Old Tom - Fiberskyn 3

Ladies and gentleman, this cat pee'd on my new banjo

I got a banjo for my birthday this year, a sturdy new openback Pilgrim for picking in the garden.

Not long after, I spent a whole day playing "where IS that cat pee smell coming from?" before I worked out that Somebody had taken a whizz on my new 'jo. I blame the strapping big unsnipped feral tom we keep in the garden for rat control. It was too mighty a stink for any lesser beast. We don't have any wolverines in England.

Anyway, I'm going to take it as a compliment.

There you go. I'd been meaning to try drawing on a banjo head, and here was my golden opportunity.

This is my starting point -- a little pencil drawing I did years ago of my old tabby tom Damien, may he rest in peace (or whatever. He just hit the road one day. There were sightings of him all over the neighborhood for weeks).


I scanned the drawing and flipped it (it works better facing the other way). I spent a little computer time playing with the position on an 11" circle, more for size than exact placement.

Then I printed it out. I have an ordinary A4 home printer — that's the Euro size closest to the US 8.5"x11" — so a full 11" round head design didn't quite fit, but it doesn't matter. All I need are the main structural landmarks, so I made sure the face was in the sweet spot.

Next, I hacked the corners off the drawing so it would move around freely and lightly attached a couple of pieces of tape. Then I flipped it over, held it up against a strong light and shifted the drawing around until I was happy with the position, and pressed the tape on firmly.

pencil sketch of a cat's head

Using a window as a light box, I made a faint pencil outline of just the most important landmarks. I wanted as few pencil marks as possible, because I wasn't sure how well everything was going to stick and didn't want to risk using an eraser on the final artwork. (In the end, I did use an eraser on a couple of spots, and the drawing took the abrasion without a problem).

Next for ink. Ideally, I would have liked to start in an inconspicuous place toward the edge of the design and worked there until I got used to the feel of this combination of pen and surface. This was my first time inking a banjo head, after all. But this image very much radiates outward from the eye, so I really had to start at the pupil and work outwards.

I did have some idea what it felt like to work this surface — I experimented with a number of different pens along the edges of the head, where it would ultimately be hidden by the tension hoop. I tried any number of finepoint Sharpies and other fancy art markers, but good old India ink handled the best, looked the best and stuck on the best.

In the end, I used India ink, one crowquill nib (a very fine dip pen nib) and a small brush. The brush allowed me to make some thick lines and "pools" of black, without which an ink drawing can look a little scratchy and bitsy.

Click here to see the first lines going down. You can make out the pencil under-drawing and the reference mark for the bridge.

You can also see a bit of the Remo logo. I drew this image on two different Fiberskyn heads, one made in the States and the other probably made in the East. I tried to scrub the logos off using acetone nail polish remover, with about 10% success on the US head and 60% success on the other. In the end, I just drew over the logo. It isn't too distracting on this design.

pencil sketch of a cat's head

I think I spent about six hours on the ink. Finally, I touched the highlights in the eyes with a waterbased white paint, to make them pop. A couple of days to dry and set, and then I sprayed several coats of acrylic fixative over the top. I used a good quality spray fixative intended for pastels, because it's reasonably tough and waterproof, but dries to a matte finish.

I did this same drawing on two different banjo heads, on account of I am stupid. I didn't want to put my new banjo out of commission while I did the artwork, so I bought a new head to draw on. I'm a bluegrass player, so I just ordered up an 11" head without thinking. Yep. It takes a 10.5". I almost had it on the banjo before I worked that out.

I broke down and did the drawing again on the head it came with, which means the original pee'd-upon head made it back on the banjo. A little extra helping of authenticity. The second came out nearly identical to the first (hey, that doesn't always happen).

Here's a (large) pic of the first banjo head. The blue oval is a thumbprint; I often sign artwork with a thumbprint. I think it looks neat, though I've ruined my potential life of crime. I decided I didn't like the blue and I don't have a black stamp pad, so I skipped it on the second head. Pity. I think it would have looked cool hidden in all that cat fur.

Above and between the eyes, you'll notice a dark patch. I didn't like the way that part was coming out and I scrubbed the ink off and redid it. If you catch it right away, a damp paper towel with break up the ink and take most of it off, but (on Fiberskyn anyway) it leaves a stain. This doesn't look too awful, but I wouldn't recommend doing a lot of it. After 24 hours, the ink seems to set completely and nothing but abrasion gets to it. Here's a large image of the second head, the one that ended up on the banjo. I placed the image a touch higher and farther forward, to move the eye away from the bridge a little more.

Feel free to give this design a try, if you like. Goodness knows, I've drawn it three times now myself.

Mountain banjo heads were traditionally made of skinned cats. My father told me that when I was little; I thought he was just trying to make me cry. But no. It's true. We gave a hillbilly a housecat once :(
Link: Remo Fiberskyn 3 heads