Luddite Looking Forward

woman headcase 24 In trying to finish this painting I spend a lot of time waiting for my eyes to see things in a fresh way, for an unexpected vision of possibility to jump out of the by now dull, locked-in, familiar sight. It’s like staring at one of those visual puzzles that have two potential pictures in one—a young lady or a crone? a vase or two profiles?—and trying really hard to see the young lady when your brain stubbornly refuses to see anything but the crone.  The alternate vision cannot be forced; seemingly of its own accord the brain flips between one thing or another. Similarly with this painting I cannot seem to force new solutions to the visual puzzle. Often it helps to turn the painting upside-down to jog my brain. It definitely helps to go away for a while, or turn it to the wall for a bit and then look at it fresh. A couple weeks ago I went to  hip-hop dance class with my friend R., which was really fun—and hard—and involved totally unfamiliar body movements, and I noticed—happenstance?—that I had an awesome day in the studio the next day. I've read that doing new activities literally makes your brain grow new connections to process the information, strengthening ye olde brain muscle, and I wonder if those new pathways in turn can help with creative thinking. I get so stuck in my safe, comfortable ruts. It takes a lot of energy to heave myself out of them, but whenever I manage to do it, I find there is corresponding energy from new experiences that more than compensates.

Speaking of new activities, I’m embarking on a new studio adventure. I just received a shipment of acrylic paint from Guerra Paint, and I’m getting ready to try it out. I’m super excited, and also totally bewildered by it. Guerra Paint is a company in New York that sells a DIY paint making system—but without much in the way of instructions. You purchase the colors you want—and they have an amazing array—as pigment dispersions, that is, the pigments come already mixed with water as super-concentrated solutions, and you also purchase the acrylic medium, which is the binder, and then you mix up the paint yourself. (The binder is what holds the pigments together in a paint film on the canvas; if you tried to paint with the pigment dispersion, the paint particles would just fall right off after the water evaporated, because there would be nothing to bind them together. In oil paint, linseed oil is the binder; in watercolors, it’s gum arabic. In acrylic paint, it’s acrylic resin.)

This is going to require a lot of experimentation to figure out the right paint “recipe” for my painting style, which will involve jiggering the proportion of pigment dispersion to medium, the amount of water, and this stuff called Silica Flat, which you add to make the paint more matte, acrylic medium generally being quite shiny. It also means I need to get a bunch of containers with lids to store the paint in once its mixed so it doesn’t dry out before I can use it. It really is a lot like cooking, stirring and mixing and measuring and tinkering with proportions, and ending up with a bunch of stuff in Tupperware. Why not buy the paint already ready to go in tubes? Well, as I understand it, the advantages of making your own paint with the Guerra Paint system are many. First, they have an amazing range of pigments. Second, once you get comfortable with using the components you have complete control over what kind of paint you want to make, thick or thin, matte or super-shiny, and can make it to your own exacting, particular specifications. Third, the paint will be better quality, that is it will have a much higher quantity of the actual pigment in it compared to commercially mixed acrylic, as explained on the Guerra site:

Acrylics most often used by commercial artist paint manufacturers generally have a solids content of 45-50%. Generally more water is added with the pigments or fillers, bringing the solids content down to 30-35%. This means 60-70% of the total volume of commercial paint evaporates, which tends to lessen the overall quality.

If you have never painted, a gigantic difference between oil paint and acrylic paint is the drying time. With oil paint, I’ll spend anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour mixing a palette with the colors I think I’m going to need for a particular painting, and then use them for the rest of the day. Oil paint is made simply of pigment and oil (usually linseed oil), and it dries by oxidation, which can take a couple of days or much longer. This means you can squish it around for a long, long time—which painters call working wet-into-wet—and also that it blends with ease, lending itself beautifully to the painting of flesh, among other things. It also means that the color is the same when the paint is wet as when it is dry (which is not the case with acrylic paint, which tends to dry a bit darker; this can make it difficult when you want to match a color). Acrylics on the other hand dry extremely rapidly, because they dry by the evaporation of their water content, which happens exponentially quicker than the oxidation of oil. If I tried to mix a palette of acrylic paint the same way I do with oil paint, the paint would be drying on the palette before I even finished mixing, let alone ever getting to the painting. Due to this, it’s much more difficult to blend acrylic paint, or paint wet-into-wet. However, it’s also precisely for this rapid drying time that I’m giving acrylic a try. I cannot stand how long it’s taking me to finish these paintings, and so much of it is merely waiting for paint to dry—and then usually scraping it off or painting over it. With acrylic I could probably do in a day work that is currently taking me a month, and making me feel like an idiot. My hope is that it will rapidly speed my process, because right now I am so unbelievably slow that I am on the verge of driving myself insane, and perhaps even right out of the studio.

Anyway, I’m excited about the prospect of making faster paintings, and I’m also pleased that working with acrylics is basically non-toxic, as you simply use water to dilute it and to clean brushes, rather than a solvent. I use odorless mineral spirits for oil painting, which doesn’t make me feel ill the way turpentine does, but I’ve gotten really paranoid about my chronic exposure to it, even in the small amount I use, even with the window open & fan blowing etc., so anything that cuts down on my solvent exposure is a good thing. (Especially as I contemplate the possibility, the still completely vague, utterly terrifying, yet also strangely entrancing possibility of someday being pregnant . . . FUCK it scares me that I even wrote that. Let’s not talk about it.)

Finally, and maybe most apropos, I think that using acrylic for parts of the paintings is also conceptually appropriate to my fascination with the idea of hybrids, which are in a way a tug of war between my completely sappy romance with oil painting and the history of oil painting, and my desire to make paintings that reference and build on that but also find a way to innovate, to do something that hasn’t been done before in quite the same way, that don’t fall into that sticky trap of Old Master worship unredeemed by a grain of irreverence, by the recognition that we are in fact living in the 21st century, where painting is, for all its ardent fans, more or less irrelevant to our visual culture, outside of a tiny, snooty sub-section. Why should people care about static, unchanging, low-tech rectangular images, when you have utterly seductive, entrancing, ever-flickering high-def rectangular images on your television, movie screen, computer, iPhone?  It’s a losing battle—a lost battle, really—but I’ve always been a bit of a Luddite. I’ll still use oil paint for the bodies in the paintings, because that's what it was invented for, but I’ll use acrylic for other parts of the painting, the invented parts, a combination of mediums which I hope has the potential to further emphasize the two halves of the hybrid, one part looking backwards and one part forwards. The future grafted onto the past, like apples onto rootstock. Which could be interesting. Hopefully.