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Laurie J. McNeil.

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May 16, 2015

Use of Published Wildfowl Patterns as Reference Material

To rely solely upon any one pattern, other than your own is dangerous. Remember, these are all artist's renditions, and as such are subject to discrepancies.

Even published patterns offered by champions are not always accurate. These patterns are offered as reference and are not really made to be copied exactly. The true expectation is for them to be used as a guide or as reference in the creation of your own original patterns.  If you want to establish your own style of carving, taking the risk of creating your own patterns is where you style will begin. Why would anyone not want to have their own style in wildfowl carving?

It is not unusual for judges to see at the novice level of competition, several birds carved from the same pattern which was offered in a class. Slightly different in appearance, but overall look is the same when they are cut from the same pattern, and the carvers are instructed by the same carver.

At the intermediate level, it is common to see birds that have obviously been carved using published patterns from the champion carvers. The judges can spot them in a heartbeat, and will give more consideration to the carving that is uniquely different, than to those carved from these well known patterns.

We even see these patterns in the open/advanced level, where this is against the rules! By the time you are in at the Open or Advanced level, you should be designing your own patterns and carvings.

All my life I have been a "reference girl", taking the time to do the research for whatever I was into at the time. This has always been key in my success. For debate in high school; I did the research to find the facts that would be arm me with the information necessary to prove my point, to win the debate. It's the same for wildfowl carving;  do the research, find the facts necessary to carve an accurate bird, use the facts to create your pattern, and prevail by creating an accurate carving.

Here's my approach to developing an original pattern:

I gather as much reference as possible. This includes, photos, videos, patterns, books, study bills and castings, reference measurements both printed, and my own.


For waterfowl decoys, I will start first with the measurements in the back of Bruce Burke's Game Bird Carving, offering the measurements from chest to tail, width, etc.

For other species like songbirds, raptors, shorebirds and more I use Pam Krausman's "Images of Nature Reference Measurement" offering key measurements (Distance between eyes, front corner of eye to tip of bill, length of bill, flange to flange, closed wing length, wing span, length of body, circumference of body, and length of tail) for over 100 birds species (Birds of Prey, Waterfowl, Upland Ground Birds, & Songbirds).

I compare existing patterns for an average length and width. Often I have acquired access to a frozen specimen, however for many species this is not possible due to availability, or because it is a protected species. Utilizing the closest collection of bird skins is a possibility, especially for local species. For me The Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota is where I can study and measure up a skin. Another resource can be taxidermists and breeders who will allow you to photograph live specimens or measure up some of their frozen specimens.

Beware of taxidermy mounts, and remember they are just as much an artist's rendition as a carving or a painting, are subject to inaccuracies and can be very wrong. Mounts are best used as reference for feather shape and detail, basic feather layout and feather coloration. Again, never use a mount as your only reference. Plumage can vary greatly, depending upon the time of year or the age of the specimen. It is necessary to determine the season of plumage, age of the bird, and even sometimes hybrids occur. This can be done through photos, video, discussion with other birders, hunters, and carvers, as well as first hand observation.

Check with your State Department of Natural Resources (DNR here in Minnesota), and see if they have any frozen specimens in their inventory. Explain the reason you need access; to measure and photograph, and you may be surprised by what is available to you. This can be an excellent resource for protected birds like Loons, songbirds, shorebirds, birds of prey, etc., as these are turned in by citizens, and even confiscated from poachers. This can lead to some very unusual species that aren't necessarily in your region. In 1986 I was offered access to a Atlantic Puffin here in Minnesota, that had been confiscated, this was a real treat for me!

Armed with all of this reference material, I have an idea in mind for the pose I want, and I attempt to find a photograph depicting the exact pose and attitude. I make a clay model using Roma Plastilina oil based clay, because it is reusable and I  have a surplus from buying 25 years ago. Today, Michael's Arts& Crafts and Dick Blick Artist Supplies also offer less expensive brands of oil based clay which will work just fine.

If you are lucky you might find a pattern from one of the published patterns close to what you want. However, it is very important that you use this only for a basis and not verbatim. Though these are all good patterns, but they should be used as reference and not for your own pattern.

It is those carvers who have taken the risk of their own pattern, and  making their own mistakes, who will dominate not only the competition, but the sales market as well. This is because their work is unique and is not the same as the other wildfowl carvings.

Other Articles .....

Laurie McNeil, LoonLady
by Si Seifert WWWoodcarver E-zine February 1998

The 25th Anniversary California Open Carving Competition
by Gary Illmanen - Artwork Network February 1998

Carving a Palm Frond for the California Open
by Laurie J. Gmyrek - Wildfowl Carving & Collecting Magazine June 1997, revised January 1999


Laurie J. McNeil All Rights Reserved  2015
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