Choosing between oil and acrylic paints

agenors-friends1
Agenor’s Friends, acrylic on unstretched canvas, 92 x 86 inches

I was in an art store affixed to a local art school some months ago when a woman walked in asking the store clerk about the difference between oil and acrylic paints.  She was signed up for a class at the school in which you could use any medium. Since she was new to painting, she didn’t know what to choose. Being the busy body helpful person that I am, I considered offering some free advice. But the very complexity of the question put me into a kind of mental paralysis. So I just stood, blank stare, looking like a nosey store mannequin.

Anyone who has used either medium very much knows they are like night and day. I used to play around with acrylics in high school when they were still fairly new as a medium. Back in that era of my artist life, they posed no particular problem since I didn’t know much about paints anyway, my method was “go with the flow.” And to newcomers in the art world, I say take full advantage of the beginner’s mind and beginner’s luck. Nature loves a rookie.

However, after I had spent years and years painting with oil, I took up acrylic paints again because an artist friend was using them to wonderful effect. I got my palette and soon thereafter was ready to pull my hair out for frustration. The big mistake I made was in trying to make them behave like oil paints:  to make them do the things that I could so easily do with oil.  Well, it don’t work that way.

cabbage-and-potatos
Cabbage and Potatoes, oil on paper glued to panel

 

I gave my whole palette to the friend just to get the paint out of my life. Later, though, I bought more acrylics and began to accept that they have their own virtues. In time I made some paintings that I really loved and one painting of which I am especially proud, Agenor’s Friends (top of the post). All that came later of course.

painting-still-life-of-bottles
Still life of assorted bottles and props, acrylic on canvas

 

Ever since that random encounter (I eavesdropped on the clerk’s advice), I have wondered how I would explain the difference in the uses of the two kinds of paint. I have found no particularly satisfying explanation. For one, it really depends a lot on how you approach painting as to which medium you’re likely to find more congenial and someone who has never used either one isn’t like to have an approach yet.

And thus the only advice I know to offer to a beginner is this:

Get one of the kinds of paint. Flipping a coin is a good way to decide. Don’t invest the whole farm. Just buy a beginner’s set. Take a course with somebody who uses that medium. Or find a book. Check out Youtube for demonstration videos. Use whichever one you choose, learn some basics, then after a season give the other one a try.

Know that they are fundamentally different! One dries fast, the other dries slow. But, friends, I cannot impress upon you what a difference that makes!

(This post was inspired by something I saw at another blog. Smile.)

Art and not art

I’m not silly enough to attempt to define art.

notebook-drawing-dec-3-early-am

I’ll stick with “we know it when we see it” (knowing full well that nothing could be farther from the truth in these contentious times in which we live). Instead I simply invoke the idea of “Art” [fill in the blank here] so that I can say that lots of things that artists do are not art, but are sometimes instead preparations for art. I made the drawing above to be telling myself where various objects would sit on the still life table that I was arranging in my thoughts. So the drawing isn’t art, but it provides some first ideas concerning something that might afterwards be art.

Musicians understand this readily since there’s a whole lot of not-music that must be made for music to happen. Before all, you have to learn to play the instrument. Some drawings are the way you play your scales and arpeggios. Some drawings are more diffuse like a jazz player’s chord chart.I happen to love a not-art sort of drawing. I love freedom in its many guises.

A certain kind of drawing is like tuning the instrument. Or warming it up. A clarinet is going to sound a little different after the player has warmed it up. The vibrations of playing open the wood and the reed. And the musician and the artist also especially have to warm up the other instrument: the mind.

There’s all kinds of drawings. Drawings that sort out visual problems or ideas. Drawings that we do for pleasure. Drawings that are meant to be fully presented works in their own right. We’re all familiar with these. My father’s surgeon decades ago drew a very unscientifically illustrated picture to communicate how he would do my father’s colon resection — this, on the night before the surgery, and the lines wiggled this way and that, following the surgeon’s words. And when this virtual colectomy was concluded, he handed the paper to Daddy who eventually gave it to me (post-surgically — after everything was good again). I, in turn, put it in the back of a volume on Edouard Manet where the drawing remains to this day.

The surgeon wasn’t an artist and that drawing was about ideas expressed as a pictogram, a scribbling image where appearance didn’t matter as much as narrative. (I don’t recall the surgeon saying “I’m not an artist” as so many laymen do when taking up a stylus. I loved him for that. Drawing is not a special club to which only some people are allowed to belong. He just started talking and drawing.)

But what about another kind of drawing that isn’t art. I was just coming out of the Chinese restaurant with our take-out food when three birds flew across the parking lot at about the level of my head, turning instantly in formation to avoid me as I walked, whizzing past me to wherever they were going. I was wondering what it would be to draw the birds in flight. I never did properly “see” them in the way I see things that I draw in my life as an artist. They flew too fast to really see. And I have no use for them in the art I’m making now. But it would be interesting to attempt to draw what I remember.

However, I’m not sure what I saw. Did I see the birds’ bodies? In that instant that my brain thought “birds — wow — they’re flying right to me” did I also see the parking lot or much of the rest of the scene (my car, buildings across the street, other cars, power lines, miscellaneous urban stuff)? I think of their bodies in flight, their relationships to each other, the three of them flying like a squadron. These visual memories have nothing to do with art. If I draw them, I don’t think the drawings will be art.

I painted a spider ages ago because it had built its web on the front porch. But the painting is just a painting, and merely contains some thoughts about what a spider looks like.

spider-oil-on-panel-early-1980s

If the art part of my artist’s brain is like a room, then these images — both the ones I drew and the ones I didn’t draw — are like things tossed in the back of a closet. They aren’t art. But they are intriguing small incidents in the course of a life.

 

 

Flowers of the New

100_9131

We spent lots of our holiday drawing, my ten-year-old (soon to be eleven-year-old) art assistant and I, but the cloud cover always seems to thicken whenever anyone reaches for a camera so I’ll have to keep you in suspense a while longer regarding our results. 

Meanwhile, I rearranged the studio today — always a heady experience as I realize that I’ve misplaced half the items I own and find myself becoming reacquainted with them in the shift and bustle.  Greetings! There you are!  Where’ve you been?  Whatever possessed me to put you there? But reunited now ….

In preparation for new still lifes I have been planning, I shifted stuff around once more, finding old things, no doubt losing new items by disturbing their places.  But I have accomplished my goal: I have two flower still lifes set up for work.

I have been dreaming about these pictures, imagining them in my head, contemplating the meanings of flowers.  Finally I can stop dreaming now and begin working.

Flowers still “growing”

I tried to post this yesterday and wordpress wouldn’t let me (bit of a snafu).  And today I have tried a couple times to load some new photos to my computer and my Kodak Easy Share ain’t sharing.  This is what happens when technology rebells.

Anyway, this drawing is 30 x 48 inches so it gives me plenty to do.  I have some photographs of the still life, too, taken from different angles — helps me get ideas for other versions of the same motif.  Degas counseled the artist to “redo the same thing ten times, a hundred times,” and he thought you should look at the same motif from different angles.  Since I’m working in a pastel-like medium, his advice comes readily to mind.

This drawing is made with Caran d’ache water soluable crayons on Canson paper.  I’ve got a lot of quickly and vigorously drawn green lines down there at the bottom.  But I’m trying to work them into a dense Degas hatching mix.  More on that later.

If I can get my computer to cooperate! (Never let a PC see you sweat.)

Thoughts up Close

When you look at the details of a picture, you see how its illusion is created.  The image above is a detail of one section of the flower bouquet.  It zooms in on the flower patterns of the cloth that’s piled up against the vase of flowers.  From this vantage, much of the expression of three dimensions is lost to sight.  The shadows and the lights appear to exist on the same plane.  In the detail, one realizes how much the third dimension of this particular drawing was created by the motif as a whole since without the whole motif we cannot see distinctions of figure and ground.

These “textile” flowers are as impressionistic as were the “real” flowers in the vase.  Both are abstractions: shapes that appear in masses whose details consist of lines, hatchings and scribbles.  So, for instance I began some of the flowers of the textile’s pattern as rough, smeared shapes of red crayon.  And afterwards I went back into that red with lighter or darker shades to begin the process of imitating the tonal differences within the flower.  The irony is that is so doing one makes a “picture of a picture” since another artist designed the textile that I use in my still life.

The character of the drawing materials is hard to conceal, and I made no effort to hide it.  The visibility of the drawing is what attracts me to the use of crayons.  But it makes the illusion of the subject harder to achieve.  The tonal qualities of light passing over objects — the light and shadow of the cloth and its folds, or the diffusion of light around the contours of the vase, or the contrasts of light and shade amid the masses of flowers and leaves — all these effects have to be created through either hatchings or smudges and are refined by careful positioning of light or dark or warm or cool tones.

The visual qualities that pass before your eyes, the numbers of choices available to sight, are staggering in potential complexity.  From among all these possibilities one chooses a path that is your rendering of the picture.

It’s as though you confront a vast field thick with flowers and wild plants.  You see a prospect you want to reach, and you ponder what direction to take through the brush to reach your destination.  If you follow something you learned from an old master, it’s as if you have found a path that you can walk for a distance.  And when that path wears away and returns to the full wilderness of the meadow, from that point onwards you must walk your own path.

And this fact is not a difficulty.  It is freedom.

Painting is a slow path

I let a bunch of time go by without posting anything.  Like many bloggers, I spend some time musing and pondering this new medium called “the blog,” and wonder aloud about the different genres of writing that it can evoke.  For me as an artist, I would have to say that it’s impossible — or nearly impossible — to write about the work I’m actually doing —  at least when I’m doing it.  Art doesn’t make good journalism.  Art is not an “every day” kind of topic.  No “breaking news” going on.  It’s mostly quiet stuff.

I mean I could write a narrative of how I actually work.  But would anyone read it?  And survive?  Awake?

Painting is a slow art form.  Sometimes it’s like watching an ant parade.  You make all these abstract decisions: how large is this shape?  what color is this exactly?  should I put this here or there? should this line be wider?  lighter?  should it taper? or should it be bold?  or is it okay — even wise — to fudge?  to guess?  to be in doubt? Should an edge be hard or soft?  Do I draw today?  Or should I paint?  And for me, lately, my questions are ones like “do I finish the koi or begin the flowers?”

How does one make these questions interesting for a reader?  Even my mother is not holding her breath waiting for the answers, yet these choices are — they really are vibrant, living questions.

To be able to describe the act of painting and all its attendant thought processes would be a fascinating project if you could truly put the reader into the same relationship with things that you’re in when you paint.

That’s one of the things I try to do, but it’s hard.  We are the heros of the dramas we live ourselves.  Yet it doesn’t always look so exciting to the outside observer.  To capture the authentic excitement of quotidian existence ain’t easy!  Especially when its small and it unfolds slowly.  Like molasses leveling.

But I try.

Recapitulation

Even as I’m working on koi paintings, I think ahead to new projects.  One of those projects will be flower paintings.

Some years ago I began doing flower bouquets that ranged in size from about 30 x 40 inches to 36 x 48 inches large.  It’s a size in which the flowers can be portrayed life size, and the scene as a whole can have some real punch.  I wonder to myself how an artist can make flowers iconic, and what do flowers mean when one tries to put them into a spotlight like this?  Is it the transcience, the beauty, the delicacy of flowers?   It’s subject that I’ve wanted to come back to, and I’m thinking now’s the time.

And as I prepare to begin this motif again, I see similarities between the koi and the flowers.  How strange is that?  Have I got fish in my eyes? Yet, the formal similarities relate to the positions in the canvas where one tends to place things.  Thus, the flowers on the cloth seem to me to “swim” across it just as the fish swim through the blue paint that pretends to be water.  The way that flowers dangle or splay away from each other is also like the koi scattering out into different directions.

Both subjects have wonderful abstract possibilities — flowers perhaps more than fish — for you can put almost any color you want into the canvas and still create something that is “real” and plausible.  By arrangements of cloths and the selections of flowers you can devise any color harmony you like.  Flowers are truly a form of pure painting.

I paint the koi from photographs

I paint my koi from photographs. It would be an interesting experiment to do them entirely from life. Many years ago I painted from life almost exclusively, and back when I decided that I would be an artist, when I was trying to learn what I thought of as being the foundation of art, I worked from life.  I’m glad I did.  The habits I gained have worn well.  But later on, I found that certain subjects did not fit into an approach devant le motif.  Indeed, it became a kind of lesson in art history too — to become more aware of all the various kinds of artifice employed to create seeming “life likenesses” over the centuries.

The koi was something I wanted to do to explore abstraction in the wake of my renewed love for the work of Californian Richard Diebenkorn (one of my favorite 20th artists).  I found something that was very perceptual and which had a lot of distortion built into it, but which was of course as “real” as one might ever desire.  Yet I soon realized that I needed the photograph for practical reasons (the koi pond was not convenient to my home).  But I also soon found that the photograph interprets the image so thoroughly that many of the effects I found most interesting could be achieved by no other means. 

The camera stops time.  In some of my photographs (I had no idea what I was doing, by the way), the water was frozen.  Planes of the water’s structure were caught and carved out of their constant fluidity.  The amazing shape of the water as it moves was there to draw — something that I cannot see with the naked eye. 

Then the fish, also, were alterred in interesting ways.  In some photos the fish are stretched out as they swim through the exposure, the exaggeration of their shapes simulating something of their movement.

Happily I found that the photograph was amenable to interpretation as readily as the real place.  I began by drawing the photos very faithfully (I thought), but my own habits of vision interpolated something that wasn’t strictly there.  One introduces “distortions” that arise from longing and attention.  So I was in effect synthesizing the experience in ways parallel to what I would do when drawing from life.  Only the photograph opens up a world not visible to ordinary sight.
Come visit my store on CafePress!

The abstraction and the free gesture

There are so many ways of painting a thing.  That’s what the real abstraction of art is about.  As you are drawing, as you are noticing your subject, your attention takes you to qualities that someone else might not notice — or might not notice with the same emotion that you feel.  As your gaze ranges over the image, caught in the attraction of what matters to you, you are reinterpreting the life that you see.  Your being held captive in the subject gives it meaning — it reveals the meaning it holds for you.

The choice of subjects, the choice of how to see the subject, these are very personal things.  Many artists paint the same subjects, and sometimes a convention takes hold and the paintings will be similar.  This isn’t necessarily bad.  Conventions, traditions, can be very rich.  They can be ennobling.  Sometimes they enlarge ideas.  Many great artists chose to work in styles that were broader than their personal territory.  The great English landscape painter Turner made many landscapes in imitation of earlier masters like Claude Lorraine.  However, the reverse is also true: sometimes imitation of a style can become too conventional — so much that it conceals rather than reveals feeling and life.

But to let yourself be simply alive before the subject, to let your thoughts range where they will, to allow the subject itself (such as the swift koi) determine what the meaning will be — this is a wonderful way of losing oneself — and of finding oneself — in art.

Then painting is like music.  And it just goes over us and through us and carries us along with it.

These first blocked-in forms are a simple melody that I hum to myself: the music’s first notes.