Monday, September 17, 2012

The painting toolbox

Volcano Country
What makes a style? I guess it's a summation of all the ways you choose to make a painting—color schemes, types of designs, subjects, and approaches, what media you use, how you put the media on the support. I used to think that in order to be a good painter, I had to develop my style, a consistent set of these things I prefer to do when I paint. Painting media are so variable, so flexible, that there are probably endless ways you could combine effects to achieve a style.

In the experiments I'm doing now I've thought of a few things in particular that I want to explore. I want to add more tools to my painting toolbox. One is using acrylics as I would use watercolor on all the rough and cold press paper I have left over from years ago when I used do watercolors. I want to continue trying different color schemes, and see if I can't find more that I really like. I want to learn more ways to use brushes, more ways of getting the paint on the paper. I want to try to do paintings in which how the paint goes on the paper is just as important, if not more, as the subject.

If I Were The Wind

The last thing I've thought of so far, is that I want to make a painting of every idea I have, even if I don't really trust it as an idea. And if I have an idea that I really, really want to paint, I want to try it even if I don't know how to make it really work yet. If an idea really appeals to you, it's worth a few sheets of paper and a few days of your time, even if they turn out this boring:

West Side Of The Mountains

Sunday, September 9, 2012

How not to make chocolate glaze

I’m going to one of Beavercreek’s great seasonal potlucks this afternoon, The September Garden Party. For some reason, these venues always inspire me to try some kind of culinary experiment, which usually ends with something strange going into the Monday garbage takeout.

It started with me thinking of what I have a lot of, which today is crispy corn tostada strips, still nice and fresh but too salty for me to eat without binging on them. I thought of glazing them with chocolate—that sounded great. I googled cocoa recipes for chocolate glaze—I have a lot of cocoa, too—and found a simple one, and I thought I had the two and a quarter cups of powdered sugar required. I got down the sugar and got out my never-used double-screen sifter, and started sifting. The sugar was coming out at an excruciatingly slow pace; after ten minutes I had a little over a quarter cup. I scooped all the sugar into the sifter, thinking the weight would push it through faster, and it seemed to go a bit better but after a few more minutes, both my hands were in pain, and I thought, I’ll just beat the lumps out of it—I think I’ve got the two and a quarter cups here. So I dumped it into a bowl and fluffed it with a fork, confident that it would work. Then I discovered a good quarter cup of sugar trapped between the two screens of the sifter, and I was afraid that was the quarter of the two and a quarter that I needed. I didn’t want to start cooking with not enough ingredients—I've done that before. I also didn’t want to spend another fifteen minutes trying to get it out so I started banging it on the edge of the bowl. That’s how I discovered that the way to get powdered sugar through a sifter quickly is to constantly bang it on the edge of the bowl: bang, squeeze, bang, squeeze, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.

I decided that I will look for a single-screen sifter on my next shopping trip.

I got my butter-like spread—it’s supposed to be cookable—melting on the stove, and measured out the cocoa. I don’t keep milk in the house, just nonfat powdered milk for baking, so I mixed up the quarter cup I needed, and threw in a touch extra powder for more flavor, and mixed it into the butter with the cocoa. I had a timer on, because it was supposed to heat to boiling in two minutes. After 3 minutes I turned the burner up (electric stove) and kept stirring constantly with the spatula, moved the sugar over so I could get it quickly, and read the instructions two or three more times while I stirred. The mixture had smoothed out and was thickening beautifully when suddenly the butter-spread fat began to separate out, more and more as I kept stirring. I saw the face of Alton Brown saying something about the fat in milk and I turned off the burner, slid the pot to a pad and dumped most of the sugar in, still believing it was just the two and a quarter cups required, and stirring like a fiend. The mostly unsifted sugar made tiny lumps but on the whole it seemed inclined to turn into some kind of chocolate, so I dumped in the rest of the sugar and ran and grabbed my hand blender.

The blender did a great job on the sugar lumps and in a couple minutes I had a pot of smooth chocolate semi-liquid substance, so I carried the pot and a bowl full of tostada strips to my parchment sheets. As I picked up a pair of tongs I noticed the chocolate was turning hard and thick on the inside of the pan, and I thought, uh-oh. The first strip came out with a good  one-eighth-inch coating on both sides, and I knew that was going to be too much, so I scraped it off as well as I could on the side of the pan and kept going. With each strip the chocolate got thicker, and by the time I’d done a dozen strips there was very little left. I thought of using walnuts to finish it off so I ran and got a tub of walnut halves and dumped in a big handful. I stirred them around till they were all decently coated and then spread them apart out on the parchment. That used up the rest of the still liquid-enough chocolate.

Twelve tostada strips and a handful of walnuts: hardly the six-serving de facto potluck offering, but in my defense, no one shy of four hundred pounds could eat more than one of those strips without having an insulin attack. I know, because I ate every bit of the chocolate off every cooking implement, and it was really sweet. So that makes it twelve servings, plus the walnuts.   Then I looked around the kitchen, and the wall behind the counter was peppered with chocolate spray, like dark-brown paint texturing. It was on the wall, the back of the stove, the inside of the open cupboard above me, and the side of the refrigerator, including a skewed chocolate eyebrow on the angel magnet. The farthest it went was to the microwave, ten feet away. It reminded me of the first time I opened my mouth to say something while using my electric toothbrush.

I cleaned up the dishes and touched the chocolate covering on one of the strips—after 20 minutes it still wasn’t really beginning to get hard. I got one of my room fans and put it on them—I still have two more hours before I have to leave.  I think the walnuts might be okay.

Friday, September 7, 2012

In the throes of experimentation

This week's hot spell gave me my first chance since Art In The Garden 2012 (which was wonderful!) to stay inside and paint again. In between going outside to move the sprinklers around the garden and check all the newbies and transplants for hydration, I pulled out some old 9x12 watercolor blocks and set about experimenting with pretending that acrylics are watercolors. Watercolors were the first paints after elementary-school finger paints that I ever worked with, and I'm feeling those roots strongly right now. It's been really fun! I started with no ideas, basically, except to just see what I could get away with. The first one came out pretty fanciful:

Sky To Earth

I really had fun just playing with decorative color, but I wanted to do something a little weightier. For the second one I started out the same way, with a pattern of different-colored lines on wet paper, but when that dried I came back with a different brush and the same colors and played on top of the first pattern. It took a while for it to take form, so long that I was getting nervous, but eventually I liked it. It reminded me of a spring landscape in my local hills.


Next I tried a different line pattern with a new color scheme. This time I tried painting color into a wet gesso surface and that gave a completely different effect, much thicker paint—thick enough to scrape into, and basically no wet-in-wet effect. Painting into wet gesso is almost exactly like painting onto dry gesso. When I came back for a 2nd pass, I wet the surface, which was completely covered with acrylic so the water couldn't soak in. I was able to get some wet-in-wet effect that way, and with very little lifting of the previously laid colors. I did 3 more passes, adding one color at a time until I was happy with it. I used my hair dryer on each layer to speed up the process.

Light As A Flower

When I picked up my brush to start this last one I decided to draw a flower shape. No gesso this time, and I made use of the same layering and wet-in-wet techniques I'd used on the previous painting.

Bright Flower

In between each painting I felt a familiar anxiety—the fear of starting a painting with no idea of what it was going to look like. Two of the 4 times I had to take a little time to screw up my courage to keep doing the same thing, before I could actually sit down and start a new painting. And partway through both the second and third paintings, I had to go through the mental argument of "Why am I wasting time on this? No one's going to buy these, they're just exercises." I seemed not to have quite grasped the point of doing exercises.

Until I started playing with color schemes last fall, I had never actually done a painting except with the single goal of completing a saleable, or at least a hangable painting. I've picked up a few skills in the process, but there are so many things now that I want to try, to experiment with, that I really want to just focus on these experiments for a while. When I do get back to landscapes, I'm hoping I can make use of whatever I'm able to learn by just playing.

But beyond the practice of trying lots of different things is the desire to see if I can keep it up—just sitting down and starting to paint, without a preconceived plan or any idea of a subject, and end up with a satisfying painting. I want to develop a habit of painting without thinking about it.

I think I'll get a lot more painting done.