The right paint for the job

No movements or schools of art began as a result of the discovery of new materials or inventions of new techniques. Rather, when new ideas and aesthetic departures arose, they created a demand for new technical methods that could express them in a more appropriate and fluent manner than was possible with the older methods.
–Ralph Mayer, The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques, 4th edition

I’ve been trying to remember … it was so long ago … when, exactly did I develop an aversion to polymer paints, aka “acrylics”? I know that I did use them, from time to time, back when I was just starting out. I seem to recall painting a few large, abstract murals in acrylics back in the early 80s.

But I stopped using them altogether sometime in the middle of that decade. I think it had something to do with a growing realization that if I was going to get serious about painting I would have to ground myself more in the craft. Despite having a BFA, or maybe partly because of it, I had begun to chafe at how little I really knew about how paintings were put together. That was when I first apprenticed myself to Ralph Mayer (or more accurately his book, as mentioned in an earlier post), and started delving more seriously into the history of the medium itself.

Of course, having come on stream in the 1950s, acrylic paints have very little history, and they had even less back then. I had the sense, whether rightly or wrongly, that the advent of acrylics might have fundamentally changed the nature of painting, and not for the better. Maybe acrylics were responsible for the brash, plasticky look of Pop art, a look I had little desire to emulate. At any rate, Mayer had very little to say about acrylics.

While oils were by then my medium of choice, I also worked in watercolour and gouache, and even dabbled a bit in casein and egg tempera. It definitely didn’t hurt to limit myself to more traditional kinds of paints for a time to get a sense of how their strengths and weaknesses might have conditioned the look of historical painting. But if I was going to be honest, I’d probably have to wonder how much of my aversion to acrylics was grounded in practical considerations like that, and how much was just a kind of snobbishness. Acrylics do have a few unfortunate associations: I mentioned the plasticky look above (which can be overstated), and also they have a whiff of the beginner or the amateur about them, because their immensely practical qualities — quick drying time, no volatile solvents, clean up with soap and water, no “fat over lean” — lend themselves to use by those not willing or yet able to engage with more technically demanding media. Whereas nothing says “old master” like oil paint, the legions of amateur daubers who have worked in that medium notwithstanding.

By Creator:Fernand Léger (Photographed by Zambonia 28 October 2011) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Creator:Fernand Léger (Photographed by Zambonia 28 October 2011) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

My current way of thinking is that it’s wrong to get too caught up in what one might call technological symbolism. Yes, the kind of paint you use conditions the look of your end result. And for that reason if you’re seeking to emulate the look of historic styles, as the Classical Realists do, you’d be foolish to try to do that with materials that hadn’t been invented back then. If emulating historic styles isn’t really your goal though it makes sense to use whatever kind of paint will best achieve the result you happen to be shooting for, and not get too wound up about “old master” connotations. If you like working slowly, or delicately blending your colours, then oils are probably the way to go. But if large flat areas of colour, improvisatory techniques with lots of overpainting, or heavy impasto are more your metier, then why not use paints that were developed for those very things?

As per the Mayer quote above, acrylic paints were developed precisely because painters were trying to use oil paint in ways that it was never intended to be used, and that was leading to all kinds of problems. New approaches demanded new technology, and now we have options open to us that earlier painters did not.

So where does that leave me? I’m a bit of a borderline case, I think. My approach derives from styles that date from the first half of the 20th century and so were developed predominantly by painters who worked a lot in oils, like Picasso and Braque. But many of the paintings from that era had more of the characteristics associated with acrylic paintings, like large flat areas of colour and improvisatory technique. Subtlety and fine modeling were often absent from early modernism, as in the Leger above. These styles were in fact some of the transitional ones that led, decades later, to the introduction of acrylics, because oil paint was not optimal for these kinds of uses.

As mentioned before I’m interested in exploring the formal languages of early modernism but more in the way of a commentary than a revival, so I don’t think its necessary for me to cleave to an antiquarian orthodoxy when it comes to the craft. All of which is to say I’ve decided to work a bit in acrylics again, for the first time in something like 30 years. I’ll let you know how that goes.

Exploration

“To invent something totally new and different just because you want to do something new and different is in my opinion, the height of stupidity and hubris.” — Linus Torvalds

You frequently run across the assumption that the fundamental purpose of painting is to blaze new trails into undiscovered aesthetic country. In some circles this has become so widely accepted that no one bothers to question it any more. Which is too bad, because it is clearly wrong.

The elevation of formal innovation to the primary purpose of painting is actually quite recent, dating from the invention of photography. Photography forced a radical reinvention of the art of painting by taking over its basic representational function. From the middle of the 19th century through the middle of the 20th, generations of painters laboured to re-establish painting in a niche that was undeniably its own. All the great movements of the modern period – Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, Constructivism, Surrealism, Abstraction – represented an attempt to discover what was truly unique to painting. In the process of reinventing painting, painters opened up a lot of new ground, and (I would argue) succeeded admirably well in creating a place for painting in the era of photography. Unfortunately, in the process they (and their exegists) also created the misunderstanding that opening up new ground was what painting was about, end of story. In evaluating paintings, the appearance of newness became the only criteria that mattered.

All forms of expansion eventually reach their limits. Eventually, the radical innovators of the modern period came up against some pretty insurmountable boundaries; after all, there’s only so much you can do with patches of colour on canvas. After the 1950s, formal innovation & exploration slowed to a crawl. If the purpose of painting is exploration, and this is not happening, then painting must be over. QED.

However, the purpose of painting cannot be simply to innovate for the sake of innovation. Or to put it another way, if the purpose of painting or any other human activity is only to expand its territory, then it is not worth worrying about, because it’s completely trivial. Formal innovation is only a byproduct of painting’s fundamental purpose, which is the same as any other kind of human communication: to say something meaningful about something that matters. If what you want to say can be expressed within the range of available techniques, then formal innovation is unnecessary.

 

DIY

Zimmermann_1880_ellipse

I’m not giving away much when I assert that my paintings derive from an aesthetic that was fairly prevalent in the first half of the 20th century. I’m heavily influenced by the schools that trace their origin back to Cezanne and subsequently evolved into Cubism, Constructivism, the Bauhaus, Geometric Abstraction and other related offshoots. (I’d also include Paul Klee in this group, although he stood somewhat off to the side and is sometimes lumped in with the Surrealists, which is the other major current in early/mid 20th century painting.)

The whole cubism/constructivism thing really waned after about 1950 or so. There were a couple of reasons for that I think. It had become stylistically pervasive to the point where it started to influence the look of just about everything: advertising, architecture, public sculpture, furniture, magazine illustration, Saturday morning cartoons, etc, often in a somewhat mannered form, and people got a bit tired of it. It also carried European associations and that didn’t fit well with the post war shift of the centre of avant garde painting from Paris to New York.

But that’s all ancient history now, which I guess might prompt the question why I persist in painting in a style that was well on the way out before I was born. I have several reasons, but the one I want to write about today has to do with something I’ve never seen explicitly mentioned in connection with painting from the period in question: a lot of it has a do-it-yourself (aka DIY) quality you don’t see much in the painting from earlier or later eras. By which I mean that much of it looks like it was painted in someone’s garage.

Now, I suppose it would be easy enough to spin that negatively, but let’s not rush to judgement just yet. Let me elaborate a bit first.

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Varnish or not?

Meubelwonder J-10, Kleines Chemische Fabrieken, pic1

Over at Painting Perceptions there’s a great post on the historical symbolism of varnishing paintings.

It covers a fair bit of ground, but for me the major takeaway was that, back in the 19th century, not varnishing their paintings was one of the ways the Moderns distanced themselves from their more aesthetically conservative Academic counterparts. Varnish, over and above its practical function as a protective layer, carried a whole freight of symbolic value, the sum total of which was to affirm a painting’s status as a Valuable Object, part of a continuity of great art extending back over the centuries. The Moderns, beginning with the Impressionists, sought to make painting that was less obviously precious and more an expression of the contemporary world with its rough edges and discontinuities.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, mainly because I’ve started painting oils again and I have to figure out what my approach to varnishing them (or not) is going to be. Symbolism aside, varnishing your paintings isn’t a bad idea. Varnish may carry some unwanted symbolic freight, but it also confers a significant practical benefit: all else being equal, your paintings last longer and are easier to clean and cheaper to maintain. So there are good, pragmatic reasons for varnishing.

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Material change

Twenty-eight years ago now I acquired a copy of Ralph Mayer’s “Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques”. The fourth edition, the last one he wrote before he died. (There was a fifth edition that was still mostly Mayer but was updated by other people.) It was my go-to source for anything relating to the craft side of painting, and for several years afterward when it came to things like stretching canvases or making painting mediums, I did them the Mayer way.

mayer

After a while I got pretty good at stretching unprimed linen, tacking it to the frame with #4 carpet tacks, sizing it up with the rabbit skin glue, and priming it with lead white. It sounds pretty straightforward, but there are some tricks to it. Most importantly, you have to get the tension on the linen right. The hot glue causes the linen fibres to contract; if you’ve stretched it too tight the contracting fibres can cause the chassis (aka stretchers) to warp. I had a couple of canvasses come out looking like potato chips before I figured that out. But when it works, it’s magic: your canvasses are tight as a drum, in a way that’s impossible to do with canvas pullers.

I’m back to stretching canvasses again, after a number of years when I painted only on paper. Except now I find everything has changed. We’re not supposed to use rabbit skin glue any more; even after it dries it continues to absorb and discharge atmospheric moisture which, over time, can cause your paintings to crack. Lead white primer is pretty much impossible to get, as lead-based pigments have serious toxicity issues and are heavily regulated and even illegal in some places. (In Mayer’s day you could buy gallons of the stuff at your local paint store). Even carpet tacks are difficult to source now, although I eventually located some at Capital Iron. The stretcher bars and linen are still available, although some folks figure we shouldn’t use stretchers any more, either.

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