The materials an artist uses are often the driver of creativity.
I recently bought a small travel box of 12 watercolor half-pans by Lukas, a German brand, on a whim and on sale. My rationalization was the obvious — it can be easily carried in a pocket and I can add color to my drawings. I already carry a small Muji blank paper notepad and keep drawing pads at home for free doodling. I am a lifelong doodler, drawing on whatever paper is at hand. I collect pens and pencils for drawing and I’m constantly testing new ones. Out of my studio, watercolor is just another way to keep my hand and head in the game.
Before NY Central Art Supply closed last year, I bought a Caran d’Ache pencil holder only to discover that 3mm leads are not readily available in the USA. I had to order online after a long search. I now receive daily announcements from Amazon for other lead pencil products. I already own various watercolor paper pads, wc brushes, wc pencils and crayons, old wc tubes, and liquid wc inks, bamboo pens, and refillable markers. I bought an additional set of Lukas watercolors in tubes (on sale) for home use. I like using watercolor paints, but I’m often disappointed when the color dries dull. Adding color has already begun to effect, and revitalize my drawings.
This winter I painted on paper. I purchased 100 sheets of a 140lb. cotton rag paper, “Madison,” 22x36” from Artists & Craftsmen Supply in Brooklyn. It took a week to be delivered, after their truck broke down. I stopped painting on canvas when winter weather set in. Working large scale was out of the question. Acrylic paint won’t spread, flow, or dry properly when the temperature is below 50 degrees in my studio. The windows are drafty, even with plastic sheeting covering them, and the heater is inadequate for the space. It is cold and damp and dim, except on days when there is direct sun from the southern exposure. Besides, I had used up 10 gallons of gel medium so another method would have to be found to continue painting.
Painting on paper was my workaround plan. I might be able to paint with thinned-out color using hot water from the tap. I had no specific idea of what I wanted to do, but I’m comfortable working on paper, and thought I should give myself permission to try out different ideas. I try to work freely to see what happens, until something sparks and catches fire, if anything.
Madison is a fairly versatile paper and the first dozen paintings were worked using familiar methods. Slowly I realized that my favored orientation, vertical, didn’t necessarily apply. This paper is six inches longer (than the standard 22x30” I’m used to) and horizontal has now become the preferred format.
I have about 40 small 8 oz. squeeze bottles of disperse pigments purchased years ago from Art Guerra. Originally, I used them to make my own watercolors with the addition of gum arabic. It worked, but I put them aside to keep in reserve. Now I’m determined to use what I have, not to ration art supplies but to go for broke. Which is not just a cliche´—art supplies are increasingly expensive and often irreplaceable. To use the dispersions, I would simply add water to pigments and paint like watercolors. This works well but dry powder pigment is left on the surface, which needs to be fixed, like dry pastel. This problem was solved by applying a light varnish coat or alternately, by sealing the surface with additional layers of paint. Lately, I’ve been looking at Golden’s flow colors, which are thin and fluid (designed for air brush) and flow like liquid watercolors but dry permanently thereby avoiding the pigment dispersion problem.
Using water-thinned colors caused another problem. The paper ripples or curls and paint puddles from uneven application and drying time. Watercolorists often tape the edges of their paper to prevent this. I sometimes use a heat gun to assist with the drying. In time, I began to see the ripples and rivers as properties of paper that I could exploit for new painting possibilities. Thin layers of color would settle in the depressions as the paper would actively become part of the painting, no longer being just background support.
Additionally, I began using plastic sheeting to block out areas. Wet liquid paint would bleed under the sheeting to create capillaries and sediment flows of color. I soon learned to enjoy and exploit those effects of pigment and wet paper, and see it as another way of drawing and painting.
I have now painted on all the paper purchased last October. It feels like a good run, although the task before me is to sort out the duds from the best, and to repaint, fix, rescue, and solve what I can. Martin Hoogasian says there are no duds, only work in progress.
I have also been painting on Sumi-E rice papers. I have two pads saved from Pearl Paint. I simply paint the rice paper all over with “leftover” colors from the bottom of the paint buckets. They dry overnight and I give some a second coat. With repeated thin layers, the rice paper becomes plasticized from the acrylic washes. I don’t know yet exactly how I will use them. They are materials meant for use in future paintings or painted collages, or used in some manner I have not yet invented.
Since moving to NYC in 1976, I regularly went to Canal Street to Pearl Paint and to the plastic stores, as well as Utrecht Paint on 4th Avenue, NY Central Supply, and Soho Art Supply. I had little money to buy art supplies, but I could search for sales bargains, closeouts, underpriced or miss-marked items. Periodically, I visited Art Guerra’s storefront in the East Village to look at his pigment dispersion chart and samples and to talk with Art. I always liked looking at art materials and tools, which often provoked new ideas. What I saw in those art stores stacked on shelves and buried under piles in bins, kept my imagination percolating.
I stockpiled what I could and rationed paint, which led to many experiments trying to extend paint with fillers and additives. I kept every drawing and painting and reused or overpainted canvas and paper, including scraps. I worked with old Bocour acrylics, Golden Paints, Liquitex, Utrecht, and student grade off-brands. I have acrylic paint in tubes, squeeze bottles, pint jars, quarts, and gallons. As a student, at Cranbrook, I shared acrylic medium from a 55 gallon barrel of Rhoplex. Now gel costs over $60 a gallon. I try to buy seconds from Golden Artist Colors.
Painting is a material pursuit and I give much thought to the supplies at hand. The look and feel of the painting results from the quality of materials employed to expressive ends.