Just this week I’ve painted on: paper, (nice paper—300 LB Lanaquarelle), with the remains of several starts, leaving a highly textured underpainting; a smooth, gessoed panel; and a fresh canvas. Each substrate has a different feel and takes paint differently. I’m not sure whether the viewer can tell any of it, but as the painter, I can tell a great deal of difference in the benefits and limits to all of them. Each surface responds to my touch in a different way and requires a particular mark-making “vocabulary” in order to communicate—in order to get the paint to do what I want. (Although it still has a worthy mind of its own, much like a teenager.)
My favorite surface is a clean, white sheet of hot press, good quality paper at least 140lb weight. Of course 200–300lb paper is even better. When I dampen the surface of this beauty and then begin to register the darkest darks of the composition in charcoal, silky shadows spread with ease leaving a rich, black stain to be absorbed into the surface. From there my mood, the music, the subject, carefully chosen, etc., all have a hand on what comes next.
The smooth hard surface of board absorbs nothing. Paint can run and drip, sometimes too much. The board resists any pressure. This lends itself to using tools that scrap thin layers across the surface, drying quickly allowing for new layers, creating visual texture and depth of color in each passage. The same impetus informs the progress, but the process of creating layered passages of angles and lines derived from the tools is a little like building with Legos. Lyrical lines and blended passages tend to play second fiddle to the structural quality of rubber palette knives and color shapers.
The canvas comes with its own subtle and uniform texture that used to get in my way. But I’ve learned to tolerate it. The ease with which I can turn the painting while working and ultimately frame it leads me to use canvas more frequently than the other substrates. But its spring-back in response to pressure influences my marks. The tooth of its texture tends to grab the paint, even when I don’t want it to. It’s my least favorite, but most practical.
Brushes for any surface contributes to the paint quality. I am a brush whore. Brushes are the most exciting and the most expensive things I own other than house, car and a few pieces or furniture. There is so much possibility in a brush! Bristles (many kinds) are stiffer than hair and allow a dry-brush technique that leaves space between threads of paint. When loaded with multiple colors you can create an irregular, woven-look, allowing for luminosity. Hair brushes (also many kinds) absorb water and offer smooth brushwork. Flat brushes carve. Pointed rounds make expressive lines. Mop and Hake (wash) brushes hold lots of water and pigment allowing for covering large areas. And when used mostly dry, with a spritz of water from a spray bottle, they’re great for blending.
Choice alternates between what I want the painting to look like and how much I enjoy using the tools. The look evolves with my understanding of the subject. Sometimes the enjoyment can cause overworking.
Overworking. It’s the god’s punishment for playing with materials and tools too much, or being a perfectionist, or trying to control the process. Stopping. Looking. From a DISTANCE. It is the only way to evaluate what you are doing. Putting work in progress on a wall to gaze at it for a while has NOTHING to do with display, exhibition, or pride in any way. No one sees it that way but you (if you are guilty of this misunderstanding). Looking at a distance is ESSENTIAL to seeing! The only judgement is yours. (And while you’re working it may be the only judgement that counts, but go easy and let others help you see.)
Painting is a visual language. Just like words, grammar and punctuation are all means of arriving at a statement, your tools, your media and substrate choices all contribute to your technique, which as Jackson Pollack says: “Technique is simply a means of arriving at a statement”. What are you going to say today?
Up Next—a Grammar Lesson.