Sunday, October 29, 2006

Inspiration for woodturners

Last June, Fine Woodworking reported on a panel discussion, woodturning’s past, present, and future, at the American Association of Woodturners' 20th Annual Symposium.

David Heim, an associate editor at Fine Woodworking, later interviewed panelist David Ellsworth who said that “Turners are not using other art for inspiration, and that’s different from other crafts. Turners don’t have that kind of history,” he said, “only a history of looking at ourselves for inspiration.” He said it was “crucial to gain an awareness of other media.”

There is no doubt in my mind that the woodturning press is to some extent to blame for not promoting a broader depth of understanding of art to their readers. They always have how-to articles, projects, examples of work by other woodturners, and tool reviews, which is great for beginners but more importantly perhaps, their advertisers. But how often do they get to the nitty gritty of woodturning as art? Sometimes they will mention design, but seldom more than functionality and a few basics such as the golden rectangle. The only publication that goes beyond this to any extent is Turning Points, the quarterly publication of the Wood Turning Center.

I am sure it is no coincidence that the fall edition of American Woodturner carries an article titled "Inspiration for the Soul". I am no longer a subscriber so unfortunately I can't comment on the context, but I feel it must be a reaction to the proceedings at the symposium. They have however published a webpage of supplemental information which comprises pairs of photographs, one of a woodturning and one of the source of inspiration for it. It shows many sources, including geology, nature, drawings, photography, architecture, sculpture and various artifacts dating back 5000 years.

At first glance this seems to show that Ellsworth was wrong. But it is worth noting that these examples are all from well known woodturners. Maybe what makes them successful is their ability to be inspired by other visual works, and to use this inspiration in their own work without direct plagiarism.

There is really no excuse these days to not be able to find sources of inspiration from beyond the field of woodturning. Moving on from books and magazines, the internet has made available a huge array of images from which we might gain inspiration for a new work or series. Google Image Search is an obvious place to start, but you might also want to try photo-sharing sites such as Flikr, and stock photo sites such as Fotolia.

I like to browse these and other sites for interesting images, which I then save to my hard-drive in a folder. I have set-up the screensaver to display images from this folder, so that I am continuously reminded of them. And of course, I still keep the old-fashioned scrapbook of magazine clippings.

What does one do with all this visual information? Directly copying a form from one medium to another is one option, but do consider whether this could be construed as plagiarism. It might be that a new idea is born of different elements from many images. Color might come from one picture, form from another and surface texture from yet another. But really what one needs to do is learn to analyze what you see and to figure out what fundamental aspects of it appeals to you. You might then be able to create a new work without further reference to the original image.

However one proceeds, a pro-active approach is necessary, not only in finding inspiration, but also in understanding that is just as important to your development as an artistic woodturner as is learning how to use woodturning tools.

I am sure that this is a topic I will revisit often here on The ToolRest. It certainly raises lots of other points to me, but in the meantime I look forward to any comments you might have on this subject.

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Categories: design, influences, creativity, art

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