Brazilian Rosewood Back & Sides w/Red “Paint Splatter”
European Spruce Top
“Patio Stone” Rosette
Linear Abalone Fretboard Inlay
BRW Headstock Venner
Gold Schaller Tuners w/Ebony Buttons
From Ervin Somogyi:
TROMPE L’OEIL AND WABI-SABI IN GUITARS
I’ve recently completed a guitar that has a new kind of ornamentation on it – at least for me. And as far as I know it’s quite different from any ornamentation anyone else has ever done on a guitar. I don’t yet know how people will react to it, but I am very pleased with how it came out.
My initial inspiration for the look of this guitar didn’t come out of any blinding artistic idea that I woke up with one morning, though. It came out of a need to fix some problem spots in a set of otherwise beautiful guitar making wood whose flaws would make it unsuitable to use. The most common fix for this kind of thing is to do some inlay work to hide the flaw, or patching, or staining, or painting-over. But, unless one is prepared to do a large-scale job of a this-will-fix-all-of-it type when working several separate areas that aren’t located conveniently, then one has figure out how to deal with several smaller spots in a different way. Sometimes it means doing more of whatever-it-is than there are actual trouble spots. And in either case, if this work is going to be done on an expensive guitar then it has to look perfect instead of like a drill-and-fill patch job. I thought about this project for a few weeks.
A NOTE ABOUT ARTISTRY IN GENERAL
Until now art and ornamentation of any type have been rendered in traditional Western (and Eastern) ways. That is, art and decoration have been . . . well . . . artistic and decorative, regardless of whether the work has been painted, inlaid, carved, or anything else. Such work has always had to make some visual sense, even if its orderliness came out of something that looked chaotic – such as Jackson Pollock’s work, which has spilled over into fabric design, etc. Artistic work has always followed the rules of one or another of its modes, whether it be directly representational, geometric, stylized, abstract, Art Nouveau, ethnic, School of Realism, Art Deco, Japonesque, symbolic, Scandinavian, portraiture, African, Southwest American Indian, Naturalist, calligraphy/words, Arts and Crafts style, filigree, symbolism, religious iconography, mosaic pixel work, Dutch Renaissance, Cubism, mandalas, Impressionism, Appalachian primitive, figurative, marquetry, Zen, Dadaist, aboriginal, Islamic, Judaic, Celtic, Indian, Chinese, modern, post-modern, or . . . . well, you get the idea. All of it had, and has to be, somehow, visually coherent according to its tradition or sensibility and obey its appropriate principles of execution, shape, line, balance, proportion, ideal, and aesthetic. Basically, if artistry/ornamentation went to college, it would generally get a pass-or-fail grade. You know: it’s either bad art or good art, yes or no, period.
ABOUT THIS PARTICULAR GUITAR
One morning I did wake up with a concept of a coherent-yet-not-overdesigned look that might work and that wouldn’t, by my standards, look contrived or cute or repeating other people’s work . . . such as inlaying some swimming fishes, or a few jigsaw-puzzle shaped pieces of wood or shell, or dice or dominoes. That idea was: paint spatter. (Inlaying a few falling leaves might have worked too, but a lot of people have already done leaf work and I thought those images had too relaxed and laid-back a spin by now. You know: been there, done that.) I liked the idea of something that would arrest the eye and have a bit of shock value.
I bought some sheets of poster paper and spent some time dripping, sprinkling, and splattering paint all over them to get a sense of the a good size, impact-spread, drip pattern, and density. I tried different colors too. Red soon turned out to be the right choice, given the colors of the guitar woods. Overall, none of the drips looked bad. I mean, how wrong can a drip look? But some looked very bland. Others would be very challenging to inlay into wood – especially the really tiny spots. Yet others would probably bring the crime scene people in. Eventually I came up with a combination of spots that, when arranged on a canvas that was the size and shape of my guitar, felt right.
I just went ahead and did it, without thinking ahead to come up with a name for it for when I needed to start to talk to people about this decorative treatment. That came at the very end, when it dawned on me that I’d combined trompe l’oeil and Wabi-sabi into this instrument’s ornamentation. I should explain what these terms mean.
Trompe l’oeil is French for “a trick of the eye” or “tricking the eye”. It is a style of European painting that rose to prominence in the Baroque era but which originated much longer ago. Technically, it is a two-dimensional work that carries something called perspectival illusionism: this is when painters would paint things that were so realistic that they looked three-dimensional on a surface that everyone knew was flat. One example of trompe l’oeil was to paint coins on bar tops that would look so realistic that customers would try to pick the coins up. The illusion didn’t look painted: it just looked that REAL. Another was to paint a picture in which something seemed to be jumping out of the canvas and the frame. An older iteration was to paint a door into a wall, perhaps in the middle of a mural, to make the room look as though it were larger and led to another room.
Wabi-sabi, on the other hand, is a Japanese concept that is outside of Western traditions of thought. Wabi-sabi has to do with an appreciation for the beauty of things that are natural, simple, unpretentious, ephemeral and passing. They might be in full bloom, or somewhat worn, or well into entropy and decay. But it is understood that all things are headed in the same direction. And it is an awareness of that direction, and its transitions, and an appreciation of these, that is the underlying sensibility. As I said, this idea is not quite in the forefront of Western thought. The closest thing I know of is the Latins’ celebration of the Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), where those who have been here and have passed away are acknowledged and celebrated. It’s not quite the same thing as Wabi-sabi, really, but it does overlap it a bit.
My own take on Wabi-sabi also has to do, in part, with my sense that one thing that is important in an artist’s work is that there can always be a way in which — in any and all the disciplines of art that I listed above – it looks right . . . and there can also a way in which it can look wrong . . . or incomplete . . . or amateurish . . . or somehow not fully realized. Well, there are always rules for how the work should be executed and what it ought to wind up looking like or representing. The rules may be very, very subtle. But that’s what teachers, guides, mentors, and masters are for: to know and teach the sensibility and the rules, and to help us internalize them.
Opposed to any and all of this is Nature, NONE of which looks wrong. No matter how many of anything Nature may produce — trees, leaves, dogs, mountains, landslides, puddles, flowers, dead animals, stones, oceans, sunsets, rust spots, broken things, etc. – they all look right. Nature is incapable of looking wrong . . . at least in any of the ways that most people and artists can achieve. Wabi wabi taps into this. (There is a book titled Wabi-Sabi for Artists and Craftsmen that does a pretty good job of explaining this mode of seeing the world, for anyone who is interested in knowing more about it. Clearly, things that are man-made can participate in Wabi-sabi also.) The closest thing to Wabi-sabi in Western thought that I know of is the word factitious, which means “artificial; made by man and not by nature”, but this is a word that one seldom hears in real life and which doesn’t at all rise to the level of a philosophy about seeing the world.
THE BOTTOM LINE
As far as my trompe l’oeil/Wabi-sabi guitar goes, it looks at first glance as though an accident had happened to the guitar, by someone who had carelessly allowed paint to drip or spatter on it. But this effect is all carefully rendered wood inlay. There’s nothing careless or accidental about this at all.
My sense of the Wabi-sabi of life in general (besides in guitar making and art) is also that it carries an appreciation of some essential and indelible beauty of that which used to be pristine but which has signs of wear and use, and may even be worn out . . . like all the aging people (whom I am increasingly resembling) who aren’t considered physically or cosmetically attractive in this society . . . and that there is, at bottom, no way for any of it, or them, or us, or me, or you, to truly look wrong.