Sunday, May 21, 2017

A Painted Ceiling

It has been mentioned in this blog a few times before that although I make my living primarily as a cabinetmaker, in fact, I am an artist. Once in a while, I actually get paid to be an artist, which gives me great satisfaction. Such was the case for the past two weeks, in which I completed the following project. (working 12-14 hour days)

A painted medallion for the ceiling

I actually did this bit last summer; making a plaster medallion, then painting it, and installing it.

The plain plaster medallion, and after painting the ornaments gold

This year the clients asked me to paint the entire ceiling, so I had to make a design that would fit with the painting I had already done in the centre. The clients also allowed me to paint a few putti so long as they were "not naked" (even a crossed leg was not acceptable) Other than that restriction, and the comment that they wanted some birds, they actually gave me free reign to do what I wanted, which was very commendable.

Because of my perpetual problem of forgetting the memory card, this is the
closest I have to a "before" picture. This was at the beginning of the second
day of painting

The best way I could come up with to draw on the
ceiling; chalk taped to a stick

Neck-breaking work, this really gives a new appreciation
to the work that went into some of the great historical ceilings.

After one day of drawing and another of painting I realised I needed to come up with a better way to do this and save my neck. I thought of the method that Michelangelo supposedly used of making the scaffold high enough he could lie on his back, but this obviously would not work, because one thing an artist needs to be constantly doing is stepping back to observe his progress. (I achieved this by lying on the floor of my scaffold) In my opinion, what he probably actually did, was make a platform that he could move around on his scaffold and lie on that. I came up with a slightly less cumbersome, but not quite as effective, method of making a sort of chair. It had the advantage of allowing me to easily access my paint, but the disadvantage was that it still does not give as good of a perspective as lying down does. It also limits the area where one can work,and I was constantly moving it around. When I would get energetic and want to move from place to place quickly to work on multiple areas simultaneously, I had to just skip the thing altogether..

The clouds are finished here, I managed to get them to make sense with those I
had previously done in the medallion

The putti were drawn onto poster paper and then cut out to use as templates;
everything except the silhouette had to be done free-hand and therefore I
taped the drawing to the ceiling beside the painted in shapes to
 use as a reference 

Putti number two...

...three and four, plus a dove

This bloke looks terrible

As I began painting these figures, I realised how "rusty" I was at it. I had not painted figures in the past 8 years and I was never much for painting figures most of my life; add to that the additional challenge of painting upside down, and I really struggled to get going on this. I had intended to finish all four figures in one day, but at the end of that day, I had only done their silhouettes and this guy, which I was very unsatisfied with.

Another more detailed drawing, and a fresh start
made a difference, but it was still a bit of a

The third one went better...
It only took a bit over three hours to get this one

Once the main ceiling was finished, I added a "faux" border to it, painted to
look like moulding.

Again, my template only gave me an outline, I then had to paint all the
details in by following my drawing. I first did the highlights, then the shadows.

After adding a few birds, I was happy with the results, as testified by
my signature

This little baby cloud escaped from his parents up in the sky and came down
to have a look into the room

And these two are trying, though not very hard, to catch a bird. I managed
both of them and the bird in four hours; the rust was beginning to loosen up

For me, art should be more than just a "picture"; it needs to have secret things, which must be searched out. it must have things that cause you to study it, and it should keep you finding new things each time you view it. To this end, even though the composition is simple, I have added many things for contemplation, such as the cloud, which at first glance someone might mistake for a "mistake". This causes you to have another look. and then, once you find the answer to this riddle, you might think to search for more. There are plenty, such as the putto with a bow, but no arrow; look at what his companion holds. Two other putti are engaged with a dove, though the dove is perfectly unconcerned with their playful attempts at catching him.

The finished ceiling as one sees it upon entering the house; as if he is looking
up into the sky.

And here it is seen as one reads a picture on an horizontal plain.
All of the moulding is illuminated as it would be from the natural light coming'
in the window. I used  models to check for the lighting effect for each section.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Odd Bits

It has been a while since I posted anything about the work that I do which I actually get paid for. This has been mostly because I have not been working on any significant project which is "blog-agenic", In other words, there is nothing that I took enough pictures of to compose a story about, or that would look good in pictures, had I taken them. A lot of what I have done recently does not even photograph well, such as this marbling job that I just finished.

This is my best section

This project is impossible to photograph as a whole. It is quite wide, spanning almost the entire room (3.6 metres) and is painted on both sides. If the camera were far enough away to capture the entire arch, it would simply look like a thin frame around the breakfast room; something that I had nothing to do with. In addition, there are a couple of TV's, a computer router, some other electronic gadget of  large size, and a telephone which all distract from the view. 

I first applied the carved moulding but did not take any pictures of that process. The best I can do is this picture after I made plinth blocks, but before attaching the carved sections of moulding.

Before the moulding and marbling process began

Another post I suppose I could have done, had I thought of it, was a picture frame I made. No, I did not carve it, this is made the same way frames have been made for centuries, using something called "compo" which is a mixture of hide glue, whiting, and natural (usually pine) resin.The stuff is super-heated with live steam until it melts, poured into a mould, and pressed under great pressure to remove air bubbles. it is then turned out of the mould and let to cool and cure for several days before it can be used. To use it, it is again heated with steam, which renders it flexible, and activates the glue in it so that it may adhere to the frame. It is a fun process, but this was the first time I had made a frame, and so was not to keen on taking pictures as I went along, I was just hoping like heck that it would actually turn out ok. I also gilded it after it was finished. Since my business is not making picture frames, I did not see the purpose of doing a post on the process. It was only made out of sheer necessity.

Finished frame; it will actually be hung horizontally

My friend Steffen made the wooden stock which is the basis of the frame.
To the left is a piece of the compo as it comes from the mould.

I did carve the scalloped edges and pierced the openings in the centres

Another thing I did with this same compo was this ceiling medallion. What with the delicacy of the design, the fact that it is attached to the ceiling, and that steaming this stuff makes it flexible, this was quite a challenge to get right. Fortunately it comes in 13 pieces, which helped a bit. I painted and gilded the parts before installing them. The end result is much nicer than your typical out-of-the-box plastic ceiling medallion.

A large (1.3 metre) ceiling medallion made of compo

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Utrecht Psalter and its Furnishings - Part IV

In my ongoing, alphabetically organised discussion of the furniture and furnishings found in the Utrecht Psalter, we come to 'O', which is for organ, as in a pipe organ

One of three organs illustrated in the Utrecht Psalter
This one inferres levers and bellows for four people, though none are shown
pumping them and only two of the four handles are pictured

Some people might find this amazing, but the pipe organ is actually a very ancient instrument. It was supposedly invented in the 3rd century BC by Tesibius of Alexandria. However, as with many inventions of history, there were doubtless other instruments of similar principle which had already been in existence and which he either made improvements on, or which worked on a principle similar to a field he was famous for working in (hydraulics), and thus tradition came to associate that object with him,

This mosaic comes from the floor of a 3rd century Roman villa in the
 present-day town of Nennig, Germany. The villa was not destroyed
 until a Viking invasions of 882 meaning that the nobility of this region
would have had direct contact with this image for the first four 
centuries of the "Middle Ages"

However, and whenever the pipe organ came into being, there are numerous portrayals of organs of many forms and sizes from Greek and Roman art in many different mediums. According to The Organ; An Encyclopedia, the organ was "re-introduced" into Western Europe from Byzantium in the time of Pepin the Short, (in 757 AD) and Charlemagne. While these two incidents are recorded and thus textual evidence for actual events, the fact that they are illustrated in the Utrecht Psalter and the Stuttgart Psalter testify to them being fairly commonplace at the beginning of the 9th century. The above mentioned Encyclopedia also speaks of another, which was installed in Louis the Pius's palace by a "Venetian cleric" (826). There are also 9th century records of organs having been installed in an abbey in Bages, Catalonia, as well as in Köln, Halberstadt, and Rheims. Pope John the VIII requested an organ and an organist to be sent to Rome, from the Bishop of Freising, in 873. (Because of the nature of Humans and politics, this in no way implies that there was no one in Rome or Italy who could have done the job - notice the "Venetian cleric" cited above!)

The Encyclopedia goes on to cite (though a bit ambiguously) evidence of 8th, 9th and 10th century organ making in the British Isles. (This actually contradicts the author's statement that it was "re-introduced" to the "west" in the 9th century.)

In doing a bit of my own research for this blog, I came across several references, and pictures of the remains of a 3rd century Roman organ and a modern replica of it found in the National Museum in Budapest. It seems that it belonged to the dormitory of a fire brigade in the town of Aquicum (Budapest). The remains are in remarkably good condition given that the building was destroyed by fire (the ironies of history) and had then been buried from the 5th century until 1932.

The metal remains of organ pipes and mechanical parts of a 3rd century
Roman organ found in Aquicum (Budapest) in the 1930's. At right is a modern
interpretation of the organ based on contemporary artwork, but without any
decoration which would have originally been found on the wooden case 

This seems to be of a small personal sized organ, such as another portrayed in the Utrecht Psalter. (pictured below) One can deduce that just as in the later Middle Ages, and even today, there were many varieties and sizes of organs for different uses in the early medieval period.

An interesting note of the ever recurring battle of cultural "morality" and music comes from a quotation concerning St Jerome (342-420 AD) who advised a mother, regarding the virtuous upbringing of her young daughter, that she must "let her be deaf to the sound of the organ" for its "sensual" sounds would allow her to fall into a life of "committing every conceivable sin". Sounds like a Highway to Hell for sure. (rock on Angus!)

The third organ depicted in the Psalter is even larger than the first one pictured. It is shown with four pump operators and two organists. An organ such as the one the artist had in mind must have been spectacular to see and hear.

A small organ, quickly depicted with an economy of line. No doubt the artist
had an organ such as the Aquicum example in mind.
It was not necessary to depict every pipe to represent the idea of an organ 

A very large, elaborate and highly ornamented organ. (represented in typical
quick stokes and a minimal use of line, as seen throughout this Psalter)

Such an organ as this must have been what the chronicler Wulfstan of Winchester, writing in the mid 10th century, had in mind, in describing an organ that required "seventy strong men" to operate (the bellows) and two men "of concordant spirit" to operate the slides (keys); the sound of which "thunder[ed]...reverberating to such a degree that everyone stopped his gaping ears with his hands...". (A 10th century rock concert? cool!) As is typical with any medieval illustration, the artist only used the amount of visual imagery necessary to portray his intentions, utilising his personal artistic style, and did not represent an organ as we would like to see it in a photograph. The organ described by Wulfstan had ten pipes for each of forty notes on the organ, in other words 400 pipes; no medieval artist had the need or the inclination to draw so many. Given the prerogative of medieval illuminators, this illustration could actually well represent an organ as large as that described by Wulfstan, as four men could well stand for seventy. It is my belief that it can stand for one so big, one as depicted with four men, or others with any number of four or more operators, based one the representational nature of medieval art. (Oftentimes one even finds a Last Supper scene with only four or five characters, where space did not allow for the full 13.)

One of two organs depicted in the Stuttgart Psalter (also early 9th century)
The artist has also depicted a man holding a section of tubing used to convey
the air from the bellows to the organ. 

It is very interesting to compare the Utrecht Psalter and the Stuttgart Psalter for their very different ways of treating the subject matter and for the style of illustration. In the Stuttgart Psalter, the artist has included a lot more visual information, such as suggesting the structure of the platform on which the organ is built, as well as a 'shorthand' indication of acanthus leaf decoration to the top. What he has not properly observed, or did not care to accurately indicate in his drawing, is exactly how the air tube connects to the organ. and has simply shown it 'branching' out from the side of the pipes. (These organs differ from those in the Utrecht Psalter, in that they are operated by 'airbag' bellows, as opposed to ones with some sort of stationary pump.)  This does not tell us that he never saw an organ, it simply informs us that he knew enough about organs to know that there was a tube connecting the bellows to the air chamber, but he had no idea how it worked from a design standpoint, or he had no idea how to efficiently draw in an accurate manner. (and probably did not care)

The organ seems to have changed very little during the middle ages; an illustration of a 14th century organ will quickly demonstrate this fact. The main thing that changed, as with all medieval furnishings, was the style of applied ornament to the general form, which evolved with people's tastes in overall decoration as time progressed.

An early 14th century manuscript on the vices of men. This illustration is one
of  two, dealing with "gluttony", and shows a Middle Eastern court scene with a
very fat ruler and his court entertainment, including these musicians. We will
avoid the obvious political implications which do not seem to have changed
 much in 700 years, and point out that this organ is very much like the
 3rd century Aquicum example pictured above.

Videre Scire

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Medieval Day

More than two years ago I embarked on a mission of sharing with others what I have been learning from my research on medieval furniture. In fact this was the primary reason for me beginning this blog, which is now in its third year. I have been hoping for opportunities to meet others who share my passion for medieval things, and to demonstrate what I have learned. This has been a fruitful year in that regard. Last summer I gave a talk about evidence for tools which no longer exist. A few weeks ago I gave a lecture on a general overview of medieval furniture, and yesterday I was invited to participate in my first ever Medieval Festival which took place at Catholic University in Washington DC. I pitched up in my renaissance outfit because as of yet, I have no medieval gear. Hey, this was my first time ever to encounter a group of real live Middle Ages enthusiasts of any kind. At least I looked good even if not dressed for any of the right centuries!

A couple Hundred Years War era (style) tents lend a good medieval atmosphere
to the festival
I only thought to take a picture of this as everyone was packing up to leave

It was a rather small affair with only a dozen or so demonstrations, and a small audience of 50 or so, but nonetheless it was an enjoyable event. For me, the highlight was a play put on by the Latin and Greek club, which included my new friend who was actually responsible for getting me connected with this event. The play was an English translation of a play written in the 12th century by Vitalis of Blois. (which was an adaptation of a Roman play written by Plautus, in the 3rd century BC) It is a comedy, and quite a good one at that. I would highly recommend everyone to try to read it, but was unable to find any link to it on the web. I was also too engrossed in listening to it to think to take a picture of the performance.

My table set up with a few medieval items as well as a few tools I have made
over the past 15 years
My involvement in the event was part demonstration and part technical presentation. I chose the topic of painted furniture and the way that gesso was usually used before the paint. The discussion centered around the way that, when the gesso is damaged by water, all traces of it and the overlaying paint will disappear, leaving only a plain, raw wooden surface. (The same basic message as my Something is Missing post of a few weeks ago)

Discussing the Middle Ages in a renaissance costume using a computer
and a microphone. This was a hard-core-authentic group

Discussing how gesso is made and used

For my demonstration I wanted to do a little planing but I realised that it would not be good to be doing a 'medieval' demonstration with an 18th century plane, especially since I am keen on dispelling the myth that "planes did not exist before the 14th century". As of Friday, I had no medieval plane, though I have thought many times that I should and would like to make one. I realised that necessity is a great motivator, and so I managed to design, make, decorate, and finish one in less than 10 hours. (and it even worked)

 A new plane made in time for the festival; it is based on existing
4th through 9th century examples
The blade is borrowed from an 18th century style plane I made 12 years ago

I thought the wood was Bradford Pear when I pulled it out of my firewood pile 10 years ago, but since then I have realised it was not, What it actually is, though, I cannot say; it has a lovely curly figure to it.

An example of  a small bone plane

A wooden example; this one with a bit of Migration Period carving
both planes ca 5th-8th century

These two planes have been an inspiration to me since I first saw them; they were the prototypes for my plane which is actually larger then these are, but in the same style.

I do not like copying anything, but I draw heavily on appropriate examples;
this ornament derives from the Book of Kells
Decorative embellishment in the Book of Kells which served as inspiration

Since one of the prototype planes had knot-work ornamentation to it, I felt that that fact gave me license to make my own strap/knot-work design. Believe it or not, working it out on paper and then carving it took as long as the entire process of making the plane in the first place. That knot-work did my head in for a while. I did not get it all correct, but I learned enough doing it that when I do another one it will be much easier. I always have to admire the skill and patience which went into these interlace decorations; if you start to actually study and examine them closely, you will find many of them are mind-boggling!

Demonstrating the new plane

It seems to work. This is actually a smoothing plane
but the table did not lend itself to using it as such

Hopefully this will be the first of many future events of this sort. Vivamus Historia!