Ahh... Tax season is now ending and Christmas bills are about paid (err, maybe?), so it's time for that much-dreamed-of week (or two?) down at Myrtle Beach to be realized. Your condo has been waiting for your arrival and its transformation into an aspiring artist's studio is about to begin. All the cold winter long you have dreamed of the next few days in the hope you can at long last be alone with your own thoughts and be able to produce some really great Art!
You have probably already decided how you want to spend your time - you have definitely decided on your Medium: either Watercolors, Oils, Acrylics, or Pastels.
All those are worthy and time-honored mediums, but they are not interchangeable, so you must settle on ONE choice. Each requires a separate thought-process, so best not to confuse yourself with more than the one; the following thoughts might help:
WATERCOLORS: - you probably used them in school and already know something about them; they are probably the easiest for most people to carry around, though there is always the problem of transporting sufficient water on your painting walks along the beach or into the woods. I have never tried to mix salty ocean water with watercolor paint as I have been afraid the paint might not like the taste of salt-water and might give some undesired results. Water is heavy and carrying a half-gallon bottle of it with you - even on your back - can spoil your enthusiasm to paint. My own best use of watercolor has been on a south-facing porch in the shade, but with sunlight available for drying the paint rapidly. THAT is one of the drawbacks to watercolor: its slowness to dry - just when you are trying to make a quick sketch for future reference some fresh paint will suddenly get absorbed by a heavily pigmented area you thought was dry, the different colors suddenly clashing together to give undesired results. Many artists are so frustrated by this slow-drying process that they get several paintings underway at a time so that they can all be in various stages of drying. A shady porch (with view of the ocean!) is one of the best places to do watercolor painting that I know of - but it should have a nice bannister where you can put your painting(s) in the sun for quicker drying. Never try to do a watercolor in full summer sunlight as it will dry your work too fast and cause new problems when you try to add-on to it. To be honest, watercolors are best done indoors, using a carefully controlled hair-dryer for rapid drying as needed.
Watercolors also have another feature I do not like (beside the slow drying), and that is "buckling", which is hard to overcome. Best choice for the inexperienced artist is to use "blocks" of watercolor paper as found in art-supply stores. These blocks have perhaps 20 sheets of good quality paper stacked together on a solid cardboard base and glued all around the perimeter. You paint on the top sheet which will buckle beyond belief while you are working, but when it dries it will flatten out again to about 90% of its original flatness. When thoroughly dry, simply run a dull kitchen knife between the paper sheets and remove your treasured work! There is a lot more to say about this buckling problem, but I will let YOU ask about it as we proceed.
OILS: Whereas White is not used in traditional watercolor painting, it is DEMANDED in oils! Oils are meant to be used thick: from about the thickness of ordinary house paint to layers I have seen which are a half inch thick or more! There is absolutely no earthly reason for this save for the painter's own personal conceits. Such build-ups cannot be shown in photographs or reproductions so are of no use to anyone except the artist himself. I tell you all this, however, simply to emphasize that, after the transparency of watercolors, oils are heavy and opaque. And oils are even much slower to dry. But when a watercolor is dry it must be considered "finished" as very little can be done to change it. While oils, on the other hand, are never finished: they remain in an eternal state always ready to accept yet another stroke of the brush - or palette knife. I have personally worked on a couple of my oldest paintings over a period of five decades, and after the gloss of the new paint wears off, the new paint is not discernible from the old. Although an opaque medium, oils can be used for bright and sunny scenes. White is necessary for the desired light tints, while in watercolors you use very thin mixtures of color, leaving the white of the paper whenever possible. With oils - unless it's a special case - the entire canvas is covered with opaque paint. For beginners, the best material to paint on is store-bought pre-stretched cotton canvas. (Linen is far too expensive). As you gain experience - and if you're a do-it-yourselfer, there is a way to save a bundle of money by stretching your own canvas. But I'll save that method for later. Yes, there are sketchbook sized pads of canvas which I have used a lot, but they are not economical when it comes to framing. I can explain that if someone shows interest in the topic.
ACRYLICS: Although a purely "Aqueous Medium", acrylics can be used either as transparent watercolor, where no white is used, OR exactly like oils, where white is needed to make all the tints. I personally do not like thick impasto work so mix it to about the same consistency as house paint as I work. Sometimes, when a large amount of a certain color is required I will mix it separately in a disposable plastic soufflé cup. Good quality acrylic colors are a wonderful addition to the artists' choice of materials, and I can remember when they did not exist. Intimidating at first (because no one knew quite what to expect), they were slow to catch on, although heralded by the manufacturers as the "wave of the future". True, those manufacturers did not want to cut their own throats by touting that acrylics were superseding or superior to oils, but only that they were a very handy addition to the artists' choices. They realized that nothing is ever going to overcome the homeowners' desire for an "OIL PAINTING OVER THE MANTEL". And so it remains to this day.
Acrylics have long been used to emulate true watercolors. Chances are good that the "watercolor" you bought at that weekend art show is actually an acrylic. And, conversely, sometimes the "oil painting" you just bought for the childrens' room is an acrylic in disguise. Acrylics can be sprayed with a light coating of picture varnish, giving them the right smell, and passed off as a "genuine oil painting"! This happens because artists tend to prefer the working properties of acrylics over oils, especially when applied thickly. This is because acrylics dry overnight and rarely crack (unless applied too thickly), and I have never seen a large area of acrylic paint "honeycomb", as sometimes happens with oils.
PASTELS: I have never done any serious work with Pastels - just some experimentation. I have been attracted to the beautiful colored papers made specifically for the medium - the exquisite "tooth" that the paper has to "grab" and hold the color. Smooth paper will not work nearly so well, though for ordinary needs rough paper is best. A major drawback I have to pastels is the fact that they are very fragile, and cannot be "fixed" (with spray-can fixatif), meaning the drawing you have just spent so much time and energy doing will begin immediately "powdering away" onto the floor (if you have pinned it to the wall). If you do decide to spray it with fixatif it will lose much of its original luster as the colors sink into the wet plastic losing their intensity. Please do not let me discourage you from trying pastels - the results are often amazingly charming - especially when done on the "right" colored background. But I personally do not like the thought of my work powdering away, and when done, finding an unwanted line of powdery pigment on the floor - very easy to step into and track all over your studio!
Ugh! That's the worst part of "being an artist": the Clean-Up! No wonder all the rich artists of the past had assistants and apprentices - simply to do the clean-up at the end of each work session, for every brush must be washed with either soap and water - or both - or you will constantly be paying good money to replace ruined brushes. (Acrylic paints are notoriously bad at chewing up your new expensive brushes, as the paint begins drying around the ferrule and builds up gradually until the brush is useless).
That residual pigment on the floor (from your pastels), however, is exactly the same stuff that goes into the manufacturing of watercolor, oil and acrylic paint! It all came out of the same storage bins back at the manufacturing plant, meaning that the prices you pay are based on the actual value of each pigment. Some are relatively cheap (like the earth colors) and others relatively high priced (like the cadmiums). And that poor little line of costly powdered pigment on your studio floor is now totally useless for anything but possibly making you sneeze!
So, as you read this and contemplate your next excursion down to "Myrtle", please don't hesitate to ask me about anything that is art-related. Maybe next time we could talk about creating a makeshift studio for yourself - right next to your coffee cup (and ocean view). I hope you have a great two weeks on the SC coast, and me? My wife and I hope to have a thrilling overnight on Soddy Lake!
Bye till next time!
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Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan of wide experience in the Arts, having designed and executed large 8' x 30' murals, as for the Mountain City Club of Chattanooga and two local banks. Educated at the former University of Chattanooga (now the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga) he found immediate employment in the Arts upon his 1961 graduation. While working as a Commercial Designer locally, he began entering art competitions, winning many awards: local, regional, and national. His most significant national award was for $10,000 from Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina (1983) where his bronze sculptural creation, titled, "The Sixth Day", remains in the Gardens' permanent collection. His winning design for the United Nations' World Food Day medal (1984) became his first work collected by both the British Museum and the Smithsonian. These stepping stones led to his employment by the United States Mint at Philadelphia, from where he is retired. The American Numismatic Association (Colorado Springs) presented him with their gold medal for lifetime achievement at their Baltimore convention in 1993. Never far from an artist's paintbrush or sculptors' clay, he continues to pursue his lifetime dream of being an artist - offering help to anyone who asks. Mr. Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org