Weekend before last Barbie and I went up to Lake Erie in hopes of seeing the waterfowl migration. Starting in late Feb through March, large flocks of ducks, geese, and swans congregate in the wetlands between Sandusky and Toledo Ohio. On a good day you can see a thousand tundra swans take to the sky. A writer’s yet to be born that can capture with words the sight of those wings flashing white against a rainy gray sky. It’s as though a new kind of light has just been born and your eyes are the first to behold it.
We weren’t so lucky to see the flocks in big numbers but I did catch a glimpse of a pair of Sandhill Cranes. Cranes are uncommon for this region so it was a rare treat. I was reminded of a show I saw recently on PBS. It was one of those “how to paint” programs and the artist was using a Sandhill Crane as a subject. He started by saying
“In order for this to work you must get the proportions right”.
He then proceeded to demonstrate how to paint a crane without giving a single word of advice about proportions. I hear this all the time about furniture. Descriptions about how proportions are pleasing, or how proportions are important, then quickly moving on. I find this frustrating. It’s like learning to cook and being told “spices make food taste better” and then leaving the spice box locked up. There is scant practical information in woodworking literature about learning and applying proportions. That really get’s to the heart of what I write and teach about – how to think proportionally.
Thinking proportionally is not so much about finding answers. We may outwardly long for some ABC approach that can unlock our design strengths but it simply doesn’t work that way. Instead of answers we are looking for connections. How can we begin to see the connections we have with nature, great art, architecture, and masterworks of furniture. Proportions are the essence that permeates a great design and if we can somehow begin to grasp them we open a whole world. Yes, the form of a Sandhill Crane is governed by proportions that give it a unique identity and character.
It’s taken a while but I now think proportionally. When I look at a turning like a table leg or a stair baluster, I view it differently. I see how the different elements break up the form vertically and how they are proportioned major vs. minor. I look at the diameter and note of how that relates to the overall height. How does the largest diameter compare proportionally to the smallest diameter?
Best of all, is the knowledge that if the form possesses great proportions, that raw DNA can be applied to other designs regardless of style.
That’s part of what I glean from the classic orders. As I explore them and become familiar with the proportions like musical notes, I find those same notes spilling out of my memory in new expressions. Additionally, learning those notes in the classic orders, helps me to uncover new notes and combinations in places I formerly walked right by.
George R. Walker