Pixels to Paint

After 15 years of working in digital art with only occasional forays into analog image making, I had the opportunity in the summer of 2007 to spend 5 glorious weeks exploring oil painting. This article is an account of my journey from pixels to paint. Gallery of images here.

Why the Return to Analog

It was only after I'd accepted the job of teaching Colour Theory in the college I work in that my coordinator told me he wanted me to use oil paints. “Oils?!” I said in a strangled voice, feeling like a deer caught in the headlights. I'd imagined teaching the course with nice, safe little tubes of process coloured gouache the way I'd been taught. I was going to have these same students again in their second year of our Visual and Digital Art program teaching them 3 different courses of digital art making. I could use the first year Colour Theory course to give them a solid grounding in subtractive colour and then we’d switch to additive RGB in the digital courses. Not oils. Oils have that aura of Old Masters grinding alchemy in darkened garrets with dramatic yellow ochre light falling precisely on the Christ Child's face. Not my kind of digital. I'd not only never worked with oils before, I'd never wanted to work with oils. I knew enough to know it was full of messy pitfalls of drying time, primer and endless brush cleaning. It required time honed skills and saintly patience and, with my course starting in a few weeks, I had neither.

Somehow I got through the course, starting with gouache, hue, saturation and value and then introducing oil as an example of how complex colour can get when one moves into a medium that isn't using process colours. The final project was that classic colour theory one of producing a series of images on the same topic painted in different colour harmonies - complimentary, analogous and triadic. To my delight a number of students produced some very exciting work in oil. Clearly I’d done something right.

In the forced process of figuring how to teach basic oil painting, I got a taste for its possibilities. I liked how tones could blend and melt into one another with a rich buttery creaminess. I loved the intensity of the colour as the paint came out of the tubes: make-no-mistake-about-me Cadmium Red and the coolness of Cad Lemon beside the egg yolk richness of Cad Yellow Pale. I loved saying the names: Viridian, Cerulean and Alizarin. It was all so tactile compared to digital.

I have been working in digital for about 15 years now. When I came to Photoshop 3, I immediately took to it as a place to mix photography and the painted/drawn image. Probably the single most attractive quality in Photoshop was the possibilities that layering offered. I didn't have a lot of experience with analog painting, just a little bit working with acrylics and gouache. Most of my analog art making has been very three dimensional: clay, papier-mâché and plastic sculpture with some fiber work thrown in. But as I have kept going with digital, I keep returning to aspects of analog image making. I find that I always bring useful learning back to digital from these analog journeys.

A few years ago I realized I needed to improve my drawing skills. While I can draw on the computer with a tablet and stylus, I began exploring the possibilities more traditional media offered: pencil, charcoal, watercolour crayon and pastels. There was a certain freshness of line that my digital drawings didn't have. I immediately scanned some of them and incorporated them into my digital images.

I loved how focused my analog work sessions were compared to my digital ones. A couple of summers ago I experimented with monoprints. I was drawing on a mirror with printing ink and then printing onto newsprint. I had to set up the table, ink, tools and paper. Once I was working, my hands were all messy so I could neither check my oh-so-important email, make don't-wait-another-minute phone calls nor eat that I'm-going-to-starve snack. All those distractions had to be put aside so that I could work. I had to build clean-up time into the session and after it was done I was physically tired and deserved a break. This work flow was much different from my digital ones which often stuttered and hiccupped through all the distractions the Internet and clean hands offered.

The final reason I wanted to work with oil was to learn more about Corel Painter. After years of Photoshop being my one and only true digital love, I'd committed adultery and begun a little something on the side with Corel Painter. Something that looked as if I was going to have to take up polygamy. While all digital applications eventually exist in their own paradigms, most of them have begun by building on analog language, techniques and ways of working. Photoshop initially built heavily on the darkroom: dodging and burning, talk of density and the infamous Unsharpen Mask. Painter's central paradigm is Brushes: big, small, dirty, multi coloured, wet, dry, blobby, feathered, smooth - the possibilities are almost endless. As I began playing more and more with the app, I realized I'd understand it better if I understood more about the analog model from whose forehead it sprang.

All these different reasons plus a glorious opportunity for 5 weeks of creative retreat in Gaspé – one of Canada's most beautiful and remote regions – invited me to work with oil paint this summer.

My Oil Paint Experience

I had some odourless solvent, 13 tubes of paint, a variety of brushes, four plastic drop sheets, a husband, a dog and a very small red car. I asked an abstract expressionist friend who worked in oil if I had everything I needed. She was concerned about the tiny little canvas boards I proposed using. Even with almost no room in the car, she pointed out I could still take along a roll of primed canvas and, by pinning it to a wall, could really learn what oil paint was all about. Thank you Pat!

My husband and I had decided on a structure of 4 hours of work (he is a writer) every morning with afternoons spent on adventures with our dog. We’d explore the peninsula by walking on logging roads in the mountainous bush behind our rented house or along the glorious coastline of the Gulf of St Lawrence in front. So there I was in my little studio on the first morning. How to begin. My first painting was a tonal interior of the house [Gaspé Interior]. This was really just to let me know that I could do that kind of fairly straight painting including some perspective, using realistic values and blending tones. Not really the kind of image that interests me but a manageable technical exercise. I did try something with patterns on part of it which failed miserably. While I desperately missed an undo button, fortunately oil paint has a somewhat forgiving capacity for covering and I decided to save my love of layering patterns for Photoshop and Corel Painter.

The second painting [Gaspé Red House] got more interesting. I began to play with colour. While my digital work always has an element of representational image within it, I am not very interested in realistic or naturalistic colour. I like hot, intense colours in strong, flattish compositional forms covered with expressionistic textures. So I began mixing. Me - the Colour Theory teacher. I was a little taken aback at how hard it was. Blues seemed almost impossible: they were either too dark or, with the addition of opacity hugging white, too pasty. Not like digital. And once I’d messed up a colour and tried fixing it by mushing around another colour on my palette, I ended up with puddles of murky greens or swamp gray blues. After a lot of mess, wasted paint and way too many paper towels, the solution to some of my colour problems seemed to be to mix them on the image. And so I began to learn the very key lessons in oil of drying time and paint thinness/thickness. Not like the instant gratification of digital. This was like clay. I had to set my creative clock to a very different working rhythm. I did a whole series of paint swatches testing the drying time of the paint, varying thickness from glaze to impasto. With some I mixed in the acrylic dryer, Liquin. Canvas number 3 was a self portrait [Gaspé Self Portrait]following the oil dictum of fat over lean (thin, transparent paint first and then oilier, thick paint on top).

By Image number 4 [Gaspé Bed] I was beginning to get the hang of my new working rhythm. I worked on all the images at the same time. First layers were drying while second and third ones on other images were building.

One of the hardest aspects of the slow drying time and this change in work flow rhythm was having to plan my images a bit more than I usually do. After my thin initial layer, I had to build in times when the spontaneity that makes my work so alive could be addressed. Impasto was a new pleasure that demanded the kind of focused spontaneity that I like. Gaspé House with Big Sea was all about impasto and that glorious big sea I was looking at everyday. The challenge here was to not make a "pretty picture". Yet, if an image was getting pretty, I still had to follow its lead and risk prettiness to find the image I was looking for. I hoped the roughness of the impasto tempered any clichés in the resulting landscape.

Content is always an interesting challenge in the image making process. I had come to Gaspé with a mental picture of the kind of image I wanted to make. It had something to do with the landscape I was staying in, but that was just the starting point. I began to generate images by drawing on location and with photography. While my summer’s task was about simplifying both my tools and my time, it wasn't an anti-technology Luddite stance - I did have a digital camera and laptop with me.

Much of the Gaspé architecture has a starkness and strength to it that speaks of harsh winters and the severe storms of a coastal fishing community. My 6th painting, Gaspé Out Building at Night shows an unusually shaped barn we had seen on one of our afternoon outings. I liked the blockiness of the shapes against a hill overlooking the sea. When I went back early one morning to both photograph and draw it, I was surprised to see a lighthouse sitting along the horizon. While my working images ofthe building were full of the bright angularity of morning light, I wanted to make an image just in nighttime purples. Nighttime. Lighthouse. Beaming light. Seemed like a no brainer. In the original version of the image, I had the lighthouse. But we’ve all seen lighthouses shining at night in coastal paintings - maybe seen them so much that it is hard to see past their cliché image. It was starting to look like my image anathema - a “pretty picture”. The lighthouse morphed into a dark cloud.

After three weeks into my adventure, I stood back and took stock of what was working and what wasn’t. Layers! I’d learned about painting with layers. From a digital point of view that certainly sounds familiar. While people have been painting with layers of oil paint for centuries and I had a variety of oil painting books along for reference, my model of using layers clearly came from Photoshop: Photoshop layers with blend modes and masks. Layers of colour, forms and patterns building on top of one another – that’s how I create my digital images and those were some of qualities I sought in using oil. Once again I met a truth that appears again and again in all my creative endeavors - Limitations Are My Friend. The drive-me-crazy limitations of slow drying time and variable paint density forced me to discover painting in layers. That, combined with the mental vision I was pursuing, led me to new visual possibilities.

What I disliked about the first 6 images was that they felt a little too much like painting by number. I’d draw forms that described an image, choose a palette and then fill in those lines. I might get a bit wild within the forms and I might mess interestingly with the edges, but essentially it felt like a fancy colouring book.

For the last 2 weeks I wanted to push my learning and also move away from anything defined as a landscape. It was time to unfurl the large roll of primed canvas. My 7th and final piece [Cauldron] took the whole of our remaining time. The largest image size I could have, given the wall space I was pinning to, was 35x50in. Again I had a vague image in my mind’s eye of what it was I wanted. I wanted the marks to lead the way instead of beginning with an image and finding marks and forms to compose it. But I confess the process of how I was going to get this was a little hazy.

Part 1 went well – yellows, oranges and a few reds made a fine base of rectangles. And then began the wild brush stroke layer. In my imagination a glorious network of textured brush strokes made intricate layers of broken colour weaving and dancing rhythmically across the canvas… Instead I had a series of flat, dopey, stuttery marks and stains looking lost and out of place, dirtying up the lovely order of the rectangles. I took a deep breath and decided to skip to step 3 in the plan – representational images.

I began painting a face based roughly on an old sketch and some of the marks on the canvas. It quickly evolved into its own face with a looseness to it that I liked. After the face, I painted a Gaspe´ house that I kept admiring. Maybe it was because I was working from both sketches and photographs, but the house began getting a little too tight. I finally gave it a kick in the butt with a dramatic colour shift – adding a horizon line of the blue-green sea with whitened highlights. The third image was another face, first delineated just by shadows, as though I had used Photoshop’s Threshold. It looked terrible and it sure didn’t fit with anything else. The next day I painted it again with a large range of tones, though an unrealistic palette. I still didn’t like it and I certainly couldn’t see how the whole could possibly come together from all these non-related bits.

Time was running out. I felt miles away from my original vision. Where were the wild, energetic marks I was seeking? Why hadn’t I studied Japanese brush work in a former life? I tried a smear of Alizarin Crimson around the 2nd face – it had looked good on my test canvas. It looked terrible – I quickly soaked a paper towel in solvent, wiped away the miserable evidence and took the rest of the day off.

The next day I stood in front of the canvas and let go of any imaginings of great art. “An exercise,” I said to myself. “This is just about learning to use oil paint.” The image I really disliked was the 2nd face, so I had no qualms about messing with it. I decided I needed a Photoshop-like layer of Something and I’d preserve the parts of the image I still liked – one of the eyes, a bit of the hat, and a piece of the shoulder. But what was the Something going to be? The face was still wet – I hadn’t used the quick dryer, so there wasn’t going to be much wiggle room.

I mixed some of the blue-green I’d used earlier, took a coarse brush and made some marks close to the face. Then the same thing with the Alizarin Crimson but right over the face. Nope. – it looked dead, dopey and no undo button magically appeared… And then one of those serendipitous moments fell out of the void – I picked up the palette knife and began pushing and scraping the paint. And then more, faster. I pushed and scraped and fanned and overlapped. A wild flurry of marks and colour flew across the image! I was onto something – this was what was going to pull the image together.

I played a bit in the areas that had no representational image to see what was possible with the palette knife. Then I dared myself to mess up the house and the first face. The first face was scary as I liked it a lot. Time for Photoshop’s Selections and Masking – I put masking tape over the eyes and some of the areas I really liked.

When I stood back, the overall image was getting too busy and needed some quiet places for the eye to rest. I decided to add back some of the original rectangles of colour. I started by wiping off paint with solvent and the palette knife. It was looking alright except that those bright yellows had been stained by the overlying colours so they looked a bit dirty and grubby. No problem – I’d paint them back in.

I had one more day of painting before letting the canvas dry enough to roll it, pack it in the tiny car with the dog and drive the 1500 kilometers back to Toronto. I confidently painted the rectangles back in with their bright cadmium yellows. I was so sure of it, I didn’t even stand back until I was finished. And then, “Oh no – I’ve wrecked it!” The colours were way too bright and saturated and the edges were way too sharp. The rectangles had upstaged the representational images! Uh-oh. I quickly added some yellow ochre and red oxide into the cadmiums to shut the colours up, but what was I going to do about those edges? Where was Photoshop’s Gaussian Blur when I needed it? Once again, out of nowhere, a dry, coarse sponge was suddenly in my hand and I began to feather the sharp edges into their surroundings. It worked. The rectangles moved into their role as supporting cast and the images and dancing textured madness came forward.

Lastly I mixed some thin bright colours with lots of the Liquin and (first doing lots of tests – I only had one chance at this) flung them at the canvas. Yes! After 2 weeks of hard labour and much doubt, Cauldron was born.

Striking Gold While Drilling for Oil

As with any creative process, my journey into oil taught me once again that I have to trust my instincts. If I can listen to that inner voice, I’ll always know what to explore next. I think digital taught me this most clearly – trying to find my way through Photoshop at the beginning was like rock climbing blindfolded. I just had to reach into the darkness of channels and colour management and trust that I’d find some hand holds. If I could do it with digital, I could certainly do it with oil. For all its frustrations, it has a lot fewer variables than digital.

The new problems that oil presented forced me to reconsider territory that I thought I knew. I’ve already discussed the learning that grew out of slow drying times and paint density. Colour was the other big area. In digital I have 16 million colours to use. If I don’t like what I’ve got, I quickly do a selection and, using any number of techniques, I modify the hue and the saturation a little bit or a lot. Working with only 13 tubes of paint (and really I only used 9 of those) demanded I consider colour at a much slower pace. I had to get to know those pigments and what they could and couldn’t do for me. I had to think about the temperature of my hues in a way that I never had before. I had to think about how I was going to get warm shadows and cool highlights in blue Northern daylight. In Photoshop I often do major value manipulations at the end of my image making process – with oil from early on, I had to be very attentive as to what I wanted the values to do.

The challenge of creating without an undo button is gloriously liberating. Frustrating? Oh yes, but being forced to be more decisive, instead of wandering around haphazardly trying a filter of this or a blend mode of that, is definitely healthy for the creative spirit.

The limitations of oil paint forced me to be more present and attentive with my work as I created it. The slower, less forgiving rhythm, the limited palette, and the lack of an undo button all made me stay more alive in the creative moment as I had so much less wiggle room. I was dared into facing new problems and, while terrifying in the process, I was fed by the new solutions that came. Once again I learned a lesson that gets repeated over and over: my most creative moments come when I’m most stuck.

Did I make the images I imagined? No, but in their pursuit, I found a new vision that I would not have been able to imagine before the trip. Ultimately my Gaspé journey was about new ways of seeing – new glorious landscape, new Québécois culture and a renewed, deepened look at line, form, texture, value and colour in whatever medium I work. That renewal, surely, is what is meant by ‘creative retreat’.

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