Ink painting

On Wednesday, I enjoyed an afternoon painting outside in the sun, in a makeshift garden studio. It was incredibly inspiring to sit out in the grass, shaping it to hold paper for these small ink paintings.

Ink painting in the grass

Ink painting in the grass

I preferred the finished look (and process) when the paper was thoroughly saturated, as it allowed for more dramatic movements of the ink and water.

I made nine small paintings, eight on off-white 8″x10″ drawing paper and the first on 9″x12″ smooth Bristol. I preferred the absorbancy of the drawing paper, as well as the warmth of the resulting black and gray tones.

I’ve numbered these in the order I made them, in advance of titles.

1 - 9x12 on smooth Bristol

1 - 9"x12" on smooth Bristol

detail of 1, left side

detail of 1, left side

I saw the bubble kind of shapes in the first one and started making little circles. I tend to make patterns like this when I am doodling with a pen. In this case, I used a paintbrush to draw the circles with water, then touched a dropper of ink to fill the shapes, which was great fun to watch.

2 - 8x10 sumi ink on paper

2 - 8"x10" sumi ink on paper

detail of 2, center

detail of 2, center

I started to work in a butcher’s tray so I could saturate the paper with water. The large circular areas are where I dropped ink with a dropper, and the turbulence between occurs when the ink pushes water into adjacent flows.

3 - 8x10 sumi ink on paper

3 - 8"x10" sumi ink on paper

The shapes in this one reminded me of soap bubbles.

detail of 3, upper left corner

detail of 3, upper left corner

detail of 3, lower left corner

detail of 3, lower left corner

This fourth painting was wetter, so it made more rewarding flows of water with lighter grays. The wind blew a few times and flipped the paper over, making the drip-like marks that emerge from the center channel. I like the two drips at right, but the one going to the upper left bothers me.

4 - 8x10 sumi ink on paper

4 - 8"x10" sumi ink on paper

detail of 4, center

detail of 4, center

(The color on these photographs is inconsistent, but these drawings are all on the same off-white paper – I think my camera meters differently when there are richer blacks, and I didn’t notice it to adjust it.)

This one was also very wet, with the paper thoroughly soaked in inky water before the drops were applied. I like the ink effects when the paper is wetter, but working outside, this one also got blown around, producing a dribbling line toward the right. I don’t hate it though.

5 - 8x10 sumi ink on paper

5 - 8"x10" sumi ink on paper

detail of 5, lower left

detail of 5, lower left

It is uncanny to me how closely the shapes made by the ink resemble the shapes I draw in oil paintings. Maybe it is something archetypal for me, that in every media I come up with these movements, but it’s interesting to see the tonality worked out naturally, by the flow of water, rather than when I am trying to create an illusion with modeling and shading.

I started to make smaller marks on wet paper, watching them spread. In this case I did sequences of 13 dots, with varying amounts of ink in the dropper.

6 - 8x10 sumi ink on paper

6 - 8"x10" sumi ink on paper

detail of 6, upper center

detail of 6, upper center

I used drier marks in this piece, gently touching the edges of the nearly-empty dropper in wet areas, letting the water have more of a say. I like when there are whiter and lighter areas to act in opposition to the heavy expanses of black space.

7 - 8x10 sumi ink on paper

7 - 8"x10" sumi ink on paper

detail of 7, center

detail of 7, center

I especially like the branching, fractal-like shapes that the water makes as it soaks into the paper. Tide marks, I guess.

These last two were probably my favorites of the day, as they were really soaking wet. I used the ink more like fields than drops, observing the movements it made in space. I think this made for more delicate shading and softer transitions in the grays.

8 - 8x10 sumi ink on paper

8 - 8"x10" sumi ink on paper

detail of 8, center right

detail of 8, center right

detail of 8, upper right

detail of 8, upper right

I took a lot of flack in graduate painting classes for attempting to make illusionistic images. I still am not ready to accept that this can’t be done in contemporary art, and I think it was a personal hang-up with my professors and classmates.

That said, it does make me rather happy that this kind of process results in the kinds of tonal shifts I would make were I attempting to draw an illusionistic abstract space. I think a lot about the mutability of form, shifting and changing, the surreality of physics and what really goes on in synapses, among molecules, with electrochemical impulses and so on. It strikes me as a fitting place to allow for some imagination, and to my eye, these images work like folding and collapsing dimensions or detail views of extraordinarily large and complex organic systems.

For this last painting, I soaked the paper, dipped one corner in inky water in a butcher tray, then dropped a large quantity of ink at the opposite corner. (You can see the set-up here.) This one most closely approximates the sense of tides advancing and receding.

9 - 8x10 sumi ink on paper

9 - 8"x10" sumi ink on paper

detail of 9, center

detail of 9, center

detail of 9, lower center

detail of 9, lower center

I really like the ghost-like white area in between the two darker forms. It flips back and forth between a sort of negative space or a positive, modeled form, depending on how I look at its edges. It reminds me that there is never really such a thing as empty space, in an image or in reality, and I enjoy imagining what fills the spaces that appear empty from afar.

For an afternoon’s work, I’m pretty happy. It’s wonderful to enjoy the painting process, and I actually came up with a lot of things worth thinking about. Any time I use ink, I learn more about its properties and tendencies, and I am positively mesmerized by all the strange and lovely things the water does.

I like these little paintings as images themselves – to me, the black and white really fits the feeling in them and makes for a very satisfying experience. Because these are the types of movements and tonal shifts I’ve been searching for in oil painting, I may do some studies using these as reference, trying to capture some of the lush movements and elegant shapes.

I can’t wait to get out in the garden some more!