Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Eyes Open Approach.

If you've been reading at all here this past year you'll know I've been hot on the trail of researching and building for a book on medieval furniture. Specifically the furniture shown in the pages of the storied Maciejowski Bible. That work has moved into a holding pattern for the short term as I try and put the horse back in front of the cart and convince a publisher to believe in me so I can deliver work to their standards instead of working backwards to redo / reshoot things.

That doesn't mean I've stopped researching, reading, and drawing. In my mind the work becomes more and more organized with every day.

Outside of religion and politics, I have never known anything to be more the victim of preconceived judgement and notions than medieval Europe. People love trivia and they like to display their intelligence, (I'm no different) so they spout off whatever the last thing they saw on the history channel, or in a movie, or read in a dogeared copy of John's Bathroom Reader. One of my goals spending the last two decades as a medieval reenactor, has been to try and gently add some common sense to the weird things people believe.

Buy me a beer and I will tell you some of the conversations I've had.

Furniture is no different a victim, perhaps it's even worse because it settles into the background on most people's tapestries. When was the last time you gave any real thought to your dining room chair? It's simply there when you need it. Most of us see people and stories, I spend the Lord of The Rings movies trying to decipher the joinery of the chairs in Rivendell.

So what was furniture like in the Middle Ages? The Dark Ages? How about more specifically in France around the years 1240 - 1260 AD? How can anyone know? What has survived.

The answers are there in front of us, you just have to open your eyes and mind to see them.

I saw a video this morning on a man named Lars Andersen who has taken an eyes open approach to medieval archery. Take a quick few minutes and watch it. It will impress you.

The evidence and answers to Lar's questions were in ancient writings and manuscripts. He wasn't the first person in a thousand years to read the words or observe the manuscript representations of archers. But he looked at things with his eyes open and thought maybe he should try to do things like he sees them instead of doing them like he'd always been told he should.

But how can we trust the artisans of medieval times. We all know the term "artistic license" means those bastards can make up anything they choose. Besides their perspective is all wonky, how can you trust them.

I had the same thoughts and worries until I was studying some pages from the Morgan bible one late night and found a detail that made me a believer.

This is Folio 39 Recto. It displays King David leading a crushing rout of the Palestinians on the top and below the good people of Israel celebrate the victory around the Arc of the Covenant.

Let's look closer.

As we look closer at King David and the battle more details in the armor, weapons, and attitudes come to light. I think it's fun to realize the Israelites are shown dressed in what would have been considered "State of the Art" armor in 1250 AD France and the Palestinians are depicted wearing what would probably have been considered "outdated."

There's an interesting commentary there I'm not interested in wading into.

Let's look closer still.

We're starting to focus in on King David. resplendent in his painted full face helm and accessorizing crown. The epitome of masculinity and virile combat prowess.

Closer . . .

As we look below King David's mount we can really begin to see some details present in the work. Representations of the individual rings of steel in the maile armor. Fluting for added strength on the nasal helm of the prostrate warrior and and etching or decoration present on the helm of the oddly smiling character behind him.

I particularly like the leather straps at the ankles of both King David and the trampled Palestinian. From experience I would surmise these are either to help tie the maile chausses (armored leggings) in place to keep them from slipping and binding at the ankle joint and/or to tie on a symbol of knighthood. A set of spurs.

But the details go further . . .

As I was looking at the picture my eyes settled on these red brush strokes on the underside of King David's mount. After pondering it for a few moments it occurred to me . . . these were representing the marks that would have been made by the King's royal spurs as he urged his mount into battle.

My mind was blown.

I woke up my wife to show her I was so excited.

I'm still paying for that. . . .

Seeing this was my second Ah Ha moment chasing this subject. This is the kind of thing the person who created this page of the manuscript would have seen commonly. The men who illustrated the Morgan Bible were drawing snapshots of the world they experienced, and they were doing it in great detail. It's the closest thing I can hope for outside of finding photography or film footage from that time.

Come to think of it, the only thing that could be better is a Delorean, a Flux Capacitor, and 1.21 Gigawatts of power.

So I've decided to do my best to trust the artists who created the Morgan Bible. To just try and look with my eyes open at their work and try not to pile my own baggage and ideas into it.

It's difficult. In the end we will see how well I do. Eventually I have to trust my own filter and focus too. Maybe the best I can hope for is a balance between both visions.

Moving forward . . . Eyes wide open.

Ratione et Passionis

*** EDIT: Since the video above of Lars came out, I have seen more and more evidence refuting his claims, or at least calling them into question. I consider this to be a healthy thing. Peer review is important in many respects. To be fair though, most of the criticism is to his sloppy references and claims.

Most experts chiming in on Lars video relate to the depictions by artists of battle techniques as suspect because there is little chance they were there and directly observed the action. Some go on to say that things the artists could personally observe (they reference directly clothing and armor)  should be considered accurate.

That being said my main interest in the Morgan Bible is not the hypothetical battle scenes, but the furniture. I would argue that furniture falls squarely into the realm of "direct personal observation."

I guess I won't know for certain until I face my own peer style review.


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Buried Below The Skin.

My take on the Roy Underhill / Chris Schwarz nail cabinet is done and hanging on the wall of the winter shop. The ending of a project is always a curious time. You're simply too close to be objective, Some things you're proud of and some things you would like to take a lit blowtorch to.

Often after perspective settles in those things are not as sharp in either direction and some time spent with a piece lets you mellow as it grows into it's old skin.

At this moment, I can't say I really like it. It's over the top and folk arty in a ballistically bombastic way. Once I started down the path I figured in for a penny, in for a pound and pushed it as far as I could. That exploration I'm a little proud of, with or without the technical misses. It's the technical misses that always kill me in the end.

When I built my new work bench this past autumn I decided to add a little bit of flair with a small amount of dot and dart inlay veneer. I decided to repeat this on the nail cabinet.

I wasn't interested in inlaying into the outside of the cabinet. I had plans to milk paint and keep the outside a little rustic to contrast the veneer and parquetry work on the inside. So painting the dot and dart seemed appropriate. That leaves two options for consistency: stencil or stamping. I chose stamping.

I used some two part silicone mold making material to build a flat block and some sharp razors to relieve the simple design from the blocks. I brushed the stamp with black tempera and made the marks around the cabinet. Working back in with a brush to crisp up the lines and cover big voids.

The effect in the end worked out just like I wanted. Once the blue milk paint and black stamps had a couple coats of shellac the look was very nice. I will have to repeat this finish again.

The beginning concept I worked from on this cabinet was to have a stark difference from the outside of the cabinet to the inside. I have a thing about looking inside boxes and behind doors. Museums drive me a little nuts in the fact I can't get a look on the inside of some beautiful work. I like to see the details go all the way through and live more than skin deep.

The veneer work on the drawer fronts is satisfying. There are technical misses and mistakes but those things are to be somewhat expected when exploring a new skill set. In the end I don't like the knobs and I may look to replace them with small porcelain pulls at some point in the future.

The parquetry panel in the door was acceptable to me as a first time exploration, mostly on my own with my own assumptions and mistakes. A close look makes some of the problems very evident. I could have dove in to trying to repair these things and mired myself down. Instead I chose to accept how it turned out and move forward.

Several people more experienced than I were kind enough to offer critique and advise on where I went wrong and what I can do to improve. Including a treasured note and email exchange from W. Patrick Edwards, whose work I love. I'm looking forward to the day I win the lottery and can afford to spend time taking classes from the modern masters I admire.

The inlay banding around the panel is also paint. It was a chance to practice some faux techniques used in grain painting. I have a piece I want to build that has these banding techniques and I wanted to give it a shot here. From two feet away it looks great, closer inspection not as much.

In the end I have to thank Chris Schwarz. When he saw my build on instagram he offered to send some Lost Art Press postcards to adorn the inside. I added a couple other post cards of my own to the mix and I'll keep looking myself for things to add in the future.

So this project is done, on the wall and in use. My wife threatens to steal it for inside the house so I have to fill it with nails, screws, and other hardware quickly so it's too heavy to lift off the wall.

Ratione et Passionis

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Parquetry Requires Patience

One of the surgeons I work for often uses a line I love.

"I'm not interested in making a meal out of a snack."

A more poetic way of saying Keep It Simple Stupid.

I suck at listening to that advice and the humble nail cabinet has paid the dear price. It's like putting a ball gown on a dancing bear. There is no need to add frills to something that is already a spectacle. Still, I have been looking for the proper canvas to experiment on.

Alas the humble nail cabinet.

I'd veneered the drawer fronts and painted the inside of the cabinet is black, You can see it HERE. It was time to start on the door. The original had simple mitered corners. It never matters how careful I am, getting miters as perfect as possible is a challenging thing for me. I didn't want to struggle and I wanted something that felt a little more like me.

I went with hunched mortise and tenon. I will even peg them once everything is put together. I like the permanence of this joint.

I ran out of my pine stock and needed to go buy a board to make the door. I picked up a piece of Aspen because it was more economical than clear pine and because I'd never worked with it before. The stuff works like styrofoam complete with the sticky static cling. It's glaring white clearness makes me consider using it in the place of holly stringing for future inlay projects.

I used the same string inlay cutting device I used to cut the circles on the drawer fronts to cut my variety piles of commercial veneer into 1 1/4" wide strips. Don Williams, Papa Parquetry himself, cuts his own veneer at 1/12th inch thick, much thicker and easier to manage than these thin potato chip veneers. But you play the hand you're dealt, and this time around I had a variety of things.

Following along with Roubo and the Don of Dons, I made a quick cutting jig to turn the strips into parallelograms by making 60 degree cuts.

I spent most of a day in the shop just cutting these veneer "lozenges"

This whole process is something I would certainly love to take a class and get some first hand instruction in this parquetry process. Preferably I'd love to head east to Don's Barn and spend a week or so pestering him with questions and absorbing as much information as I could. Again I'll play the hand I'm dealt and give this a go alone in the shop. I'm girded by the writings and tutorials of both Master Roubo and Williams so the word "alone" is far from true.

Still there is something to be said for striking out alone. Mistakes are life's best teachers and sometimes you figure out a way that works better because nobody was there to tell you it wouldn't work.

I will make it to the Barn one of these days. I'm not going to tackle Boulle Marquetry on my own.

I started out the next day with a field the size of the door panel marked out on a big piece of brown craft paper. I poured a decent amount of Old Brown Glue into a mason jar and immersed that into a hot water bath maintained in an old small crock pot donated to the cause.

Then it was a couple hours of brush glue on the paper, brush glue on the veneer piece, pay attention to the grain direction and veneer color, and stick it down to the paper.

 I understand the intention of parquetry is a lot like using gesso to prime a canvass for painting. The intention is to create a background into which something like floral marquetry is placed and this was my original intention. Maybe not floral marquetry but something like a mariner's compass.

But with such a variety of species to my veneer, and not enough of any one "tone" I had to change the plan and instead of burying the parquetry behind the star, give it a shower, slap on some lipstick and put it in the spotlight. To do this I alternated the tones of light, medium, and dark to make the illusion of directionality and light. It adds to the three dimensional optical illusion that the cubes create on their own.

Besides it makes me think of the old video game "Qbert"

Once the space was filled in I left the piece to dry overnight. I was careful, so careful with the grain directions and colors. It wasn't until the last row I made an error and didn't notice until I was looking at the photos later that evening.

Sigh.  Oh well.

Turns out I had a lot of lozenges left over. I may start doing this to everything. Veneered benchtop?

As I looked at my glued up paper this morning I was a little disappointed at how several of the lozenge corners had curled a bit and lifted off the paper. One more point for the thicker shop cut veneer. Still I didn't think it would be a very big deal.

I brought up the pine panel that was to be the substrate and covered both surfaces with glue.

I have my Roubo Press Vise but only the one right now and it's only wide enough to press half the panel. So I went low tech and piled a shit poop crap doodie big load of books on it.

Half a day later I could feel the glue that dripped down the side of the panel had fully set. What the heck, let's get those books back to holding the bookshelf down to the floor instead.

Here you can see the outside face of the panel. scored for a raised panel. Adhered down to the veneered sheet. I used my hybrid filed tenon saw to cut the excess from the sides.

Then I used a sponge and lukewarm water to wet the craft paper and loosen it's grip on the glue so I could peel it off with my fingernails and a piece of cut saw plate.

Now the panel is sitting and resting. Allowing any of the glue I loosened taking the paper off to reset and later tomorrow I will tooth it, scrape it, and lightly sand it. I'm gonna go polissor and beeswax for the finish here.

My technique is for certain imperfect. There are a few slightly bubbled spots I'll deal with as I move through the final stages. That shouldn't be a big deal. The two important things to remember are this is just a nail cabinet and so I shouldn't fret so and the first one's down and nearly done. Some lessons are learned and my next one will be better.

The first step is supposed to be the hardest right?

Ratione et Passionis