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By Iona Maccombie Smith | The BL

Wood carving is a supremely unique art form. Instead of painting onto paper or silk, wooden works are revealed by carving away from the negative space, with immaculate intricacy and skill, to bring to life the detail of the scene. The results are often breathtaking.

When contemplating the origins of the art form of wood carving, it would be a mistake to neglect its presence in ancient China. As a great cradle of civilization, with thousands of years of history, it is unsurprising that many of the oldest examples of exquisite wood carving can be found there. A wealth of research on Chinese wood carving art has been conducted and incredibly fine examples have been recorded that date back to at least 7000 years ago, from the Neolithic period.

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The origins of wood carved art

Wood carving is one of the oldest folk art forms in the world, with thousands of years of development, which can be seen across the globe. But the Chinese region of Zhejiang is particularly associated with a high density of skillful ancient artisans.

Zhejiang is considered to be the ultimate location for wood carving art over the ages. Artisans there, are known for their great technique, creativity, and imagination. They are experts in seeking out the right piece of wood for each artistic project, with just a glimpse of the material, the layout of the arrangement emerges.

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A unique and integral feature of any traditional wood carving piece from this area is the presence of a thrilling story narrative. Most of which hold complex mysteries, hidden inside each story. These stories are inspired by ancient fables, tales, and events from all across Chinese history. So, these carved wooden ‘paintings’ engage the viewer in mysterious and ancient events to induce a feeling of profound ideological philosophy and inherited history.

The Technical Tools of the Trade

When painting a masterpiece, the paint color pallet is the tool used to create the depth, light, and composition of the piece. In contrast, when working with wood you must rely on the singular color pallet of the wood itself and the shadows created by each cut. The natural wood colors become secondary to the curved, sharp or smooth lines carved into the material. Every detail sculpted by the hands of the artist into the wooden surface works to tell the story in three dimensions.

With what seems magic, the transformation of an inanimate object into a vivid portrayal of a subject is achieved with the tip of a carving knife. Perhaps the lines of a flying dragon or a dancing phoenix gracefully begin to mesmerize.

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In order to attempt a wood carving piece, the artists must first think hard. Their metamorphic talents are put to the test with each completion of a piece.

It takes extensive time, money, effort and skill to complete a successful depiction in wood, so the work of the artisans is intensive. It is because of this that every wooden sculpture born, is awarded a large monetary value, making each piece highly desirable, even to those with little care for the historical or artistic merit of a piece.

Wood carving is a demanding art form, that selects the hands and minds of the artisan

There is an old Chinese saying… ‘the job chooses the person, the person does not choose the job’. This is indeed true in the case of wood carved art. Not everyone is capable of mastering the art form, and those who can are destined to. Amongst its practitioners, there is also a division of qualifications and talent since each person has a unique style and brings their own character to the composition.

Wood carving requires of its artisans to not only be masters of patience but also the virtue of diligence. Each piece is the symbol of thought or the accomplishment of the mind of the artist. Perhaps so, even in China, a land famous for its wood carving to this day, true artisans find it hard to find a pupil to apprentice in their talents. The challenge of baring your soul in wood, exposing your intellect, and of course the strict technical demands, make many young people wary of pursuing the technique.

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Wood sculpture like this, is sophisticated and accomplished work, with many complex stages; from wood selection to carving, oil sweeping to color spraying. In order to make a complete work, in addition to the ingenuity, creativity, and skill of the artist, there is also a need for a disciplined mind.

Wood carving art of this kind is a folk art with thousands of years of heritage and historical development. It is tragically, however, under threat and is facing the erasure of its continued development. Nevertheless, its attraction to art lovers has never faded, and with its rarity, it may only grow in value. Each of the works of art still enthrall admirers and arouse the unchanging admiration of the public.