Tips for Carving Big Cats 720 960 Simon O'Rourke

As a sculptor, there are certain subjects that Simon is known for, and often asked to create. Fictional characters and dragons are definitely in the top two. Another popular subject for sculptures is the lion. In fact, any big cat!
Over the years Simon has created many sculptures of big cats, including lions, tigers and cheetahs. A couple of those sculptures that people have especially enjoyed include The Guardian and the Sri Lankan Lion. Carving the same subject allows for a lot of learning and refining. Since Simon recently created the lion family photographed below, we thought we would share some of his tips for carving big cats…

Tips for carving big cats by simon o'rourke. Photo shows a lion family Simon created from two separate tree trunks. One shows a male lion twisted to look in the direction of the second trunk which shows a lioness climbing down the trunk to reach a cub.

A lion family diptych Simon created this year

Tips for Carving Big Cats: Research

The starting point for a realistic sculpture of a big cat, is research. The goal of that research is to understand the underlying structure of the animal. That includes the skeleton, how the muscles lie (and where), and how each individual body part is formed. For example, understanding the paws is an area of study in itself. This is important because the proportions of the animal are dictated by its skeleton and muscles. They also dictate what positions the big cat may be in, and the shape we see on the outside.
Other research includes things like texture and direction of the fur and how it contrasts between different parts of the body.
If you are looking for a good basic tutor, Deviant Art has a big cat blog series that is worth checking out.
Once you have a good understanding of anatomy, you can move forward with your sculpture.

tips for carving big cats: a large sculpture of a roaring lion shows the importance of accurate proportions when sculpting.

The skeleton abnd muscle structure determin the proportions and shape of the sculpture.

Tips for Carving Big Cats: Determining a Realistic Pose

Understanding the underlying structure of a big cat allows you to move forward into creating your sculpture. It’s important to consider what your big cat is doing; what’s the story behind the sculpture? Once you have a sense of the story, you can create the basic shape of the animal.
At this point there is sometimes a plot twist or two as Simon discovers cracks or cavities in the wood.
That was the case with the male lion. However, that cavity meant Simon moved the position of the legs slightly, which ultimately created more drama and a sense of story. So don’t worry if you have a surprise or two! With some creative thinking (whilst still considering the basic skeleton and muscle structure) a re-think can actually be a blessing in disguise!

A tree carving by chainsaw artist simon o'rourke. The photo shows a large male lion with his front paws on a pile of rocks. He is twisted to glance over his shoulder. This realistic pose is one of simon's tips for carving big cats.

How realistic that pose will appear is determined not just by the basic shape, but also by emphasis. Simon will often use the tip of a bar to emphasise an indent, curve or a flap of skin. These are the things that help to show which muscles are flexed or relaxed, and where the pose is causing the animal to stretch. They also show the size and shape of the muscles which help to give Simon’s big cat sculptures their sense of strength and power.

a chainsaw carving or a lion in process in a workshop.

This photo of the lion in process shows where Simon is choosing to emphasise specific dips, flaps and twists, such as the flank.

Tips for Carving Big Cats: Keep Looking at Your Reference

Especially with big sculptures, being right on top of the sculpture while you carve can mean you lose a sense of perspective. This means it’s important to keep stepping back and looking at your sculpture. Check the proportions. And always check it against your reference for the animal, whether that’s your rough sketches or a series of animal photos. This principle isn’t unique to big cats. Simon often also talks about the importance of this in carving faces which you can read more about in this blog about the golden ratio.

close up of a lion cub carved into a tree trunk by simon o'rourke

Tips for Carving Big Cats: Adding Texture

Once you are happy with the shape of your sculpture, you can begin to add details and texture. Those details are key in conveying the story of a sculpture. For example, in what direction are the eyes looking? If the mouth is open, is the nose smooth showing a more relaxed animal, or is it wrinkled in a snarl?

At this point, Simon will often use something like the Manpatools multicutter. In this video Simon uses the triangle cutter head effectively to create this striking Sri Lankan lion mane.

At this stage, Simon often also uses his favourite range of Saburrtooth burr bits to create texture. They are especially useful for smaller details like claws, eyes, nose, mouth and ears. However, they can also add subtle rounded shapes like cheeks, or the shape of a paw. They really make a big difference and help take his sculptures to a whole new level!

Tips for carving big cats: SImon O'Rourke uses a saburrtooth flame burr bit to create texture on a lion's face

Tips for Carving Big Cats: Practice Makes Perfect

Simon’s final tip is true of everything. If your first big cats aren’t what you want, don’t give up. Practice is are really the biggest factor in improving your big cat sculptures. It really is true that practice makes perfect!

Friday ramblings about my thought process while carving big cats!!

Posted by Simon O'Rourke – Tree Carving on Friday, 21 August 2020

Your Own Big Cat Sculpture

Do you have a favourite of the big cat sculptures Simon has made? Drop us a comment and let us know!
And if you would like to commission your own big cat sculpture, contact us via the form on www.treecarving.co.uk/contact/
We’re looking forward to hearing from you!

a roraring lion carved by simon o'rourke