You now have your horse (or tiger) primed a pure white with jewels and eyes masked off and you can not put off painting it any longer. You must decide what color to paint it! If you have planned in advance what colors you will use or if you are doing a restoration the next step is a piece of cake. If, however, you have no idea in mind or you have not sanded or carved "in color" you are now faced with a ghostly monster!


Sneaky the Tiger, 1909
In a restoration you can prepare by extracting paint chips from the original colors and create a blueprint for the authentic colors. Even these original colors can be mixed brighter or in a more modern tint or shade if desired. Your color choices should take into account the effect of time, exposure and oxidation of the original paint colors.

I have become more of a realist when dealing with original paint colors. We tend to forget that the carousels were created to generate income. If no one picked a particular horse to ride due to its "colors" it was repainted during the off-season. Or the colors were often changed to reflect the popular colors of the day...even the dreaded olive green and orange of the 70's.


Repainted to be similar to the original paint
Perhaps we are so intent in restoring an "original color" we end up restoring a "bad day" for the painter. He may have been faced with deadlines or shipping dates and simply didn't have time to change something that just didn't work. Or maybe he changed the color by putting on a new layer of paint before it left the factory. We have thus restored the wrong color! The marvelous carvings of the early carousel animals carried the work, the beauty is still there. The overall impact of the entire carousel was still there, but an individual horse may not be able to stand alone in its color composition.


The tiger as it appeared in the beginning years of its realistic painting.
Another idea is to research the time period in which your carved piece was created. If it is done in a carving style of the 1895 period it should reflect the popular hues of that period. Sources for this information can be found in your library under home furnishing, architecture, and fashion. Many wallpaper and paint companies provide patterns and color collections for a certain historical time period. Maybe the new carving is to be placed in your living room and can reflect the colors that you like and have chosen to live with. A simple piece of fabric may be the beginning of your color choices.

Be prepared to make changes in your plan. Sometimes what works in your head or on paper just won't work when painted on the carving. Change it . . . it is only paint! Let the horse evolve. If you don't like the color now you probably aren't going to like it later!


All striped up, and a friendlier nose
The carousel animals carved in America between the 1870's and the 1890's were often very simple in carving style but painted with glorious patterns and plaids. This painting style often reflected folk patterns, techniques and tole painting of the homelands of the immigrant carvers and painters.

During the next period, the trend was more toward carving style and embellishments that were often of sculptural quality with detail lines carved into the surface. The factory painter simply had to color within the lines. The next stage was the mass-produced animal which again was more simple and stylized in carving style. This was due to the difficulty in casting the intricate carving details. Once again the painter was allowed to be more creative in his technique.

It is the painter's job to make the carver look good! Even if they are the same person. If the carousel animal has beautifully carved muscles, the painter can enhance them with shading. If the muscles are lacking, the painter can shade to enhance what isn't there. If the carver had a bad day and forgot to carve a stem or a piece of strap, the painter can paint it in for him. The painter can emphasize the eyes, bring out he shape of a flower, or save the composition with detail, shadow and pattern. They are a team! The painter should treat the carving as a blank canvas and compose his work even though his canvas is now three dimensional.

My example is the comparison of the original paint job on the 1909 Spokane Looff carousel's Sneaky Tiger. The original painting technique used gives the appearance that the stripes were painted on with a ruler. (photo 1) It is definitely not an example of Charles Looff's earlier works which are known for their realistic body painting, marvelous colors and the use of stencils and folk painting. This was definitely a rushed or poor factory painted job. The tiger was carved between 1905 and 1909, the delivery date of the carousel to Spokane. It is branded on the belly "Riverside Rhode Island, a practice which was not begun until 1905.

The next photo (photo 2) shows how the tiger had changed through the years. It was a good start but still there was room for improvement. It has elaborate carvings and a resident Spider monkey on its back. No original paint was left and no records were kept of the original colors when it was stripped over 20 years ago. We had to begin a "new history" on the animal. I was also asked to do something that would make it less frightening as younger children would often refuse to ride him.


The Lemur Monkey
The tiger had gone through various metamorphous stages endeavoring to look more realistic. Even though it had been stripped there were layers of blue, red, purple, black and yellow on his trappings. My first step was to do some research for the more realistic body painting. This began with books from the library and visits to a local zoo.

There is nothing like spending an afternoon with a Bengal tiger, staring eye to eye, to give you the feel for his color, his majesty of movement and to realize how well the carving had been done in capturing his power. It would have been a travesty to restore those original jail-house stripes on such a magnificently carved creature. Watercolor studies were done as I continued my research to get a feel for the final painting.


The Spider Monkey, sometimes frightening to small children
I soon discovered that the tiger was the most endangered species in the world. Little details were important, such as no two tigers are striped alike but they all have a white triangular patch on the top of their black ears. Perhaps if this one sneaking tiger was painted well it could spark a love for the entire species. This could lead to the saving of the species or at least, some empathy for their plight. In my research I also found that the Lemur monkey was indigenous to the same territory of the Bengal tigers in Malaysia. Not only that, but the Lemur is a friendlier looking monkey than the Spider monkey!


Sneaky with his kitty nose
The final two photos show the results. The soft copper chain (unrealistic) has been replaced with a heavier chain of iron, to hold the power of the large cat. The trappings are the rich purple with shades of blue, the color of royalty. The Zalar style Sphinx carvings are done in a rich antique gold. The inside strap is painted to look like the deep purple of Thai silk highlighted with gold threads.


Sneaky the Tiger with his new stripes!
There are subtle touches to soften and overcome his fearsome appearance. A soft pink nose although mature tigers' noses are black. This gives him a "kitty" appearance. The lovely long eyelashes soften the face, making it more feminine and friendlier. Every child who rides "Sneaky" now loves the little white monkey on the back and often places a carousel ring on the tiger's tooth after a loving pat on its nose. Sneaky now takes the youngest rider off to the lands of Aladdin, and as Tony always says "it's just G-r-r-r-r-e-a-t!"



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Bette Largent is a professional carousel horse restoration artist from Washington State, and the author of Paint The Ponies, a guide for those who are interested in learning the art of painting carousel figures.

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