What is Marquetry?

Marquetry is the centuries old art - and craft - of laying different materials on a base to produce artistic designs. Wood is the most common material but artists have also used silver, mother of pearl, tortoise shell and even glass or tiles. Originally used for the creation of exotic furniture the art also embraces pictorial marquetry through the use of thin slices of wood, called veneers. There is a wide range of veneers with different textures, colours, grains, tones (for example in the picture above) and the skill is in using the natural character of these veneers to make the finished product. The veneers are like the artist's palette and though there is a wide range of natural wood, some colours are not available except through the use of dyes. 

The usual technique for pictorial marquetry is known as the window method - a section of a veneer is cut out to leave a "window", the desired veneer is then cut through the template and then put in place, before moving on to the next section. This may sound straightforward but a completed picture can have hundreds of sections. For example you will see in the portfolio that the picture "Young man at his window" has 42 different windows in a miniature piece, each window being made of 4 or 5 veneers. Alternatively you will also see pictures made from just two or three veneers, though still with a lot of complex cutting. Many experts believe that the true art of marquetry is using the veneers in this way - the trick is not to use this specialist medium just to try and reproduce an exact copy of something in another medium, but rather to enhance that medium with the choice of grain, texture and contrast. 

There are different key steps in the production of the picture, from design, layout, cutting the different sections, laying on the base board (the substrate, which also has backing and side veneers) to cleaning up, sanding, sealing and polishing the finished product. 

The usual method of production is to use a knife for pictorial marquetry (as in the picture at the top of this page), though for larger work a lot of professionals now use lasers as well. It is traditional for experts to do the all the creative work, then hand over the picture for laying and finishing. 

Two Big Questions: to dye or not to dye, and when have I finished?

To dye or not to dye:

There are hundreds of natural wood veneers out there, from all around the world. This is still the case despite the wholesale destruction of natural woodlands and the Victorians' appetites for all things exotic including rare veneers. Most reputable suppliers now use sustainable methods of production and replacement to manage resources for now and the future. 

Despite the wide range, nature has some significant gaps in her palette. There are no naturally occurring veneers in green or blue for instance and this creates a challenge for woodland and water scenes. The answer, over time, has been to develop a range of dyed veneers, from the aesthetically pleasing grey harewoods to outright garish reds and blues and greens. Is it a crime to use these veneers in a picture? 

The purists would say yes. They argue that the skill is in creating a completely natural picture and dyed veneers detract from this. There are even some artists who limit their palette to just a small range of the naturally occurring veneers, in one case just using varieties of walnut. Others say that they are aiming for photographic realism and it does not matter how they get there and that anyway, the grain is still there and it is still obviously a marquetry picture.  My own view is that within those extremes there is a natural balance. I would rather not use dyed veneers to excess but there are times when their sparing use genuinely enhances a picture, introducing new tones and balancing the whole composition. As working artists we also have to consider our audience. The greys you can get from dyed harewood are a good example, either providing effective shadow, or as in one of the Dutch skating pictures, dramatic ice effects. Ice isn't really that colour but the texture and grain immediately suggests that it is. In the Dust Bowl picture I wanted to show some of the connection with Steinbeck's great novel, "the Grapes of Wrath". I had some light and dark blue veneers and they just seemed to be the colour of denim to me (original Levis denim at that!)  and I felt that their use had the artistic integrity to enhance the picture, as well as creating some mid depth.  

Another complication in the field is the recent development of what are called erable veneers. At one time the term "erable" referred specifically to the European field maple tree. Now it describes a process where wood is pulped and mashed up in a big vat (with dye added at this point) then processed, dried out and sliced. The effect is of different grains and whorls. Again there is a big debate about whether this is suitable for the purists. Certainly some of the effects are bizarre, almost psychedelic, and would be of limited use in pictorial marquetry except for abstract work. However some of them look almost like silk and I use them sparingly in my new pictures in the Omar Khayam series. My justification is that the same thing has happened in the history of art as new pigments were invented - we have come a long way since cave dwellers were limited to red and yellow clay, white chalk and black soot! Erable veneers are also useful (even the bizarre ones) if you want to make a distinctive looking chess board. 

Examples of erable veneers:

The only time I have gone over the top with dyed veneers is in the jungle picture you will find on the Commissions page. This is a large panel for a special school. I felt that the audience would want that kind of Rousseau-ish effect and I deliberately went for the use of dyed veneers to create that. The purists would wince but it is still wood! 

When have I finished? 

Most marqueteers who work by themselves rather than as part of a company (or for an absorbing hobby), do all the work on the picture from designing, cutting, laying to sanding, sealing and polishing. You could spend a year just reading about the different techniques they use to get that perfect finish and it is true that the finishing can actually take as long as doing the picture itself. This was not always the case. Up to the 1950s the professionals saw themselves as exactly that. Once the picture had been completed they would clean it up on the reverse, tape the front, then hand it over for laying. The next stage would then be to take it to a professional finisher. As well as recognising the skills of fellow craftsmen/women this also frees up the artist to take on more work, the costs of handing over being offset against the greatly enhanced production time. As mentioned on the home page here, I now follow the same approach and I am delighted with the results and the creative freedom I enjoy. If it is good enough for the old-time professionals, it is good enough for me! 

The Artist's Palette
An Early Marquetry Donkey 

A Brief History of Marquetry 

There is evidence that as early as in ancient Egypt wood was used to enhance caskets, as well as precious metals and materials for tombs and furniture. Marquetry then really took off in 16th century Florence, again not just using wood but other materials as well. At the same time Flemish craftsmen developed the use of wood and a lot of work was exported to France. As skills developed so did ingenuity in dyeing and shading which in turn led to a decline in marquetry as it was not uncommon just to paint the wood, defeating the whole object!

As with the making of stained glass windows, it was the Huguenots who came to London in the late 17th century who fetched the craft to England.  It then began to develop, still mainly for furniture making, but eventually into pictorial work. The French invented the "donkey" (left) which could cut several pieces at the same time. This was still in use in the 1930s when great marqueters like George Dunn produced pictures for the ocean going liners and for steam trains. I believe it is also still in evidence on the Orient Express and a new market has appeared in design work for the interiors of luxury yachts. If I ever get to go on one I will tell you what they are like! Finally the use of lasers has added a new dimension (see below) while traditional hand cutting is still holding its own.