Using paint on most works of west coast native art should be carefully considered according to culture, and how the paint will draw out the best in a piece. Slathering on paint “just because” is no reason, assuming that the traditional black-and-red is supposed to be taken as gospel. It’s this sort of detail that makes me glad to be northern-trained, where the carvings have minimal colour.
When I returned to Vancouver Island, I began to adopt that practice in many of my pieces, and was pleasantly surprised to receive many compliments on my carvings. Not paintwork. Carving. It allowed me to focus more on the details of the dishing and cuts to make a statement. After a while, I began to prefer it. Clients began to request it.
Natural carving is surprisingly effective. If you are a dedicated carver and want to create dramatic pieces with various depths of cuts, you don’t even need paint. Now it’s just you and the wood, nothing getting in the way of what you have transformed it in to other that the work of your knife.
But how do you know when to leave your piece natural? First of all, listen to your client. If they prefer a natural piece, use your best woods that show off a beautiful grain. If your client prefers a painted piece, select wood that will either make the colour pop or blend to compliment your design.
Natural hardwoods usually are a great choice for beautiful grain. Cut a block of alder or maple and see for yourself how the natural wood will flow with your design. Yellow cedar is, of course, light yellow – and holds colour very well. Plus, black paint on yellow cedar or birch is quite dramatic – don’t forget you’re a carver, not a painter! You want to be able to use the paint to accent the carving, not take away from it. Deep carvings in yellow cedar with dark paint are magnificent.
Finally, consider where your piece is going to be displayed. Red cedar weathers to grey near the ocean from the salt air. This means any paint applied in red cedar on a piece such as a totem pole or outdoor mural will crack or peel along with the wood. My suggestion for outdoor red cedar pieces is to go natural and cut deep. Make bold, traditional designs.
Not every piece needs to be painted. In fact, paint is only an accessory to a carved piece. If you can dazzle your client with a natural piece to show the dedication in your true art, the likelihood that your piece will actually stand out from the other pieces in their collection.