Artists learn traditional knowledge from many sources, often from family, community members and peers. Additional knowledge may come from specialized art schools, coastal carving events, formal and informal mentorships, and research into west coast art collections in museums.
Preparing, engineering and cutting into the material takes expertise, precision and patience. Each cut of wood is unique and behaves in its own way. Wood is a living material that moves, shrinks and grows and is sensitive to its environment. An artist will try to guide the material by adding, trapping or removing moisture. Timing and careful monitoring is critical. For example, a commissioned piece destined for a dry desert climate will be be treated differently than one slated for the temperate west coast.
There are dozens of cultures on the west coast, each with their own cultural style of art and visual 'cues'. A visual cue can be anything from the degree of curvature in a U-form, the use of colour, the shape of an eye socket, or the depth of carving. Artists working in a traditional style may also develop their personal visual signature and approach.
Artists use a combination of power tools, hand tools and traditional tools depending on the stage of the project. The raw material is generally roughed out with a chainsaw and traditional tools are used for the majority of the carving: The finer the detail, the smaller the blade. Knife-making is itself an art form and traditional tools are handmade. Common tools include D-adzes, elbow adzes, chisels, straight blade knives and hook blade knives.
Most of the woodcarvings at the gallery and studio are made from western red cedar, which can grow up to 250′ tall (75m) in stands of old growth. The material harvested for the artwork at Gordon Dick Studio comes from an area of coastal rainforest managed by the Nuu-chah-nulth people. Other woods used include yellow cedar, high elevation pine and alder and materials such as abalone and copper may be incorporated.
Art made in Gordon Dick Studio uses high-quality acrylic paints produced in small batches on Granville Island. The pieces are sealed with organic citrus oil, free from chemicals.
From Start to Finish
Step 1. Conceptualizing
Once an idea has been conceptualized, the artist might begin preparing material or might instead start on a drawing. Traditional artists are inspired by the teachings of their culture, their observations of the world, the materials they use, and the work of other artists.
Step 2. Preparation
Once a piece of material has been selected it needs to be brought to the carving site where its basic shape is roughed out. During this time the artist decides how best to 'engineer' the cuts to stabilize the material, makes sure the piece is symmetrical and flat where needed, prepares the approach for carving, and starts to manage the drying process.
Step 3. Blocking
The design is transferred onto the material with a pencil and a chainsaw is used to block out/rough out the basic shape of the design. As the project progresses the artist will re-transfer the design several times and continue carving it down until it's time to use hand tools for finer work.
Step 4. Carving
Traditional carving tools such as adzes, chisels and knives are used to refine the shape. This stage is done by hand and the process is gradual as the design becomes more and more refined. The final 20% of the project can take up the same amount of time as the first 80%. During this time the artist continues to control the drying process and make adjustments to accommodate the changing needs of the material.
Step 5. Finishing
The surface of each piece is either sanded, 'blade' finished, or a combination of the two. A blade finish is a textured surface made by creating multiple even blade cuts in a pattern. Paint choice and application is influenced by the artist's personal tastes and cultural tradition. The art might be left unpainted, highlighted, or fully coated with paint. Painting takes multiple coats to ensure a smooth, even application and crisp edges of the lines.