Thursday, October 14, 2010

Artist Tips #1: Media

In my lifetime, I have painted with darned near everything meant to be used as paint. I've used automotive lacquer, industrial enamel, vinyl paint, fabric ink, dye, water colour, gouache, pastel, acrylic and oil - and probably a few I've forgotten about.

These days I paint exclusively in oils but they do have the issue of the foul aroma and messy clean up with turpentine so it's understandable why a lot of people don't begin their art journey with oil paint.

A lot of beginners do seem to start out with water colour and I've never really understood why. Other than the ease of cleaning up, since water colour remains water-soluble so will always wash out of brushes, I'm not certain why it enjoys such mass appeal to people starting out. Water colour washes are transparent so once a mistake occurs, it's virtually impossible to fix as it continues to show through subsequent layers. Even after decades of using all manner of media, I shy away from water colour as it requires an organised approach for the best results. It actually adds a level of difficulty that beginners don't need.

Gouache is basically water colour with chalk added. It shares the benefit of easy-clean-up but because it is far more opaque, it is somewhat more forgiving than water colour. However, because it always remains water soluble, heavy handed attempts to re-work existing layers of paint can soon lead to "mud". Still, I'm tempted to give gouache a serious go one of these days.

In my opinion, acrylic paints are among the best media for beginners. There is a range of opaque and translucent colours and they wash up with water but dry waterproof. There is a huge range of additives which will extend the qualities of acrylic paints. There are thickeners that allow for heavy impasto work, reducers that add water-colour-like qualities, retarders to slow the drying time, crackle mediums to make instant "ancient" paintings and more.

So when I first started in fine art, acrylic was my medium of choice. I'd used hundreds of litres of the stuff as a muralist and signwriter so I had a firm grip on its strengths and weaknesses, including the fact that a lot of colours will dry significantly darker than you might expect.

Acrylic paints certainly aren't without their problems and the worst one will bite every acrylic painter one day. The fast drying time, combined with acrylic's waterproof quality, means that your brushes are in constant peril. If you put a brush down with paint on it - and forget about it - then that brush might well be destined for the bin. There are cleaning products that will help recover such a brush (methylated spirits will do it if you catch the problem early enough) but it will never be the same.

IMPORTANT: Sable brushes and acrylic paint should never share the same space unless you're meticulously organised, or rich. I'd recommend some of the vast range of synthetic brushes for most acrylic work.

In my experience brushes have to be regularly flushed in a large jar of water while painting and thoroughly cleaned with soapy cold water (not warm or hot) when finished.

For the plein air (outdoor) artist, acrylics pose another problem. Any slight breeze, especially on a warm day, will constantly dry the paint on the palette. It's a genuine frustration on the worst days as it starts to feel like you're painting with clay, or sand.

To get around this problem, I made myself a non-drying palette. This is very simple and worked better than I'd anticipated.

I used a clear plastic kitchen container about 25-30cm square and 5-7cm deep. I cut a chamois-like dish cloth (the soft, slightly-furry kind) to fit the bottom of the tray and a sheet of grease-proof (baking) paper to sit on top of this.

I carried water in a large bottle and added a little to the tray before starting to paint. The trick is to get the cloth just wet enough that no water is slopping around. Then I'd set out my colours on the baking paper. The sides of the container help to reduce the effects of a light breeze and the wet cloth keeps the paper palette cool and moist. If things got too messy, I'd tear off a new sheet of paper (I carried a small roll with me) and lay it over the top and keep painting. On very hot days, a spray bottle is a handy addition to help prevent the whole thing drying out. 

When I was finished, I'd pop the lid on the container and the paint would still be useable when I got home. The paper palette is disposed of and the cloth rinsed out and dried for next time.

IMPORTANT: Don't leave the wet cloth stored in the sealed container. I learned that rule the hard way - it isn't pretty!

I used jar colours, rather than tube colours because, at the time, they represented much better value. The problem is that it's easy for things to get messy if you work directly from the jars. One day you're going to dip the blue brush into the yellow jar then kick yourself silly. Also, every time you open the jar, you expose the paint to fresh air and I've found that the paint can thicken over time and there is always an annoying buildup of dried paint on the jar thread - and it seems to like jumping into the jar at every oppoortunity.

To solve this problem, I purchased a couple of dozen small squeeze bottles. I scooped colours into separate bottles with popsticks then resealed the jars. I even made some pre-mixed colours which was often a great time saver. Old film canisters offer an alternative (if you can find them these days). They weren't quite as handy as the squeeze bottles but were excellent if I wanted to use large washes as I could add a retarder medium and water to the container and use them almost like ink.

I haven't used these bottles for years but many still have perfectly useable paint in them. Of course, if you're using tubes, a lot of these problems are already solved for you. My only suggestion there would be to squeeze the tube before putting the lid back on to minimise the amount of air inside.

In my early days, I painted exclusively on quality canvas boards. They made life easy. These days it seems like every second shop is selling either canvas boards or stretched canvases for next to nothing. It would be hard to beat them for learning with.

So there's my thoughts on acrylic paint, the perfect beginner's medium - well, it was until they invented water-mixable oils... :)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Ellis House Community Art Centre

The year was 1999 and at a tender 38 years of age, I joined the Bayswater Art Society. Since the early '80s, I'd worked as an airbrush artist decorating custom painted vehicles, an illustrative signwriter painting massive murals on city buildings and billboards and later, through to the late '90s, as a graphic artist and illustrator. In all that time I never really tried my hand at painting for painting's sake, it was always a commercial enterprise where the client dictated the subject.

I still recall the night I went along to my first art society meeting. I sat outside in my car, watching people arrive as I tried to decide if this was for me (I don't like change, and this was something new). Eventually I convinced myself I had to see what it was about and I ventured inside. I was warmly welcomed by the members and thoroughly enjoyed the night, which included a demonstration by a practising artist.

I also met Derna Johnson, a wonderful artist especially renowned for her paintings of fairy wrens and poppies and a pocket rocket of a lady who soon took me under her wing and guided me through the Western Australian art scene. In my early fine art days, she would critique my paintings for me and it was always valuable advice. As I began to develop my own style, Derna steered me toward worthwhile exhibitions and galleries. She also introduced me to the WA Society of Arts where I met more amazing artists. Before I knew it, I was being invited to stand in front of the membership of both societies and demonstrate my skills! I hadn't envisaged any of this just a few years earlier when I tossed up if fine art was for me or not.

I owe a huge part of my subsequent art success to Derna's inspiration, encouragement and guidance.

When I left Perth in 2003, Derna had just taken on a project for the City of Bayswater to turn historic Ellis House into an art centre. I doubt anyone at the council could have foreseen what lay in store but they were in for a treat. Derna is visionary and doesn't do things by halves.

Built in the early 1900's, Ellis House is located near the Swan River at 116 Milne Street, Bayswater. It was the first dairy farm in the Bayswater district but by the mid 1990’s it had  fallen to neglect and vandalism. In 1995 it was refurbished by the City of Bayswater and later they publicly invited ideas for future use.

My wife Janet and I dropped in to see Derna and a few of my old art friends during a trip to Perth a few months ago and it was clear that she and her band of volunteers have created an icon, a paradise. Ellis House today is a thriving art centre with ongoing exhibitions and a growing membership of artists and friends. It is an eastern suburbs hub for artists and art lovers and just a delightful place to spend time. If you're in the area, or have the time to get there, go and take a look, you'll be glad you did.

 (Photos courtesy of Ellis House)

Earlier this week I received a couple of emails from Derna and discovered that she's been undergoing chemotherapy. My heart sank but in typical Derna style, this was an enthusiastic message of her good health and projects she's taken on to help other cancer sufferers. Derna always knows how to make lemonade out of lemons.

I called and asked her if she could have a chat with her doctor and get him to extract just a little of her drive and enthusiasm, then bottle it and market it. I want to be first in line.

One of Derna's projects is a list of tips for chemo patients, drawn from her own experiences of learning the hard way. I've asked her if I can share it with my readers and hope to put it here soon, once she's ready for it to go public. I don't think she'll mind if I share the first and possibly most important tip with you now though:

"Trust your doctor and his medical team, they know far more than we do, a whole lot more!"

Thanks Derna. Look forward to seeing you again soon!