The Story Behind the Colors on Cornell’s Baroque Organ

Choosing paint colors for Cornell’s baroque organ required detective work, a keen eye, and a willingness to experiment.

Researchers knew from the documentation that the Charlottenburg organ had blue labels for all of the names of the stops, but they didn’t know which blue, or why they were blue in the first place. It was an unusual choice.

Only black and white photographs of the Charlottenburg organ survive. At a stop labelssession during the March inauguration of Cornell’s organ, Joel Speerstra, from the GOArt team in Sweden, explained how he reconstructed the labels. He was able to use the density of gray in the photographs to determine that the color of the stops wasn’t cobalt, which washes out in black and white, but must have been Prussian blue newly discovered at the time of the Charlottenburg organ’s creation.

The case of the Cornell organ is modeled after another Schnitger instrument in Clausthal-Zellerfeld. This case had nearly a hundred pieces of very elaborate and deep carvings that probably took a team of workers several years to complete; but Schnitger organs also sometimes had trompe l’oeil painting on flat pipe shades, although it is unusual to pair painted pipe shades with an unpainted organ, Speerstra noted.

In order to ensure the shades would blend with the natural variations of yellow and red in the oak grain, Karen Speerstra, who has collaborated with Joel in painted pipeshade projects before, had the two main colors in the case wood digitally analyzed and copied and they used an undercoating of yellow with an overcoat of reddish brown, and combed the surface to look like wood grain while wet. This produced ?oak? frames for the pipe shades, and then the two colors were also used as a basic pallette for the tromp l’oeil leaves and flowers, as well.

organ pipe shadesTo create the models from which to cut out the pipe shades, Joel Speerstra projected images of the original pipe shades from Clausthal Zellerfeld onto the wall of a black box studio. “I put in lots of extra holes because I knew I wouldn’t have to cut them out,” said Speerstra, winking at Chris Lowe in the audience, the cabinetmaker who built the case for Cornell’s organ–and who also built and painstakingly prepared all of the pipe shades for painting.