A Painter’s Love Affair with Wood

my birdhouse with tole painting and blue pickling stains, by Irene Rowley

my blue birdhouse

Don’t you love wood? Wood is the substrate for many beautiful pieces of art.

Here is a modest example of painted wood art: a Swedish plate that depicts a rural scene and windmill, my cedar box,  my bird house pickled blue, a fruit still life painted on a wood cutting board, and a folk art cow panel, that I saw in Gilroy recently:

pickling stain and water based varnish

pickling stain and water based varnish

The birdhouse is about ten years old and you can see by the pecks around the hole, that many little birds have moved in and nested there. It has weathered well. I used this blue pickling stain for the outside blue, which allows the wood grain to show through, then enamel satin finish paints for the flowers.  I also used this water based varnish to seal it and protect it from the environment:


Where to Get Wood Scraps:

I get most of my art  wood scraps from flea markets and back yards, from my own trees, or salvage stores. I like Ray’s Trading Company in Sebastopol, for old wood kitchen wares, knick knacks, doors  and knobs, cabinet parts, and window frames.  I also like Urban Ore in Berkeley, where there are treasures stacked to the cieling of salvage from old townhouses, as well as old photos, books, and anything else your heart desires!

Western Art is Married to Wood:

Painted wood is often put into the category of “tole painting” and “folk art”. However, I did some research and learned that even the greatest masters painted on wood. For example, Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) painted on poplar panels, and Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) painted on oak panels.

Before  canvas was introduced to  Italy in the early 16th century, classical and medieval artists would paint on wood panels, made from the trees of their native countries. Italians had poplar; Northern Europeans had poplar, walnut and chestnut; Rhinelanders had fir and pines; and the French had oak trees. The Dutch people (my ancestors) had oak as well, but they did not have large forests so they also imported Mahogany for their art panels.

Medieval and Renaissance painters preferred wood panels that were sliced crossways through the grains,  then sanded and layered with gesso, until they were firm and smooth enough to take paint. Gesso is a white binder, made of chalk, gypsum and pigments.  Even today you can buy white gesso in jars from art stores, and prepare your own wood panels to paint, as I learned to do in childhood.

Modern Tree Wisdom…

Today environmentalists recommend using bamboo as  a sustainable wood, because it can be regrown quickly.

Locally, California artists have and love our redwood trees. My fencer this year told me everyone in California asks for redwood fences, while back east they only know and ask for cedar fences.  But while we have a ready supply of wood now, we need to be careful not to overuse the redwoods. We do not want to deplete our ancient forests of this precious resource!

Sources and places mentioned in this blog:

  1. Wikipedia.org > Panel Painting
  2. Wikipedia.org > Tole Painting
  3. Urbanore.com
  4. Ray’s Trading Company

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