"Today I'm starting a portrait of my late uncle Dale (Dad's older brother)," I announced on Facebook a few weeks ago. I posted the reference photo below of Dale and asked if my friends or family knew any details about the guitar he's holding. I wanted to find a clearer image online to help me figure out the dark areas.
Within a few hours several of my musician friends had chimed in with plenty of information.
From Jay: It is a classic C/W/Gospel axe! These deep, archtop electrics of a certain age are highly prized! I think Uncle Dale went the extra mile for this guitar: it has a fancy diagonal bar motif (matching the fret markers) on the tuning head... and the ivory inlay around the head are fancy additions. The trim around the guitar itself may be a higher quality than in the link picture but I really can't see it even when the photo is blown up. There is a 'bell shaped' adjustment rod cover between the tuners that even has the diagonal motif. The scatchplate down by the pickups seems to have an ornate pattern or a fancy tortoise shell design too. I also noticed that the diagonal bar inlay on the head and the Gibson name appear to be made of mother of pearl with more natural looking changes in color and contrast to the standard 'keyhole' and Gibson inlays in the link photo. I sure hope your family still has it!
From Jimmy: It is a Gibson Super 400CES with a Florentine cutaway and in flamed maple. Please have it appraised and insured. A very rare guitar.
From Nicole: According to a local guitar shop here it is a Gibson Super 400. He said it's a very rare version with the way the Florentine cutaway is done. Manufactured between 1960-1970.
Later on I heard from my cousin Deanna (Dale's daughter). She was thrilled that I was painting her dad and had this to say:
This Gibson guitar was probably his most prized possession...he called it a "Super 400". It was beautiful and I really can't remember him not having it --so I'm thinking he bought it in the early 60's...sadly, he felt that he had to sell it when he started getting ill. Dad loved music of all kinds but especially gospel (Dale was a pastor at the community church in the tiny Illinois town of Webster--K), and any guitar musician--from Chet Atkins to Eric Clapton.
People complain about Facebook all the time, but I just love when the Hive Mind helps me out like this. Unable to resist the urge to Google this guitar, Jeff and I discovered that similar Gibsons sell for at least $14,000 these days. So Dale is holding a gently used Ford Focus, basically.
No stranger to painting guitars...
(above: it's a long story) ...I devoted an entire day to the preliminary drawing and was especially careful with Dale's beloved Gibson. Guitars have so many tricky components, and most of them make a watercolorist's life difficult, particularly the strings and fretboard, but I decided to put painting them off until after I had finished Dale's face. Because if my Dale didn't look like the real Dale, what was the point of painting his guitar exactly right? Here's Dale after a day of painting.
This section is about six inches tall. I always begin with a lot of wet-into-wet work in order to create convincing, smooth skin tones. Once those are dry, I add darker details and textures. Dale's face was so easy to paint that it almost seemed like he wanted to help me paint him. The glasses, for example, divided his face into two medium-sized sections that were a breeze to manage. Here's the second day's work (it's a bit dark):
As I painted, I was struck by my uncle's Eddington-ness. His eyes, mouth, eyebrows, and the section between his nose and mouth are just like my father's. And I've seen my dad geek out over golf clubs, computers, and even axes in a way that brings to mind Dale's apparent obsession with his special, custom-made guitar. The Eddington clan is populated with many gentle, talented, good people like Dale and Dad. After Grandma Eddington died in 1977, extended family get-togethers pretty much came to an end and some relatives moved away, so I don't know the Eddington side of my family as well as my mother's (the Sharpes). But in my heart I think I've always felt more like an Eddington than a Sharpe, and this portrait gave me plenty of time to appreciate and meditate on my heritage.
Once I was satisfied with Dale's face, I slowly began to work on his guitar, which was so painstaking that I could only tolerate painting chunks of it in the morning, switching to his tie (a hoot) or the floral-patterned couch (double hoot) in the afternoon. I was amused to discover the upside-down cat pillow in the lower-right corner.
I dreaded painting the afghan as much as I loved its down-home unpretentiousness--the hallmark of my Dad's family's style. It took me nearly three days to complete. I had already finished everything below it, and as I began adding those screaming oranges, yellows, and seafoam greens I thought, "What am I doing? This looks horrible!" Once I laid out those flat colors, I created multi-directional yarn textures to mimic the afghan's complex tic-tac-toe pattern. I wasn't satisfied with it until it was completely finished. I secretly hoped that Dale's wife Marilyn was responsible for the afghan. Aunt Marilyn (who is still with us) was always more colorful and exuberant than low-key Dale, and I was thrilled to learn that she had in fact made the afghan and is indirectly part of my painting.
I was able to date the photo to the mid-80s thanks to the small VHS rack on the right side of the picture. The titles of Dale's videos were impossible to make out in the photo except for something called "Rodeo Bloopers," which I couldn't bring myself to paint. Instead I took my cousin Deanna's tip and made up videos by Chet Atkins, Eric Clapton, and Johnny Cash. Dale had reportedly seen one of Johnny's drug-fueled live performances in the Sixties, and one of my Facebook friends had remarked about Dale's resemblance to Johnny.
Dale died of Parkinson's disease over ten years ago. I have always been haunted by the memory of his trembling hands as he held a plate of food at a rare family get-together during the last decade of his life. Those tremors caused him to sell his beautiful guitar, since he couldn't play it anymore. I feel like this portrait, which I painted with a hand so steady it scares me sometimes, returns Dale's Super 400 to its rightful owner.