Old Skills, New Mediums

A month or so ago I went to the launch of a friend’s book and talked to a mutual friend who is an editor of a small press publishing venture about my adventures in art. Not long after, she got in contact to ask me if I was interested in doing a book cover illustration for a modern day comic fantasy book based on greek mythology.

When I went through my artwork for the Artist of the Month display some of it was from my days as an illustrator. I felt a mix of nostalgia and curiosity. I’d always wanted to do fantasy book covers, but during the years I ran the illustration business only a few came along, and none for a book. There was an interior illustration of a “friendly dragon” for the children’s education market, black and white internal sf magazine illustrations and one colour cover. I painted cover art for two of my books but my publisher didn’t use them, though they did go on some magazine covers later.

Looking at the art made me wonder if I could try fantasy art again, so my answer to my editor friend’s enquiry was ‘yes!’.

Once I knew what she wanted, and she approved some preliminary sketches, I bought two art materials that were entirely new to me: acrylic gouache and aquaboard.

It might seem crazy to tackle a professional job with a medium I’d never used, but the year of Daily Art gave me confidence that I can work out how to use new mediums pretty quickly, especially if they were similar to what I’d already used. I’d got pretty familiar with both acrylic and gouache during that year. As for aquaboard, I had a small piece from a bag of free art materials given out at an art society meeting, so I had a play with that with the acrylic gouache and liked it.

Both products weren’t available when I ran the illustration business, and they proved ideal for the job. The acrylic gouache dries flat like ordinary gouache, but it can be painted over without disturbing the previous layer. It dries really fast, but the drying retarder I use with normal acrylics worked really well with it. The aquaboard can be wiped almost clean if the paint is still wet, or the paint scratched off if it was dry. All these qualities allowed for the sorts of changes that happen in commissioned illustrations – and I certainly needed them. I wound up scraping off an entire arm and painting it in a new position, and changing the colour of the clothing and skin. I was also able to use the drying retarder as a tinted glaze to change the overall colour of an area.

Some days I had a bit of paint and time left over, so I added some art to my ideas sketchbook – preparing the surface for the cat and dog with gesso.

And I realised that I rather like acrylic gouache. It’s easier to use than acrylic, especially mixed with drying retarder. I wouldn’t say it was better or worse than gouache, because their reactive/nonreactive natures simply means they’re suited to different purposes and styles of working, but I may like it just as much.

In fact, I like it enough to buy a ‘student set’ of smaller tubes to take plein air painting or to still life sessions at the art society. It won’t replace oils, but it would be much easier to pack for a plane trip when I next go on a holiday.

Posted in art

Artist of the Month

Recently the art society I joined last year asked me to be their Artist of the Month. This is a ‘getting to know you’ exercise rather than a merit award, but still flattering to be asked. It involved hanging examples of my art and writing a short bio. Easy peasy.

Or so I thought. Turns out, I had artwork stored in five different rooms of the house. It included a small amount of surviving school work (almost every place I’ve ever lived has flooded or sprung a leak right where I stored my artwork), work from when I ran an illustration business, many years of work (mostly oils) made in workshops, a whole lot of life drawings, and the Daily Art works that haven’t yet found a home.

When it comes to framed paintings, I have either my favourite work (which I don’t want to let out of the house) or the least successful pieces of those worth framing. I’ve been better at selling or giving away art than I realised – and the portraits I did all went to the sitters. All this mades it difficult to gather a set of work that was good enough to display. In the end I chose one favourite figure painting because it is huge and will take up 1/3 of the space, an animal painting, a portrait loaned to me by the sitter, some life drawings, some Daily Art pieces and a recent still life.

In the process I did a some tidying up and a bit of culling. Mostly from the big pile of life drawings.

I found the first, and only, self portrait I’ve ever made. I was 14-15 years old.

Paul made me a folio holder on casters many years ago. After going through all my art I asked him to add shelves at the base for smaller pieces like Daily Art and still lives.

So participating in Artist of the Month had an extra benefit – making me get all my old and unframed art organised, locating some pieces I’d forgotten about or hadn’t seen in a while, and nudging us into updating the art storage.

Posted in art

SketchBox June 2023

It was a surprise when the June Sketchbox arrived on the 2nd, because the previous two boxes had arrived in the middle of the month. I don’t know if it was due to the Sketchbox organisers sending the international subscriber’s boxes out early or the couriers being extra efficient, but I was certainly delighted to receive it around the same time as other subscribers.

The only down side was that I’d just opened the January one and was still testing out it’s contents, so I waited a week before opening the June box. Initially the box seemed similar to the January one in that they both contained brightly coloured ink, but that’s the only way they were alike. June’s box contained reactive inks.

Unlike the permanent Inktense inks, the Hero Arts inks are meant to rewet, mingle, bloom and bleed. And they certainly do. The sampler I made didn’t hint at how much more reactive they could be.

The behaved themselves in the first artwork – leaving a gap between the background and the objects was a design decision that turned out to have an extra benefit.

It was only when I painted these marbles that I experienced some dramatic bleeding when one colour met another, even when the earlier colour had dried. Fortunately, the marbles were small and have no precise internal edges, so it didn’t matter.

I don’t see this volatility as a fault. It could be rather thrilling in the right situation. I know how it behaves now and can take advantage of that. Which is what I’m enjoying most about getting and exploring these subscription boxes.

The paper in this box is my favourite so far, because despite painting the entire sheet for the lorikeet artwork it stayed perfectly flat. Not the slightest buckle. I want more! The brush was excellent. I’d never normally consider outlining with a pink fine liner, but the Copic pen looks great. The white gel pen didn’t make a completely opaque line, but it was kind of cool how the colour underneath stained it. I used it four ways: as a correction fluid on the white surface, multiply coats to make white highlights, a single coat to lighten an area, and as a barrier layer to stop a new layer of colour bleeding into the one underneath.

I had subscribed to a three-month subscription, but since I’m having fun trying products that are new and/or new to me, I’ve let it tick over into another three month block. It’ll be interesting to see what comes in the next boxes – and if they’ll arrive at the start or the middle of the month.

Posted in art

SketchBox January 2023

Why am I writing about an art materials subscription box from six months ago? Well, waiting two weeks for the April one to arrive had me feeling a bit twitchy and impatient, so I figured if I ordered one of the previous boxes it would arrive right at the start of May, and distract me from the wait for May’s one.

Best laid plans, as they say. According the the tracking, the extra box didn’t ship until after the May one did, and yet the two arrived together mid May. So I decided to save the January one for the start of June, to keep me entertained until the June box arrived. Of course, the June box arrived two days after I opened the January one. By then I was pretty busy, so I waited another week before opening that one.

January’s box is all about Inktense products: pencils and paint pans that are water soluble when you apply but permanent when dry. It’s an appealing idea, especially for making a wash that, once dry, doesn’t shift when you overpaint it. Though I’ve done this with the acrylic inks that came with the Paletteful Packs box, bottles aren’t as portable as little paint pans.

I have to admit to being sucked into the internet culture surrounding these boxes, from watching YouTube videos of unboxings and testing to trying to take nice photos of the contents and the art I made and posting them on Instagram.

But by doing so, I’m learning about art materials that I probably wouldn’t have tried otherwise. The Inktense pans came up quite dark in my swatch and yet when I used them on the background of the bird painting they dried paler than I expected. The Inktense pencils, however, laid down intense pigment that stayed so when water was painted over them. I wound up layering pencil over paint. Which was a faster way to fill the background than colouring it all in with pencil then painting over it.

The paper buckled with use, but then watercolour paper does that if not pre-stretched. I didn’t like the brush – not even for the background – so only used it for the backgrounds. I tried applying masking fluid for the white spots on the mushrooms and was pretty happy with the result.

I can see myself using these products again, probably for laying down backgrounds in watercolour sketches. Maybe also for initial water-soluble guidelines, and when I need to quickly intensify colour in an area. Definitely worth adding to my travel sketching kit.

Posted in art

SketchBox May 2023

Having seen unboxing and testing videos of May’s art supplies, I was keen to try them, but I knew the box wouldn’t arrive until mid-March. A week before, I started picking reference photos from my phone and tested drawing the subjects in pen and watercolour marker. Of course, when it did arrive I was already ‘over’ those ideas and entirely different photos caught my attention.

The box contained graphite pencils, a white pastel pencil, liquid graphite and a lovely warm gold glimmer ink. There was also a pad of toned paper, a sharpener, a brush and an eraser pencil. The only supply I didn’t like was the eraser pencil, which was rather hard and scuffed the paper surface, so I used a standard eraser instead.

The first artwork was of a cat stretching, because it captured the feeling of “gimme, gimme right now”.

It didn’t come as well as I hoped, but it gave me a feel for the materials and taught me to avoid drawing with pencil until the ink or graphite was well and truly dry. Two days later I had a bit more time and did three pieces that I like much more. The suggested theme was “shadow”, so I looked for reference photos that might suit. The first was of our cat gazing out of the window. Most of it was drawn with pencil, with the liquid graphite added for the deepest shadow on the cat and day bed, and of course the glimmer ink watered down a little.

Then I found a reference for a sports car. After an initial sketch with pencils, I explored mixing the glimmer ink with the liquid graphite. It makes a useful greenish tone. By diluting, layering or mixing the graphite, ink and white pastel I could get quite a range out of what was a quite limited colour palette.

And finally, I tackled one of a heritage building at night. This took the longest, because of all the decorative details. The darkest areas are painted with liquid graphite – even the 14B pencil couldn’t approach it in blackness. I diluted the glimmer ink quite a bit to get more of a yellow shade than shimmery effect on the stone walls. The white pastel was used only on the light, and love how it conveys the glow.

Overall, this was a much more ‘arty’ box of materials, and much easier to use, than the previous box. I can see myself using everything in it again. Even the eraser pencil, which might prove more suitable on a different, stronger ground or be good for tweaking the surface colouring on a sculpture. My favourite was the liquid graphite, but I was most surprised by the versatility of the glimmer ink. SketchBOX have hinted that the next box will contain them, which I would very much like.

Posted in art

SketchBox of Goodies

Having sampled one art material subscription box, I decided I liked the experience and wanted to try another. I settled on SketchBox, which had a far more reasonable postage charge. The first box I received was the April one, which arrived mid-April. The extra time it took to get to Australia meant the reveal happened long before I received it, but that’s fine. I’m in it to try some art materials I might not usually pick up, especially those not available in this country, and have fun.

They’d given some pretty strong hints on the website what the contents would be, so it wasn’t a surprise when I opened it to find… Pantone markers. And an extra colour as an ink for refilling markers or working with directly. Plus a marker pad, pencil and brush.

The boxes come with an art sample and a prompt, the latter being “blossom”. I made a sample chart then dutifully photographed some dahlias in the garden and painted… drew… them. The markers were, well, not that great to do this sort of art with. The markers are water-based and it’s supposed to be possible to blend them with water straight after application, but I found they dried fast and wouldn’t reactivate. Painting some water on first helped a bit. The inks don’t all match the lids, and some dried lighter again. They have a chisel tip on one end and a brush tip on the other. at the small scale of the marker pad the thinnest lines I could get were quite thick. I wound up using the brush with the ink to outline everything so it wasn’t so chunky. Too late in the process I realised I could dab the brush on the pen tips and paint with that.

On the up side, the range of colours created when mixing the colours was surprisingly broad, and the saturation of the green was great. The lid of one of the pens had popped off during transport but the pen wasn’t at all dried out. They didn’t bleed through the paper unless applied in several layers and never marked the next sheet.

I found a pile of videos of other artists reviewing them and found most had the same core group of issues, and came up with interesting solutions. Some ‘drew’ into palettes to make puddles of ink they could apply with a paint brush. One had much better results blending and reactivating on watercolour paper.

The pens felt like ones that, (mumble) years ago when I did my tertiary art/design course, were in the kit we were required to buy. They were used in architectural and fashion drawing, applied like fancy highlighters. The look was very 80s. It feels like these would suit that application very well.

Would I buy more? Probably not. But they were completely new to me and I had fun trying them out, which is the whole point of getting these boxes.

Posted in art

New Art Challenges

My year of Daily Art happened at just the right time, finishing a month and a half before life got too difficult to accommodate such a challenge. I had meant to take a break and start again after a month, then changed that to three, and before I knew it six months had passed and it was clear painting every day is no longer practical.

Which is fine. I do want to paint at home with some regularity, however, and the Daily Art challenge made me realise I really like and want to continue painting still lifes. To do that regularly at home I needed a permanent painting space where I could control the light and it didn’t matter if I got paint on the floor, so I have converted half of our big laundry into a mini-studio.

This is where I did most of the ink-making. It was such a cosy nook I decided to keep using it. We removed a drawer unit and inserted shelving and drying racks above the desktop. The cupboards to the right now hold most of my art materials.

This is an old pine table I restored twenty years ago. I have a new light with an amazing variety of controls and a shadow box set up cobbled together from mdf, aluminium channel and perspex sheeting.

I’m exploring painting different materials. At the moment it is glass, and I intend to focus on wood, ceramic, metal, paper and plastic in future. I’m not exploring grounds or mediums and will probably stick to oils and gouache. But there’s a new aspect that I’m focussing on: saleability.

There’s a lot of work from the Daily Art challenge that isn’t worth trying to sell, which I don’t mind because it was fun to do and I learned a great deal. Now I want to include end use into my plans. In particular I’m considering what makes a piece more likely to sell or be adopted by a friend, and letting that guide my choices. It’ll be interesting to see if I’m right or wrong – either will just be another part of the learning process.

I have also given myself another challenge: keeping art for weekdays, work and family-related matters and restricting hobbies to weekends. For a while now it’s felt like the balance was wrong. So far it has felt surprisingly right to divide up the week this way. I guess old habits die hard.

And while on the subject of imbalances… I’ve been reading articles about AI and finding it all rather fascinating but also sad. Like most new technologies it has potential to be a useful tool, but if it can be used to exploit people someone will find a way. Until the copyright issues are worked out, I’m going to avoid posting images of my paintings online.

Daily Art: Six Months Later

I wrote the first version of this post and another one on framing several months ago, and they were waiting on me finishing and photo graphing some of the framing for the Nature’s Remnants series, which I made shadow box frames for. I got a couple of pieces done for friends who wanted them, but forgot to take a photo. Then the Mum disaster happened and I didn’t touch anything until just before New Year, when I managed to frame a few more for an interstate visitor. I forgot to take photos of those ones too. Then just after New Year the Dad disaster happened and I’ve only just got back to tackling framing again.

Reading over those posts, I decided to delete one and then publish a modified version of this one:

I hoped to learn something from the Daily Art Challenge and I did – a great deal. One unexpected lesson came afterwards: there’s nothing quite like framing to make an artwork look worth spending money on… or not. It’s not that I wanted or needed for everything to be framed up and sold, but there definitely were pieces I had grander expectations for than what the reality turned out to be, and visa versa. Here’s a quick assessment:

Flowers. The little book was popular, and I was surprised at how well I did with a subject I have never gravitated to. I reckon I’d enjoy tackling some bigger floral artworks – especially since flower paintings are quite saleable.

Toys. A definite success all around. I enjoyed painting them, they came out well, people loved them, they frame up really well and I reckon I could easily sell them.

Hands & Feet. They were fun and I’m better at pencil than I thought. Not a saleable thing, though.

Food. A satisfying subject to paint and people liked them. I did better with acrylic than I expected, but I’m not sure I’d use it again if I was to paint this subject again. Most likely I’d try painting them in gouache or oils. Not sure if they’d sell but it’s worth a try.

Cars. The subject was a challenge and I think I did okay with it. People liked them, but overall I don’t think they’re a saleable subject in the medium I used. Copic markers are definitely a good medium for sketching but apparently they’re not very light-fast.

Nature’s Remnants. These were a deliberate effort at making something saleable at the same time as being an experiment in ground and medium. Casein was interesting but a bit stinky and not as easy to use as gouache or oils. The shadow box frames I made were a time-consuming, though ultimately great-looking, solution for how to present them – made much harder because the pieces of marine ply were all different sizes and not square. I don’t know that I’d paint something exactly like them again – more likely I’d depict the subject in another medium on a ground that could go in a commercially-available frame.

Faces. Turns out ballpoint pens are nice to draw with… if you don’t have anything better at hand.

Chairs. No. Just no. Okay, to be specific, it was more the medium than the subject I disliked. It was the only theme I really didn’t enjoy, which is weird because I liked the pen and ink drawing for the accessories theme. I’m astonished and grateful that my friends wanted these.

Pets. What can I say? I loved drawing them, they came out great, people loved them, they were nearly all worthy of framing and I reckon I could do pet portraits as a sideline. But, but, but… oh, how I dislike the dustiness of pastels.

Accessories. I really enjoyed drawing in inks and depicting the objects, but this wasn’t a subject that excited any people who looked at the artworks and though the few I framed up look nice they still aren’t particularly saleable. Having made a pile of inks in the Maiwa workshop and afterwards, I’d like to be doing more drawing in ink, but probably only when sketching for the fun of it.

Tools. It surprised me how well I was able to depict objects in coloured pencil, especially when the coloured hands and feet drawings were weaker than the monotone ones. Looking at the subject material and thinking about people’s reaction to the artworks, I’m not sure anyone is going to want any of these framed and on their wall, even though the couple of sets I mounted looked nice.

Kitchenalia. Ah, there’s a reason oils are my favourite medium. They just feel right. And you could depict bird droppings with oils and somehow that would legitimise it as a subject. I wanted to keep nearly all of these, but did give two sets away.

So to sum up, the most enjoyable subjects to paint were natural and nostalgic. My favourite medium was oil, followed by gouache, but I also did well with pencil, conte pastel and biro. The most framable and sellable artwork was the toys by far, but the pets and kitchenalia were also popular. The Nature’s Remnants were popular but too fiddly to frame.

Applying that to the future, I should produce more small oil and gouache paintings of natural and nostalgic subjects, and keep Copic markers, pencil, pen and ink and ballpoint pen as sketching mediums.

Posted in art

The Season for Madder & Acorns

When I did the Maiwa Ink-making workshop I really wanted to make an ink out of the madder plant I am growing, but the best time to harvest is when the plant dies back, in Autumn/Winter and it was Spring at the time. I also wanted to try making acorn cap and pomegranate ink, but oak trees were also in the opposite season for producing nuts, and my pomegranates were only just starting to flower.

Well, the seasons have turned and I’ve switched from using the dye pot for fabric processing to ink production. I dug out what felt like the largest of the madder roots, chopped them up and put a good handful aside for making ink. The rest were dried and put in with my dye supplies. After comparing a few recipes, I boiled up the root, strained it off, reduced the liquid to 50 ml and added Gum Arabic and clove oil.

We have a pin oak here, but it is only just reaching the age to produce acorns. I was excited to see a few last year. This year all I found at first were teeny tiny acorns with almost no cap at all. Later I did find a few bigger acorns with caps, but it was clear I wouldn’t get many this year either.

I’d told Dad that I wanted to make acorn ink but needed to find an oak tree in full production, and the next time I saw him he presented me with a small bag of caps from a local tree. So I crushed those up and soaked them for a week, then boiled them for an hour. I strained and filtered out the caps then reduced the liquid down to 50 ml. Acorn is a tannin so, after making 30 ml into an unadulterated ink with Gum Arabic and clove oil, I added 12 ml of a 10% ferrous solution to the other 20 ml make an iron-blackened ink.

The iron acorn version works just like iron gall ink, in that it darkens as it oxidises, though not to the deep black galls produce. It’s very satisfying and a great alternative if you can’t find galls. Oak trees are common in Melbourne parks, and you just pick the caps up off the ground rather than having to collect galls from branches.

It had occurred to me that I could make some inks from leftover dye sources from the Print & Paint workshop, and I decided to try making myrobalan and pomegranate inks. Though my pomegranate tree was laden with fruit, they were far from ripe, and I had plenty of powder so I figured I may as well use it.

Using the proportions of ingredients in Maiwa’s iron gall recipe, I set two jars simmering in a water bath, with the jars of powder sitting behind the pan in the same order to remind me which was which. However, I needed to pick them up at one stage then couldn’t remember which order I’d had them in. The solutions looked exactly the same and smelled too similar to identify them, and the inks looked identical except that the non-iron version of one seemed to shift to red. In the end I had to put a quarter teaspoon of each powder into a little container and add water, then filter them both, because the only difference I could recall was that one filtered through a cloth easily while the other blocked up and formed a distinctive paste on the fabric. Good thing I did, because I had switched them around.

Maybe it didn’t matter, since the inks look so similar, but I don’t yet know how these will develop over time. I’d still like to make ink out of the rinds of home grown pomegranates, and I’d like to try making ink from eucalyptus leaves rather than bark. I suspect there’s always another ink to try.

I played a bit making Jason Logan-inspired ink circles. The madder dripped onto a titanium white base did interesting things.

And the brazilwood on madder looks like a petri dish experiment.

Posted in art

Testing Times

Back in December I made this shirt:

It was a test of a vintage pattern and I wasn’t all that impressed with it. The shirt came out okay, but when I went to wear it I found the facing fabric in the button band and collar was much too stiff and uncomfortable, so I cut off the buttons and sent it off to a clothing recycling company.

Just about that time, Tessuti released a similar shaped shirt with a collar, so I bought it, and recently did a test version:

The fabric is a rayon sarong I bought in an op shop. I used a very light facing in the collar and under the buttonholes. It’s very wearable, though the weather here has suddenly grown too cold for short sleeves and single layers. The pattern has some annoyances like teeny tiny photos of very busy cloth that you can’t make out the seams on, and the collar method seemed needlessly fussy.

Nothing bad enough that I wouldn’t use it to make the shirt I was testing patterns for. That one will be made from a piece of fabric I painted in the Maiwa class, plus some black and white linen I bought to go with it. I’d have probably started that project this week if I hadn’t come down with a bug that had me sleeping half of most afternoons. Not Covid, but probably the one spreading among friends with sinusitis as the main symptom.

I’ll get to it soon enough. And I’ve thought a lot about art and hobbies, how much of my time I want to dedicate to either, and how the reality is the opposite. I decided to try limiting hobbies to weekends and art to weekdays. This will be helped by finally getting a workable set up in the new studio side of the laundry. The last piece of the puzzle was a still life “box” that controls the direction of light on the subject.

I was happy with how the trial artwork went. Maybe tomorrow I’ll squeeze in another piece.