Furniture scholar Dean Fales noted in American Painted Furniture, 1660-1880, “Painting preserves and embellishes furniture, and it surely is economical. These three qualities are the main reasons for the great popularity of this pleasing lesser art. It could be performed by both amateurs and professionals, and its appeal was widespread. Since it is not constantly striving toward the heights of style, painted furniture can be an accurate reflection of the everyday tastes of regular people.”
I’ve long been a fan of grain painting. Any knowledgeable antiques dealer will tell you that painted decoration was a staple form of ornamentation in pre-industrial cabinetshops. There are so many plain-grain chests, beds, and tables which have been layered with pigments to simulate or simply allude to mahogany, rosewood, or fantasia-like mystery woods. Some examples are mellow in appearance and could be easily mistaken for the authentic exotic, especially when covered with 200 years of dirt and grime. Some, however, are so zany that they “mimicked the experience of viewing a kaleidoscope on a tremendous scale and thus excited the mind with amorphous and ever-changing ideas.” (Sumpter Priddy, American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts 1790-1840) It’s pretty psychedelic stuff.
While I’ve appreciated the “energized aesthetic” of the fantastical examples, I’ve only mustered the courage to indulge in a more restrained kind of whimsy. Back in 2016 I wrote an article for Popular Woodworking on grain painting, in which I attempted something a bit more convincing. M&T Issue One contains an article in which I reproduced Jonathan Fisher’s grain-painted card table. That article was not only an interesting exploration of replicating the construction process, but it was also a jarring example of the ameliorating effects of patina. The simplistic red over yellow graining of the card table is blindingly brilliant when new.
Late last year, I made my son a six-board chest and took the opportunity to play around with a little more fantastical decoration (though still relatively restrained, I should say). After a sealing a yellow base coat in shellac, I ground earth pigments in a flattened beer medium and hastily brushed it out onto the surface, on only the front first.
When the front was brushed, I placed my handprint into the paint and lifted, revealing the base color below. I then rotated my hand 1/4" and pressed it again into the paint. I continued dabbing my hand against the surface in a circular pattern. In the very center of the hand-print circle, I used a natural sea sponge to dab a little more umber beer paint. For the sides, I pressed my four fingers in a straight line in multiple passes. The final pattern is almost snakelike.
I experimented with a several handprint patterns until I found one I liked. The great thing is that if you don’t like the pattern, you can apply clean beer (or water) and wipe it off. When I was satisfied, I let it dry overnight and sealed it with shellac. And, no, a quick shellacking does not mar the paint. The shellac binds the paint in place for future generations to puzzle over.
Because this is intended to be a toy chest, I painted the inside with a thin coat of cobalt blue milk paint.
I do wish more folks experimented with this so-called “lesser art.” (Which is seen in even the most high-style of period homes, by the way.) Grain painting can be a delightful expression of beauty, idiosyncrasy, and psychedelia.