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.