Sunday, July 10, 2011

How some things happen

This morning, early, *sigh* for once the cats didn't wake me first.  I had a typical Xan-style dream (a roof-top gathering place, half-covered by a net, full of people; a seagull takes a dive down to steal something, and gets caught by the net; meanwhile, a camel is brushing off its young with a concrete block, and I remark on its opposable thumb, then say, "Hm, that's odd.  Camels just have two main toes ... this is a dream." But my sister doesn't really believe me - what has two toes, after all??)  As I surfaced from this dream, I also saw a murky image, which I tried to pin down without smashing.  In minutes, I was grabbing up clothes from the unused exercise machine, stepping over a sleeping dog, and padding out to my studio.

In a sleepy fever, I cleared my painting table, rounded up a plastic lid to use as an extra pallet (since my big pallet is already covered with paint for my other painting), unwrapped a new 8x10 gessoed panel, wrestled open a few tubes of paint, and mixed up a murky greenish mess with matte medium and some water.  Choosing my widest soft brush, I covered the surface with a translucent wash, then worked back the other direction to more or less even it out.  It's going to take more than one wash for this thing in my head.  The first one is drying now.  I thought I'd catch this in progress for you (and me, since I probably won't remember what I did by next week!)

*checking*  It's still drying.

So, this is what I'm vaguely planning:  First a layer or more of a grey-green over the whole thing.  Over that, a dirty layer of burnt (or raw?) umber, translucent and grubby (maybe sponged a bit?)  Once that's set, more with the burnt (or raw?) umber, to indicate a stone wall about 1/3 of the way down, running straight across.  By the way, that's terrible composition.  I wonder if it will work.  Below the wall, a sort of weedy bare ground, and in the lower right corner, a young dog facing off to the right.  It's standing in profile, still but not passive, looking at something we can't see.

That's it.  It's a very moody thing, grainy, dark, and badly composed.  Ah, the Artistic Vision!  It's like love; you don't always get to choose, but woe unto you if you spurn, it or even embrace it.  Joy and the other thing, in equal measures.


Okay, another layer is drying.  I thought I'd describe a little bit about the systems I've evolved to make my work easier.  Some of it is really idiosyncratic, but some of it might come in handy, if you have similar challenges.

A lot of utility crammed in that corner!
I've managed to accrue two art tables, originally designed for drafting.  One is a heavy thing made of tubular metal with legs you can raise and lower, if you're strong and supple, or have a helping hand.  I usually do it by loosening the knobs, crouching under it, and pressing up with my back 'til I think I have what I want then trying to get the knobs tight before it shifts back down.  It's hard to get even.  I love that table, though, and have dragged it all over California and now up here to Washington.  I don't paint on that one anymore.  It's big, and the surface is white plastic laminate.  Lots of real estate to lay out all my paints, brushes and so forth.  I put it to my right, with its near corner meeting my other drafting table.  That one is a much lighter-weight wooden construct, which I've attached a strip of wood to to keep things from rolling off its tilted surface.  I usually keep my current set of tools in a metal tray on the right corner, close to my pallet, which stays flat over on my white table.  The wooden table stands on top of my 3-drawer flat file, which gives it standing height, and someplace to put my flat file!

Glass pallet, lined with clear plastic,
with sponges to keep it all damp.
I have a sheet of glass I've been using as a pallet for awhile.  It was from a frame, and I had no way to dull the edges, so I just covered them with duct tape.  Laid on the white table, it makes an easy-to-clean surface with lots of room.  I've recently begun covering that with a layer of clear plastic, usually recycled produce bags, or from other packaging.  By using a wet sponge to wipe all over the glass, then the same wet sponge to smooth the plastic down on the glass, the surface becomes nearly as smooth as the glass, and even easier to clean up when the paint is gone or too dry to re-use; just pull it up and throw it away.  To keep my working colors wet, I place wet sponges strategically on the pallet, and cover the whole thing with a box lid, which I've taped plastic inside of.  The duct tape around the edge of the lid makes a nice seal on the glass surface, too.  With a dab of water on each blob of paint between sessions, this can stay workable for days.  As of this last week, I've also been layering smaller pallets (with colors that didn't fit on the pallet, because I'm working on more than one piece at a time) inside the box lid.  These are plastic lids from food packaging (hate that stuff!), which I then set  on top of the sponges on the main pallet for storage between sessions.

The painting I'm talking about,
on the stay-put mat
Glass pallet, layered up with
two container lid pallets
and sponges
The challenge of how to keep my piece from sliding around on my tilted table has been bothering me for a long time.  I finally figured this one out.  Putting a piece of that rubbery webby stuff sold to keep rugs in place under my canvas or panel is the perfect solution.  I can turn the piece this way and that, move it up or down on the table for easy access to any spot, and it just stays put!  Joy!

The tray I keep my working tools on is handy right in the lower right corner of my painting table.  It keeps the brushes or pencils or what-not from rolling around.  I also keep a damp sponge on it for wiping my brushes dry, or blotting off excess wetness (which is not in this picture because it's doing double duty keeping my extra pallet moist).
Tool tray and wrist wrest
I made a wrist rest from a couple pieces of clear acrylic I picked up somewhere.  It's about 2 1/2" wide, and 1/3" thick, and I've glued a 1" piece of the same stuff to the bottom edge, which holds it up off most of my work.  The other end rests on the top of the table.  I attached some thin craft foam sheet on the parts that touch down, to make it less likely to slide around.  It works great: it's wide enough to comfortably support most of my hand and even my forearm, yet clear, so it doesn't interfere visually too much, nor cast much of a shadow.

Speaking of shadows, lighting is all-important.  I can tell you this from long experience of trying hard to make do with kerosene lamps (life off the grid!), fluorescent bars flickering dimly high overhead (trying to work in a storage cubicle - strictly illegal!), and even with regular desk lamps (borrowing my sister's kitchen table).  In my present set-up (life back on the grid!), I have 3 heavy-duty extendable lamps with daylight bulbs attached to the wall above my painting table, which I can crane around to light things in various directions (great for trying to work around the glare of wet paint or shiny graphite layers).  You may guess from the picture that my painting table used to be over to the left a couple feet.  When I got my two long folding tables (yeay, Craigslist!), that sort of threw things off a bit.


It's now going on 11am.  I've put down 4 or 5 layers of this murky green (cobalt green deep, raw umber and a dab of white, mixed with matte medium).  It's a little darker than I had in mind, so I might lighten it up with a glaze of white, which will have the added effect of blurring out the brush strokes.  I'm always trying to pull pet hairs out of my paintings (I need a maid and pet groomer!), but for this one, after an initial cringe, I decided to leave "dirty".  There are several hairs embedded in the paint, but I think that's okay for this sort of moody, grungy vision.  I'm going to go in over that with a really thin wash of burnt umber (it's redder than raw umber), keeping it dirty.  I might use a sea sponge to stipple it randomly.  The two main colors - red and green - are opposites on the color wheel, "complimentary", which can have a lot of energy next to each other, or can mix to just become gray.  Layering translucently will give a sort of tension to the overall effect (I hope), without clashing, since both versions of the colors are toned way down.  Let's see how it goes ....


Well, urk.  That was sort of scary.  The white I overworked a bit, so it got smeary and draggy ... so I just kept working it until I was okay with the smeariness.  Let that dry, then mixed up my burnt umber with some raw sienna to bump up the red 'til it got closer to the dreamy image in my head.  Keeping it very thin, with medium and water, I brushed that all over the panel, catching yet more hairs (I did remove a few).  While it was still wet, I tried my sea sponge, and didn't like that at all, so I re-brushed it, which made it smeary, but which I was beginning to like.  I wanted to try splattering some of the brown mixture on, but I couldn't find my trusty toothbrush-paintbrush, so I decided to see if I could use a stencil brush.  It has stiff, coarse bristles, which I just touched to the water's surface before dabbing in my paint.  Augh!!  Too much water came puddling out right in the middle of the board.  I took my flat sponge, and dabbed at it, and sort of liked that texture, so I dabbed the whole thing.  The edges are taking on a deeper tone than the center, which is good.  I should have planned it that way!  Further experimentation with the stencil brush was not successful, so I raided my housecleaning supplies for another old toothbrush (yes, I do occasionally clean house!)  That worked.  Now my panel is pretty murky and grungy (that's it way above, on the stay-put mat).  I might sponge in more around the edges with my flat sponge, actually.  It needs more red, though.  Hm.


Yuck.  Ugly phase.  Well, it was never going to be a "pretty" painting, but it's not conforming to my vision.  *funk*  I'm going to leave it alone for a bit.


It's now Sunday evening, and I've lost my juice for this piece.  The wall came out way too big, and I messed up the weedy foreground.  The dog is alright, but it's a bit too distinct and formal or something.  Since my grey-green mixture is all gone, I'll have to basically start over on this one.  Maybe next Sunday.

Well, I hope that was an interesting ride for you all.  Or that you got something of practical use out of the studio set up description.  I will leave you with photographic evidence demonstrating why I have so much pet hair in my work.  These are two of the six reasons:
Wabi and Brilly
They don't shed.  They're greyhounds.

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