In preparation for the Baltimore show, I decided to write up a list of Frequently Asked Questions (and their answers) to help visitors understand my work more completely. In other shows I have gone to, I have found it almost humorous to hear the same series of questions over and over, almost in the same order. It is often impossible to give complete answers without boring visitors to death so I figured a handout would be helpful.
How do you get your colors?
I seal the wood surface with many coats of clear shellac before painting with tinted shellac. It is not a stain. By reworking and mixing the colors as I build them up, I create natural looking colors with gentle gradations.
How do you get the high gloss finish?
I use a technique of applying shellac called “french polish”. It involves rubbing the surface with a ball of cloth filled with shellac, alcohol, and oil. When done correctly, a microscopic layer of shellac is laid on the surface as the alcohol dissolves the previous layer. The technique was developed by a Frenchman in the early 1800’s and was widely used on furniture into the early 1900’s. However, due to the laborious process it has been widely discarded in the furniture world for easier finishes like sprayed on lacquer, polyurethane, and rubbed on oil finishes. It is still used by specialty finishers on very high end furniture, typically 19th century reproductions. Ironically, although a french polish is very difficult to create, it is much easier to repair than other wood finishes.
Do you use aniline dyes?
No, I use modern lightfast dyes made under the brand TransTint. They have very accurate primary colors and they retain their color much better than traditional wood dyes.
What is shellac?
Shellac is a natural resin secreted by the lac bug on tree bark in southeast Asia. It is edible and is even used as a covering for candy and pills. Unlike other wood finishes which cure after they are applied, shellac retains an ability to dissolve in its solvent (alcohol), allowing it to be reworked and repaired as new layers bind with existing layers as one single layer. In addition, its unique clarity creates a magnifying glass on the surface of wood, making every grain highly visible.
How many coats do you apply?
It is impossible to say for a number of reasons –
- I often remove layers before applying new ones.
- I don’t use the same concentration of shellac throughout the process so one layer may be several times thicker than another.
- Each pass with the cloth in the french polishing process is technically a layer (on a microscopic level) and there may be hundreds of passes.
- Different sections of a painting may have different numbers of layers.
- The process is done in stages over an extended period of time.
On the back sides I apply at least five coats of heavy shellac.
How long does it take to make one piece?
Typically, I work on a piece for several months, three to five is average. About twenty percent of my pieces have two dates on them, the first one is the date is when I originally thought I was done (or wanted to be); the second is when I went back and modified it (often six to twelve months later).
How does one care for a shellac painting? How durable is it?
Shellac paintings are comparable to encaustic (wax) paintings in terms of durability. There are no special actions that need to be undertaken to care for it. Occasional dusting with a feather dusting is all it should need. The polish and colors are archival, but as with any painting, it should not be placed in direct sunlight. In addition, shellac will soften at high temperatures so things placed on top of them can leave impressions in warm weather. When transporting shellac painting, I like to wrap them in flannel sheets; however, when shipping them in summer months I crate them so that nothing is touching the surface. The high gloss french polish finish should never need to be retouched but if damage does occur to the surface, I can repair it fairly easily (scratched wood is more problematic but still repairable). In addition, if I am not available, a furniture restorer competent in french polishing can also repair the surface.
Can you make me a table (or other functional object)?
Theoretically yes, but . . . I believe that wood is art and that it should be appreciated for what it is rather than what it can “do.” I would rather spend my time making fine art than functional objects.
What art school did you go to? Where did you learn this technique?
I am a self-taught artist. I started making furniture as a hobbyist in the mid-90’s but slowly became more interested in the natural beauty of the wood than the functional things I could create with it. The techniques I use are based in traditional woodworking methods. Although I have not taken a formal art class (since 8th grade) I am constantly studying art informally.
Is your work in any major museums or collections?
Not yet, but I’m always preparing for a MoMA retrospective.