The Creative Endeavors Thread Conflates Medium With Message

Because, hey, why wouldn’t you?

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As mentioned last week, one of the best things about getting into drawing and painting the last few years has been launching into an ongoing self-tutorial on art history. I sort of knew which artists I liked from a historical or purely impressionistic perspective before, but doing this kind of thing myself really laid bare how useful and instructive their methods and media could be, not just in terms of painting or drawing but also in terms of how one sees the world as a pure observer. Most of the paintings showcased or referenced, in museums or catalogs, from the heyday of the Western art tradition (pretty much the mid-fifteenth to mid-twentieth century), are oil on canvas, and finally dipping my toes in those waters the past couple of months would have been exciting enough for that reason alone.

Green Baby Sound, October 2018 (oil on canvas panel)

Watercolors most often featured as afterthoughts or preparatory pieces for larger work, a kind of negative tradition that I resisted, partly because the two people who did the most to get me into painting—my mom and my bartender friend—are watercolorists themselves, the latter especially passionate to demonstrate the medium’s bold chromatic potential which is generally ignored by traditional watercolor theory and practice (and her insistence has definitely had an impact on my own work). Every now and again, I’d see someone do a piece with watercolor and gouache, something that sounded cool but was definitely unfamiliar to me.

Sacrificial Reverie, September 2018 (watercolor, gouache, ink and inkwash on cardstock, probably my most successful effort therein until this month)

So, along with some perfunctory acrylic and watercolor paint sets, I also picked up one for gouache, which I figured I might use now and again to stiffen up my watercolors (I basically understood it as a more opaque kind of watercolor). At the time, the results weren’t terribly inspiring, though I now credit this more to my own lack of practice than a failure of the medium itself. Partly because, in my zeal for experimentation this past month, I used gouache with the white cardboard dividers I’ve been salvaging from work and was very pleased with the results (Demeter Rapids).

There’s a more complete explanation here, but it’s basically a medium similar to egg tempera but using gum arabic instead of eggs (I gave the latter a spin, too, and wasn’t terribly happy with it, though I’ll likely give it one more try before I give up, not least because I’ve got leftover yolks from work—long story). It has the fluidity of watercolor but at times the solidity of acrylic or oil, and the results tend to have a reassuringly bold structure that appeals to me, even in simple pictures on paper (Beach Cabin).

Right now it feels like all I want to paint is gouache (and it’s not helping that I’m leafing through collections of artists who specialized in the medium to some extent, like Fernand Leger or Maira Kalman). I don’t think I’ve ever felt this degree of infatuation with a particular technical aspect of my work before. That said, is there some aspect of your work you’ve recently discovered that you’re particularly pleased with, more than usual?

Today’s header is Street in Mbari, from the Nigerian Series of Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000). Lawrence, one of the most famous African-American visual artists of the twentieth century, was also, at least to the best of my knowledge, one of the only modern painters to work primarily with gouache (or tempera). As such, he’s been something of an inspiration even if my own style is developing somewhat differently. His most famous work is probably the Migration Series, done with tempera on hardboard and commemorating the Great Migration of African-Americans to the North during the early twentieth century (and animated to great effect in the opening sequence of Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit).