Miniature painting on a piano key


In the early days of miniature painting in sixteenth century Europe, the work was done mainly on vellum or ivory, occasionally on old playing cards which had a smooth surface. Of course, now the thought of using ivory is abhorrent, but antique ivory is still available in the form of old piano keys. A friend gave me a piano key, cleaned with toothpaste to remove years of build-up from sticky fingers practising their scales, with instructions to paint on it. Of course the early miniatures were all portraits, so I decided on a more modern approach.

This was very much an experiment, as this was a surface I have never worked on before. My inspiration was a small image of the shadows of palm fronds, distorted on a beach, and I treated it without too much attention to accurately reproducing the image, the emergence of an abstract image was what I was looking for. One of the beauties of ivory is the warm colour and the texture of the growth rings which are just visible on close inspection, so I wanted to leave some of the natural colour.

The paint is oil paint – other media may work, but this was my choice for this piece. Using a small pointed brush, I used the paint quite thinly, and found I could scratch out areas with the edge of a tiny screwdriver, but the paint does stain. There is more experimenting I can do using solvents I think. This is not really cleanly done, don’t look too closely! But I enjoyed the experiment, learned a lot and will do it again.

The ruler is included in the photo to give a sense of scale.

Oil paint on ivory piano key, 4.7 cm x 2.2 cm (1 ⅞ x ⅞ in)

Author: anna warren portfolio

I draw, I paint, I am a printmaker. Always searching for the interesting detail in the world around me.

22 thoughts

  1. I can see this as an extension of your jewellery paintings. Knowing that it is antique ivory gives it even more specialness and of course value-adds to your already beautiful and unique composition. It is a gorgeous piece.


    1. Now there’s an idea! I really hadn’t thought of the jewellery angle, but it could be a good one. I would have to work out a way to make the painted surface more durable though, at the moment the paint could quite easily be flaked off. Thank you Julie – you always have an interesting take!


  2. I recently took on the challenge of painting with watercolours on a wood panel over absorbent ground. It was a fiddly, scary process, and you have my admiration for the results you’ve achieved on the piano key.


    1. I can imagine – painting on wood with watercolour could be an interesting experience with the paint sinking in, but I’m sure it was beautiful in the end. It was the opposite with the piano key, everything sits on the surface. I have seen people use watercolour and it pools on it, so needs a different kind of management. Thank you for commenting!


  3. Exquisite Anna ! Your painting has translated so well onto the surface of this little piano key . Your palm frond shadows seem to have elements of spiky thistle leaves such as sea holly . Love blues and greens !


  4. Beautiful! You keep coming up with incredible ideas Anna. I too like Julie’s idea of pushing it into a jewelry line…. always a good angle!


  5. I love this. I’ve never heard of painting piano keys before but what a wonderful idea. Given the season I was thinking that they could also be used as very luxe decorations. I’d love something similar on my Christmas tree


    1. I am constantly looking for ways to present artwork other than in frames – I think that is a great idea! Someone suggested one of my hanging paper sculptures could work as a special Christmas decoration. I think I need to put more thought into this area! Thanks Leonie.


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