Fall-like weather is gingerly making its way to Toronto, and with that the monarch butterflies are starting their southern migration. It’s common to see little butterfly friend-groups flitting just above city traffic – playful and hovering and disappearing into the still-green boughs of trees. Is there anything more bittersweet than this flying away?
Here is a butterfly I can hold in my hand – in cardboard and coloured pencil.
Any signs of the changing seasons in your neck of the woods?
Recently, I found a pad of Strathmore’s black drawing paper lying amidst my old art supplies. It was bought a few years ago, not for drawing, but for a series of paper cutting projects I was working on. Unfortunately, at 160 gsm (or grams per square meter, a common measure of paper density), this paper was a little too thick for paper-cutting comfort – I had trouble getting the hand blade to cut into the sheet smoothly, and felt at risk of injury. I’m learning that paper for cutting is best when it’s thinner and less dense. [Note to self: choose a high quality sheet at roughly 100 gsm. For comparison, regular printing paper is about 70 gsm and thus not ideal, as it gets rippy and fibery, unless that’s what one is going for).
Luckily, I kept this wonderful black paper. I am rediscovering that it works well for gouache painting and drawing. In particular, I recalled a piece of advice from Robert Henri’s inspirational 1923 painter’s manual, The Art Spirit, in which he explains that “bright” colours are only bright in contrast to darker hues; brightness, like darkness, is a relative value.
And so, the gouache fun continues. This week sees a little spot of verbena, glowing in the dark.
Sometimes, you get bitten by the bug that urges you to try something new.
I know that I have been bitten when I find myself buying art supplies – they are one of my bug’s ‘new things’ of choice. In recent years, this bug urged me, out of the blue, to try brush and ink work. Watercolour followed soon after. And when a dear friend gave me a set of technical pens a few years ago, the bug didn’t bite for a while. Last week, the art-supply bug struck again, however, and I found myself coming home with something special: a set of gouache paints.
This little painting (gouache and ink on paper) was an introduction to how gouache works: how it thickens up, thins out, how it mixes, what will sit on top of it, and what can hide underneath it. It’s messy and improvised, which is how most of my art-learning proceeds: make little messes, and keep making messes until things make sense.
I learned that I really enjoy how gouache works. In fact, I love gouache.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Specifically, four.
1. Gouache is versatile, with incredible range. Depending on how it’s applied, its coverage can range from washy and almost watercolour-style to smooth opaque sections of flat colour. It comes thick out of the tube, but is fully water-soluble, allowing for different degrees of saturation and layering. For this property, gouache often gets described as lying midway between the wet transparency of watercolour and the opacity and saturation of acrylic paint. I like to think of gouache as the gelato of paints: it has a very smooth and velvety consistency, and just a tiny dollop packs a big colour/flavor punch. It also dries nicely matte (not at all glossy). This last quality was particularly useful to graphic designers before the heyday of digital imaging; because it provided a saturated and fast-drying pigment that was also matte and non-reflective (i.e. great for scanning or photographing images for print), gouache was the retro designer’s medium of choice.
But there’s more.
2. Paints on both page and palette can be reactivated and reworked with water after they’ve dried. While paints like acrylics and oils are generally indelible once dry, gouache can be revived and “fixed.” All is not set in stone! There is, of course, a limit to this, and this advantage poses its own hazards: painting with a too-wet brush on top of an already-dried image can sometimes dissolve underlying layers of paint right off the page, leaving white ‘halos’ or spots. The key is to get the right amount of water which, I’m finding, takes trial and error and likely differs across paint brands. A related implication is that finished paintings need to stay bone dry; stray drops of water on finished gouache could be potentially not a good thing (the caveats on this point are lengthy, but this is still an interesting property because… paint that can be revived with water!!).
3. Gouache provides a great drawing surface. Its matte, almost chalky surface once dried is great for layering paints and other media; ink (from either a brush or technical pen) seems to sit quite happily on top of a layer of gouache.
Pencil sketching and erasing on gouache also works quite well. It sits solidly on the page, and doesn’t fade easily, despite repeated – gentle – erasings (I have left white patches on past watercolour paintings this way). Gouache adheres well.
4. And finally, bold colour.This is perhaps what gouache is known for; the medium is great for creating bold, flat and layer-able fields of pigment. I found that it may take several layers of paint to get, say, a light pigment to appear fully opaque over a dark one (see the dog below, where one layer of white paint isn’t fully opaque on the violet background). Layers of paint are ok, though (and I suspect this opacity will, again, differ by brand and quality). The paint generally allows for sharp contrasts, crisp contours, and simple, bold graphic forms (what I love).
So, there are some initial thoughts on gouache. I’m excited to continue experimenting (and if you’ve had any gouache experiences, I’d love to hear about them!).
And, introducing…a new hybrid website
To encourage myself to stay productive in painting and drawing, I’ve rearranged handmadehabit.com – now a hybrid blog-portfolio! The chronological format of regular blogging meant that my favourite work was getting lost in the archives; I felt it should have a corner of its own.
The general menu now includes links to 2 portfolios where I plan to continue to create collections of work: painting + drawing and short comics (feel free to have a peek, these still-sparse galleries will be updated on an ongoing basis!). I’ve also added a place for the occasional sketchbook doodle, and have updated the about page. The Blog menu navigates to the regular blog and its categories: posts on knitting, art/craft projects and process, good reads, and inspiration (the usual).
Thank you for reading, and wishing you lots of creative mojo into the week ahead!
Welcome to August! For the past few days, I have been fervently returning to my pencils and inks and sketchbook. I never quite know how or where the creative pendulum is going to swing, but I’m happy for this unexpected deep-dive back into drawing (let’s see how long it lasts). I’ve also welcomed a new addition to my art supply family: gouache! More on this in a later post.
I thought I’d kick off this spate of drawings by sharing an oldie. It was drawn in 2012, when I was living in Chicago’s Hyde Park – alongside some of the largest squirrels I have ever seen.
What a month June has panned out to be. Between writing and a summer job, it’s been a busy one. On the making front, other than finishing up a Leticia shawl (unblocked…more on this soon), I’ve been enjoying The Art Spirit, by painter and portraitist Robert Henri. Originally published in 1923, The Art Spirit is a collection of Henri’s notes, letters and lectures to his pupils and proteges on the creative life. For the devoted student of painting, there’s lots to sink one’s technical teeth into: painterly lessons on colour theory, composition, the importance of keeping a clean palette (I always lapsed there), avoiding the overuse of ‘white’ to convey value (I did that), and cultivating the powers of visual memory.
But this little collection shines most brightly, I think, in how the fragments come together to convey a message on the ‘art spirit’: the joyful cultivation of vision and imagination. For Henri, ‘art’ (a term which he does not take too seriously) comes from enchantment with life. Part of the labour of making, he suggests, lies in developing self-knowledge through our imaginative sensibilities — allowing ourselves to be touched and moved by the things around us, rendered sensate, and finding exuberance and discovery in our worlds of feeling. Several times in the text, he suggests that the object is not to ‘make art,’ but to live — and to allow what we make to be a trace of that living.
This is a familiar message. But I enjoy how Henri articulates the idea, in different ways, with his own mix of wonder, warmth, and the ardent desire that budding artists learn, beyond technique, to recognize, value, and find tremendous joy in their ‘inner sense,’ and in painting as a modality of life.
You’ll find some of the Art Spirit moments that I found interesting below (I’ve gone ahead and feminized the masculine pronouns).
The real study of an art student is more a development of that sensitive nature and appreciative imagination with which she was so fully endowed when a child, and which, unfortunately in almost all cases, the contact with the grown-ups shames out of her before she has passed into what is understood as real life.
On the experience of creative insight:
At such times, there is a song going on within us, a song to which we listen. It fills us with surprise. We marvel at it. We would continue to hear it. But few are capable of holding themselves in the state of listening to their own song. Intellectuality steps in and as the song within us is of the utmost sensitiveness, it retires in the presence of the cold material intellect… yet we live in the memory of these songs… They are the pinnacles of our experience and it is the desire to express these intimate sensations, this song from within, which motivates the masters of all art.
Cherish your own emotions and never under-value them. We are not here to do what has already been done.
Find out what you really like if you can. Find out what is really important to you. Then sing your song. You will have something to sing about and your whole heart will be in the singing.
From a letter of criticism to a student:
Your education must be self-education. Self-education is an effort to free one’s course so that a full growth may be attained. One need not be afraid of what this full growth may become. Give your throat a chance to sing its song. All the knowledge in the world to which you have access is yours to use…Don’t bother about your originality, set yourself just as free as you can and your originality will take care of you. It will be as much a surprise to you as to anyone else.
The end will be what it will be. The object is intense living, fulfillment; the great happiness in creation.
And one last one, for now, from a painting critique Henri wrote to a student: “I like your work and have only to ask you to go on your own interesting way with all the courage you can muster.”