In the first part of this study I constructed a viola emphasizing a part of the construction process, the carving, which is visually very interesting but that most players never get to see. In this second part, I consider the surface finish and explore the decorative possibilities. I had some fun and improvised and improvised a little but I kept my riffs within the framework of, or at least referring to, traditional violinmaking techniques. Thus I used a color palette and wear patterns that resemble those seen in old instruments.
You may wonder, why put so much work into decorating what is essentially a working tool? The best answer that I’ve come up with is that there is no explaining love. We like to lavish attention on things that we love. The way that we choose to decorate things changes with generational tastes. Google “decorated violin” and compare Stradivari’s youthful extravagances with today’s Steam-punk, Death metal and Hello Kitty renderings. We violinmakers are a very conservative bunch and work within very narrow approved boundaries, yet within those boundaries whole worlds can be found. We do invest a lot of energy into decorating our instruments. The favored decorative finish these days is “Antique”, and a top notch antiquing job can easily double the hours that go into making an instrument.
Why is Antiquing such a favored decorative finish? There was a good article in last months Strings Magazine in which several makers talk about why they antique their instruments. Nobody mentioned what I think is one of the main (and least complicated) reasons for doing it: that a well antiqued instrument is more visually engaging than a “straight” one. There’s just more to look at. In this part of my study, I use decorating my viola as a way to consider the characteristics of decorative elements in general, and hope that it creates a deeper understanding of the way we finish and present our instruments.
Since the finish is mostly decorative I could have done anything: blue, polka dots or glitter, but I decided that I wanted the viola to look like a natural, organic object, because natural objects tend to satisfy the longest. So, what are the elements that tell us that we are looking at a natural object?
Characteristics of natural objects
- Tend to look good at any distance; the closer you look, the more you see.
- Variety of texture
- Color balance. Somehow colors tend to look “right” even if they are starkly contrasting
- Elements that repeat rhythmically, yet with infinite variety.
It seems to me that these are the same features which characterize a successfully and attractively antiqued violin, where you will see a variety of shape, texture and color that somehow appear as a cohesive whole. I think that it is the “natural” quality of an antiqued finish which makes it attractive to the eye.
As I mentioned in part 1, I wanted the viola to look like a “normal” instrument from a distance and then to reveal its deviant nature on closer viewing. The key to this seemed to be to understand the nature of the visual elements that present themselves when viewing a normal instrument from different distances, and then to see how far these elements could be pushed before they started to look “wrong”. In a way, this is like constructing a Pointillist painting or one of those photographic portraits that is made of a mosaic of other tiny photographs – from a distance it’s a portrait of the queen, but when you get closer you see that she’s made of thousands of tiny subjects. Chuck Close is an artist who has done a lot of work with this, playing with scale and viewing distance, where a face breaks into a thousand disparate but related abstract elements
One realization that I did have is that if there wasn’t interesting stuff going on in the details, from the long view the instrument would appear unified….but boring.
Great result, no work
Another of my goals with this project was that the finish should be “easy to achieve”. This desire to make something awesome without any effort has been a long time goal for me. I’ve worked very hard so that I could be lazy someday. I joke. but laziness and efficiency are related, and there is something attractive about a handmade object that is efficiently made, with a direct and un-fussy technique.
After watching varnishing and finishing demonstrations at the Oberlin violinmakers workshops, I’ve come to see that most successful and appealing finishes (antiqued or straight) appear effortless when completed but are usually the result of long, painstaking and highly controlled work. Despite that, I continue to believe that there must be an easy way to make fresh-looking attractive things, especially if we remove our focus from the direct and obsessive mimicking of old violins and concentrate instead on the essential elements of what I believe is their main attractive quality: their natural and organic appearance. There are other arts and crafts that use finishes that have a strongly natural feel. Think of ceramic glazes, marbled papers, batiked or tie-dyed fabrics, glue-chipped glass. What all of these processes have in common is a degree of randomness; you set up the process and then it goes through a transforming development where the outcome is uncertain. With experience, the craftsman learns to control and direct the process more, but the randomness in the result remains one of its biggest attractions.
With these thoughts in mind, I set to work. I had hoped to simply go through a few steps and have a wonderfully attractive item pop out at the other end. The reality of course was a journey of vision and hope, disappointing reality, happy and unhappy accidents, sudden inspirations, and several fights to pull things back from the brink of disaster. In other words, it followed the typical creative process.
Start with a thick coat of varnish
At this stage the viola has a fresh, honest and unified appearance. It looks normal from a long distance (the audience view), in the middle distance, (the players view), there is obviously something different about the surface texture.
From close up, it engages the attention for only a short while.
Paint on patina
The color and unfamiliar patterning has destroyed the normal-from-a-distance effect. The middle distance view is interesting mostly because it is obviously “wrong”. The big brush strokes are disruptive and give a chaotic, unsettled feeling. The surface is matte and the three dimensionality of the back is mostly lost.
In close-up, things have suddenly become much more interesting. The endless combinations of the few colors and brush marks used give the feeling that you could dive in deeper and keep discovering more.
Knock in some highlights
Some unity is returned. The broader disruptive strokes of the patina pattern have been hidden. From a long distance. the color is off but things are otherwise normal. in the middle distance, the surface is much more unified, and the rhythmic pattern of the surface dimples has returned, looking like a net or the veins of a leaf. A little of the three dimensionality has returned to the arch of the back.
A major color contrast has been introduced, and we see the beginning of an interaction between shiny highlights and dull depressions.
Remove patina and polish highlights
From the long view the impression of a normal viola has been reestablished. The dark color and the “wear” pattern highlighting the center of the arch and edges suggests an older instrument, perhaps an old German or English fiddle, making a contrast in color and texture. In the middle view things the illusion of normalcy drops away. The dimpled surface and the bluish patina tones are definitely off.
It is interesting how through the finishing process, the surface gloss controls the dimensionality of the viola: At first, with a uniformly glossy surface, the three dimensional arched back was plain to see. With the surface matted by patina, the surface the arch of the back more or less disappeared, and it seemed two dimensional. At this stage, enough gloss has been returned to the surface to reestablish the three dimensional back. In addition the mixture of worn, shiny highlights and dull textured depressions, an impression a of a fourth dimension – that of time or age – has been introduced. This suggestion of wear contributes strongly to the feeling that this is a natural, organic object and one that has a history in the universe.
In close-up there are only a few things that remind us of a viola, but with many rhythmic elements, and a range of colors, tones and textures. There is enough to draw the eye in, inspire associations and spark the imagination.
- This is a fully functioning instrument and among the better sounding violas that I’ve made.
- No drugs were used in the conceiving or the making of this instrument, though I have found the whole experience quite mind altering.
Here is a slide show with more detailed pictures of the various stages.
Here is a sound comparison with a “normal” viola
I am really glad that you are pushing the staid boundaries of string instrument making. Have you sold this viola?
Thanks, the boundaries are interesting places! The viola is still available