How To Recognize A Winning Shape

I would tell you to visit a pottery type shop, but some of the shapes are just hideous! I would tell you to visit a ceramics shop or a gallery but you have the same problem. Ditto for the internet, so how do you learn?

I purchased some books I felt like I could trust. By the way, these were about as interesting as watching paint dry, the slow drying kind. However, it worked and both Sweet Janice and I have developed a reasonable eye for shapes finally. The best I have found are from the 500 series of books from Lark Publishing. I particularly enjoy: 500 Raku: Bold Explorations of a Dynamic Ceramics Technique and 500 BOWLS Contemporary Explorations of a Timeless Design.

We have visited many museums and galleries all over the country with the specific purpose of understanding shapes. What we have learned is that there are common elements which are always pleasing and common elements which are consistently off-putting. We finally decided that “beauty is actually in the eye of the beholder.” We decided to go with what looks good to us and be happy with that. At least we studied it thoroughly and are satisfied with our understanding.

I believe that anything hand crafted is beautiful, valuable and worth doing and keeping. All handmade items were most likely made with enthusiasm and devotion and deserve to be respected and admired. So please don’t misunderstand. My comments are designed to help you elicit the broadest possible positive response from the greatest number of people. There will always be artists who live on the edge pushing the boundaries of design. I’m not addressing that type here.

Let me make some comments about a few different categories.
Pens – Less is more. Smooth gently curved barrels always win over shapes with humps, lumps and bumps. New turners invariably add unnecessary shape to their pen bodies.

Bowls – First, is it a bowl, plate, platter, charger or some form of an art piece, perhaps a wall hanging? Is it functional or just for viewing? If it is utilitarian, a salad bowl, the base must be large enough to be stable. Harsh edges in the shape tend to detract so gentle fair curves win out most of the time. Simple here is usually better. The upper portion of the bowl can be embellished as long as the transitions are crisp. The height for bowls can be anything from 1/3 of the width to 2/3’s of the width and still be pleasing.

Vases – larger at the top or larger at the bottom? Whichever you choose, the Golden Mean, Fibonacci rule actually is golden. Use a ratio of width to height of 1:1.618. For example: a 10” wide vase will always look pleasing at about 6.18” wide, or approximately 2/3rds as wide as it is high. The widest part can be between 2/3rds to 3/5ths and it doesn’t really matter if it is above the center or below it. There are always exceptions to this rule.

Finials – I already know this will make some of you angry, sorry. Finials that are the most pleasing generally start out from a carrot shape going from the base to the tip. Then think of the Eiffel Tower, how it isn’t a straight line down but flares out toward the bottom. The curves are gentle and usually asymmetric. The beads and coves are steep and deep and well defined. They are pronounced with crisp transitions separating each element. You know where the bead ends and the cove begins. They have crisp well defined disks or filets between each element. The edges remain crisp and are not rounded over by sanding. They don’t look clunky. They almost look like they could break at any moment. They are not usually that fragile in reality, but have the look.

We studied the work of Cindy Drozda and Avelino Samuel, an excellent gallery turner from St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. We purchased a video from Cindy and studied it intently because she is one of the best. Ashley Harwood is another fine example as is my friend Kirk DeHeer. I photographed Avelino’s work on display at a woodturning symposium so we could analyze the various elements and how he made them work together. His style is different than Cindy’s style.

And so it goes. We studied. We learned. We developed eyes for design over time. It didn’t come all at once, but it finally came. It only came with study and effort on our part. I tell you this to encourage you. If, like us, you were not born with the innate ability to instantly recognize good pleasing shapes, you can develop your eye for design because wherever you go, there you are.

Here is my inspiration for this message:

Job 34:4 NIV
Let us discern for ourselves what is right; let us learn together what is good.
(Ps 119:125 [NIV2])
I am your servant; give me discernment that I may understand your statutes.




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