Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Artistically Burning Wood

When you stand in front of an elegant marquetry surface on a piece of furniture made centuries ago you are looking at a surface which has been dramatically altered by age. Visitors to museums do not realize that the woods have lost their color and the range of shadow created by the maker using hot sand. What they are looking at is often uniformly brown, and appears two dimensional and flat.

When the marquetry was originally made it was full of bright colors. Natural colors of wood veneers range from absolute white to absolute black, with all the colors of the rainbow in between. Purpleheart, tulip, rosewood, holly, and hundreds of exotic hardwoods made up the palate of the marqueteur. Each was selected for its depth of color and grain. In addition to those natural colors, workers would dye woods using methods which are now lost to history. Blues, bright reds and a wide range of greens were created using natural vegetable dyes, and these colors are fugitive in sunlight.

Over time, all the colors that made the design beautiful fade. First the reds, then greens, and eventually most of the woods turn light brown, so that the design looks uniform in color. Museum visitors who think that the marquetry they are looking at represents the original intent of the maker are mistaken. The restorer who removes the marquetry surface is rewarded with seeing the original colors that remain on the back of the elements. It is one of the joys of this business.

In addition to the colors, the marquetry maker would spend hours placing each element of the design in hot sand to slightly burn the edge. This required the designer to create the appropriate shadow on the drawing which would provide the guide for the work. If the marquetry was being executed in several copies, each element would have to be burnt exactly the same. One by one the worker places the small pieces of veneer in just the right angle in the hot sand. The sand needs to be very hot so that it only takes a few seconds to create the burn. I like to make dark, dramatic shadows, and Patrice likes to make light, subtile shadows. Each his own taste.

Each time the surface of the wood is scraped or sanded you loose the shadow. After generations of refinishers have had their way with the surface the three dimensional quality created by the artist is lost. It is a sad fact of our trade.

I can tell you that it does take a lot of time and attention to do this properly. This post shows two students who are burning the elements of the rose etude. So far, we have had hundreds of students and not one has burnt his fingers. How lucky is that?

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