Helpful Tips for Creating a Realistic Polar Bear Sculpture

If you follow me on any of my social media channels, you might have caught my recent polar bear commission. It was my first polar bear sculpture, so as you can imagine, there were a lot of lessons learned. Especially as it was JUST. SO. BIG!
That said, even though it felt huge, it was actually a little smaller than a typical male polar bear. I have to say, I was pretty impressed and more than a bit awed thinking about that!
Anyway, I thought that as I’d learned quite a bit through carving this commission that I’d share some of it in this blog. So keep reading to discover what I did to create a realistic polar bear sculpture.

CREATING A REALISTIC POLAR BEAR SCULPTURE: THE POSE

Honestly, carving a life-size, realistic polar bear was very daunting at first. A 4ft x 11ft log is massive – especially once you stand it up! It didn’t even fit in a photo with me!

Chainsaw carver simon o'rourke stands next to an 11ft tall tree trunk. A stihl ms600 leans against it and there is a metal shed in the background.
Carving a life-size, realistic polar bear sculpture needs a very large log!

The first challenge I faced in making this sculpture was that carvings of bears can look very static when stood upright, and often look a little awkward. To avoid this, I wanted to put some movement into the pose. You can see the plans I made on my ipad above which helped me get a feel for the pose within the log.

I decided to carve the bear leaning slightly to the left and placed one of the forepaws a little higher than the other. This gave the feel of it being about to move. I also placed the head looking slightly upwards which helped to give a feel of searching and smelling the air for prey.
A slightly open mouth also helped add movement and a more interesting structure to the head.

I alos considered where the polar bear was. The sculpture needed to be on a plinth, so rather han creating a geometric base, I gave it a feel of an ice floe by adding some subtle layers on the flat surface, and a feel of broken ice on the sides.

photo of the head of a life-size wood polar bear sculpture by simon o'rourke. it shows the bear sculpture has a slightly open mouth - one of o'rourke's tips for creating a realistic polar bear sculpture
The slightly open mouth addd movement which helped the sculpture appear realistic.

CREATING A REALISTIC POLAR BEAR SCULPTURE: A TOUCH OF COLOUR

I don’t normally paint sculptures ( you can read more about that HERE). However, when it came to creating a realistic polar bear sculpture, a light coat of off-white and darkening the eyes, nose, inside the mouth, and the claws, helped to give the impression of colour without being too gaudy.
Dry brushing white over the fur lightly then softening it using a brush sander helped to highlight the fur.
If you’ve ever seen a polar bear up close (hopefully not too close!!!) you’ll have seen that the skin is very dark under all that white fur. So, around the eyes, nose, mouth and paws you will see the dark skin coming through where the fur gets thinner. A dry brush of white over the dark areas helped highlight this.

Life size realistic polar bear sculpture made of cedar standing in a workshop with scaffolding in front of it.

CREATING A REALISTIC POLAR BEAR SCULPTURE: FUR

The next key to creating a realistic polar bear sculpture was the fur.

Bears have so much fur it’s difficult to see what’s going on under the surface, but I knew I needed to explore this so I could make something anatomically accurate.
Often polar bears have a lot of excess skin which will fold and hang in places, giving the impression of very short legs. The pelvis is also much higher up than the exterior fur of the under belly makes it appear. This means subtly hinting at dimples where the leg fur hangs from the hips can help show structure.

The front legs also have a ridge of fur showing where they join the shoulders.
Watching Poppy (our little polar bear!) lying on her back helped me to see that where the fur meets at the joints of the legs and body, there are often little swirls where the fur changes direction on dogs.
A little research showed this was also true with bears! A surprising but useful comparison to be able to give an extra level of reality!

a photo of a white retriever sitting in the front of a driver's seat in a truck. she's wearing a stihl baseball cap. photo is in blog as observing her fur helped simon o'rourke create realistic fur on a polar bear sculpture
Observing Poppy helped me create realistic fur!

MORE ABOUT TEXTURE

Of course, creating texture is basically about varying the depth of cuts and paying attention to things like direction of the fur. I also make sure that I go a bit deeper on areas that need to look darker. For example, digging a little deeper into the eyes (the saburrtooth eye bit is great for this) helped give the pupil more depth. If you want to know more about this, you could read my blog about creating texture or check out some of my favourite tools for creating texture or favourite tools for creating faces.

Have you any experience in creating a polar bear in an medium? What things would you encourage people to think about? Drop a comment below and let me know! And keep scrolling to see the polar bear installed…

I am currently crowdfunding to finance a documentary film being made about me and my work. Find out more about the film and how to donate (donors giving £5 or more will be able to see the finished film) at www.treecarving.co.uk/film-project.

For all commission enquiries please fill out the form at www.treecarving.co.uk/contact.