Art & Music: Painting Ukuleles

Mental wellness is important, more so now during these stressful times. Art and music have tremendous therapeutic virtues, and I’ve always advocated tapping into them for a rewarding “pick me up”. You’ll feel so much better after a stressful day… it’s always worked for me 🙂 So during the couple of months, I ordered some art supplies and turned a soprano ukulele into my canvas. It was well received and spawned a whole collection.

I haven’t worked with acrylic in years but wanted to create a Britto x stained glass effect which would look cheerful and hearty. So purchasing a new ukulele, I taped off the sides and started sketching out my design. Once the pencil markings were in place, I was mindful in planning the colours so I wouldn’t end up with say, the same shade of blue side by side. Once the paint dried overnight, I applied several coats of clear varnish to seal it in. One tip though: the paint shouldn’t go on too thick. It dries patchy.

Then purchasing a teeny tiny sopranissimo ukulele online (shipping took forever due to the pandemic), I decided to paint something using dots. That was surprisingly meditative, since I wanted to make sure they were the right size. The resulting design reminds me of Australian aboriginal art!

Some other customisations besides the recipient’s name, was his favourite card (King of Clubs) on the headstock. I thought it was a nicer touch than simply sticking the actual card inside the instrument since the sound hole of this particular ukulele is pretty small. This sopranissimo now resides somewhere in New York City 🙂

Next up… something Asian inspired. I’d seen some cloisonné work on a random Facebook ad, so I went with that. I really liked the glint of gold against the mahogany wood. This one’s a bit of a “wabi sabi” because the weather turned when the ukulele was drying out after the varnish was sprayed, and I didn’t bring it in quick enough so there was a bit of smudge in the blue area. So lesson learnt… that’s another thing to be mindful about!

This was a fun one to paint. You can probably guess, it was for a big Studio Ghibli fan. Picking a pineapple shaped ukulele instead of the traditional figure eight bout was a good choice; it gives Totoro and his friends a bit more space and breathing room. It now resides in the Netherlands.

One of my dearest friends really loves elephants so I surprised him with this special ukulele, which now hangs in his apartment in Wales. As you can tell from the trees, I was getting a tad more adventurous. I really liked how the artwork came out, and painting the instrument black helped make the colours pop.

My childhood friend, who lives in Canada with her husband and their adorable fur-kid, was feeling overwhelmed with her work in healthcare… understandably so, no thanks to COVID-19. So after our video chat, I created this to make her laugh. This hilarious uke is now in Toronto.

This is the last artwork I painted, based on The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai. As you know, the original was actually a woodblock. So it seems rather apt, this coming full circle, with the iconic painting on this wooden instrument. Like before, painting the ukulele black really helped make the colours pop. It’s now displayed in an office here in Switzerland 🙂

I don’t think I’ll paint anymore ukuleles for now as they’re really REALLY time consuming, but I do know of professionals who paint these and sell these lovely artworks for a pretty dollar on places like Etsy. So if you’re seeking one, you can always look there. Oh yeah, before I sign off, here’s one more tip if you’re thinking of doing this: invest in a string winder. They aren’t expensive at all and using one really helps speed things up (i.e. removing the strings to paint, and then putting them back after).

Righty, all this talk about ukuleles is making me want to pick up my instrument and play. Ciao for now!

Picture of ning
Ning Cai is a Singapore Literature Prize nominated author, who was also long listed for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2016. A bestselling writer, she is also recognised for her illusionist/ escapologist stage character Magic Babe Ning, and recognised by Channel News Asia as South East Asia's first professional female magician.

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