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Baldwin Artists Bring Custom Design Pianos to Life

Russell Hall
Baldwin's Glitz n Glamour piano“If you can dream it, we can build it.”

That’s the motto Baldwin proudly asserts with regard to its custom-designed pianos. It’s an audacious claim, to be sure, but two gifted artists―Darrell Jones and Richard Balfour―help make sure dreams do indeed become a reality.

Before teaming with Baldwin, it’s doubtful Jones ever imagined that he would someday design and apply his art to pianos. Essentially self-taught, the Arkansas native specializes in airbrush art, a technique that allows him to create work of striking photo-realism. Although he didn’t realize it at the time, it was his work with aluminum sheet metal that prepared him for painting pianos.

“I lived in California for about a year,” he explains, “and I saw artists there who would grind a sheet of aluminum to make a background similar to a hologram. I started doing that myself, using automotive paints to paint on them. You grind them, and clear them, and do your artwork, and then re-clear them. They’re really fine art, and more durable than canvas. They make beautiful pieces suitable for hanging in your home. Painting on a hard surface like that made the transition to piano easier.”

A good thing, since the very first projects Jones undertook for Baldwin were particularly demanding. The first piano he helped design was for Big and Rich, and featured lettering that spelled out the words “Love Everybody.” Soon afterwards, Jones painted a Baldwin for use in the film Dreamgirls.

“Once everyone saw the Dreamgirls piano, they understood exactly what I was capable of,” he says. “After that I did some smaller things, some accents on pianos. Then we did what we called the ‘Parisian’―a Paris-themed piano. We did three or four of those, and a couple of them featured evening scenes. The prettiest one was a night scene that showed the Eiffel Tower in full light, with the traffic below. I put extreme detail into my artwork.”

Baldwin's The Zebra pianoAs one would expect, the process of painting a piano is tedious and exacting, with a series of steps involved. Once the artwork design is agreed upon, the challenge centers on implementing that design in such a way that the piano’s moving parts don’t disrupt the flow.

Jones explains: “There are so many pieces on a piano that open. There’s the lid, and the fall, and they have to match. Every time you paint something, it has to flow. When the fall is opened in order to play the piano, you want the design to still exist. We did a tie-dye design, with colors that had to blend and flow into a bull's eye. That design was a huge challenge. You have parts that have to match and mesh in a variety of ways.”

Such challenges notwithstanding, Jones goes on to say there’s no design he would shrink from tackling. He’s especially excited about applying his piano-painting talent to portraits―photo-realistic paintings of actual artists.

“We’ve yet to do one on a piano,” he says, “but I think that’s something that will happen soon. I’ve been wanting to do one that features an image of B.B. King, or maybe another blues artist. It would be great to do something that would be fitting for a blues bar, or a jazz bar, or maybe even for a B.B. King collector.”

Baldwin's Flames pianoAs befits an airbrush artist, Jones’s expertise runs toward strikingly modern designs. Balfour, on the other hand, favors what he refers to as the “classic look.” A painter for more than 50 years, Balfour specializes in pin stripe and gold leaf designs. His "Scroll" work on Baldwin grands exemplifies his personal artistic tastes.

“I’m not really interesting in doing anything that looks too ‘bubblegum,’” he says. “I’m more into the classic sorts of things―chipped glass, gold leaf, and pin stripes.”

As is the case with Jones, Balfour’s background in art prepared him well for the intricate demands of painting pianos. A former owner of an automobile body shop, the 68-year-old has been custom-painting motorcycles and “street rods” all his adult life.

“I can pretty much do anything when it comes to paint,” he says. “Mother-of-pearl inlays, you name it.”

Ironically, a project he tackled years ago directly foreshadowed the work he now does for Baldwin.

Baldwin Walnut Scroll piano“I once painted a piano for Jane Russell, the actress,” he explains. “She was retired from film work by that time. I painted a complete dining room set for her―black, with gold-leaf striping. I ended up striping her piano in gold as well, so it all blended in.”

Whereas the implementation of a design presents the biggest challenge for Jones, Balfour says the most stringent aspect of his work involves timing. Specifically, due to the fact that gold-leaf work involves glue, he’s forever vigilant with regard to drying times.

“A lot of the challenge lies in trying to stay ahead of yourself,” he says. “I sketch things out, and then I stripe them with the glue, and then I go back and put the leaf on. But there's a timing issue involved. If you apply the leaf too soon, it will have wrinkles in it, but if you don't do it quick enough, it won't stick. And that drying time depends on how warm or how cool the environment is.”

Notwithstanding the rigors involved, Balfour enjoys painting pianos so much he's yet to contemplate retirement. In fact, both he and Jones say the satisfaction they derive from their work is like no other.

“To be able to say I’ve worked on something that’s going into the Hard Rock Café, or even to the Nashville airport, is incredibly exciting,” says Jones.

Balfour echoes the sentiment: “Everything you do is a new challenge,” he says. “You have a vision in your head, and you make that vision real. That’s what it’s all about.”

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