Read an Excerpt
The Organic Painter
PREPARING SURFACES: STRETCHING PAPER AND PRIMING OBJECTS
In this section, I show you how to prepare surfaces for painting so that they are robust and ready to be subjected to the rigorous painting methods you will put them through.
Sheet of watercolor paper, 300 g/m2 (140 lb) or heavier
Solid board, either wood or metal, 24 × 30 inches (60 × 80 cm)
Sponge or large decorating paintbrush
Primer or watercolor ground
There is something very relaxing and almost meditative about preparing a surface to paint. The process of stretching a piece of paper is methodical and such a contrast to the chaotic methods I use in my work that it is almost like a limbering up and buildup of excitement before I get to start a new painting journey. I normally prepare five or six sheets at a time, and the process I use fits this really well.
I first learned to stretch paper at college, where students were encouraged to stretch paper in preparation for all work, even pencil drawing. I've since learned that there are many ways to approach it, and I have now totally abandoned the process of soaking the paper in water in a tray or bath for several minutes, as I found the mixed results using this method.
For most of the projects in this book, I work with 535 g/m2 (250 lb) watercolor paper called Bockingford and made by St. Cuthberts Mill. I love this paper and have worked with it for more than seven years. It has a great vibrancy and is a real workhorse when it comes to using boiling liquids and alcohols and being attacked with the odd graphite stick.
To start, you will need a sheet of paper, preferably watercolor paper of a good weight — 300 g/m2 (140 lb) or heavier. Place the dry sheet on top of a drawing board, which should be fairly sturdy because the paper has quite some force as it contracts when drying.
Preparing the Surface
Take a clean, soft brush or sponge and cover the surface of the paper with clean, cold water using light strokes. Once the surface is completely covered, wait 30 seconds, and then turn the paper over and apply the water to the other side of the paper. Try to avoid any pooling of water by brushing it away. If your paper starts to crinkle slightly, lift it from the board and place it back flat. At this point, wait 2 to 3 minutes to allow the water to soak into the paper. Meanwhile move on to stretching a second sheet.
After 2 to 3 minutes, you should see that the paper has softened and hopefully expanded very slightly — this is barely noticeable but you may see some kinks or wrinkles in the paper. As before, lift the paper and place it flat on your board. It is really important that your paper is flat at this stage; if one edge is raised or there is a significant lump on one side, it is because the coverage of water was uneven. Try rewetting the paper and seeing whether it will settle flat.
Next prepare lengths of gumstrip for the four sides of the paper. I generally buy gumstrip 1 1/2 inches (3.8 cm) wide, which is fairly heavy-duty and has a decent amount of gum applied to it. Using a clean sponge (not the one you used to dampen your paper), moisten the gummed side of the strip and place it along the top edge of the paper, with half overlapping the paper and half overlapping your board.
Smooth this down firmly, making sure there is good contact between the gumstrip, board, and paper, and then apply a second moistened strip to the lower edge, smoothing out any uneven paper as you apply the strip. Finally, apply the left and right strips in the same way. If using boiling water and liquids, apply a second layer of tape slightly overlapping the board. Sometimes when drying the work with a hair dryer, the wet gumstrip develops a weak spot where it meets the paper; a second layer prevents any tears from appearing. If this happens when you are working, just apply an extra layer of gumstrip.
Now you simply need to leave your board flat to dry. If you lean the board or store it upright, the water will run down one end of the paper. The paper will dry unevenly, buckle, and come out from under the gumstrip. Using a hair dryer will also produce uneven results, so patience is the key here.
Applying Watercolor Primers
There are a large range of watercolor grounds and primers available that emulate the surface of watercolor paper. You apply the primer or grounds to surfaces such as canvas, panels, glass, or found objects and let dry. Then paint as you normally would on paper. This opens up endless possibilities for exploring new textures with watercolor or water-based paint. Many of these grounds also allow you to use techniques such as lifting and scrubbing, just as though you were using paper. Natural objects make interesting little study pieces, especially rocks and pebbles, where you can use the features of the stone to influence your designs.
SOURCING: LIQUIDS AND MATERIALS FOR PAINTING
A great deal of this book is about using substitutes, either readily available or sourced, in place of the usual liquids associated with painting, namely water! In this section, we will gather and prepare liquids for use throughout the book. Some of these are easy to find and others are fun to make from natural ingredients.
From the first accidental appearance of brandy in my work, I have experimented with brewing teas, preparing iron (oak) gall ink, boiling sorrel, and raiding the pantry for painting materials. There are probably a whole host of materials that you can paint with already in your house or garden or growing somewhere nearby!
I made a conscious decision early on in my painting career to substitute brandy in my work for tea. This was for a number of reasons (mostly obvious), but what I didn't expect when finding another amber-colored liquid to replace the alcohol was the power and versatility of tea as a medium. It has now become a habit for me to collect different types of tea when I travel. There is something about the preparation of the artwork leading up to the point where the tea is brewed, the heady mix of scents as the different brews are prepared, and the whole ritual of making a cup of tea, which I suppose is a quintessentially British thing to do!
A variety of teas, both loose-leaf and in tea bags
The interesting thing with tea is that it changes strength throughout the painting, so sometimes it's good to remove the tea bag to keep the desired color, but other times it's nice that the color builds in strength as you paint, so you can deliberately leave the tea bag in and paint with the liquid as it gets darker.
When choosing a tea to paint with, you may find subtle differences in color among standard teas. English breakfast teas, particularly Tetley and Yorkshire teas, have a good, rich, orangey-brown tone, which proves quite versatile when mixing with calligraphy inks. Rooibos, a South African tea, is also strong with its reddish color and sweet aroma, too. Teas such as chai have a fairly high sugar content and provide a good surface for layering when dry, whereas herbal teas can sometimes fade a little when drying, so experiment and make some tests before committing to a blend. Bright red colors are fairly difficult to achieve with herbal teas, with many blends giving a strong red initially but fading to a bluish gray soon after. Rose hip teas are often the solution here, as they keep more of a pinkish red color when drying.
RAIDING THE LIQUOR CABINET
Variety of alcohols
There is little to distinguish the effects of alcohol in watercolor painting, so go for something that you have handy. Spirits will definitely have more of an effect on the outcome of your painting compared to wine and beer, creating patterns in the inks and separating color. Vodka and gin are obvious choices for clear liquids, with brandy and whiskey being suitable for adding subtle, vanilla-like tones to the finished work.
WORKING WITH CALLIGRAPHY INKS
Variety of calligraphy inks
I love the versatility of standard writing inks and the qualities they possess compared with watercolors and permanent inks for painting. Most writing inks tend to be semi- or nonpermanent, which, of course, is a concern regarding the longevity of the ink, but it also opens up a huge range of possibilities when considering them as a painting medium. There is nothing like the striking color of turquoise writing ink, such as from Waterman, Pelican, or Herbin. The intensity of the color is just wonderful and the way the color behaves as it dries is also quite magical compared with pigmented paints such as watercolors or acrylics.
The difference among fountain pen inks, calligraphy inks, and paints is the way in which the color is suspended in the solution. Fountain pen inks are specifically designed to flow freely and not clog the pen and are therefore mostly made using dyes that are completely soluble in the fluid itself. Other inks and many paints are made from tiny particles of pigment that float in a solution to make up the ink but can cause fountain pens to clog. This information will help you decide which tool to use with your inks. For example, specific fountain pen inks can be used with a writing pen. I generally use a Parker Vector with a medium nib for most of the line work in my pieces, sometimes flipping the nib upside down to achieve a finer line.
The longevity of artwork is always an issue for artists, collectors, and conservationists. Most artist materials come with information about color- and lightfastness, however, these do not seem to be as readily available for writing inks. So here's a little word of warning before you embark on some of the alchemy in this book: the combination of materials with unknown qualities for painting may mean that you have to work that little bit harder later on in both the presentation and preservation of your work.
One of the oldest recipes for ink is that of iron gall ink, or oak gall ink, as it is sometimes known. The recipe for this ink has varied since its first use almost 2,000 years ago, but it is a combination of oak gall and iron sulfate. This creates a brownish black nearly-permanent ink that is known to have been used by Leonardo da Vinci, among other artists throughout history. The oak gall is, in fact, a result of the gall wasp laying eggs in the bud of an oak leaf, causing a chemical reaction that forms a hard, wood-like marble, normally with an exit hole through which the developed wasp can escape.
Making Your Own Ink
Mortar and pestle
Muslin or cheesecloth
1 pint (470 ml) of water
Measuring cups or scale
Using a small handful of oak galls and some ferrous sulfate (a green powder that can be easily found online or sometimes at a pharmacy), here's how to make your own oak gall ink for drawing and painting.
To begin, use a mortar and pestle to grind the oak gall marbles into a fine powder. Then measure out approximately 2 ounces (56 g) of the powder and add it to 1 pint (470 ml) of water. Mix the powder and water together well and leave for 24 hours for the color to come out of the powder. You should have a deep brown-colored liquid.
Strain this liquid through the muslin or cheesecloth to remove any larger pieces of uncrushed gall, and then stir in 1 ounce (28 g) of ferrous sulfate crystals. The liquid will turn much darker on contact. Add a little gum arabic to the mixture to improve the handling of the ink.
Other Pigments for Consideration
The list at right gives an indication of different colors that can be obtained from natural materials. In most cases, adding gum arabic and a little water to these pigments creates a water-soluble paint.
Red and pink: alkanet root, beetroot, hibiscus flowers, rose petals, rose hips, cranberry, strawberry
Orange: turmeric root, carrot, saffron, cayenne powder
Yellow: mustard powder, pumpkin, pollen
Green: spirulina powder, spinach powder
Purple: acai berry, blueberry
Brown: tea, walnut hulls, coffee, ground cinnamon, ground nutmeg, ground clove, paprika
Black: activated charcoal, soot
GET READY TO MAKE MARKS: USING BRUSHES AND FOUND OBJECTS
Mark making can add variety to your work. Sometimes forcing yourself to use equipment outside of standard art materials can give great unexpected results to your art. You can combine the types of objects so that they relate to the work you create. For example, use leaves or feathers as mark-making tools and dip parts of branches into ink to create crude and textured marks.
Gather an assortment of these items before painting and make some small demonstration pieces to give you an idea of their effects before you combine them into a painting. These objects will help to broaden the types of marks that appear in your work.
Feathers, including a goose or turkey feather at least 12 inches (30 cm) long
Scalpel, craft knife, or penknife
Pen or pencil
Soup can filled halfway with sand
Ruler or measuring tape
VARY YOUR MARK MAKING
A lot of my work focuses on our relationship with nature, so I've included some natural materials in this book to show how a variety in mark making can improve your paintings and create rich textures in your work. Before you start some of the projects, gather bits of twigs and branches that you can use to make marks with; try sharpening a branch with a craft knife to make a crude dip pen. Consider using branches to make dragging marks across the page.
PRINTING WITH OBJECTS
As well as dipping objects into ink and paint to create marks, you can use a range of objects, such as leaves and petals, to make printed textures. These objects can also be impressed into wet paint, washes to create textured patterns, or painted over to create silhouette shapes.
A feather can be used to create a wide range of marks. For example, use a feather end dipped in ink or paint to create a variety of brushstrokes. Feathers are probably best known for their use as quill pens, and creating a nib to work with is surprisingly easy. The following is a brief description of how to cut a quill. With a little practice, you should be able to create a quill with which you can make marks!
1. Start with a goose or turkey feather at least 12 inches (30 cm) long. Begin by removing some of the feathers toward the tip end so you can hold the quill comfortably.
2. To prepare for cutting a nib, temper the tip of the quill to give the nib strength and to make the quill tougher. Take an empty can and fill it halfway with sand. Place the can in a 350°F (180°C, or gas mark 4) oven for 15 minutes, and then carefully remove it and plunge the quill tip into the sand so that 2 to 3 inches (5 to 7.6 cm) are covered. Leave the sand to cool for about 10 minutes and then remove the feather. Tempering will make the tip section transparent, making it easier to cut the nib in the tip.
3. Next hold the feather between your thumb and index finger and find a comfortable position to write on it. Then mark a small dot on the top of the nib about 3/8 inch (1 cm) from the tip with the pen or pencil.
4. Using a scalpel or craft knife — or even a penknife, as I believe that is where the name came from! — make a cut in the underside of the quill directly under the dot you just made and in the direction of the point of the quill. This clean cut will create the nib of the pen.
5. Next measure about 5/8 inch (1.5 cm) back from this point and make a shallow cut lengthwise toward the point of the quill that intersects the first cut about halfway up. The illustration shows the two cut lines and how they should roughly intersect. Carefully hold the points created at the intersection of the two cuts and fold them together to make the slit that helps the ink flow smoothly to the nib. Extend this slit using the knife so that it is no more than 3/8 inch (1 cm) long.
6. Now cut a curved line on each side of the quill to give you the shape and width of the nib. The bottom image shows the feather from above with the dot you drew for reference.
7. Finally, trim a tiny amount from the tip of the end if there are any loose fibers or uneven surfaces. You do this by making a straight cut across the nib.