Visual Elements on Ornaments by Aji Koswara

Training on Design and Wood Carving 2010
FSRD ITB & PPPPTK Seni Budaya Yogyakarta



    Ornaments in carving are designed to provide particular beauty on an object or product. However, their aesthetic existence on an object or product should be considered as an overall of a product, not an element that is added later. Carving ornaments become an element, along with other elements, which contribute to a product’s beauty or ugliness. The activity to design the ornaments is a part of overall activities in designing a product. The position of such ornaments has caused carving ornaments to be more than mere decoration, but also function to relay a theme, and even particular symbolic meanings.

    The existence of both kinds of ornaments is crucial, especially since the context of this training is to place creative ideas as the basis for designing carving ornaments on a particular object or product. A deep understanding about the existence of both kinds is necessary in order to be able to observe, learn and appreciate carvings made by “Masters”, skillful experts who are acknowledged all over the world, and carving masters who have produced works that are significantly recognized as masterpieces, which mark the reputation of the Masters and/or their origins.


    Subsequent to this training, participants are expected to possess the knowledge and understanding, and also the skill to create designs of visual factors for carving, carving motives and ornaments on a carving composition, with aesthetic values.


    The approaches of training is individual method, where each participant is expected to develop his/her own creativity, so not only he/she could acquire the knowledge, but also is able to realize the ideas into designs of carving compositions..


    The basic questions that become a guideline for this training include: (1) What are visual elements for carving? (2) What are the similarities and differences between visual elements for carving and visual elements for ornaments? (3) How do these things connect: visual elements, motives and ornaments for carving? (4) What are the basics to compose an aesthetic composition for carving?

D.1 Visual Element for Carving

Visual element for carving consists of: Point, Line, Plane, Texture, Color, Volume/Form and Shadow. These visual elements do not always appear in every carving and its appearance depends mainly on the carving design that will be presented. Line, planes and textures are elements that always appear on every carving. Carving is formed by carving knives that divide planes with incisions in the form of lines and planes, and the engraves create certain textures on the wood surface while presenting concave, convex and flat volumes, and even a hole.

Figure No: D/1

Visual Elements of Lines, Planes & Space. Jepara carving motives on an ancient door of Jepara Mosque (reconstructed by Aji. K, 2010)

D.2 Carving Motives

    Carving motives are formed by a part or the whole of visual elements for carving. Motives are a configuration of a visual element that are arranged into one unity, which becomes a certain theme when applied on an ornament. For example, motives of plants, roots, or flowers, such as in the Jepara motives in the following figure.

Figure No: D/2

Flower motives (A, B) on a classic Jepara carving

Drawing by Aji. K (2010)

 The above motives show the high aesthetic taste of the craftsman, which is evident from the ability to present a carving of flowers that looks really like a three-dimensional object (figure B) with a very accurate perspective proportion.


 Figure No: D/3

Line elements and forming of Carving Volume/Form I. (Aji.K :2010)

The different elevations of a carved surface will form certain volumes. Motives in roots (Figure No B/3) are as if picturing a sequence, of which the next would be a repetition, and an adaptation of direction and the motif’s dynamic to the designed product, by using particular ornaments. In such motives, possibilities to stylize the ornaments by adding other visual carvings are open, if considered as a necessary addition to the aesthetic of the product. The above motives are made with line visual elements, however, the void between the lines are forming new planes. Here we can see the “leaf” plane and the background plane (“lemahan”). The leaves are formed concavely and there are different elevations between the leaves and the background, which form volumes.


 Figure No: D/4

Line elements and formations of Volume/Form (Aji. K: 2010)

 It can be seen from Figure no.B/4 that the line element is very dominant, which means that a carving design can present the strength of its visual elements. Carving motives with such symmetrical position has different development, compared to the root motives in Figure B/3. Its symmetrical position means a number of things. The first one is: these motives can be a direct ornament if used like it appears now, i.e. on the headboard of a bed, a desk drawer, or other symmetrical surface. Secondly, if these motives are used on other surfaces different from the first, then if necessary these motives can be extended to the left and right, but their positions are still symmetrical. Problems that will occur is the design development, because when they are extended to the sides, the existing motif (B/4) binds us to present a compete carving ornament aesthetically.


Figure No: D/5

Line Elements and Formation of Volumes in a Classical Balinese Carving Style (redrawn by Aji. K from the source: Risalah Perkembangan Seni Ukir Jepara 1979, 2010)

 In a classic Balinese carving style, line elements appear very supple and subtle, proportions of the designed planes show sensitivity and high aesthetical taste toward line and plane compositions that form three-dimensional space. Other classica carving styles with similar, well-known beauty are, among others: Pajajaran, Jepara, Surakarta, Jogjakarta, Madura, Pekalongan, Majapahit and Mataram carving styles. In Kalimantan, Sumatera, Papua, Toraja and other regions, the beauty of their carving styles are representatives of the people’s culture with high aesthetic values and craftsmanship, i.e. the unique carving motives of Dayak tribe, also geometric Toraja motives where rich meanings are embedded, Minangkabau carvings that are rich in colors, as well as carvings from North Sumatera, and Aceh Darussalam.

The spread of these carving activities are followed by names for carving styles, i.e. Meander, Tumpal, Swastika, Diamond, Cloves, Cloud, Seashell (Cirebon), and other names based on animals, fruits, plants and birds, such as “peacock motif”.

The existence of the classical carving motives tightly relates to the court cultures. Palace or Kingdom Cultures have produced carving styles that represent the royalty of the court during the era. This development has provided new challenges to current craftsmen, to create carvings that are related to contemporary era and spirits.


Figure No: D/6

A Carving Idea with Radial Motif (Aji. K 2010)

Motif with Radial or centered pattern such as the illustration above tends to be independent, which means that the motif can directly be an ornament. Attention should be emphasized on the inclination of the motif’s impression to be static, so every visual element that forms the motif should be designed to reduce or even eliminate this static impression. The above study attempts to eliminate the static impression by giving a dynamic ‘movement’ to the line visual element. However, not all motives should show dynamic characters, some of them should even make the opposite. The “static” or “dynamic” impression of a motif is determined by its function, according to the product of its application.

D.3 Ornament

    The word carving “ornament” or “decoration” shows that visual-motives carvings are already applied to a product. Carving ornaments are aesthetically dependent, carving has become a part of the whole product, where the design of carvings and their positions are already chosen or planned, with certain connections to other visual elements of a product. Following is an example of an ornament with Jepara carving style that is applied on the upper part of a cupboard in Jepara.

Figure No: D/7

Carving Ornament on a cupboard in Jepara (Illustration by Aji. K, 2010)

These roots carving ornaments use leaf motives, their configuration is already designed for an application on a cupboard. The carving ornament design and the design of the cupboard are conducted as a whole design process. The carving ornament provides a meaningful, aesthetic contribution to the whole appearance of the cupboard.

Figure No: D/8

Carving Element on a wooden board (Aji. K 2010)

  D.4 Relationships among Visual Elements, Motifs and Ornaments in Carving

 Visual parts of an ornament consist of a part or a whole of a carving’s visual part. Ornaments that are applied to a product are interconnected among visual elements, ornamental motives and variations and functions of an object or a product. This interconnectivity can be illustrated as follows.




Points, Lines, Planes.

Volume, Forms/Shapes,

Patterns, Components, Shadows

An entity of a whole or a part of an arrangement of a Visual Element

Configurations of motives that are composed into a new entity that becomes a part of a product

Visual characteristics

Aesthetical Form,


Development of aesthetic quality & its application

 Visualization of forms by using carving on a wooden plane






Symmetric-Non symetric


2 Dimensional-3Dimensional

Fine-Rough, etc.

 Diagram No: D/1

Interconnectivity among Visual Elements, Motives and Carving Ornaments

  That diagram provides an illustration about the definitions of visual elements in carving, carving motives and ornaments. Visual elements that can have both natural and artificial characters are on wood textures, a main material for carving of which will be discussed briefly in the next section.


 Wood as a natural material comes in a number of varieties and each wood possesses different technical characteristics and visual appearances. Some of them, the ones that are familiar to us are i.e. teakwood, mahony, ebony, bangkirai, resak, etc. Research on wood shows that wood are classified into four levels based on durability, strength and functions. Class I woods are a.o. teakwood, bangkirai, ebony and belian. Class II woods are a.o. rasamala, walikukun and sonokembang. Class III woods are a.o. kamper, puspa, mahony and keruwing, while Class IV woods are a.o. meranti, suren and durian.

        The beauty of wood as a main material for carving includes: (a) visually concerning the looks of its textures and veins, (b) technically easy to work on with chisels and carving knives, (c) physically durable toward wood pests. So far, teakwood is known as possessing these three characteristics, therefore it is commonly used by craftsmen. However, if a weakness of a wood variation can be coped with, more variations of wood can be used as the main material for carving. Mahony, for instance, has a very attractive veins and colors, and it is also relatively easy to work on with adequate results. But this variation also attracts powdering pests that make small holes on the wood surface. Mahony has become more commonly used for carving after going through a preservation process. Not all woods are adequate for carving, since the characteristics of their hardness make it too hard to carve, or, the opposite, too soft to carve.        Visual elements on a wood carving consist of (a) natural visual elements caused by the wood variations and characteristics, i.e. vein directions, dimension of veins and the wood’s natural colors, (b) points, lines, planes, textures and volumes, of which forming is produced with chisels and carving knives. Selection and production of carving motives, then the motives are designed into ornaments. The visual appearance of an engraving depends on the shape of the carving knives, which come around 36 sizes in average. This engraving is what we call carving. Technically, possibilities to produce numerous engraving on a wooden plane are limitless.

The following illustrations show engravings that are commonly used by craftsmen

Figure No: E/1

Wood texture and surface as a carving result (Aji. K, 2010).

 Surface configuration on a carving result varies, according to its design. The surface of a carving can be flat, concave and/or convex, also with a variation of textures: fine or rough, lines or points, as far as the designer wants and technical aspects that can be achieved by carving techniques. Knowledge on wood as the main material for carving and on variations of carvings, and the skill to select and apply them, are technical aspects that are crucial for a carving professional.


     Aesthetic composition of carving is a phase to arrange the visual elements by considering design principles as its reference in selecting, modifying and determining a composition.

The design principles for carving consist of: (1) Proporsion, (2) Balance, (3) Rhythm, (4) Unity, Harmony.

 F.1 Proportion in a carving is quite complex, since the proportion compare not only length, width and depth of a carving in a product, but at the same time also comparing qualities and amounts of the concave and convex planes and flat planes, and also fine, supple, or stiff lines formed by the carving knives. Other comparison is the depth between spaces that are holes and those that are not. Aesthetic of a carving is a thorough comparison between one element and another.

In order to experience the principle of proportions in an aesthetic composition, the following carving illustrations attempt to describe it as follows:

 Proportion is observed and compared through the dimensional relationship between the following factors: firstly, between X-X1 and Y-Y1, which are length and width dimensions of a leaf. Secondly, similar comparisons among A1, A2 and A3, which are the leaf’s planes and their ‘movement directions’. Thirdly, among directions and dimensions of the engraving lines: supple, stiff, fine, which are applied on the leaf motives G1, G2 and G3, and fourth: composition of width, curves, or flatness of the PQRS planes.

 Composition aesthetic of a carving is formed by the combination of all three elements. In aesthetic, including aesthetic for a carving composition, subjectivity takes part in determining whether the carving composition is aesthetic or less aesthetic. An exercise to make a carving composition, observing a carving composition whether through literature/books or through directly enjoying a variation of carving, all provide aesthetic viewpoints that will be useful in ‘grading’ the aesthetic level of a carving composition.


Figure No: F/1

An Aesthetic Composition of a Carving

  F.2 Balance is a technical measurement, but also with a “feeling” in observing and sensing whether a carving composition is in balance or not. Is this carving composition in balance, or not so balanced? The following illustration can be used to describe the principles of balance on a carving composition.

Figure No: F/2

A Carving Composition of Flowers and Leaves.

(Illustration by Aji. K, 2010)

 Two composition patterns, one with symmetrical pattern and another with asymmetric pattern. Is there any balance in both composition?

 F.3 Rhythm in a carving is a repetition of an engraving, or incision, or space and depth, which can bring an observer to an attention point that becomes a center of the carving.

 Rhythm in a carving is usually easily caught by the observers’ eyes.

Figure No: F/3

Direction and Movement of a Rhythmic carving motif (Illustration by Aji. K, 2010)

Conducting an analysis toward the movement of a carving element and observing a similar direction and movement, then changing and turning back to the beginning of the previous direction and movement, is the particular feature that shows a rhythm of a carving composition. The existence of a rhythm cannot only be sensed, but can also be identified, such as at the above carving composition.

 F.4 Unity, or Harmony in other word, is actually an accumulation of interconnectivity from a number of elements, that are comprehensively visible and sensed.


  1.  Making a technical drawing or a sketch is currently easier with the help of computer technology. However, manual drawing skills are still needed, and still become a basic skill that supports the profession of a carving designer. The first assignment is an exercise to upgrade the manual drawing skills.

 G.1 Draw with a drawing tool that you’re holding, and while dragging the tool on the paper, control the direction and the movement of your hand loosely to draw whatever is in your mind.

G.2 All participants must have experiences with drawing and carving activities. Make a variation of lines and planes, which shows that direction and movement from these lines and planes can also be applied to a carving. The requested drawing is not a drawing of a carving, but only a reminder of the essence of lines and planes as visual elements.

G.3 All participants are not only experienced in making a drawing of a carving composition, but also in carving the drawing. Try to remember them and make a sketch drawing as similar as possible to a carving that you have made.

G.4 Draw the direction and movement of the previous motif (E3) with arrowed lines.

G.5 Below is an example of a perspective study on a certain motif, starting from frontal view to a variation of views.

 Figure No: G/1

Perspective Sketch Study of Carving Motives

The assignment is to determine one motif and draw it at the left panel, then gradually ‘move’ the motif (by drawing) in the next panels.


 This hand out presents a brief description about a number of aspects related to visual element and ornament. Discussion and design exercise during the training would enrich the training material in this session. This training aims to refresh the knowledge about something that is actually close to us, even very familiar to us, which is visual elements in carving, especially viewed from the aspects of aesthetic composition.

The training material consists of theory and practice, therefore it is expected that the theoretical comprehension reflects on the sketches or drawings that are given in the exercise.

This training can also be an initiation of a dedicated hard work, since creating a carving ornament on a proper product needs appropriate knowledge, skills and planning, such as what we are doing today.


 Koswara Aji. (1996). Ukiran jepara. Tesis Magister ITB. Bandung: Tidak dipublikasikan.

Pemerintah Kabupaten Daerah Tingkat II Jepara. (1976). Risalah dan Kumpulan Perkembanagn Seni ukir Jepara. Jepara: Pemerintah Kabupaten Daerah Tingkat II Jepara.

Sudarmono dan Sukijo. ((1979). Pengetahuan Teknologi Kerajinan Ukir

Kayu. Jakarta: Departemen Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan 1979.

The Pepin Press. (1998). Indonesian Ornamental Design. Singapore: The Pepin Press.


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