Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Struggle (Paper)

I could easily have titled this post "An Embarrassment of Riches" because of the paper I have put in stock to work with. Limitation is a mighty tool, though. If you read yesterday's post, you'll know that I've been tearing my hair out with one failed painting after another. I know I can paint, and beautifully, too. So what in the heck is the problem?

I left off with Twyla Tharp's comment that using the wrong materials can be deadly. I now have had first hand experience to confirm this fact. You're only as good as your tools. I was told from the very beginning that the best brush, paper and pigment are the only way to go - with watercolor especially. But what if the best isn't the best for you?

I've been working with St. Armand's handmade paper over the past month. A beautiful paper made in Montréal.

After using two sheets that I'd bought in Charlottesville a few years ago for two paintings last summer (one of which I was very pleased with), I'd ordered some of their Dominion paper. As it turned out, the paper I used from Charlottesville was not sized but the Dominion was and I experienced problems with their sized paper. St. Armand's very generously (they're great people) replaced my Dominion with their regular watercolor paper.

Finally, in January I started to use it and laid out about a dozen paintings in various sizes on some sheets. You'll see some results over the next few weeks on my painting blog. But what I discovered - the hard way - is that it's not for me. Mostly because of the way that I, personally, work which means that often, not always, I like to be able to work the paper a bit. Lift and play with the water and pigment. The best way to use the St. Armand's is to lay down the stroke and leave it alone. But do you think I realized that right off? No. I made one beautiful painting and thought, if I made that, then I can make another. It did not turn out that way. And with each bad painting, I thought, I have this paper, so I must use it! There must be a way to make this work.

At some point, I checked out of the library a book that my friend, Don Gray had suggested, Burt Silverman's Breaking the Rules of Watercolor. And I quote:
Struggling with Watercolor

Throughout these years of struggling with watercolor, there were always some troubling technical issues that I could never deal with to my satisfaction. The biggest problem was paper.
He goes on to describe in great detail the problems he encountered with various papers, thinking that each new paper offered him the best solution. In writing about gessoed illustration board which he used with relatively good results for five years, he says:
But I soon discovered that the surface was terribly quixotic. Sometimes the paint went on beautifully, with all the fluid feeling that makes watercolor such a unique medium. At other times, my brushwork looked crabby and jagged...But I put aside these difficulties and kept going because I felt that I was finding a means of using watercolor to paint my figure compositions.

But finally, my patience gave out. The paper was just too unreliable, making me pay more attention to the technical means than to the painting as a whole.
He goes on at length about his "exasperating paper chase" finally describing a paper that worked for him.
Looking back at this long search for the right paper — and the right technique of painting in watercolor — I must admit that I'm troubled by this preoccupation with technique. After all, the real issue in painting is not only how you handle the medium, but what kind of pictures you paint. The method must be wedded to the conception. But I also know that the search for the right technique is part of the bigger search for a personal language. And this is all part of the process of growing as an artist.

It's also taken me a long time to understand that there's no perfect solution. That is, there's no permanent solution The means of painting — the brush strokes and the lovely passages — will change again as the artist experiences new expressive needs. There will always be new problems. And there will be new solutions somewhere out there on the horizon.
As long as I'm on the subject, I'll show the paper I have been using. They're all lined up in the first photo. From left to right you'll see St. Armand which I still think that I can use in some capacity, at some point. That must be my stubborn streak talking.

Then you see Indian Village, a paper handmade in the mountains in India and brought down for shipping by pack animal. Now this is truly unreliable and irregular paper. But I absolutely adore it. Still, it's a rather specific kind of paper with unique results. But I feel confident using it and have worked with it from very fine pieces, like my Age of Flowers series to much more expressive pieces that you can see in my Landscape into Art series. Each piece of that paper differs from the next so it takes some preparation to begin and expectation that a trial piece might turn into a masterpiece and a painting that you're serious about might end up in the trash bin. For these very reasons (and that some come very warped and dirty), it's no longer available. For examples of work on Indian Village, click here.

Then we have the Hot Press Lana blocks that sometimes work for me and sometimes don't (only because of wanting different results than what hot press can produce) but I love the white white color and the smooth smooth surface that my brush can glide along freely. I've also used their cold press but their hot press blocks are dear to my heart. Most, if not all of October and November 2007 Landscape into Art posts are on Lanaquarelle Hot and Cold Press papers.

Last, but not least, two small blocks of Fabriano Cold Press, the top is extra white (which I prefer) and the bottom is Traditional White. These are the Artistico papers, not the student grade. For some examples of work on Fabriano Cold Press, click here.

I do not like the Fabriano rough at all, although there are a few paintings I used the rough for posted on Landscape into Art. I have not yet tried their hot press. (I should note that I use their Studio (student grade) paper for my watercolor workshops because it's inexpensive and has some very good qualities for learning upon.) Yesterday, at my wits end, while shopping for my drawing students, I bought two large sheets each of the Fabriano Artistico Hot and Cold Press.

I don't use Arches paper (although I used to, once upon a time) because it STINKS!! Literally, I cannot stand the smell. It might be horse gelatin or something, I don't know.

Twinrocker makes a fabulous, fabulous paper that I love and adore but cannot afford.

The good news is that, today, after some administrative nonsense and reading some watercolor books, I settled down to some larger Fabriano blocks that I'd set up with pencil compositions and chose one to begin. I only got so far, but I think that I might be back in the saddle. We'll see....


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RHCarpenter said...

So sorry you have been struggling lately. I think it's the winter of our discontent in a lot of ways as many artist friends are feeling blah, blue, burned out, distressed. Take heart - color studies - new paper - don't put so much pressure on yourself. All easy to give advice for and not take personally (yep, I need that advice, too!). I love Fabriano and Arches (at least the last bunch I got) no longer has that awful smell that someone said reminds them of cow hooves :( ugh I hope that person (husband of an artist friend) was a rancher - why else would he be so familiar with the smell of cow hooves??

laura said...

Very interesting post. I am susceptible to trying new papers, with very mixed results. I usually use the extra white Fabriano Artistico, which I find is very consistent: nice surface on which the paint flows. Arches I have found to be very inconsistent ... I have abandoned several starts on Arches because the paint just sunk into the paper--yuck!

Suzanne said...

Thanks Rhonda and Laura.

I suppose that I should have added to these two posts that it IS the middle of winter and that certainly has its effect. The other thing I mentioned somewhere and really should emphasize is that getting through these sorts of phases is really the only way to growth and expansion.

Mineke Reinders said...

Suzanne, thank you for generously sharing your struggles in this and yesterday's post. We all go through these phases from time to time, and it's good to know we're not alone.
When my daughter was a toddler she would always get very cranky for a week or so just before entering some new developmental phase or mastering some new skill. She would even regress a little before making the next leap. We called it "phasing" (as in: "what's wrong with her? oh, she must be phasing). Anyway, I feel that that is what happens to artists during these times of failure. Call it phasing, call it growing pains, it's no fun, but as you say, you just have to push through it.

My most interesting experience with paper was at a time when I didn't have access to my usual brands and tried a whole bunch of pads and blocks of different brands, all more heavily sized than what I was used to. It was frustrating, but in retrospect some of my best paintings of that time were done on those papers I hated...

Suzanne said...

Thanks, Mineke!

I appreciate your reminding me of similar phasing experiences. Still not out of the woods (today, it's composition and color) but I am keeping on keeping on. It's just about to storm and tomorrow is the first day of my Winter Drawing Class where I'll meet a dozen new people who I'll have to guide through their own phasing. Come to think of it, I remember telling my drawing class students at this time last year that I was freaking out over my painting. Maybe it's a seasonal thing, too. So many reasons!