Friday, February 25, 2011

No Expectations: Giving the Inner Art Critic the Week Off

When was the last time you made art without the contraints of expectations? Without an idea of "where it would go," without any reference to the "right" techniques and approaches, without a "goal" in mind? Do you remember the high of unanticipated success? The way you were able to appreciate things purely, without picking apart tiny flaws or disappointing results here and there? The energy and pure fun of letting the medium work you instead of the other way around?

I'm in the middle of an explosion of this kind of artwork, taking enormous pleasure in my results, appreciating them purely on an "oh that's COOL" kind of level. I know, in the back of my head, that this means something; but right now, I don't feel a need to know exactly what.

Hipstamatic App, CAMERAtan App
and iPhone 3
 It started with encaustic, and continues with it, to a certain extent. I have a lot of experiments going on, but I'm running low on materials so I'm being a little less abandonned with it at the moment. Meanwhile, a few days ago a good friend and fellow photographer reminded me how much fun it is to goof around with my iPhone and its photo apps. We share a particular fascination with an app called Hipstamatic, which approximates a huge host of different film, flash and lens types, mimicking all kind of classic and cult cameras and shooting techniques. (I blogged about Hipstamatic back in June 2010.) We're also both very serious fine art photographers--we both own big honking Nikon DSLRs with all the bells and whistles and know how to use them, along with the usual selection of analog photo equipment in various formats, all of which we are able to command and ride like tired mules.
The Sky Overhead
Hipstamatic App and iPhone 3

Not surprisingly, then, the thing we both like the best about Hipstamatic is its "random" setting--you fire up the app, shake the phone, and a random combination of film, lens and flash fall into place; the only choice left to you is whether or not to "fire" the flash. You don't know what you've gotten until you make the photo and the image "develops." It's a little like Russian roulette with a camera phone. If you are just shooting randomly it's wonderful, but if you're responding to something specific that's making you want to shoot the scene in front of you (like color or shadow or contrast), you might find that thing negated by the random combinations.

Interestingly enough, though, the random mix shot often finds something in the scene in front of you that goes beyond what you saw and responded to with your eyes. And the one thing that seems consistent with every Hipstamatic combination is that it seems to make the most mundane things extraordinary, and infuses the images with a kind of aura that can only be described as otherworldly. The walkway in front of my house becomes a magical portal; a pretty blue sky with fluffy clouds takes on an ethereal monochrome glow.

Hipstamatic App and iPhone 3
I spent a few hours playing with Hipstamatic and making images, then playing with other iPhone filter apps and manipulating them even further. The best thing about it was, I wasn't thinking. I was selecting a filter, hitting "apply" and saying "hey, I like that!" My favorite app for this is a wacky little thing called CAMERAtan. Its effects, available in three different patterns, have names like "Umeboshi" and "Latte." Even better, it also has a "random" option in each pattern. It's a wonderful time-killer and generates some wonderful results.

My other recent obsession, after decades of repeating in a robotic fashion "I am not a painter,"  is oil painting. I started out smearing oil paint on panels and wax as part of my encaustic endeavors; now I'm smearing it on canvases and even sometimes using a brush. I know almost nothing about oil painting, so I'm reacting 100% to what I see when the brush loaded with paint hits the canvas, and I'm learning how to control the brush enough to vary the effect. I'm working very very small right now, 3x5-inch canvases and canvasboard, a couple of 6x9's.
oil on canvas
3x5 inches

I don't know whether what I'm doing looks as cool as I think it does; it's entirely nonrepresentational and abstract, but it has feeling and motion in it, and it's clearly what I need to be doing right now. I'm almost always my own worst critic, but for the moment, I'm giving the critic the week off, and just enjoying doing things that aren't planned to death and then dissected because of my perception of their shortcomings.

oil on canvas
3x5 inches
oil and encaustic on birch panel
8x8 inches

Ground (in progress)
oil on canvas panel
6x9 inches

Monday, February 21, 2011

Dreaming Big

I've been out of graduate school for almost five years now, and have thought a lot about what "success" should look like for me. I'm pretty sure I'm not going to be pounding the pavement looking for gallery representation in New York or LA, although I intend to pursue some options locally. I'm guessing I won't be on the "short list" for the handlers of the rich and famous, although I hope to develop some loyal and interested customers over time who appreciate the richness and quirkiness of my work. I'm relatively confident that I will not be appearing on Oprah as The Next Big Thing, but I would enjoy doing the local public radio art broadcast, and maybe following that up with my own BlogTalkRadio episodes. But I also know that none of this is set in stone.

So, basically, I've been thinking mostly in line with being a medium-sized fish in the pond, kind of to myself over here under my lillypad of choice, swimming quietly in the cool water and popping up to the surface every now and again, just to see what's going on, and keeping an open mind for anything else that might appear. Making and showing art is the baseline for me, the non-negotiable point. What happens after that is pretty much gravy.

I recently did a visualization exercise where I was asked to Dream Big. "Think of your life in 10 years," said the leader. "Go beyond the most ideal thing you've ever dreamed about. What does this life look like? Where are you? What are you doing?"

That's when I saw it. Or rather, me. Standing in the sunshine at an easel, with a paintbrush in my hand, on a broad tiled patio in front of a huge beautiful Italian- or Mexican-style home. I was looking out at the sea, and smiling at the sunlight dancing on the water. The brush moved across the work on the easel in short sharp strokes, flecking rich blue sweeps of wax with pricks of white-gold oil, approximating the effect of the sun on the sea. The wax was slightly soft from the heat of the sun, and I used the handle of my brush to dimple it in places, then highlighted the dimples with color.

I knew that this was my home. But more than that, that it was a special place for artists to come and work and study and be mentored. The word "atellier" whispered through my head.

I have often talked about the need for artist residency programs that don't suck money out of artist's pockets, programs that are not designed for well-to-do dilletantes but instead for creative, serious people who are beyond their student days but not yet successful or known or celebrated. I've also thought a lot about how artists continue to need mentoring and feedback throughout their careers, and how difficult it is to re-create the supportive community feeling of graduate school once one is out in the world and trying to get by, possibly in a field of endeavor that is not art but that pays. This is the place they can come to and immerse themselves in art for a week or two weeks or even a month; to study and learn and work and discuss. And it's not $3000 or $5000 or $7000; it's the same cost as a decent vacation, and scholarships are readily available. It's something someone who works in an office and teaches yoga on the side can afford.

The other part of the visualization is what I knew--that my work was popular and well-received and sought-after, that I made enough money from the art to pay for the beautiful big house overlooking the sea and that my connections and friends and supporters keep the atellier reasonable in price and the scholarships available.

So that's the big dream. It's hard to write down and is going to be even harder to publish. I'm not sure why; maybe I'm afraid to want it to turn out that way, maybe I'm assuming disappointment before it occurs. (That's a long-standing problem of mine that I'm trying to work my way out of.) But here it is, my big dream. And sharing it with you all somehow makes it that much more real.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Deep Analog

I've had a lot of ideas over the last few days, despite being sick (or maybe because I'm sick and I'm not actually leaving the house for anything other than feeding the horse), and I've gotten several new pieces into production. I am working on probably six different things right now; they're in various stages and represent a huge range of techniques, approaches, concepts, and goals. Encaustic is one of those artistic pursuits that involves a lot of waiting, interspersed with periods of hyperactivity ... kind of like chemical (as in, old school analog) photographic printing, actually, which is another one of my favorite things to do. One piece I loved, then ruined, then saved, then ruined again, but that's okay--I have a pretty good idea of how to re-save it, and because I'm working in encaustic, re-saving is in fact possible. Encaustic is kind of magical in how it permits the artist to undo what's been done up to a certain point; aside from oil painting, very few working media have this characteristic, and it's a quality I as a rank beginner really appreciate.

Even though I've always been primarily a photographer, I'm having trouble finding a way to combine my images with encaustic that feels "right" to me. I am still in the early stages of this investigation, and there are so many variables that it's mind-boggling. Slowly I'm lurching toward something, although it's still a process heavily in the "trial and error" phases.

More appealing to me, as you'll already know if you're one of the 2.3 regular readers of this blog, is the combination of oil paint with encaustic. I am not painter and never have been; I can't make a decent line with a brush on canvas, but for some reason using my fingers to apply oil paint onto surfaces or wax and then applying more wax (or more paint) is incredibly fulfilling. The paint, especially if you're using cheap oils, does amazing things when you fuse it into the wax; the pigment and oil separates somewhat and the liquid quality of the wax as it heats lets the paint move and flow into strange and interesting patterns and pathways. Higher quality oils will still run with the flow of overfused, liquid wax, but resist the interesting separation that creates such odd patterns within the painted sections. So I am using a blend of high quality and student-grade oils, with the cheap stuff where I want interesting scumbling and patterns and the better stuff where I want the paint to maintain its integrity when it is fused with the wax.

So far my favorite surface is a raw birch panel made specifically for use in art. I like being able to see the grain of the wood through the wax and feel the texture, and there is also something appealing in the idea that I'm using a host of organic materials in this process: pigmented oils, beeswax, wood, natural bristle brushes. (Certainly some of these organic materials can be wildly toxic, but that's nature for you.) And I'm also using my hands a lot, because that just seems to feel right. When you get right down to it, I have gone deep analog with my artmaking, and at the moment, it's incredibly satisfying.

Here are a few works in progress which I like, in various stages of development:

working title: Pink
Encaustic and oil on acrylic panel

This acrylic panel is transparent, so it will be interesting to see what it looks like when I remove the backing. I think I will probably apply one final overcoat of medium and overfuse to a smooth glasslike surface, then buff to a high shine.

working title: Rorshach
Encaustic and oil on cardboard canvas
 This piece started out as a pure experiment, but now I'm thinking it's a study for a much larger piece that I'll produce in the future. (This is 6" x 9".) The  black is applied wax, which I allowed to cool, then added some simple lines with student-grade white oil paint. I then fused the paint into the wax by heating the surface until it liquified. I think to complete this piece I'll add some high-quality crimson oil paint to the line at right, and fuse lightly to preseve the integrity.

working title: Woodflow
Encaustic and oil paint on wood panel
 This last piece I feel is almost finished, although it needs one more thing ... I am not sure what that thing might be. I enjoy being able to see the grain of the wood through the paint, and the way the white paint (the student-grade paint) has separated a bit and started spreading in the middle of the panel. You can see here how the gold paint (artist quality) retained its integrity even though it was fused at the same time and to the same degree as the white.

I know there are a lot of little details in this new artistic practice that I need to get better on, like cleaning my brushes and paying better attention to safety details. Although really, I've spent so much of my life up to my elbows in black and white photo chemicals, if I'm going to be poisoned by something there's a good chance I already have been. And I might one day learn how to actually deliver oil paint to my surfaces with a brush. But right now this slap-dash, experimental, deep analog place I'm in feels just right to me.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Looking At Process

In tandem with my last post, I thought I should offer myself and the 2.3 regular readers of my blog a little roundup of the encaustic practices and processes I'm gravitating towards. This is, obviously, not going to be an all-inclusive list, and in reality it's just a little reminder to myself of the techniques I've tried that seemed to "work" for me very quickly. There are plenty of others that I imagine I'll find more appealing once I become better at them.

Here's the short list:

* Using paper to provide color. A sheet of really interestingly-colored paper used as background (either across the whole surface or in a strategic part of it) adds controlled color and brightness. This works best when I'm not planning to put a lot of layers of medium or other colors on top of the paper; the added wax soaks into the paper and dulls the colors or makes it take on the colors of whatever is layered beneath it. If you're using colored wax underneath the paper and planning for this effect, however, it can yield quite interesting results.

* Stamping on paper and integrating this into the image. Can either be a small piece of the image or the full background.

* Applying oil paint on the surface with my hands before augmenting it with pigmented wax and clear medium.

* Applying oil paint on the wax itself with my hands, and "sealing" it by fusing. I can't paint on canvas with a brush, but for some reason I can paint on wax with my fingers.

* Mixing up the application of wax and medium to the surface, so that some areas have wax and other areas are bare down to the surface (usually painted).

* Very simple straight carving into the wax, overfilling with an accent color, and scraping back to find the line.

* Moving pigmented wax around by overfusing it and letting it run on the panel.

* Using heat on a wax-dipped brush to spread pigment thinly.

* Adding scrapings of different colored waxes to the surface of pieces and expanding them in fusing.

* Overfusing generally.

* Burnishing the finished pieces to a glasslike shine.

* Creating diminsionality with a build up of layers of wax.

I haven't yet figured out how to use my photographic images with encaustic ... that's one of those things that I can already anticipate needs to be a bit thought out. The image and the wax have to make sense together, t enhance each other in order to make a cohesive statement. I'm working on this, though, and I don't think it will be long before I hit on an approach that makes me happy. I have a feeling I might enjoy working with colored inks also, and much more translucent colors. So far I've only used bristle brushes, but I'm reading about artists who use foam brushes, pouring techniques, and splatter approaches to distribute wax on the surfaces they use. In addition, there's a whole world of surfaces that I am anxious to try, and my investigations of those will most likely change the way I work.

I'm glad to have found this medium. There is something about working in it that feels right to me, in the same way photography and video did at the beginning, but also includes the hands-on aspect that I find so appealing about book arts. Maybe I did actually always want to be a painter ... with encaustic, it feels like maybe I am.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Looking Past Process

I'm one of those people who just can't stand next to their own work at a show. And if it's a solo show, I'll kind of slink around trying to look like I'm paying attention to what people are saying without really paying attention to what people are saying. I think this is fairly common; it's not that I don't like to talk about my work or that I can't talk about my work, I just don't like listening to what other people are saying about it. I've heard some weird comments about my work (one woman once said "It's too bad they're not airbrush.") and some vaguely dumb comments about my work (one guy once said "I just kind of don't like things that are out of focus."), but no one's ever said anything really bad about it. I just become nervous about what people respond to, and how they respond; it feels as if I'm evesdropping on something personal. And actually, that's not a bad thing.

I recently put some more images of encaustic work up on Facebook, and that apparently got a lot of people to look at the whole album. And people started leaving comments and noting their favorites. No one said anything bad, because my friends wouldn't do that, but I was a little bit surprised at which pieces particular people seemed to like.

The first issue is that my favorites, which I consider the most in the style I think I'd like to follow, got very little commentary. A couple of others, which I do consider successful, got some very positive responses. I have one artist friend in particular whose work I just love and I admit that I have her paintings in my head when I'm making encaustic work--for some reason I have this idea that I might be able to approach in wax the magic that she makes in acrylic. Interestingly, the work that she responded to most positively was the piece that to my mind was the furtherest away from her own style of working.

But that got me thinking about what  people were really commenting on, and really seeing. The specific comments were about content and meaning--what the image was about, and what it said to them--not about the colors or forms or approach. At the end of the day, that's really what I want. When people don't see the process but instead see a message, specifically a message that seems tailored to them, that's when the artist has truly done his or her job.

And it's also illuminated what's so frustrating to me about the work I'm doing now; I'm mired in process. Because I don't have very much experience with encaustic, I don't know the impact of different approaches and techniques and I don't really know how things will look. So I have to go very slowly, and instead of being able to let the medium speak, I'm still working at how to understand it at all.

Sometimes I can enjoy the idea of pure experimentation, but it's so frustrating when I start to see a direction and then I flub it up with inexperience or some technique doesn't turn out the way I thought it would. And there are so many more processes and practices I've yet to try. But I'm so anxious to find my voice in this medium and make things, wonderful things that speak to people, and get them out into the world. I don't think I was like this with photo or video or even installation. Maybe I need a mentor. Or maybe I just need to keep going, until eventually I can as the artist look past the process and see the meaning inherent in my practice of it.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Expanding and Contracting

I've been out of hand the last few weeks. I'm experimenting now with blending photography and encaustic, trying a lot of different things and looking at a lot of artists. My encaustic world is getting bigger very fast, and it's at once confusing and exciting. The one very clear thing I've learned is, there are as many different processes for encaustic as there are artists who use it, and almost every "rule" I encountered in my first experiences with it (you can't work big, you can't use gessoed board, you can't use inkjet prints on standard paper, you can't use unmounted paper as a base ...), has turned out to be a "rule" only for the person who said it.

I've seen videos of artists who painstakingly use tiny brushes and precise strokes, painting and etching the wax with great care; I've seen videos of artists who "paint" with irons and tacking tools. I've seen the careful and exact application of wax to completed photographs and oil paintings, I've seen an artist carefully position a wood-mounted black-and-white photograph in the middle of a metal tray and proceed to dump (literally) an entire pan of melted wax medium onto it.

I've seen encaustic that references other mixed media work, graphic design, and collage. I've seen encaustic that simply uses wax instead of paint to produce works ranging from abstract to photorealistic. I've seen encaustic work that was specifically (and wonderfully) only about shape or color or texture or flow; I've seen equally-wonderful work that was about impressionistic landscapes or portraits of faces. In short, any kind of artwork that existed out there, has been accessed, referenced, and redone by someone working with wax. Slowly, as I experiment, I'm beginning to figure out who I am as an encaustic artist, and starting to recognize differences and similarities between her and the artist who uses the camera.

I knew early on that I would not be constructing collages per se with this medium; there is something too "craftish" about the work I've produced in this vein, and although I like some of it, it doesn't seem to mean anything. I've done a couple of pieces that referenced or were inspired by specific experiences or sights, but this hasn't felt quite right to me either, although I'm fairly happy with the work. I've done some pieces that began as oil "paintings" (for lack of a better word), and these feel the most interesting and most authentic to me, and the most solid ... again for lack of a better word. They don't incorporate stamps or embedded objects or transferred images, they aren't specifically recongizable as anything from the real world.

They seem to be about the world inside my head instead of the world in front of my eyes, and this is an enormouos departure for me. My photography is confrontational and initially asks the viewer "what do you really see?" followed by "what do you think?" My encaustic work takes a more transformational tone and seems to aim for a place inside the viewer, asking instead "what do you really feel?" followed by "how deeply do you feel it?"

Like all my other artwork, I don't really care what the answer is. I simply want people to have a visceral uncalculated response to the work, and I want it to stay with them, at least on some level. But it's interesting to see how I'm coming at this. It's from a different place in me, and I'll be excited to learn more about that place and shine a little light on it for my own edification.

Some recent work which I consider "finished:"

untitled #4, 2011
5" x7"
encaustic, oil and paper on canvas board
(the half-moons at the bottom are not part of
the piece)

untitled tryptich (working title: Dawn to Dusk), 2011
3 panels, 6" x 6" each 
encaustic and oil on cradled birchwood panel