Friday, January 1, 2010

The Limited Palette

In my first painting class in art school, I followed an exercise that made a great impression on me. The task was to paint with only four colors. White, Black, Burnt Sienna (sort of a rust color) and Yellow Ochre (mustard). The idea behind using the such a limited palette, was to push for a deeper understanding of the way that the colors, although subtle, can work together to create the image. With this palette, if you want a spot of bright red, you must tune the rest of the painting to make that spot look red. The palette also builds awareness of the relative light and dark of a color, for instance, blue isn't just a color, it's a dark color in relation to yellow etc...

Above is a painting by Vincent Van Gogh. It is an example of the limited palette in action.
Below is a portrait that he painted in which I've muted out the colors.

You can see that whatever colors he chose, he had complete mastery of the using them to describe the form. Below is the painting with the color restored.

I wish you could see this work up close. The variety and saturation of the colors is breathtaking, but as you can see in the muted image, they all play their role.
Well what does this have to do with chairmaking?! After that first class, I continued to work in the limited palette for a year or so, and the day that I squeezed a blob of bright blue out of the tube felt like I was entering a whole new world. As I have been working on my latest chair, in walnut, I have been having that same feeling.

Here is the seat, drilled, reamed and ready to carve. One of the challenges that making Windsor chairs presents is to create a dynamic chair without relying on the inherent beauty of the materials to carry the load. It's a great way to connect with the limits and abilities of the material.

As I carved this seat, it became very apparent that I was dealing with a different animal. The hardness and richness of the material (not to mention the smell) evoked a whole new range of reactions.

The gouges in the image above were made with the adze. I was taken with clarity of the marks and the effort that it took to make them. Below is the rest of the adze work.

For me one of the great lessons in using green wood and making chairs, has been using processes that leave their mark as the finish surface. It's efficient, fun and beautiful. I enjoy the subtle feel of the marks left by the spokeshave, drawknife and skew chisel. On painted chairs, these marks a great amount of interest.

But as I worked with the walnut, using the inshave and travisher as seen above, I realized that this wood calls for a slightly different touch. While I have left the spokeshave marks on the legs and other round parts, I knew that this seat wouldn't be done until the tool marks were tamed and the wood alone was visible. This stuff must be revered, or why use it?

While not overly hard, carving this stuff feels like a work being set in stone, I've been unusually self conscious, almost embarrassed pushing the stuff around! Here is the seat roughed out. As usual, I'll finish scraping it after it's legged up.

I recall reading somewhere that Sam Maloof said that walnut was his favorite wood and that he could spend a whole week sanding a chair. Boy, that has always seemed like punishment to me. But having spent some time with this material, it does make more sense.

So what does this all mean, do I set aside my froe and start building lumber racks? Not quite, but it has changed the way that I look at the form and the materials, and what better way is there to start the New Year.


Anonymous said...

HNY Peter , when the day comes and I build a chair from proper good grade timber I will get that feeling you got when you squeezed out that blue paint , so far I have made all my chairs from recycled Australian hardwood and a lot of it is not user friendly but I persevere and I learn a lot from it , it has a lot of character and you cant help but put a smooth sanded finish on it for oiling , have to go . MiM

Peter Galbert said...

I recall that the first seat that I carved was glued up from some floor joists that I pulled from a dumpster in NYC, rough stuff! But from what I hear, the woods you have over there are a whole different challenge. Happy New Year!

Christopher said...


I carved a walnut stool as a gift this Christmas that included a bit of curl. That was rewarding, but it certainly added to the challenges presented by the wood. But I agree, walnut is fantastic!


Greg Pennington said...

Walnut really wakes all my senses. Try Sassafras or Catalpa for seats as well, awesome wood. Looking forward to Berea.

Peter Galbert said...

Thanks for the comments. I also have a piece of buckeye that Curtis gave me that I'm looking forward to digging into!

I'm enjoying your blog, can't wait to see you in the shop.
See you in Berea,

Jim Leavenworth said...

I recently built a 2 drawer filing cabinet out of R. Oak for my wife. Then my mother-in-law asked that I make one out of a darker wood for my father in law. I chose B. Walnut and am almost finished...boy, I know what you mean! I love the wood- it's so beautiful and dignified and expensive too! I almost want to swap them & keep the B. walnut cabinet.

The one drawback I've heard is that you have to be very careful with the dust because it's very toxic. Heard that?

Can't wait to meet you and learn in August.

Jim Leavenworth
Abilene TX

PS My current Windsor is being made out of B. Cherry...maybe the following one I'll do Mesquite!

Peter Galbert said...

it sure is regal stuff. I have been careful to steer clear of the dust, although i do love the smell. I've done many chairs using cherry to lovely effect. I'm finding that the walnut is easier to shave on the radial plane, which sure makes shaving the parts a pleasure,
Keep it up,

Extremely Average said...

I am new to woodworking. I have just built one thing, a workbench, and it filled me with joy. Last weekend I bought a couple hundred board feet of rough cut walnut. It looks like it will be wonderful to work with later this year, when it is finished drying.

I hadn't thought at all about what I might do with the walnut, but reading your post has gotten me very excited. It will be really hard to wait on the thicker pieces, which probably need a couple of years to dry (unless I build a kiln).

Anyway, thanks for sharing your post. It was wonderful.

Anonymous said...

As a long time painting professor (married to woodworker Jeff Wayman) I loved the limited palette blog. I still use that as the opening exercise for my Painting I students. Visit my website if you like.

Peter Galbert said...

Thanks for the comments. I'm not sure how long you'll be waiting for that wood to dry, but I assure you it will be worth it!

When I paint, which sadly isn't often these days, I still reach for my 4 colors. I love the work of Morandi, I find it inspiring that he could spend a lifetime painting some bottles on a table with such subtlety. I'm really enjoying working with the "exotic" walnut, but it's also shedding a lot of light on the beauty in the simple hardy woods that I'm used to.

jaupnort said...

Peter, at the class at Highland last fall you mentioned that you were looking to start using ash from your farm for chair parts.
I just bent some bows with a quite severe bend maybe even more than on the continuous arm that we bent there. Worked great and the satisfying thing was that this tree had been on the ground for at least 4 years and it still bent well.
Wanted to make a Welsh country (ala Don Weber) rocker and have some planks of ash that I am using rather than elm for the seat which has been the classic wood for this chair seat. Not fun to carve but the grain is stunning. All this to ask are you into the ash yet?
This may not be the proper classification after your walnut chair comments but I let fly anyway.
John A

Peter Galbert said...

I've played with the ash a bit, but I'm not satisfied with the tendency to "peck out" while shaving. I need to sharpen up and have some more experience, but yes, it bends great!