Sunday, April 4, 2010

An art studio as an art school

After some long hours of work (around seven to eight a day) a thought came to my mind. By spending so much time every day painting I start seeing my studio as a school. There is so much to be learned and unlearned from it every time you start working. Everyday I feel like a student learning from some exciting new discovery Ive made on my own. I enjoy sharing these personal discoveries in this blog with anyone interested.
Im aware that most of these discoveries are not really discoveries in the sense that someone else might have found out about it centuries before I did . This reminds me of those old history books that tell us Christopher Columbus "discovered" the Americas like no one else lived in the "New World" (New for the Europeans).An artist sensible enough to history will question these cultural assumptions. In an artist studio, the painter is challenged by constant unquestioned assumptions and rules that the painter must confront every time he or she is in front of his or her work. 

Going back to a few studio "discoveries" that I wish to share:

Not long ago I had a color palette placed right beside me. After some time twisting and turning to pick up some colors from my palette on  to my brushes I decided to change position and have the palette in front of me instead. This might be an obvious practice to many painters but something easy to forget with time and that was precisely my case. This is the reason why I think many of us should teach, in order to keep good studio habits fresh and alive by means of example. By keeping colors right in front of your painting, painting becomes a more direct and immediate activity.

The whole idea of creating a color palette is to facilitate the painting process, to paint faster and more effectively create and match colors. By placing a large glass or plexi glass palette in front and between the painting and myself I keep a good distance from my work. This allows me to see the whole while I work on the details. The problem with working too closely is that one looses focus of the whole picture and everything ends up in dis-harmony in the process.

I would say that an arms length is a proper distance with small works. I remember using long sticks attached to my brushes when working larger formats. Not only was I able to "see the whole picture" while I worked. My painting was even looser, more expressive and fluid. The Mexican muralists  like Diego Rivera and Siqueiros often used to work like this with very long brushes.

Something else I have learned or evolved to do in my studio is to keep fewer brushes when I work. Not only do I do this to spend less time cleaning and avoiding having to deal with dirty brushes but also I found that most of the time I ended up using seven brushes. These seven brushes are photographed below

Now I use just seven brushes that do most of the job. I also use a small rag or piece of cloth to wipe out mistakes or colored glazes and a palette knife. I use my fingers as well. Many painters from the past like Leonardo and Titian were into the habit of using their fingers to paint. The more direct one can handle paint the more control one has over it. Just make sure you are not using toxic pigments and make sure you don't bite your nails and wash your hands regularly. The seven brushes I use are composed of three small long liners, three medium sized filbert brushes and one relatively large round brush. Numbers and sizes vary according to brand but all of these are usually taklon synthetic or natural sable. Ive been surprised of how long my cheap brushes have survived and I suspect it has to do with what I do with them after every use. I dip them in olive oil and leave them resting over my working table. Olive oil is a very slow drying oil. In fact it does not seem to dry at all therefore not allowing paint in the brushes to dry. Of course when you use these brushes again you must make sure you wipe the olive oil off of them. Otherwise your painting will not dry either.

 The script, liner or rigger brush (all different names for this tiny long haired brush) are among my favorite brushes. With these I manage to get most of the minute detail in my small format and retablo work.
 I normally use three of these brushes at a time. A 20/0 a 6/0 and a 0. One will carry the dark colors, one the middle tones and the third lighter colors. I wipe out the paint off the brush when I go from one color to another.

I use number 2, 4 and  6 filbert brushes to paint larger areas within my composition. The same as with the liner brushes, I keep three for three values: light, middle and dark tones or values. The larger round brush I occupy to blend edges which is so important in this kind or realistic old master rendering. One must keep lines to a minimum in order to convey a convincing sense of atmosphere and what Leornardo Da Vinci would have called  "sfumato" (foggy or airy blending). I shall write more extensively about these terms in future entries. For now what I find relevant to mention is that good quality brushes are surely best to anything but a painting depends much more on how you use your tools than on what kind of tools you use. You may use crappy materials and produce masterpieces. Its how you use them what really matters. That is why I do not favor any particular kind of brand of oil paints or brushes. I would advice try them all if you can and stick to whatever suits you best. I have my personal preferences of course but these have changed in recent years.

On the photo above you may appreciate how Im blending my painted contour lines in order to maintain some tonal unity and  the illusion of an atmospheric"sfumato". The painting Ive been working on is my own version of the three graces re contextualized with the themes of consumerism, corn production and genetically manipulated organisms. I have borrowed Mayan  glyphs and classical poses and combined them with contemporary issues. It is titled "The survival of the Graces" . I shall post a photo of the work once it is completed. I wish to thank all of those who have commented on my blog and facebook. I thank you all for your support and are more than happy to receive your comments, suggestions or questions. I'll keep blogging every week and soon will deal more with conceptual issues which Im sure many of you will appreciate reading.