Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Simple Painting In Wood Etude


Always Start With The Basics


When I decided to open up my marquetry workshop to students, I had to decide what kind of curriculum to follow, knowing that I would have a wide range of students with a wide range of abilities and experience.

Therefore, I followed the musical format which I learned during the decades I was involved with classical music.  At the age of 12, I saw a kid playing the violin on the Ed Sullivan show on TV.  I immediately told my parents that I wanted to learn the violin.  Fortunately, they were able to buy me a moderately good quality instrument and find someone to teach me.  I went every week to get a lesson and made a good effort to practice daily.  I was not always successful, and my teacher would always know when I had practiced or not.

There were fingering exercises, bowing exercises, scales in every key, and very simple practice etudes. It was all about technique.  My teacher was a very old man, and had learned himself from a Russian teacher.  He insisted that I learn the basics before I even thought about playing anything by some composer.  He was right.  I was soon able to join the Civic Youth orchestra, where I sat first chair, second violin section.  (I never had any aspirations to play first violin.  That takes a certain ego.)

In college, I naturally took music and had the good fortune to study with Bert Turetzky, a famous double bass player.  He listened to me play my violin and immediately said, "Forget it.  I need a viola player.  Can you learn to play the viola?"

I went back to my teacher, who was in his 90's and retired and asked him if he could help me.  He was generous enough to show me what I needed and I spent my college years playing the viola in the UCSD quartet.  Some of the most rewarding days of my life.

My point is that, if I had not been shown how to hold the instrument, how to tune the instrument and how to execute the most basic technical aspects of it, I would never have been able to perform Schubert's string quintet in C major successfully.

Thus, since I only teach two weeks of classes every quarter, it is essential that I teach the basics.  How to fit the chevalet to the worker.  How to hold the saw frame and set the tension.  How to make a packet and cut it. How to execute simple etudes over and over.

The first week is the Boulle method, where it doesn't matter much if you can follow the line.  Most students are able to learn fast enough and have enough control to stay on the line by the end of the week.  The second week is the Classic Method (Piece by Piece) where it is essential that you not only follow the line exactly, but are able to cut away exactly half the line consistently.  That takes good eye/hand coordination, and that takes much more practice to master.

There is an etude which is in between these two methods: Painting in Wood.  With this method, you do not have to follow the line exactly.  The pieces always fit, since you are basically using the Boulle method of cutting the layers of the packet in super position.  That means the elements of the design are cut at the same time as the cavities of the background, which is in the same packet.

With the Classic Method, the elements of the design are cut in a separate packet and the back ground is cut in a separate packet, so if you are not careful, they will not fit.  The French developed the Classic Method and were able to keep most of the secrets of this process in Paris.

At the end of the 17th century, the rest of Europe began to evolve the Boulle Method into the Painting in Wood method, as the desire to create more naturalistic marquetry designs became the fashion.  With Boulle, the packets were usually layers of ebony, pewter, brass or tortoise shell, and the overall design was either a positive or negative form of the design ("premiere-partye" or "contre-partye").



Boulle Marquetry Project for Art Institute of Chicago
When the fashion began to change, and the desire to include more types of woods as well as more naturalistic images of flowers and birds became popular, marquetry artists developed the Painting in Wood process.  Instead of solid sheets of material in the packet, they began to include smaller pieces of exotic wood veneers, strategically placed in ares of the design where they were needed.

I wrote an article explaining this process in detail in Woodwork, February 2008, where I show how I made one of my tall case clocks.

The success of this method depends on making sure the elements of the wood you need for the design are exactly in place inside the packet, and that you are able to include as many different species of woods as possible in the fewest number of layers.  Generally, using 1.5mm sawn veneers, I limit my packets to 8 layers of veneer, plus the 3mm back board and the 1.5mm front board.  When using 0.9 sliced veneers, it is possible to include as many as 12 layers of veneer.

I first make multiple copies of the design.  Using those copies, I begin to place my woods in each layer where they are needed.  Then I fill in the gaps with a scrap veneer so there are no voids inside the packet.  I am careful to keep the outside corners of the design for proper orientation.  I usually include at least two different species of woods for each flower, which gives me the option at the end of selecting the proper woods for the best effect.

Working from the back of the packet, I first start with a 3mm back board and a layer of grease paper.  The back layer of veneer is always the back ground, which in this case is ebony.  Note I have colored on the design those parts of the background which are isolated and would tend to get lost if I didn't pay attention while cutting.

Layer F (Background Veneer)

(Note there is no ebony veneer in this photo, since it was used in the project.)

Each of the following photos shows the design for that layer on the left and the layer of the packet on the right.  Since this example is one I use in class, I have covered the layer of veneer with clear packing tape, and you are looking at the back of the layer for clarity, since it is covered with veneer tape on the face which holds everything together.

The next layer is generally either a layer of green or brown for the branches or leaves:

Layer E
Here is the next layer in the packet:

And so on, each layer with its design:

Layer D


Layer C

Layer B

Layer A
Note that I have colored the design with yellow for the parts I need.  That allows me to quickly visualize the final result, making sure I have the desired woods in every part of the picture, before I assemble the packet and begin cutting.  As you can easily see, this process allows for efficient use of small pieces of veneer which otherwise would be discarded.  Plus you can place the grain direction the way you want for the best result.

I make a final drawing and use it when I cut out the packet.  This design shows me all the information I need to select the proper layer of wood from the plug of veneers, each time I cut them out.  The rest is discarded.  I keep only the woods I need for the picture.

Cutting Guide
There are several reasons I like Painting in Wood.  Since I am not very good at drawing, but I am very good at cutting, this process allows me to "improve" the design as I work.  As I said already, it also allows me to use very small scraps of my sawn veneers, which are expensive.  I also find it very stimulating to mentally create the final image and "see" the picture while looking at the layers of the packet.

One of my students, Paul Miller, seems to have also found this process interesting.  After he returned to his workshop and built his chevalet, he sent us a card with the photo of this etude on the cover:

Paul Miller's Card

I really appreciate it.  Soon he will be performing Schubert!

7 comments:

Steve Voigt said...

Patrick,
Talk about a small world. I've read your blog avidly for some time and have it listed in my blog roll. But I also went to grad school at UCSD, in the music dept. I knew Bert Turetzky well. Maybe you remember some of the other faculty, like Tom Nee or Janos Negyesy?
I lived in North Park for much of my time in SD, near 30th and University, and before that 30th and Grape. I wasn't a very knowledgeable woodworker back then, and I imagine I must have walked past your shop many times with no of idea of the great art that went on there. What a missed opportunity. Maybe one of these days, on a trip back, I will poke my head in and say hi.
Anyway, thanks for the blog, I always enjoy it.

W. Patrick Edwards said...

Steve,

It is nice to hear from you. Of course I remember Tom Nee. I sat first chair viola section directly "under" his baton for many seasons in the La Jolla orchestra. It is important to mention, for those who do not know Tom Nee, that he was vertically challenged and to sit "under" his baton meant he had to use a special riser as a conductor. He was a wonderful and talented man who gave a lot to the community.

I guess I never met Janos.

I assume you no longer live in SD, but you are always welcome to ring the door bell and take a tour. My shop has become, over the years, a destination for those modern citizens who want a taste of the past and see how it used to be done.

Just last week we had nearly 40 members of the Mingei Museum here on a special tour. I always love to hear the comments and compliments.

It's nice to share with those who understand and appreciate the work we do.

Mike Lingenfelter said...

Perfect timing on this post! I'm planning my next project and I was going to try "Painting in Wood". I think I still need more time with the Chevalet before I attempt the Classic Method. I was just starting to research "Painting in Wood" and this is a good starting point. I'll also pull out your Woodwork article.

Thanks,
Mike

mcglynnonmaking.com said...

Great post, I like the analogy to music and agree on learning the basic hand skills and process techniques first. I think that applies to a lot of subjects, and of course to woodwork in general. I think a lot of aspiring woodworkers get caught up the the tools to purchase without first understanding the material and processes.

Chuck said...

I have followed this technique with interest and read the article in Woodwork Magazine a number of times. This blog post explains the technique well and illustrates it better. The green plastic looking outline thing is new to me. Is this something you create to help line up the various pieces of veneer so they are accurate with minimal waste?

Chuck Walker

W. Patrick Edwards said...

No, Chuck. It's just the top of my vintage drafting table!

Chuck said...

Well of course it is. For some reason my brain or what is left of it created the illusion that the green was on top of the package. Must be the glossy tape and shadows.

Chuck