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Dying for Life


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Hello all,

I have caught myself thinking about dyes a lot recently and I decided to try to disentangle my thoughts by sharing them here.


My medium of preference is generally wood. I spend at least as much time doing woodworking (cabinetry etc) as I do on carving. The style of the pieces I create (and dream of) is mainly influenced by Japanese traditions. This is true for both woodworking and carving. Because of this, and because of my fondness for the look of wood, I have NO experience with stains, paints or any type of dye, whatsoever. I finish pretty much everything I do with a some oil and let time do its thing.


It was not until I saw some of Janel's more colourful pieces (e.g. the piece part of which forms her avatar) that I even considered the application of a stain to approximate the natural colour of the subject. Initially, I was reluctant to accept it, deciding instead that it lacked subtlety. I loved Janel's work, though, which made the whole matter even more confusing. Part of my reluctance, I suppose, also stems from my inexperience with the processes involved, making the whole thing terrifying to me! It was not an easy thing for me to just try out on a piece or two, and see whether I would reevaluate my opinion on the appearance of wood.


I think I probably go on a bit too much here, so I will try to keep the rest brief. Materials like tagua nut and bone or ivory (though the latter a little less) I am less reluctant to accept when stained in one way or another. Be it in the 'traditional' ink used on ivory netsuke in Japan or to modern stains and colourings. In the last few weeks I have weakened my defences against dyes even more after seeing Sergey's cormorant (tagua nut). The colours make both the bird and its prey leap to life (though the prey has already dYed - here we go... :D ). I could almost feel the slippery scales of the fish, precisely because of the way the piece was finished. And I suppose all this has left me even more pensive about the merits and evils of staining. I will still most probably avoid the process by designing pieces that are left unifinished (bar the oil), but I will keep torturing myself to decide what I think about colours (though of course the matter is not exactly black and white... so to speak :) ).


What are everyone's thoughts on this? I expect everyone's opinions to be coloured (bear with me :) ) by their preferred materials, but I am sure there is more to it than that.




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Thanks for the thoughtful exploration of your interests and concerns about coloring what you carve. I, too, am interested in peoples thoughts about coloring carvings.


I like black and white movies and photographs. I also like carved pieces that are not colored or are monochromatic. Now and then the concept of added color seems right, but not for every piece I do.


One day you may do a piece that begs for color, and then your journey to color will begin.



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I share your desire to show wood for its own characteristics and am generally not attracted to carvings with heavy artificial coloration. I ask myself "Does this piece benefit from imposed coloring?" Is the carving about form, rather than the identity of the wood chosen? Is it all about surface- pattern, texture, color? Is the piece trying to be as faithful a copy of nature as possible?


There have been netsuke in the past which have been painted and lacquered- over time the color has worn; mellowing the appearance. It's this very mellowness which adds to the value (aesthetic and consequently monetary).


You know those carvings out of Mexico of mammals and reptiles and dragons with all the bright, zany paint schemes- polka dots, stripes, etc? I think those are an example of success in painting carved wood. I've never asked myself "I wonder what the wood grain looks like" on those pieces. Those pieces are about surface treatment and how that transforms form and volume.


Northwest coast native masks are another interesting example- for me, they work equally well painted and not painted. The beauty of the alder and red cedar grain can show through for a subtly strong impression, but when painted, the masks take on a whole new bold, powerful appeal.


I find myself drifting towards using inlay of differently colored woods and other materials as a means of approaching color. Perhaps this might work for you?


Janel's right- you'll hear a whisper when a creation needs a more colorful approach.

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