Tromp l’Oeil and Wabi-sabi in Guitars

by Ervin Somogyi

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. The immediate impression it makes is that an accident had happened to the guitar: that someone 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.

I hope that others will like this look as much as I do. My initial inspiration for it didn’t exactly 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 on a first-class instrument. The most common fix for any blemish is to do some inlay work, or patching, or staining, or painting-over to hide the flaw. But if there is more than one of these, and if they’re not close together, then one has to do a large-scale job of a this-will-fix-all-of-it type, or one has figure out how to deal with this multiplicity in a different way that can’t look like some clumsy fill-and-patch job. Sometimes, in order to achieve an artistically coherent look, one is called on to do decorative fix-its in spots that don’t need “fixing”. And in either case, if this work is going to be done on an expensive guitar then the work has to look perfect. I thought about this project for a few weeks.



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.



One morning I did wake up with a concept of a coherent-yet-not-overdesigned look that could work and that by my standards wouldn’t look contrived or cute or echoing other people’s work . . . such as inlaying some swimming fishes, or 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-of-the-unexpected 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 likely sizes, impact-spreads, drip patterns, and drip densities. 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-in-itself can a drip look?) But some samples 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 spattering 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 I understood 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 looked three-dimensionally REAL. Another was to paint a picture in which something seemed to be jumping out of the canvas and even obscuring some of 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. It is understood that all things are passing. And it is an awareness of that direction, and its transitions, and being able to hold them precious for the moment, 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 give a nod to the stream of life. The Western ideal, in comparison, is fundamentally divided between (1) the secular stance of strive forward to be successful in the here-and-now, but keep it realistically short term and don’t get ahead of yourself, and (2) the religious stance of behave yourself now and be patient; it’s really the afterlife that you want to be focused on.

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 any and all the disciplines of art that I listed above – in which the work looks right . . . and there can also a way in which it can look not right . . . or incomplete . . . or amateurish . . . or somehow not fully realized. Well, there are always rules for how a 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.) And, clearly, things that are man-made can participate in Wabi-sabi also. The closest association to Wabi-sabi in Western art that I can think of leads brings the word factitious to mind. It means “artificial; made by man and not by nature”. But this is a word that one seldom hears in daily conversation and that doesn’t at all rise to the level of a philosophy about seeing the world.

My personal sense of the Wabi-sabi of life in general (besides in guitar making and art) is 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 these, or them, or us, or me, or you, to truly look wrong.