Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Branching From The Roots

I don't believe in any real distinction between art and craft. I feel like I'm able to make a real comment on this because I have tread neck deep and deeper into both oceans and the salinity tastes exactly the same. I feel the same when creating a work of "Art" as I do working at "Craft" my decision matrix follows the same paths, my hands carry out work as extensions of my intentions, my immersion in the midst of planning and executing is the same.

The only outright difference I can cite is that craft often requires more physical exertion, but often art requires a form of physical stamina, so that's somewhat a draw.

The only reason I see to make a distinction is either ego or marketing. Those can be the same thing.

If you've followed me on social media lately you'll see a recent chaotic spurt has kept me from the shop and craft and I've instead turned my odd hours into time at the drafting table and art. I've picked up a project I set down a while ago. I took a short series of shop photos with the intention of creating a calendar. Some reasoned conversation with a friend who knows more than a thing or two opened my eyes about the idea, especially the fact that, to most people, calendar's are disposable things, and I'm not interested in making disposable things.

However, the photos were good and the desire to make something from that is still there. Some reading and research into new techniques made me want to work with them too and the work pushed from my comfortable graphite pencil into a series of black and grey compositions in watercolor and ink.

Secrets are the currency of the art world. People don't like to share their processes or discoveries for many reasons. Mostly the concept of "if they know how I do this then they'll do it too" feels prevalent, and that's not an uncommon feeling in a culture that thrives on envy, pride, one-upmanship, and schadenfreude. It's what I hated about art groups, classes, and competitions (and trust me everything is a competition)

I have a middle finger, and I like to use it . . . maybe a little too much . . . in that spirit I decided to share the entirety of my process here.

Before I sit down with a pencil, this process starts with a camera. Setting up an interesting photo composition with decent lighting and intent is a process all on it's own. I had several ideas I went to the shop to execute in specifically staged photos and over the process of a couple hours gathered what I was happy with. Because the original intention was to work in pencil I graded the "keeper" photo to black and white. This still helped with my decision to work in black and grey.

Then it's getting the photo's composition onto the watercolor paper. I have used all manner of ways to do this, from working through a grid system to an extended arm and stick to photo projectors the size of a VW Beetle. My father-in-law spent many years as a draftsman and artist and upon his passing I found a reasonable sized photo projector that suspends from an adjustable arm over a table. A mirror, a very bright light bulb, and a focusing lens make the magic work. I secure the source to the size I want, secure the paper to the table, turn off all the lights in the room and start the transfer.

I started with regular H lead pencil, which is fine, but graphite has a reflective quality that can interfere with the ink. I decided to eliminate that and changed to work with a "non-photo blue" pencil. It makes lines that do not show up under scanning or photo copying. You can find them near the drafting supplies in the art store.

I draw borders on the watercolor paper (never work to the edge) and masking tape it to a larger sheet of basic sketchbook paper. Eventually I run masking tape around all the edges and when it's removed I get crisp clean edges. I use quality masking tape also found among the drafting supplies. Usually I have no problems with it tearing the paper unless it's left on for a couple days. The backing paper just makes things easier to move and manipulate without worry over damaging the paper I'm actually working on.

Then it's to the drafting table. I mount a print of the photo nearby and begin to work on replacing the blue lines with ink lines. Here I'm using a 0.1 tip Copic illustration marker, one of their disposable brand. I've tried many brands of these markers and I'm happiest with the Copics or the Prismacolor brands.

If you zoom in you'll also see the ravages of age have attacked. For much of this process I will wear a pair of cheater magnifying glasses over my prescription pair. My wife thinks this is hilarious. I can't argue with her 

There was an especially high amount of detail to this composition, This part of the process took a while but you can see the progress as a blue . . .

. . . is turned to black. Through this process I'm focused on making clean lines and keeping away from anything that resembles sketchiness. I may have done that some with the blue pencil, but here I'm after complete clarity as this is the foundation for the rest.

Then I remove what's left of the blue, or most of it, by rolling a kneaded eraser over the work. This gently lifts pencil in wide swaths, though very dark or thick lines can take some work to erode away.

Then the toughest part to trust yourself on. Watercolor washes. I first brush clean water on the paper, saturating it, then wash in pigment working from light grey into dark grey. It's very rare I use the paint right from the tube, there's always some blending. It makes me feel like I'm cheating if I use the pigment without any intention.

The washes are allowed to dry completely and afterwards any paper pilling gets rubbed off. Pilling is my term for the little bits of paper pulp that get balled up with the application of moisture and friction from the brush. They show while you're applying washes but if you wait for things to dry they are easy to rub off with your palm. I'm not finishing with watercolors here so I'm unconcerned. They are the frame upon which the rest is built.

Through the transparency of the watercolor I can read my original ink lines. Now I use a brush and begin to work my way back in with waterproof india ink. I use different sizes of brush depending on the space I'm filling or the line work I'm replicating. If the work is exceedingly fine I will go back and forth between the brush and an illustration marker, but I use brushes primarily.

Dipping my toes back into this kind of work after a few decades off, it's been nice to rediscover brushwork, something I took for granted in the past. Technique is important and practice is paramount.

Eventually I hit this stage where I've gotten as much black value ink as I can cram in on the page. You'll see I'm not just working for black out areas here. I'm working for shading and texture as well as line.

Now I work back in with a black watercolor pencil to define some textures, extend some gradation, and blend in some shadow. I also use a white watercolor pencil to create highlights and light reflection and offset some dark areas. If I have a composition that has hard highlight I will work back in with white waterproof ink and a brush but this particular piece only had one line and I was able to get that with the white pencil.

Cleaning a brush for one line feels like a stupid move.

Ink dries very fast and soon after I feel like I'm done fussing over the details with the watercolor pencils I can strip off the masking tape, hang the work on a tack, and step back to assess the success. You can be too close, especially right after you've finished but any worthwhile work should give you a different viewing experience from a variety of distances. Step close to see the brushstrokes and the textures then step back to allow your eyes to aggregate the effect. Great work will keep surprising you in this way.

As I write this I have four pieces finished and one washes done waiting for ink on the drafting table. What plans do I have for them? It's fluid but I'm thinking of doing a series of nine and offering them as a set of postcard sized art prints. I've found I like using postcards for some inspiration in the shop, better than posters. The smaller size allows me to pin them to the insides of my tool chest and on the sides of shelves and they allow me to put up a greater variety of ideas in the same space one poster occupies.

Don't ask me about pricing or ordering yet. I have to work those things out. The original pieces may come up for sale too but for right now I'm halfway there and I'm gonna focus on getting this work done before I move on. When I know - You will all know soon after.

Ratione et Passionis

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