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Well, the painting of the song board is completed. Johan came to pick it up this past week.

The etalage is incredibly empty. It was like having a friend there, a real presence,  waiting every morning. I’d look at the work of the past day and plan what the steps for today would be- and by some miracle, flower by flower by flower, it all got done.

It took close to 80 hours spread over 8 weeks, not counting the planning and design. Those hours aren’t all painting time, they also include drawing, transferring, some research,  and reworking some flower drawings.

I always have a bit of resistance to adding the final blue arabesques, those clumps of curls and swirls around the edges. I’d prefer a more streamlined look. But the blue decorations are trademarks of these Ruckers Flemish instruments from around this time (1638), so they are not optional. They are fun to do, and the artist can hide all kinds of inside jokes in the complicated strokes. You may be able to spot a few that are not just designs but contain figurative elements. Once I hid a bike, a mermaid, and even a boxer (dog).

The lines, scallops and arabesques are done with an applicator so that they will be raised in relief. Originally this was done with a mixture of cobalt glass and casein binder. I use gouache and casein with a smidge of acylic gel for elasticity.

Here are Johan and I, Johan has just finished playing air harpsichord, Bach’s flower concerto I think.

And now the instrument is back with its creator, Matthias, who will add strings, keyboard and base, several layers of paint (on the outside!!!) and  other finishing touches. All of us involved with the birth of this instrument are enjoying seeing it come alive as each person does his/her part. It is one of the most rewarding (and intense) projects  I’ve worked on. I’m so grateful it is safely back in Germany in Matthias’ workshop.

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All photos by Rende Zoutewelle

Well, it is an all-consuming project. I do have a life….I think. But I basically wake up and go to sleep thinking about which flowers fit where, color balance, leaf size contrasts etc.

Rende’s photos have captured some of  the atmosphere of the étalage (aka shop or oil painting studio) where I’m working on the instrument. It is a small space – not even enough to walk completely around the case. A new instrument like this needs to be kept at an even temperature and humidity to prevent drying out, so it is on the chilly side – about 15 degrees centigrade. I wrap up well before I go to ‘work’.

Despite that inconvenience, I do like having it all concentrated down here, the previous ones took over my entire attic studio. That meant I really couldn’t do anything else.

Johan said that with the sound board being painted, the instrument is starting to come alive.

As soon as it was brought here, I felt it already had a soul from the amazing amount of love and care that the builder, Matthias, had put into it, and from all the thought that had gone into it even before the case was built. Now that I’m adding my part, there is such a strong visual emphasis, it is hard to remember that

the real soul of this instrument lies in the sound it will make.

Anyway, it is a really cool project to be involved in. I have to slow down to paint each plant and animal portrait as if it were the only one. And one by one they are forming a whole painted songboard.

woodpecker attacks songboard

Definitely connected to the long tradition of songboard painting, and yet also belonging to the 21st century in the choices we’ve made, both visually and in content.  For example, Johan had requests for various flowers and other elements to be included which are personal symbols connected to his own life. For a few people, beside the aesthetic quality, there will be added layers of meaning to the things painted on the instrument.

When it goes back to Germany at the end of the month, Matthias will make the keyboards (there are two) and attach the strings. And then it will be able to sing.

Harpsichord 6-flower by flower

September 15, 2007

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Decorated harpsichord sound board completed, photo Rende Zoutewelle

It was truly a delightful process, perhaps because there was such a warm contact with the clients and instrument maker. It is always a pleasure to work for/with someone rather than deliver a finished work to an anonymous buyer. (One of the reasons I stopped being a gallery artist).

Also, my husband documented the whole process on his photo site and there was a lot of wonderful feedback and encouragement from that group (thanks folks!).

So my studio is gloriously empty, but more importantly, after an intense 6 week involvement with a project like this, so is my head. 

Although I must say that having a concrete project to do was a welcome break from my current focus; getting a new idea off the ground (in this case creating work for myself as an artist in healthcare) involves so much headwork. And all the planning, following up contacts, writing proposals is so abstract and up until now has not led to anything structural. While painting the sound board flower by flower eventually led to tangible results and a FINISHED PROJECT! 
Well, for me anyway. Herwil now has to do his magician’s work and conjure the painted wood into a singing instrument.
 

Harpsichord 5

August 31, 2007

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The sound board is nearing completion.  The harpsichord itself, all 2 meters of it, is on my long worktable and the reference material is spread out all over the room. Most of my materials are on a rolling table.  I am enjoying the work but I’ll be glad to get my studio space back when it is done. Also, the instrument builder is waiting for it in order to continue construction. It has meant putting on a final push this week, and there were days where it seemed like the work needing to be done was never-ending. There are 40 hours invested in it so far.

At the end of a project like this there is an extra burst of energy that carries you through to completion. I do find, though, that being in the grip of it eclipses everything else.  It is a mixed feeling giving in to the drive to finish something; on one hand you are carried by the momentum built up over the weeks of concentration, on the other hand there is very little room for anything else (for instance, the rest of life…husband, puppy, other commissions, social life…. etc.).  

It is a great feeling though, after focusing on minute details for all those hours, to look out over the decorated board and see it as a whole. The painting process has been sensually pleasurable as well, I love working on the warm, live surface of wood, I can use drybrush technique to finish and blend colour layers subtly, and for instance, the peacock feather works particularly well using this method.

Harpsichord 4

August 26, 2007

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Photo by Rende Zoutewelle

Working on some details now. It is nice to paint songboards in the spring and summer, I can use ‘live’ models from my garden. This is lobelia.

Harpsichord 3

August 21, 2007

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photo Rende Zoutewelle

The positions of the flowers are laid out on pieces of tracing paper. One by one I transfer them onto the board, then block in the main colours.

According to some historians, Flemish harpsichords of the 17 th century were painted exclusively in water-based pigments. This made the songboard exceedingly fragile, but when it comes to water, the whole instrument is vulnerable anyway.

I worked with gouache for the first 2 instruments I painted. Then one night, when I had a songboard in process, it rained and there was a leak in my studio. Fortunately, water only splattered near the board, but that was the deciding point for me. The next intrument I did was painted in egg-based tempera. It  looks like gouache, but it dries hard and mostly waterproof. Luckily it is available ready-made in tubes here in Holland.

So the painting has begun, it is very enjoyable work. My sable brushes are sharp and flexible, the colors used are vibrant, and flowers are such accommodating subjects.
Pictured is the underpainting of the rosette wreath around the sound hole of the instrument. The flowers and leaves are first painted quickly in approximate colours. Then when I’ve worked sketchily across the whole board, I’ll start to pull the colours together and work on details.

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Harpsichord 2

August 12, 2007

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Applying the blue lines and scallops

Making the very first marks on a virgin sound board is always a little bit intimidating. The plain lines are the most difficult  because every little wobble stands out starkly. When the scallops are added, though, the imperfections seem to diminish. And by the time the board is completely painted, the whole effect is actually made more charming by the small irregularities.  

I read on another harpsichord decorator’s site not to get too perfectionistic, because after all, the strings will be added above the board, and then most likely over the months, a thin layer of dust will cover it all. And the whole effect from a distance is more important than the separate details. 

I remember working hard to make my first sound board painting as beautiful and perfect as possible. Then the instrument builder and I went to The Hague to see an original instrument upon which the replica we were working on was based.  IT WAS WILD! The blue lines were drunkenly weaving up and down, the scallops sometimes touched the line and often didn’t. The paint was just thrown on there, I couldn’t believe my eyes!  And yet, standing back, the whole effect was stunning.

It stands to reason that it was hastily done; I read that in the heyday of harpsichord production, a team of painters would complete a soundboard painting in 3 winter days or 2 summer days.

It takes me about  30-40 hours spread over a month, although it would probably go faster if I did more than one every 4 years!