Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Ghost Ship v. Zorn Palette Redux

For the first time in 2-3 years (I can't remember exactly how long) I painted en plein air, and the first two didn't turn out too well. I'm blaming the small size of the panel surface instead of my technical inability to produce masterpieces(!) those two times.

The first painting was made in Fontainebleau State Park in Mandeville, LA, which is a 40 minute drive north from New Orleans, facing Lake Pontchartrain. It was pure nature with water, sky, white sand, and some tall grass on a 12"x16" panel. It's not a bad painting, but it's too colorful for my 'gloom and doom' style.

The second was done in Madisonville, LA, about 20 more minutes' drive west from Mandeville. Google Maps told me that there was a lighthouse near where Tchefuncte River meets Lake Pontchartrain. So I was going to see how close the lighthouse was to the shore, and if I could paint it.

Upon arriving at the south end of Main Street, across a large gravel area with a simple empty boat raunch and two brand-new but empty picnic areas, all I saw was this abandoned boat around the bend.

my new BFF

I found out later that the locals call it 'the Ghost Ship' but it is actually a tow boat 'Freedom' that sank there in the '90s, raised, sank again, then raised again. Someone wanted to turn this into a floating bed and breakfast at some point. (check out the posts near the bottom of the thread on for more info)

The biggest mistake I made was not bringing a big enough canvas to paint this view. My 12"x12" panel didn't do justice (yes I'm blaming the panel, not my skills) and I promised the boat that I shall return.

"It's all about the stance." - photo by Aaron R.
Totally ignoring the lighthouse behind me

The return match a week later started out sketchy. The morning fog was so thick that I was afraid the boat won't be visible at all. As soon as we (me and my poor husband who had to drive me around hundreds of miles) came around the bend, it became clear that the stage had already been set. Perfectly. I couldn't have asked for a better painting subject.

Turn that smoke machine up to 11, Jimmy!
photo by Aaron R.

There was no clear division between the sky and the lake, and the fog enveloped the boat like a smoke machine in some David Lynch movie. But the real fog tends to lift pretty quickly.

Zorn Palette to the rescue! The modified version I used was made up of Winsor Red Deep, Yellow Ochre, Ivory Black, Titanium White, Transparent White (Gamblin's 1980 series), and a tiny amount of Ultramarine Blue.

This 18"x36" painting of the Ghost Ship is the largest that I've done en plein air, and I actually find it easier to paint larger. I used to paint on small panels on location mainly because I can't transport wet paintings larger than 12"x16" with my current bike setup. Even when you hitch a ride with another painter, there is just no room for large canvases with two sets of painting gears taking up room.

I have to come up with a new bicycle setup that would allow me to carry large wet canvases, and wait for a bike lane to magically appear on the 23-mile long Causeway Bridge. How did van Gogh carry his wet canvas on his back?

Anyway, our return match was cut short because of an approaching ginormous rain storm (typical!). About an hour into painting the fog lifted completely, then my husband with a radar app stood next to me counting down how many minutes I had left before the storm came ("you have about 15 minutes... 10 minutes... pack up NOW!!"). There was less than 5 minutes to paint the reflection - maybe it ended up better that way.

Freedom (a.k.a. The Ghost Ship)
oil on canvas, 18"x36"
I always thought that limitations force you to be creative. Add some sense of urgency, and you do things you haven't done before.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Brayer painting with water-soluble oil paint

This is what I've been doing the past year and a half -- painting with brayers instead of brushes, using Cobra water-soluble oil paint and Gamblin Solvent-Free Gel and Fluid. It's usually a two-sitting process, first for developing under-painting, and second sitting (about a week later) for layering glazes. I also use squeegees, silicon scrapers, Q-tips, fingers, and paper towels to scrape and wipe paint off to show the white of the panel surface for lighter areas of a composition.

I recently tried using Weber Res-N-Gel instead of Gamblin's Solvent-Free Gel and Fluid for the same process. Since RNG contains modified resin that doesn't give me headaches or sore throat, it works well for small spaces. But! It has a really slippery feeling when applying with brayers: brayers slide on the panel surface instead of rolling. I know it's really a specific problem for me just because I paint with brayers, but it's a huge enough issue that I'm sticking with Solvent-Free Gel and Fluid!

Transparent Oxide Red/Yellow under-painting

Ultramarine Blue glaze layer
(before wiping and scraping light areas)

oil on panel, 24"x18"

There are about 6 soft brayers in different widths in my rotation. Squeegee is about 12" wide. It is amazing what these simple but versatile tools can do, and how easy it is to obtain soft edges and transparency. Cleaning is fun with just soap and water. Yay!

Friday, August 4, 2017

Through a Glass Darkly thesis show, March 2017

Where were we?

Here are some photos from my thesis reception at Carroll Gallery at Tulane University in New Orleans. Thanks everyone for coming out!

The show was titled Through a Glass Darkly. Since I had primarily been a plein air painter before starting grad school at Tulane, I wanted to address the use of photographs in my new painting process.  Below is an excerpt of my artist statement for this show:
The title of the exhibition, Through a Glass Darkly, refers to the use of a camera lens that first captured these images as reference photographs before human hands abstracted them into paintings. Another layer of glass (the windshield of a moving vehicle) further influenced the paintings in the passenger series. The hazy landmarks and suggested details fall into the darkness, or they are just an illusion all along. Imaginary fog, smoke, and smudges on the windshield indistinguishably meld together on the painted surface. The vertical marks made by printmaking brayers resemble pixelated digital images, in addition to a driving rain on the windshield. The ambiguity of blurred forms invites active looking, imaginative interpretations, and contextual guesswork by the viewers based on their memories.
Another reference is made to Ingmar Bergman’s 1961 film of the same title that the filmmaker adopted from a biblical phrase. The expression is used to explain having the “obscure or imperfect vision of reality,” and that “we do not now see clearly, but at the end of time, we will do so.”[1] The paintings may seem bleak or out of focus, but in each image there is light at the end of the dark tunnel. Using the New Orleans nightscapes as the subject matter, these paintings express the sense of unease, as well as fear and excitement by what may lie ahead.

[1] "through a glass darkly". The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005. Web. 25 March 2017.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Post-Grad School Thoughts on... Creating Luck and Timing

Mmmmm, the title doesn't make any sense, does it? Luck and timing are, for the most part, beyond one's control.

When a museum curator gave a talk to my grad school class, she mentioned that in order to become a successful artist, being good at what you do isn't enough. There is luck and timing involved, she said, and I completely agree with her.

I dreamed of becoming a full-time painter - that's like saying "I want to be a musician!" or "I want to be a writer!" - as I used to have a day job and only painted on weekends. But even the successful painters I've met in the past two years have side gigs that sustain them when things are tough: You need to have a savings account for the rainy day.

So going to a grad school was my introduction to painting sort of full-time (between history class and teaching a foundation course) and for two years painting was pretty much all I did.  I stopped cleaning the house and cooking. I didn't go out to eat or see movies. I didn't even have a part-time job, and it felt strange, but great. It was also difficult for sure, I mean what do you expect, right?

And I didn't try to sell any of the paintings that I made at school, and that allowed me to have a stock of paintings near graduation. Large and small, some horribly executed, others less. About a week before my thesis show was to open, a friend of mine asked me to hang 3 paintings for a group show set to open in two days. Four days after my thesis show opened, another group show opened on the other side of town that included 6 of my recent paintings. I was also invited to take part in a fundraising group exhibit/sale in that same period with two botanical-themed works. This will never happen again I'm sure. No one can plan on stuff like that and if I knew ahead of time, I probably would have said no to couple of them. But they all came at a great timing, and luckily I had enough paintings to cover them all. (And quite a few of them found new homes!)

Creating luck and timing, by being prepared, is all I can do for now. If you build it, he will come... whoever he is. I don't mean in just making a bunch of paintings. Writing about and promoting your work are also important. Having friends, colleagues and mentors that support you and your work are invaluable, and I'm extremely lucky to have met & studied with so many wonderful human beings in the past two years! I wish I had everyone's headshot...

Monday, January 2, 2017

Learning the Hard Way pt.3

My search for the best alternative paint thinner is coming to a close pretty soon. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel!

The latest non-toxic solvent of choice is... Art Treehouse's Biobased Artist's Thinner.

This soy-based thinner doesn't really make the traditional oil paint 'glide' like Gamsol does, but hey I've been able to paint with my windows closed. No headache, no sore throat, no need to listen to Nick Cave or Leonard Cohen. Plus, it doesn't make the paint oily or glossy. The drying time doesn't change either. It's a bit more expensive than Gamsol but I'd be happy to pay extra! 

(note: I use this thinner by itself to thin the paint for the initial layer of alla prima painting process & cleaning - probably not suitable for glazing, etc., or I have no idea how this will act with other mediums since I don't use any)

Yeah baby

Friday, July 29, 2016

Learning the Hard Way pt.2

This is not good. 30 minutes into the painting session, I had to stop and vacate the area. I should have known, well, I knew it was a big trouble from the moment I opened the cap of my new paint thinner. But somehow I ignored all the signs for the purpose of experiment.

I could feel my throat swelling and starting to block the airway, and I could hear my braincells dying. (not really). The windows on my left were open and a fan was blowing air towards the windows about 6 feet away. My easel, palette, and the solvent cup was situated between the fan and the windows as usual.

Below is the updated list of solvents that I have used so far to thin oil paint, from harsh to mild:
artist-grade turpentine
Xtra-Mild Citrus Thinner
tie: Gamsol & Neutral Thin
(*this list is not based on any scientific data, and I have nothing to do with any of the manufacturers.)

The Citrus Thinner was the one I tried earlier today, and I still can't feel my throat when swallowing food or drinks. Have you painted with solvent when you have a bad cold with sore throat? It kinda feels like that. But again, it's not the thinner's fault, I'm just the unlucky one.

this smells like turpentine mixed with citrus oil.
not great for upper-respiratory ailment sufferers.

I love orange. I love citrus oil. But we were just not meant to be together, Xtra-Mild.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Learning the Hard Way pt.1

It's been a while since I last painted with traditional oil paint with solvent.

About 10 months ago I was given a nice studio space, and took a leap into studio painting. Almost immediately I started having horrendous headaches accompanied by sore throat, stuffy nose, and eye irritation that lasted for 4-5 months, and eventually, I even developed a mild depression. I thought I was having a bad sinus infection the whole time. It turned out that I was having a severe reaction to the solvent, although (I thought) the studio was well-ventilated. It was a total surprise because I had been using the same solvent (Gamsol) for more than 5 years at that point, and yeah, I've had headaches and sore throats in the past when I painted indoors for 8 straight hours in well-ventilated room dozens of times. But the symptoms used to go away the next day. This time around, I was in the very, very dark place for a long time.

I stopped using oil paint all together in the studio because it was the first semester of my MFA program where I didn't have time or energy to explore the alternatives. Plus I was painting monochromatic landscapes in black anyway, so I switched to sumi ink for the rest of the year.

But the funny thing is that the residual effect lasted about 2 months after I stopped using the damn thing. Serious health hazard.

Don't get me wrong though: I'm not advocating for a total solvent industry overhaul. Some painters have no problem whatsoever inhaling damar-linseed-turp cocktail everyday with just an open window. I happen to be the unfortunate one. I remember wondering why I couldn't stop crying in my beginning oil classes 8 years ago, which was my first encounter with paint thinner.

Now the school is off for the summer, and I've been experimenting with water soluble oil paints, as well as regular oil paints with various mediums such as walnut oil, safflower oil, and Gamblin's Galkyd Gel and Solvent-Free Gel / Fluid.

First, the water soluble oil paints:
You can clean your brushes with soap and water after you're done painting. That's a plus. But to thin the paint, water should be avoided or you'd end up with paint mixtures a couple of shades lighter on your palette. It's kinda like acrylics: they dry darker on your painting surface.  And like acrylics, the paint gets sticky pretty quickly on your palette and on your canvas, but unlike acrylics, not dry enough for the next layer.
W&N Artisan is the most stiff paint out of the tube, I think. Thinned with water, it turns extremely tacky and difficult to manipulate. I heard that they are meant to be used with their own painting mediums and not with water. All water mixable oils seem to be that way, too.
Cobra may be the most fluid - like buttah. So Cobra could be used straight out of the tube without thinning. They also sell Cobra Painting Medium in a tube which is basically Cobra paint without pigment, and Glazing Medium which is basically an oil medium with honey-like consistency. The problem with those mediums is that they slow down the already slow-drying Cobra paints. Sure, with Painting Medium the paint becomes a bit transparent, and with the Glazing Medium, a lot transparent and runny: but the paint doesn't become "thin" as I'd like my first layer to be. And there is no way I'm using Glazing Medium on my first layer because - remember 'fat over lean'? And since I paint in layers in alla prima pretty much, I can't sit for a week to watch the first layer to dry.

Cobra Painting Medium and Glazing Medium

Second, the painting medium black hole:
I had been avoiding any mediums because I was (and still am to a certain degree) a plein air painter, and there is a limited space in my backpack. But I went wild in a local art store the other day and got everything I was interested in using, both with water soluble and traditional oil paints.
Galkyd Gel works really well with Cobra, since the alkyd resin speeds up drying time. The gel makes oil colors a bit transparent & spreadable, therefore great for first layer, but not so great for respiratory system. It is too fast-drying for me to use with regular oil paints.
Walnut/safflower oils don't smell, affect my throat or give me headaches. But they are oils with consistency of Cobra Glazing Medium, and slooooow drying: definitely not for the first layer or alla prima painting.
Solvent-Free Gel and Fluid are great in that they are made, you guessed it, without any solvents, and speeds up drying time a tiny bit. Solvent-Free Gel is similar to Galkyd Gel, but not as fast drying as Galkyd Gel. The synthetic alkyd doesn't give me any headaches and I can paint all day with this stuff with windows closed. Same with the Fluid, and they are clearly the winners - although they make your painting glossy. Oh and they don't "thin" the paint at all, so I ended up with glossy impasto everywhere.   You could add Cold Wax Medium to counter that glossiness, but that will slow down the drying... A black hole. Can't win. Still, you could coat the finished painting with matte varnish so the glossiness may not be a big deal.

Gamblin Galkyd Gel

Gamblin Solvent-Free Gel

Gamblin Solvent-Free Fluid

I think that Solvent-Free Gel / Fluid with either water soluble oils or traditional oils would be the healthiest choice, and they don't change the original drying time of oil paints too much.
Except, they still don't thin the paint!!!!!

Here's a list of solvents that I have used in chronological order (from harsh to mild):

artist-grade turpentine
Gamsol (a.k.a. Odorless Mineral Spirits)
Neutral Thin

I gave Neutral Thin a try for a week recently. I was hoping that Neutral Thin would be my savior, since it was reviewed as a teeny bit milder than Gamsol (like, 0.002%). Neutral Thin worked well for thinning paint and cleaning the brushes, exactly like Gamsol. And exactly like Gamsol, I developed a headache and sore throat halfway into the 3-hour painting session. Yes I had a huge open window on the left side of me, and a fan on the right, blowing air towards the window across myself and the solvent.

Somebody help me...

underpainting with thinned oil paint

additional layers using less thinner

After the Rain in Black Pearl, New Orleans
oil on canvas, 24"x18"

Eco-House, the manufacturer of Neutral Thin, also sells a citrus-based thinner called Extra Mild Citrus Thinner. It's a mineral-oil based thinner with citrus peel oil, and according to their website it is 100% volatile, meaning it doesn't leave any residues after it's dry. Most citrus-based thinners are known to leave residues on your painting surfaces, so that's a plus. I just bought a small bottle of it and can't wait to try it. The window still has to be open to use this stuff, though.