Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Landscapes: Acrylic vs Oil

I took my acrylics to the field. I went to a highway about three exits down the freeway, took a less traveled road up the hills, parked the truck by a small tree by the road and looked down. There was no path and no way to walk beyond the road's edge unless I wanted to roll. So I went to three other roadside sites before I settled under a large, moribund bush, hidden from the high speed cars. It was noon and everything cast a sharp shadow. Hungry cows mooed near the creek I was certain existed down the canyon. Cyclists held their loud dialogues, oblivious to my presence. Another bush obstructed my view, but by now I had realized this was the best view I could hope for.

Acrylic paint dries ultra fast, if all you've been using is oil for the past five years. Yet I was determined not to spend hours "...trying to breathe 'life', to breathe 'resonance' into an otherwise rather impersonal 'plastic'," in the words of Mark Jacobson. I had made my peace with acrylic in college, during assignments that forced me to start and finish a painting in a day. My issue was simply finishing in a period of two hours, and wresting with the lavender hill in the middle, which refused at all costs to yield the secret of its personality. I would have had this same struggle (or perhaps a worse one) had I been using oils, I reasoned. In the end I finished a satisfactory version of what I saw in my studio.

Earlier that week, I had been to the very familiar park behind my house, walked a few minutes past the gate, and found myself at the top of a small hill overlooking a path leading (where else?) into another creek. It was noon or shortly after noon, and I was wearing my polarized lenses, hemp hat, and paint-stained shirt, looking exactly like those excentric middle-aged ladies I avoided in art school. It was windy and dry. Wasps had decided to check out my palette and I was so busy trying to tie a rock to my aluminum easel that I did not see the dog walker who slowly, subrepticiously, crept up to take a peek. She said hi. I said nothing, pretending I hadn't heard. Wasn't my look eccentric enough? I waved and she got the message. After taking one last good look, she walked away and I went back to the business of landscape worship. In this painting the only struggle was the combination of wind and dryness conspiring to prevent adequate color mixing. I was trying to keep in mind the words of Brad Faegre: "Time is not the enemy with acrylics. Think of the fast-drying characteristics of the medium as an invitation to paint and repaint, until you see something you like."

Friday, August 24, 2007


"I've been 40 years discovering that the queen of all colors was black." Auguste Renoir

"Black is not a color." Edouard Manet

"Without black, no color has any depth. But if you mix black with everything, suddenly there's shadow - no, not just shadow, but fullness. You've got to be willing to mix black into your palette if you want to create something that's real."
Amy Grant

Do you use black? From time to time, I hear new and experienced painters alike discuss the use (or rejection) of the oldest pigment known to mankind. Its ability to absorb light and affect other pigments determines whether an artist will avoid it completely, limit it to the darkest areas, or add it anytime dark hues are required. Just for fun, I've summarized my recall of various painterly responses to the question:

"I use prussian blue instead," an abstract painter confided rather distractedly, as she worked on a huge piece. A pigment like like ivory black will "muddy" all colors it is mixed with, she explained, and after a minute, added: "Substituting it with another very dark (but true) pigment like prussian blue will darken the mix without giving it a sooty appearance." I asked why did she want to avoid muddy colors in her line of work, but she just shrugged. Her paintings do not look sooty at all.

A portrait painter was much more specific: "Oh, I use it, but only where I want to depict absolute and total darkness. I do not mix it with other colors, I use it pure. You see, for years I "made" black by mixing other pigments, for example cadmium yellow with alizarin crimson and ultramarine blue, then I realized I could achieve a more intense effect by using mars black straight out of the tube and I've never gone back since." True to his word, his portraits did not have muddy colors either.

So far I've been using terms like sooty and muddy, without thinking of our non-artist readers. What do artists mean when they use such words? Without going into a scholarly foray into color theory (if you want it, here is Bruce McEvoy's) they mean that the addition of black will cause a pigment to lose some of its chromaticity, or its ability to stimulate the eye with its original wavelength. Think of the colors in a painting covered in grime from freeway exhaust.

I have a dear friend who paints murals on fabric. He says the public does not really care, for as long as the values contribute to the illusion of volume. He mixes black freely with other colors and this robs them of their brilliance, but at the same time, black brings so much drama to his rendering of tri-dimensional, everyday objects that it is hard to picture his work in say, prussian blue.

My own relationship with black as a pigment has developed by stages. I was forbidden to use it at the Art Students' League and while studying fine arts in college. Towards the end of my B. A. one of my professors said I was "finally ready," but I did not find myself squeezing the tube until a decade later, and only in the limited way of my portrait painter colleague. I still avoid mixing it with other colors, preferring instead to intensify contrasts once my oil or acrylic paintings are almost finished.

I use prussian blue with watercolors. I paint outdoors a lot, and there's someting about the way a carbon-based pigment looks on paper (tremendously sooty) that discourages its use, even in pure form as an accent for the darkest darks. When prussian blue proves too heavy-handed for shade, I resort to cobalt or ultramarine blue layers, seldom mixed with other colors. If I ever use lamp black, it is with a lot of restraint, as a way to highlight the absolute darkness one may ocassionally encounter in nature.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Model Power

That it was an honour to be Sickert's model I had no doubt.Nevertheless, I had sufficient experience of this form of service to look forward to the next few hours without enthusiasm. I was standing; I had no book, my legs would ache abdominably after a time; it would be a long business and thoroughly uncomfortable. Vanessa Bell

Painting human subjects is a polarized experience for me; I paint non-models, people who are not professional models, as well as very experienced (professional) models. The non-models come to drawing sessions at the Richmond Art Center. I hire non-models, usually laborers seeking work near a hardware store not far from my house. I forget a third category: family members, and I think of them as a separate category because most have posed for me several times and are therefore more experienced ("When is my break?,"demanded my then nine-year-old niece).

The non-models are usually Latino men and women. Most have no idea of what modeling entails, but are happy to sit and get paid for it, as the work they normally do is very hard work. Just like professional models, they are very accomodating, too much perhaps, to the point where I must help them find positions that are easier to hold for the contracted time. Most have never sat for such a long time without an activity to pursue, and they tend to underestimate what it will take to keep their mind entertained for such long periods of time (we do have breaks every half an hour). I chat to keep their mind engaged and alert, or they fall asleep otherwise. They are tired from the previous workday, and in the case of women, a full workday plus childcare. I do not hold multiple sessions. I paint for as long as we can both can handle it (about four hours), then they sign the release, get paid, and leave.

The professional models in our drawing class do not need directions. Naked, they choose their own poses. Most are quite athlectic and have a repertoire organized by duration in their mind: "Well, I can stay like this for 30 minutes." Completely silent, their minds stay alert by unknown artifices, yet their personalities shine through. A few may look at you but change their gaze when you return the look. Some seem to be going through a personal inventory, their eyes dancing. Others are in a private world, not focused on anything in the room. Several are art students or artists, and others have modeled for so long that their interest in what is being drawn or painted is minimal at best. When they do discuss your art, they do so with both the jargon and ease of someone very familiar with the process: "That's very good work for a 15 minute foreshortened pose."

Non-models may not be familiar with the artist construct, but they are extremely curious about what goes on behind the pad or canvas, taking a look every time they have a break, and feeling free, for the most part, to comment on its progress in a non-evaluative manner: "Ah, I see you got to my hair but it's not finished, right?" They are comfortable asking questions about my life, artistic or more personal. "So why did you get divorced?" or "Why are you an artist?" are favorites. Over the course of our session, they will also share parts of their own life (usually before inmigrating) with me. Men and women alike feel free to share pictures of loved ones, or discuss their current troubles at work. I in turn feel free to answer most of their questions.

At the drawing class during breaks, we may speak with the model. Conversation, both with models and classmates, is mostly limited to three subjects: professional plans, travel, and programmatic changes at our art center. A personal revelation might consist of mentioning the existence of a husband or wife, or becoming specific about what we do for a living. In keeping with the fact that most of us are over forty, only over a long period of knowing one another are more specific subjects explored, e.g. "How long have you been painting?"

At the drawing class, the limits are set by the environment and traditional expectations. I can relax and focus purely on painting. In my studio, I must direct the experience much more than if I worked with a professional model. In some ways this is more tiring and expensive, yet I find the exchange I have with non-models an important part of the process. I have found the conversations essential to my understanding of the undocumented workers; without them my paintings would have a different quality, they certainly would feel more anonymous. As an example, I have my drawing class paintings. Yet these same paintings done in art class help me develop the technical freedom and ease that I try to invoke in my other work.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Automatic Painting

You make a promise to yourself, to paint as much and as frequently as possible. Early on you may have very specific notions of what the production should look like, but these are gradually abandoned through the recognition that you will never have total control over the output. That is, if you are trying to work from the inside to the outside, if you recognize that every image and experience in your daily life, as well as your memories and feelings, have a role in your art. It feels a little overwhelming, but then you decide to ignore this insight and continue painting or drawing, no matter what. Or you may welcome it with open arms and leave the analysis to others, which is what a lot of people do. But if you are to keep your promise, you'll eventually stumble onto automatic painting.

I was in the studio one night and felt drawn to just placing paint on the canvas. I had a large amount of paint left over from another project and so I started applying it on a 12 x 12 square. I didn't want the painting "to be" anything. I had been making automatic drawings for a few days, just for fun, to take a break from representation and its stories. It is a great way to encourage creation. When I finished, I realized I had been painting one of my grandfather's homes. He had been on my mind for several days. I had been watching a slide show of the area where he lived during the fifties, and had been wondering how he and his family survived this difficult period.

Could this be called an automatic painting in the strict sense of the word? I have always engaged in automatic drawing in school, in college, during phone calls, during lectures. Some folks call this "doodling." The difference between doodling and automatic drawing is very small, in my opinion. Doodling is more automatic, than say, standing in front of a canvas seeking some kind of trance. I decided to go with the strict interpretation of this method and pronounce my small painting as not automatic after all. At some point my consciousness took over to "direct" the image arising out of my subconscious:

Hermetists Augustin O. Spare and Frederick Carter would disagree with this strict interpretation: "The Hand must be trained to work freely and without control, by practise in making simple forms with a continuous involved line without afterthought, i.e. its intention should just escape consciousness. Drawings should be made by allowing the hand to run freely with the least possible deliberation. In time shapes will be found to evolve, suggesting conceptions, forms and ultimately having personal or individual style. The mind in a state of oblivion, without desire towards reflection or pursuit of materialistic intellectual suggestions, is in a condition to produce successful drawings of one's personal ideas, symbolic in meaning and wisdom." Here's the link to the complete article.

It only happens if I am in a receptive and open mode, it never takes place when my mind is cluttered with projects, worried, or directed at a single goal. Letting my mind wander always takes me to some relatively unexplored place. I forget about "wasting" art materials. But it certainly feels as if I am standing on less solid ground. There are no goals, and therefore no sense of completion. There is no emerging recognizable image, only the feel of your chosen media. It feels exactly like a breakup with some long-held sacred idea, and this is always healthy.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Painting Solo

Lately, maybe because the good weather beckons, or because everyone else seems to be doing their summer traveling, I've been painting outdoors by myself quite a bit. I might bring watercolors, oils, or more recently, acrylics. My setup is not too complicated. By now I have a system that enables me to get ready in about 15 minutes.

I carry a smallish canvas. If I am doing oils and the canvas is longer than 15 inches on any of its sides, I might attach canvas straps to the stretcher frame to facilitate transport without smearing. This is specially helpful under windy conditions, when oil paintings can be flipped off your hand in a nanosecond. You can attach the straps in "backpack" style. The canvas goes on a plastic and aluminum field easel that weights less than 3 pounds.

There used to be a time when I could sit on the floor for hours at a time. These days, I am happy to cart a variety of lightweight seating gigs, depending on how far away will I walk from my truck. I also enjoy the perspective they provide, otherwise all of my compositions would be done at floor level! I find folding aluminum/canvas seats comfortable and lightweight. They are also cheap. I have one which doubles as a backpack, it's got pockets with zippers for supplies. The straps on this seat bag are flimsy, but I've walked with it without major problems. However, this is not the setup you want if you're cycling to your location. Because of those same flimsy straps, the seat bag tends to sway, destabilizing your moves.

If you're walking more than a couple of miles, or if you're taking your bike, you want a regular backpack with a flap on top to secure your easel and seat tightly against your back. I have an old one that can get smeared with paint. It needs to feel comfortable if you're carrying several bottles of water (as when you use acrylics), and be waterproof if you are carrying watercolor paper. The ones at the art store tend to be too expensive.

When I first began painting solo, my family was concerned because I am female and not built like a wrestling champion. To avoid unwanted human attention, I try to find slightly-out-of-the-way spots where I don't have to worry about who is coming up behind me. I either sit with my back against a tree or fence, or I sit at a spot where I can see who's coming before they see me. Hilltops are great for this. I also began bringing a can of mace and a stick, for the ocassional off leash pit bull I might encounter in the regional park near my home. No problems so far, since considerate owners do not allow their dogs to stick their nose on my palette. There are mountain lions and other critters in these parts, but if I thought about this and other dangers, I would never paint.

My partner insists I take my fully-charged phone, some emergency money, and a first aid kit. I used to laugh it all off, but I've used the kit twice since I began carrying it. Once to help a cyclist who crashed in front of my eyes, and another time to disinfect my punctured fingers (I grabbed some rusty barbed wire). Allergic folks should bring either an epi-pen or their inhaler. Yes, I was stung by a wasp, four miles away from the parking lot. Speaking of insects, during the summer, flea bites seem to be a problem. Carry something for the itch, least you find yourself interrupting your painting every few minutes to scratch.

Nourishment should be a very simple affair. Normally, I take off right after a decent-sized meal. In this way, I will not need to snack for the next three hours. If you do need to snack, take something that comes in its own wrapper and does not need any prepping. Your hands will be full of wet paint, and in any case, you will be too absorbed to even pay attention to the food. Don't forget drinkable water, specially if you are working in very hot weather. It's amazing how time passes when you're distracted, and you could find yourself quite dehydrated simply because you forgot to drink. Or you could have used your drinkable water to paint, which is worse! Chances are your issues will be more with temperature than with thirst.

Take several layers of clothing. Here in the Bay Area, summer fog is preceded by cold wind in the afternoon, but if you live elsewhere, you may have to prepare for either sudden summer showers (flash floods?), or a depleted ozone layer. Wear sunscreen, or better still, a hat, long-sleeves and long pants. Forget the sandals. This is not nineteenth century Aix-en-Provence. If insects don't get to your toes first, they will likely become sunburned, specially at high altitudes.
One more thing: Polarized sunglasses. I cannot say enough good things about them. Mine are progressives, too. Your eyes will rest as you work and color perception is barely affected.

Painting solo can be a most rewarding experience, provided you think of your own comfort and safety before you leave. If you do get started, drop me a note. I'd love to read about your own adventures.