Monday 24 January 2011

New Medium Madness

Normally, I need my studio to be very neat and orderly if I'm to work in it effectively.  However, this is how it looked a couple of days ago.

The culprit: a selection of new acrylic paints which I bought a few weeks ago.  They had been sitting on the shelf, in tidy rows, mostly well behaved, waiting. 

I have been in a period of transition with my painting lately.  In the past, I've painted with oil paint - sometimes mixed with a cold wax medium to create more texture and luminescence.  And the paintings have been mainly abstracted landscapes.  Nature is almost always the inspiration for my visual work.  

Lately, I've been wanting to experiment with materials I can use at home - my  home studio is too small to leave a large canvas sitting with oil paint drying on it for days and days, and I don't want to fill the air with toxic fumes. 

I have been wanting to find a way to combine what I've been learning through my recent foray into collage, with my abstract paintings.  I decided to try painting on paper - mostly Japanese mulberry papers which are incredibly strong - with acrylics (a technique that some collage makers use to get exactly the colours they want).  This, of course, resulted in a tremendous mess. 

A tremendous and incredibly fun mess.  There was a certain freedom to having my things lying all over the floor: paints, brushes, pallets of baking paper and cardboard, print making rollers, pieces of cardboard and toothpicks to make designs with.  Then I knelt down and got to work.  I painted, and rolled, and crinkled, and put papers together to transfer paint from one to another...This went on for quite some time.  (It didn't used to hurt this much getting up again after sitting on the floor the floor, did it?) 

The papers were hung to dry in batches on a makeshift line over my desk.

Today, they are all dry and ready to be used.  After a frenzied clean up, I'm ready to experiment: ripping, cutting, layering, applying the papers to cradled wood panels: essentially, painting with paper.

Between work sessions, while waiting for the paint to dry, I read Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale."  Now, given that acrylic paint dries in no time at all, and that I'm a slow reader, the fact that I managed to finish this book in a couple of days speaks for how enthralled I was.  I couldn't put it down.  I thought I had read it some time after it came out in 1985, but after the first couple of sentences, I knew I hadn't.  

The book is fascinating on many levels: for Atwood's mastery with words; for her cutting wit; for her disturbing and sometimes outrageous vision of how close we as a civilized people are to tipping over, into a chasm of fanaticism, bigotry, ignorance, and oppression.  Her writing is at times that of a poet (her first collection of poems "The Circle Game" - written when she was still in her twenties - shows a poet with amazing word-craft and razor-sharp insight); and at other times that of a master of clean, spare prose, with amazing attention to detail, and portraits of people that are at times startling, and at times touching.  All of this is peppered with a dry, black humour and irony.  


This reminded me of another book of hers - which I did read, a few years ago - and which I now want to read again.  "Negotiating With the Dead" is a collection of six lectures she gave at Cambridge University as part of their Empson Lecture series in 2000.  In these lectures, she discusses writing and the role of the writer.  It's almost worth the bibliography alone, as she makes reference to so many other books of literature, myth, religion, theatre, poetry...the word "intertextuality" comes to mind when I think of these lectures - and when I think of her writing in general, come to think of it.

Leafing through the book, I found a couple of passages I'd underlined, perhaps eight years ago.  One of them was this: 

"The title of this chapter is 'Negotiating with the Dead,' and its hypothesis is that not just some, but all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality - by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead.      
You may find the subject a little peculiar.  It is a little peculiar.  
Writing itself is a little peculiar."

So much of Atwood's writing is infused with these archetypal, mythological references.  A journey to the Underworld, a place which fascinates us all, but where only heroes (and lowly writers?) dare to go. 


So, back to my journey through messy studio, an encounter with a new medium, and now to try to blend two rather disparate techniques into a pleasing, cohesive whole which makes some sort of aesthetic sense to me. A journey not quite as magnificent as that to the Underworld and back, but rewarding nonetheless.  I'll post some pictures of my attempts.  If they work out. 

And...those are the ends of the tassels of my scarf, in the picture above, not my hair.  Really. 


  1. Your paper look inspiring! I'm one of those painters that really needs a clean studio, but right now mine is OVERWHELMED with stuff and it is freezing in there waiting for the new heater is on order. But there is something very freeing about making a mess, and, yes, getting up from the floor used to be easy. Hence my large work table. Happy painting!

  2. I love your photos! I've started painting on paper to, but one piece at a time. What do you use to clip them to day? . . . wait till the edge dries then use that part of the paper to clip? Also, when they're dry, are they flat or do you keep applying acrylic until is saturates the paper? Your post inspires me!

  3. This from another Jan, spelled with only one 'n' though ...

    I have read quite a bit of Ms. Atwood's fiction and her best of all time, IMHO, is the Handmaid's Tale. I still have an old copy of it. I have also read her most recent books, Year of the Flood and Oryx & Crake, with the later being my fav.

    I don't pick up her fiction lightly, she likes (I believe that I have read something to this effect) to challenge her readers ... instead of handing us things on a plate, for mere consumption. Here here!

    About the messy studio ... gosh I know what you mean: my projects are strew across my small-ish living room space right now. It is always a relief to be able to scoop things up once they've dried. lol.

  4. arggh! typos ... strewn, strewn, they are strewn ... lol.

  5. I do hope that your heater arrives soon, Valerianna. Your studio looks just beautiful! I have heard that parts of The States and Canada are having a serious cold spell - hopefully that will pass soon. And hopefully you can get into that studio soon, as well. Stay warm.

    Jann, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. What I have done with the papers - and I'm still just figuring this out as I go along - is to apply thin layers of acrylic paint with a roller/brayer. First I mix the paint on a pallet, roller it until there's not much on the roller, then apply it to the paper. I do up to five or six layers of different colours, depending on the effect I'm after. (I find the more colours, the deeper and subtler the effect - especially if I go over it all with white at the end - which gives a rather lichen-covered-rock effect.) Then I leave them for at least ten minutes, then hang them with metal paper clips on a line. It would be better with those mini wooden clothes pegs, but I don't have enough of them. (Must put that on my list for the next time I'm at the art supply shop.)

    I haven't started to apply them to the wood panel yet, but they are for the most part flat, and - I believe/hope - that just two or three thin coats of acrylic medium should keep them attached to the wood. Once I've experimented, I'll let you know.

    Hi, Jan (with one 'n'!). I completely agree about not picking up Margaret Atwood lightly. I hadn't read one of hers for a long time - as I find I'm not always in the mood. And there have been a couple of her books that I haven't been able to finish. Oryx & Crake was one of those - I think I just wasn't in the right mood for it at the time. I must give it another go!

    Interesting that you find "The Handmaid's Tale" her strongest piece. I'm leaning that way too, although right now it's pretty much neck-in-neck with "The Robber Bride" - though I think part of the appeal of that book, for me, was that it was set in Toronto (the city I grew up in).

  6. Oh goodness, that looks like a lot of fun! I'd earmarked studio space of my own a few years back - a tiny former bathroom, gutted of fixtures and fittings but too small to be turned into a bedroom. It's now filled from floor to ceiling with various pieces of *cough* 'really important' old toot we keep on the offchance that we'll use it again but of course never do. One day I'm going to pluck up the courage to divest it of it's 'treasures' and turn it back into the workspace I'd previously earmarked it as.............I may be gone some time!

  7. You should reclaim the workspace, K&K! It is such a wonderful luxury to have a space where one can work and be creative and make a mess. And it certainly doesn't need to be large. (Do I see a gigantic yard sale in your future?)

  8. Your messy studio looks like mine right now-- every once in awhile I spend the day painting acrylic on rice papers like you did--- need to replenish for my collage work-- the papers have to dry and they end up all over the floor-- can barely walk around.. I did not finish what colors I wanted so the mess is still all over the floor-- but that is how I work too-- I paint on rice papers and then I use them in my collages.

  9. I was wondering whether that's how you got some of the lovely colours and textures you get, Donna.

    A while ago, I looked for Japanese papers with specific colours, (I love maroons and deep but vibrant blues) but couldn't seem to find them. At first I experimented with watercolours on mulberry paper, but that didn't work (it was far too muted and splotchy, I found). The collages I have made, so far, with the printed Japanese papers I'm happy with and want to continue making, but I think it will be quite a different experience to (hopefully) have control over the exact colours.

    Originally, I wanted to use just the new acrylic paints directly on wood, but then I wondered whether I couldn't do a combination of both: paint on the wood, but also paint on paper and apply that to the same piece. I also want to experiment with drawing directly onto the finished surface as well...I tried a bit with pencil last night, but it didn't work out - even with a very soft one.

    One lesson I have learned is that I MUST sweep before laying out all of the papers to be painted! I was madly plucking dust-bunnies out of the quickly drying acrylic.

  10. Hi Lynn! Thank you for leaving a comment on my blog ~ not only because I'm new to blogger, but also because it lead me to your wonderful site. So much beauty! And we both have a love of multi-mediums :~) There are a few photos of my workspaces here . Also, I recently went on an Atwood kick as well ~ I've always admired her work, but I sort of sank blissfully into a number of re-reads and new-to-me books by her, including "Cat's Eye" which I think I'll have to label as a favorite. Anyway, pleased to "meet" you!

  11. Thanks for visiting, Donna! I followed your link above - you have a beautiful work space. Isn't that a fun and inspiring series that Terri's put together. (There are a couple of pictures of my workspace there on Dec. 15 - I just tried to make a link to it in the body of this e-mail, but have absolutely no idea how to...I'm most computer savvy person.)

    When I saw your blog, I didn't put that you together with the you in the "on your desk" series - and not with Cabinet des Fees - such a fabulous journal.

    Can't wait to see more of your images and read more of your words!

  12. Hello, Amanda, Anna, and Ralf. Thanks for visiting the blog.

    Amanda, I looked at your lovely pieces at your Etsy shop. You have a real sense for the fantastical.

    Anna and Ralf, it's lovely to see a couple of people from Germany here!

  13. Hi Lynn ~ Terri's "On Your Desk" series *is* inspiring! I really enjoy seeing other's work spaces and didn't realize you were there as well. La! Like you, I find the "nook" style to be a cozily conducive space for writing. I love the WIP shot above as contrasted to the one on Terri's blog :) My "Muse Room" is currently in a state of creative chaos ~ I've been working on a few masks and there are bits of fake flora and found objects *everywhere.*