Sea Change series process and inspiration, part 1

 

This spring I returned to the Sea Change series of sculpture and assemblage pieces using recycled and reclaimed marine plastics, monofilament, fishing tackle, and textiles made from plastic bags. Though at first glance these pieces may seem a bit unrelated to my painting and drawing, I am finding they address many of the same concepts and incorporate similar themes as I have been approaching in more abstract images.

 

In this series of posts, I will make some notes on the overall process and discuss some of the in-progress, planned, and completed pieces in terms of inspiration, concept, and materials.

 



I Heard the Ocean from My Bed – detail view

 

When I start planning a painting or drawing, I often begin with a color sense and an overall feeling that I’d like to explore, either drawn from a specific source like the way leaves unfold from a plant or from a conceptual place, like what it feels like to want to protect someone you love. At some point as I work through preliminary sketches or initial layers, the whole image coalesces in my mind as a more or less completely-formed being, and I see the rest of the painting process as an attempt to capture its likeness. It’s a bit like portraiture in that sense, only chasing a face seen in passing glances, always changing the way it looks back.

 



Making textiles from plastic bags

 

By contrast, in the Sea Change pieces I start almost entirely with the materials, thinking about what they can do and how that might look. I’m having a great time exploring their tactile qualities and physical behaviors. I have enjoyed various forms of needlecraft since I was a child, so it was a natural fit to use these pieces of plastic as textiles and incorporate sewing, knitting, needlepoint, weaving, and embroidery in making images. Sewing pieces together and to their supports has also given me a structurally sound means of connection that doesn’t use adhesives or rely on melting the plastics to fuse them, which pleases me both environmentally and in terms of art conservation methodology. I also enjoy the connection to tradition and the “women’s work” aspect of these techniques, as women are disproportionately affected by climate change and damage to the environment. Communicating through works of art using techniques previously reserved for frivolity or decoration – which kept women occupied, but not engaged – feels like reclaiming these techniques in a symbolic form of ecofeminism.

 



Gyre – detail view

 

Visually, I’ve been strongly drawn to Sacred Geometry and spiritual symbols lately. These shapes, patterns, and images feel meaningfully connected to the Earth, as they were literally discovered in our attempts to understand our place in the universe, communicated through geometry. I am attracted to the universality of these symbols, which are not tied to language or conscious thought, and that has led me to further explore modern symbology through ISO warning and safety signs. These ideas and symbols are all swirling together into a language to talk about nature and our relationship to the natural world, using these recycled plastic materials and traditional needlecraft techniques.

 


Palette of plastics used in Blue-Green Fibonacci (in progress)

 

Blue-Green Fibonacci is an in-progress piece that began when I received a shipment cushioned with bags of sealed air. These bags are presented as an environmentally-friendly alternative to styrofoam, bubblewrap, or packing peanuts. Some are branded under cute names with “Eco,” “Recycle,” and “Defender” included, and they are all printed with symbols either indicating they are recyclable or in very rare cases, made from partially recycled plastic themselves. Some are clear plastic with a bit of ink, while others are opaque dyed plastic in shades of blue or blue-green presumably meant to evoke eco-friendliness. If a shipping recipient has access to Plastic #2 (HDPE) or plastic film recycling, they could theoretically recycle these bags. New York City residential pick-up does not accept anything besides rigid plastics (symbols 4 & 5) and including soft plastics could cause a whole load to be rejected. So realistically, most people do what I was instructed to do at my last job – pierce the bags to deflate them and squish them into the trash.

 

Once they enter the waste stream, plastic bags and films are much more likely than other forms of trash to escape from landfills to rivers and oceans because they can be blown by the air, carried by streams of rain water, and they tend to cling to anything they touch. They are swallowed by turtles, fish, and marine birds, and they attract and aggregate other petroleum-based pollutants in the sea. They are a non-biodegradable nightmare for the environment, and they are contributing to the rapidly-growing garbage patches in the sea.

 



Blue-Green Fibonacci – detail view

 

I thought about how to transform them from something harmful to something that celebrates the beauty and cleverness of nature. I cut the bags into loops, which I then linked together to create balls of “plarn” or plastic yarn. When converted to a textile and measured in yards, I was stunned to see just how much plastic each strip of air pillows contained. I saved the air pillows from the handful of shipments I’ve received in the past few months, and I created a palette of blues and greens, which I then knit into stripes based on the Fibonacci sequence, a system of order seen again and again in the natural world. I’ve made several strips of stripes exploring various color and width juxtapositions. Once the striped sections are sewn together and connected to a support, the overall piece should measure 24″x30″, which happens to be one of my most frequently-used canvas sizes in painting.

 

I am fascinated by the materials and process in this series, and I very much look forward to discussing more pieces in future posts!

 


Palettes

I’m currently working on a painting that’s mostly blue with traces of green and white. When I set my palette down to get a drink yesterday, I fancied the way it looked, snapped the photo below, and posted it to Instagram without much thought.

 

 

As the afternoon went by, my phone occasionally blinked with notifications for favorites or new followers, and later I realized that #palette is a pretty delightful rabbit hole on Instagram, mostly to do with cosmetics. I browsed through other artists’ palettes, reflecting on process and studio habits with a nearly voyeuristic curiosity.

I think palettes are a bit like handwriting. Everyone learns similar ways to organize and handle their paints in art classes, but over time we develop idiosyncrasies and preferences that are deeply personal and, I think, reflect the way the hand works. Art historical publications and exhibitions are starting to include palettes like van Gogh’s, which gives tremendous insight and sometimes revelations into materials and techniques. Recognizing artists’ preferred pigments is invaluable in art conservation research, but palettes also give hints about the way artists regarded paint and their craft.

 

Vincent van Gogh, Self Portrait c. 1887-8
As I scrolled through Instagram, I found myself repulsed by some sloppy, muddy palettes (are they just trying to get rid of all their paint quickly??) and charmed by almost fetishistically beautiful palettes (no comment on how that may or may not relate to the actual finished artwork produced). As you can learn a lot from someone’s handwriting, I found I was often able to predict what style of paintings would be produced from various palettes.

So I looked back at mine and thought about my way of working. I tend to use only a few colors at a time, and I work almost exclusively wet-on-wet on the canvas. I go for pure pigments and am fascinated by their individual properties, so this current painting is being made primarily with a red-toned blue, cadmium yellow, and titanium white. If I were going to add another color (which I thought of doing with a phthalo turquoise and reconsidered), I’d have to consciously open it and add it to my palette, rather than dip into something that was already available.

I’m not sure if it is a reflection of my deliberate nature, or if I’m so used to being economical that I loathe the idea of wasting paint, even leaving very little on my palette by the time I finish a painting. One of my professors in undergrad suggested that if a painting starts to feel static, you can try working an unexpected color around a few places to see what happens, dab some spots of bright orange or pink on a blue-gray composition and see how you respond. I liked the idea, and for a while I would throw every color on my palette at paintings until they became big colorful messes with muddy colors. I was frustrated that forms were flattened into bodies of color and the attempts I made at drawing within the painting were reduced to color relationships instead of modeling. When I learned more about the different transparencies and opacities of various pigments, I started to simplify and more tightly control my palette, but my tendency to make basically monochromatic paintings lately suggests I may have overcorrected in my attempts at clarifying.

I have a few canvases in progress that have more complex color relationships going, and I think I’d like to challenge myself with a more robust palette when I get back to those. I don’t imagine I’m ever going to be inclined to squeeze thirty tubes of paint out to make a painting of a rose, but I do love color, so I’m curious to see how it goes.


Revisiting / Revision

One of the biggest downsides of the amount of time I’ve spent in school is that it’s left a paucity of energy and inclination toward painting. I am no longer in school now (it’s complicated) and I am working full time, and it’s wonderful. While I’m still exhausted and have little free time (I’m sure I’ll adjust), I have a much greater motivation toward my studio now that my free time is actually free and not stolen from something else I should be doing.

I’ve had this painting hanging out on my easel for an embarrassingly long time. I started it in a fit of energy back in February 2011, when the release of the new Radiohead album “The King of Limbs” prompted a renewed obsession with all things Radiohead, including “Hail to the Thief.” Increasingly, a lot of my art is a big love affair with music, and I remember distinctly that this painting started when I was obsessing over the song “Where I End and You Begin.”



(Ace video by Juan Pablo Etcheverry – direct link.)

I was going for something complex and writhing, a seething, teeming entanglement of inside and out, other and self becoming one, resonating with those tight drums and extraordinary bass line. Later, I was also thinking about a particularly fascinating reaction in organic chemistry (the nucleophilic aromatic substitution on 2,4-dinitrobromobenzene with hydrazine in ethanol), where the volatility and reactivity of the compounds we used led to uncontrollable side-chain reactions. Our lovely transparent yellow and orange reactants, initially iridescent purple when mixed, became tar-like conglomerates of nitrogen-clumped impurities.

It was such a fitting metaphor for intense interpersonal relationships that become messy and destructive: two entities that are too much alike, too violently reactive, too susceptible to cataclysmic interference from uncontrollable forces; both turn from something pure and inherently open – even luminous – to a singular existence inextricably bonded in toxicity, so dense and dark that no light gets in.

Trying to push toward that exact reaction, I wanted this painting to be highly-contrasting orange and purples. I abandoned it when I over-mixed it all toward a fittingly muddy cadmium red-orange-brown, and its fate was sealed when I noticed the compositional and color similarity to a painting I did years ago.

I’m not done with this idea, though, nor even this painting. The opening lyrics of the Radiohead song speak to the opposite, to not being able to connect and feeling fundamentally separated:

There’s a gap in between,
There’s a gap where we meet,
Where I end and you begin

At first, I interpreted it as dealing with death, literally ending and not being able to connect with someone living. There was more to it, though, an ominous story that hinted at a complicated past and the severing of something that was once intensely linked. The obsessive tone and repetition of the closing lyrics (I will eat you alive / There’ll be no more lies) speak to a level of connectedness that feels essential for survival, a prehistoric, preternatural force evoked from the time when “the dinosaurs roam the earth.” And yeah, love or addiction could certainly feel that way too. I still haven’t sorted what this song is actually about, but I know exactly how it feels, and whatever circumstances or forces brought about the feeling are defined by their relentlessness.

I decided the painting was too blobby and forgiving, that it needed to be darker, with stronger contrast and definition of space. I wanted it to be sharper and better attenuated to the unforgiving severity of being dragged around by one’s heart and need. I took a typical tack, essentially drawing back over the surface in dark blue to redefine the structure of the field.

I am incredibly glad that I’ve started taking photos during the intermediate phases of paintings because I can see that I had what I wanted for a little bit when it was just blue. Then either because I felt too dark (it was a gorgeous sunny day in July, and my heart was full of love and summer) or because I got impatient and wanted to start defining the lights, I went at it with cadmium yellow. When that turned to a bright green, I went with it, thinking, “Sure, why not?”

I think I got blown off course, moving into something more generically “colorful” and balanced, shying away from what I was really thinking about. The green is letting the light in, giving breathing space, relenting. It’s fine, and maybe it could even become pleasant, but that’s not what this painting is about.

This painting’s current state points to all the areas where my studio practice is out of sync. The most obvious problem is that I’m not actually processing emotions, inspirations, and concepts at the time when they’re predominant in my life. Years after the heartbreak, frustration, and existential angst that drove me to begin this painting, it feels artificial to go back and roll around in the past tense now.

The problem that concerns me most, though, is the glaringly obvious disconnect between the ideas and the material / technical addressing of them. For a painting dealing with uncontrollable forces, I’m overworking everything toward a clean and well-defined resolution. The colors are all wrong, though I can cut myself a little slack here because I was working at it as an underpainting, trying to sort the composition into general lights and darks. But then I lost the plot.

It is my hope that beginning a much more regular, invested studio practice in the coming months will help me get back in touch with myself as a painter. I used to go at things openly, spontaneously, carried away in a fit of feeling that sputtered out to completion. I’ve let my inner editor come in too strong, revising when I mean to revisit. I think it’s time for her to take a holiday and give the say back to the painter.


Mutability and Revision

The more I draw, the more I learn about painting. That statement is both blindingly obvious and paradoxically elusive for me. I am about to finish my current sketchbook (so expect to see more drawings soon), and through it, I’ve learned incredible amounts about structuring a painting and attaching ideas to forms.

One aspect of oil painting that I’ve been reluctant to embrace is its infinite mutability. I used to resist making any changes to paintings, preferring to map out a composition at the inception and more or less stick with it to the end. More often, I would discover a compositional fault that I couldn’t get past and abandon the painting entirely, intending eventually to get back to it, but almost never doing so.

Grad school was very useful for loosening up my resistance to make changes, as in-progress critiques helped me identify the parts of compositions that were resolving problematically for viewers or in some other way failing to provide the appropriate structure for the ideas I was trying to layer onto images. Unfortunately, however, it also let me find a way to avoid having to make changes, as I moved into water media and embraced the unpredictable, fluid shapes formed by water in my ink paintings.

Now I’m trying to use what I’ve learned about structure from drawing to enact greater control over my oil paintings. I have a tendency to sketch out a vague form using washy lines, then plunge right into modeling curves and shapes without stepping back to consider the overall composition, scale, or bigger movements of the canvas until it’s too late. More importantly, I need to ask myself if what I’m painting actually matches what I’m thinking about, or if instead I’m getting lost in some lovely swoops that will ultimately feel shallow or frustrating to me.

I have this big blue painting that has been sitting next to my easel for months. I was hesitant to move forward on it because something felt imbalanced about the composition. I had intended for this painting to be a meditation on rippling, folding matter, a sort of undulating consideration of this idea from physics that everything is made of something, and there’s no such thing as nothingness, as even space has certain properties and forces to it. Less abstractly, when you look at a flower and see shadows, you’re not seeing darkness or absence, but rather a part of the flower that is occluded, yet present. Each petal has both a top side and an underside, just as curves in nature have insides and outsides that are part of the same surface.

I wasn’t getting that feeling from this painting as it was, and I was frustrated that it felt like a bunch of impulsive decisions, without the organizing principles I’d intended.

It’s always with some trepidation that one revises a composition, but I knew I wouldn’t be happy with my first stab at this painting, in light of how easy it should be to change.

Using cadmium yellow and darker blue, I started essentially correcting the areas that stuck out to me. I thought more about the central idea, that everything comes from something, in terms of existence, spirituality, matter, physics, math, psychology, and on and on, thinking through what movements of this form could evoke these sensations. I knew I wanted the form to be more centralized and inwardly-focused, rather than jutting off the edges haphazardly as it had done.

It’s not accidental that the painting started looking more and more like a greenish-colored rose, as I’ve always used roses as a sort of shorthand for postmodern introspection and layers of meaning folding out from themselves. My undergraduate thesis project used details of roses and other organic forms to get at some of these same ideas, so I shouldn’t be surprised to come full circle and use them again, with different inflection. I think of dimensions as petals, so a treatment of some unfolding facets of existence logically follows blossoming flowers and wave forms.

I don’t know if I’m done revising this painting’s composition yet, though I’ve lived with it for a while and find I am mostly satisfied that I can work with this iteration, with small adjustments that will be sorted out while painting. It’s fun to consider an object in flux, wobbling toward what it will become.

I’m planning for the color to shift toward teal, with creamy highlights that pick up the yellow, and deep blues and browns that push the depths into sharper, clearer contrast.

I’m excited about what this painting could become, and I’m both relieved and encouraged by the revisions I’ve made. I haven’t typically kept track of revisions in the past, as I think there exists the risk that previous versions looked better and I’ll be able to see the ways I’ve ruined something good. I think the value of discovery from change is worth the potential ego pitfalls, and I must learn not to regret the changes that insist on being made.


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!