carving to compare the depth of these two levels, the highest point in the foreground to lowest point in the background.

To keep the carving balanced in the way the shadows are created I will add a dramatic shadow area to both sides of the work. There is an area of level drop in leaves on the fox’s left, under the chin of the fox at the center of the scene, and in the grass area to the fox’s right.

The grass clump to the right of the fox again offers a very nice spot to carve this quick level change. Note in the photo that part of the tree branch, the edge of the blades of grass, and several of the leaves are at the shallowest point in the carving. All of these elements are surrounded by the deep background cuts.

The darker the shadow that is cast in a carving the more depth to the work it implies. By framing the fox with areas of dark shadows I am able to create the illusion that there is enough depth in the total carving to hold the fox’s body.


Click image for a close-up view.

Once this level drop has been created, added interest to the shadows can be made. If you look closely at the example you will see that the long blade of grass in the foreground of the photo has been carved completely free from the background. With closer inspection you will begin to note that the end of the tree branch above this grass and the two tips of the grass below it are also free floating.

As you look at these areas in the close-up note that the shadow that blade of grass casts. Not only is it the darkest shadow cast on the entire carving, the shadow itself floats freely across the background surface depending on the angle of the viewer.

The shadow has become independent of the carving, again implying a greater depth to the carving than really exists. This type of shadow planning can be done in most scene patterns and adds drama to your work!

Click image for a close-up view.

I originally carved the grass blade as a triangular shape, undercutting it, with one surface of the triangle facing forward and the two remaining sides falling back into the wood. The grass blade is deeply undercut. That made the surface of the grass blade show to the viewer while hiding the two sides of the blade.

Once the grass was shaped on the top surface I used my bench knife to begin narrowing the joint where the sides of the grass meet the background wood. Slowly I work away the sides of the grass where it touches the background until I have a thin cut open behind the grass, freeing it from the background. Since the grass blade is about 1 1/2″ long I worked the cut until it was at least 3/4″.

Next, I cut a long thin strip of medium grit sand paper, about 3/8″ wide by about 6″ long. The strip is feed through that narrow slit with the grit side facing that grass. Gently begin sanding the grass blade to narrow it’s thickness. I use this strip of sand paper to not only narrow the wood in the grass but also to widen the cut by walking the paper into the two joints where the grass meets the background surface.

The narrower you sand the thickness of the grass blade the more evident the shadow will become when the piece is complete.

The grass blade that lies below was first carved into the triangle shape, then undercut until the tip of the grass was freed from the wood. Again, the narrow long strip of medium grit sand paper was used to slowly reduce the back side of the grass.