Monday, December 27, 2010

“High-tech” painting tools – Kitchen paper towel and Toothpick

It might sound a little silly and even awkward to talk about a kitchen paper towel and a toothpick as the painting tools, now when the whole world is moving towards the use of computer technology in creating Art. But the things are often not as they seem at the firsts glance. There is an important thought behind this.
When it comes to oil painting technique the first thing that pops up in our mind is fat oil paint, painting brushes and perhaps a pallet knife. A painting brush, being a tool that offers the most optimal handling of the slippery oil paint, is the most common painting tool. It gives the painter a good deal of control over the process of applying the paint to the painting surface. The pallet knife is mostly used for the mixing of the paint on the pallet, and being made from metal, it behaves in a different and much stiffer way then the brush. It can also be very useful as a painting tool.
But needless to say, nothing can and should prevent an artist to use all sorts of tools (or materials), either conventional or unconventional, in order to achieve his artistic goals. Painting with fingers, wooden sticks, paper, sponge, sanding-paper, sand, fibers and about everything else that the artist feels can help him express a certain feeling or create a desired effect, is quite common phenomenon in the contemporary Painting. My teacher of drawing at the art academy often used to say: “It is not important how you achieve your artistic goals, it is important that you achieve them”. In other words – the end justifies the means (Oh, no , no, my teacher was not Niccolo Machiavelli. I am not that old, and we are talking here about art, not about the politics or moral issues)
Just a few examples of “unusual” approach to the matter of painting tools/materials and their use.

REMBRANDT, Self-portrait, around 1628, Oil on wood, 22,6 X 18,7 cm

Pay attention to the way Rembrandt painted the hair with the backside of his painting brush by scratching into the wet paint. Most of the painters from the same period would use a special kind of brushes to depict the hair.

(German artist born in 1945.)
To the unknown painter, 1983.
Oil, emulsion, woodcut, shellac, and straw on canvas, 9’2” (2.8 m) square.
Here is any kind of question about the painting tool that the painter used to apply the paint + various materials, absolutely irrelevant
So, the idea of using the kitchen paper towel as the painting tool is absolutely nothing new. But within the certain art forms like illustration, and fantasy illustration in particular, wherein the idea of ‘ what is being painted ‘ is regarded as more important than ‘ how it is painted ‘, it might appear as something new. But it is not. I am quite sure that some, if not many, of the contemporary illustrators working in traditional techniques, use unorthodox tools and materials in creating their art. It is just not a mainstream thinking these days.
Anyway, how I came to the idea of using a piece of kitchen paper towel as the painting tool? Although during my studies at the art academy I was encouraged to keep my mind open and to use all sorts of tools and materials to create a painting, I found the old-fashioned ways most appealing to my artistic aspirations. I did occasionally used the painting pasta, sand and pieces of gravel, but never went too far in that direction, though these experiments were very useful to me.
Steel Bashaw 14

But a few years ago, while working on one of the paintings from Steel Bashaw book (see the image above) I was painting the stones that surround the female figure. I wanted to paint them freely and to suggest their texture and color through the expressive brush strokes.
And as it is often the case when I start painting “wildly”, I bring too much paint onto the painting surface. You can apply much oil paint to the painting surface in a wet-on-wet manner, and still be able to have sufficient control of the painting process. But sooner or later the surface will become so saturated with the fat oil paint that it  would be unreasonable to proceed with further work.  
From that point on there are a few choices left: to leave it to dry and proceed with painting later on; or to remove the wet layer of oil paint and start all over again; or to take a pallet knife and go on  applying more oil paint and try to come even closer to your goal, but eventually the layer of paint will become too thick and too disobedient even for a pallet knife.
Because I do not like to scratch away the paint from the panting surface (I somehow experience that as a “lost battle”, and I do not like that feeling) I did not take this solution into the consideration. I neither wanted to let the painting dry and then paint further on, on the dry surface, because I was doing alla-prima painting.
As for the pallet knife solution, in case of the above mentioned Steel Bashaw painting, I already did that but the results were still not satisfying. So I thought to myself, I need an in-between solution. In other words I needed to take off some paint, but at the same time to add some other paint in order to “mold” the rocks into the desired shape. It is a technique that I developed in order to achieve a certain pictorial effects. I call it “induction-deduction” method. This implies applying the paint to the surface as well as partly taking off the underlying wet paint with the same brush stroke. Most of the time I do this with a special kind of brushes, but in case of these rocks the layer of paint was already too thick for the special-brush-maneuver. So, I intuitively reached for the kitchen paper towel, which I have in abundance around me when painting. In fact I use the paper towel to rub off the paint from the brushes. It is soft but not too soft, it has a little structure and therefore it was quite appropriate for performing my “rock rescue” maneuver. So, I took the paper and through scratching off the paint, bringing on the new paint, and at the same time molding the slippery oil mixture into the satisfactory shape, I painted the rocks. From that moment on I introduced the kitchen paper towel into the arsenal of my painting tools.
The painting brush work

The kitchen paper towel work

This little trick with the kitchen towel paper is not very special, not original and certainly not something that has to be written down and taught at the art schools. The idea behind is what is important. In fact there are two important ideas:
First – Stay open minded and spontaneous, or in other words – be yourself.
Praise the rules for they will help you to develop your skill and your artistic personality, but don’t become their slave. Use them as long as they serve your artistic aspirations. Follow the rules and advices of the teachers and accomplished peers wisely. Do not dismiss them only because you think it is the only way to find your true artistic identity. Fighting against something you don’t want to become, does not necessarily mean that you would find yourself. When we truly find ourselves, the need to impose our own truth onto the others weakens and eventually disappears.
At the same time listen to your own artistic instincts and follow them. Find the time for experimenting with the tools and techniques. Use the knowledge of others as a springboard to your own pool of creativity.
Second – Beware of too much skill (or too much technology).
This might sound a bit strange, but it is not. It is in fact an important topic on the more advanced level of practicing Art.
In case of a good painting, it is obvious that we deal with a complex and multileveled phenomenon. If the artist focuses too much on a certain aspect of a painting, neglecting the remaining aspects, it is unlikely that such a painting would  become a good one, let alone a great one. Let us be honest; all of us artists do our best to make great pieces of art. Whether we are successful in that pursuit or not is another subject, but we definitely try and keep on trying to achieve it. So, having that in mind, and when talking about the problem of too much skill (under the presumption that the skill is something that interests us), by paying too much attention to that aspect of the painting we are likely to make a mistake of neglecting the aspect of the painting’s content, or its emotional dimension. Too much focus on the details, and the whole would suffer. Too much focus to the composition, and the element of surprise and unpredictability might disappear. Too much focus on the free expression, and you might end up with pictorial cacophony and chaos (which is not bad only in case you deliberately want to create that feeling in your painting – but this is not a subject of this post).
When the artist becomes too skillful in using his technique, he is likely to achieve his goals easy and without fight, which might produce a superficial art as a result. There is something important going on when the artist “wrestles” with his painting. Such process often leaves a trace which goes deeper into the “art flesh” of the painting, making its content richer, more complex and more evocative.
The last few years I often placed a question in front of myself: are my recent paintings really better than the older ones? Sometimes is my answer “yes”, and sometimes “no”. The fact is that I became more skillful in using oil technique, I paint with greater ease and much quicker, but does this makes my art generally better?
The last supper, 1994

This is a tricky question and the answer would depend on my current moods as well as the artistic aspiration I am preoccupied with at the moment the question arises. However, I bear this dilemma in my mind all the time, and therefore often try to use the painting tools (like kitchen paper towel and toothpicks) that will partly deprive me of my skill and put me in the situation wherein I have to search again for the right or new way to achieve the desired results.
Because I adore her so much, I am anxious not to become too enchanted by the sweet temptations of  the Goddess of technical skill and virtuosity, for I am afraid it might kill Art within my art. 
Sometimes, one spends much of his life in gaining skills and insights, and upon reaching a certain level, realizes that in order to develop himself further, one must forget (or detach himself from) the previously collected knowledge.



  1. Great post Petar!....lots of advice to chew on. Thanks for the paper towel advice.

  2. Well said Petar. A very enjoyable read.

  3. This is a really interesting matter. As an amateur painter I am struggling practicing every day to gain enough skills to be able to forget about technique when I am painting, and thus being able to focus just in what I wish to paint and how to express it. You tell in your nice post that the skills you have gained allow you to paint easily and faster than before (that's what I am currently aiming for, I guess), but you have the feeling that now you have to move apart from some of that knowledge. That's intriguing, as now I cannot imagine that situation. It would be nice if you could go deeper in what you wish you could "forget now, as an advice for novices like me.
    Thanks a lot for this post, it really made me think a lot.

  4. I would love to to teach with you someday Petar. The damnable thing about the "forget" advice is that it really is almost impossible. Some artist like Picasso spent half a lifetime attempting it. For me it has just been a battle of challenging myself enough that there are always new things to learn. It is probably pretty frustrating for someone like Tayete to hear such advice because he (if you're not a he I apologize) is working so hard to remember everything he is learning to become better. Maybe it is about timing. That at certain key moments we conveniently forget a technique or put it aside in favor of a new unexplored mark or color. One of the most difficult things to get across to students is that there is no magic technique or one "right" way of doing things. There are endless possibilities and it is a great journey finding one's own combination of marks, colors, tools, etc., in order to find an authentic voice.

    Sorry for going on Petar. It's the coffee. You already said it much better than I, and I agree.

  5. Just read about the point in your last paragraph in "The Creative Habit" by Twyla Tharp

  6. Enjoyed reading your post peter.I love the painting brush work hope to include it at my home.

  7. Part 1

    Well, after I wrote the “Kitchen paper towel post”, I was a bit afraid that it might be a bit confusing to some of the readers. Thanks to the comments of Tayete and Bill, I get now the chance to clarify a few things and hopefully reduce the confusion.

    Please allow me to start with a story.

    Long time ago, in old Kyoto there lived a famous Zen master. In the same city there also lived a very respected university professor, who was a quite pragmatic and intellectual person. Hearing the stories about the Zen master and his Zen wisdom all the time he, one day, decided to pay a visit to that Zen master. He wanted to learn about Zen and to understand why everybody speaks so highly about it. Being a very intelligent and educated person, he believed he would be able to understand it without problems. So, he went to the place of Zen master and told him that he came to learn about Zen. The Zen master was delighted by the visit of the respected professor and offered him a cup of tea. They set down at the table and the Zen master started slowly to pour the tea into the professor’s cup, while the professor observed the ceremony. Soon the professor’s cup was full to the top, but the Zen master kept on pouring the tea. The tea started to flow all over the table, but the Zen master didn’t show any sign of stopping. Confused by this scene the professor suddenly shouted: “Don’t you see that the cup is filled to the top, there is no space left for more…?”
    “So is your head filled with your knowledge“ – answered the Zen master. “Unless you make your head free from your knowledge and your misconceptions, you would not be able to understand what Zen is.”

  8. Part 2

    Tayete – As you know, we learn and progress in stages. Every stage has its own objectives and truths. When we are ready for the next stage in our development, the appropriate teacher appears. If you are an aspiring artist and are interested in developing your technical (painting) skills, you should go for it. Learn as much as you can, gain skill and insights as much you are able to. It is obvious that on this stage any idea of “forgetting” the skill might sounds quite insane. So, do not think about it, for the time being. As Bill Carman rightly said – it is about timing!!

    Then, when you reach the next stage in your artistic development, new objectives and new truths will present themselves to you. One cannot “jump” over a developmental stage without “injuring” himself in one or another way. I would say that step-by-step motion is the right way to develop your abilities.

    Although, the so called quantum jump, (meaning the sudden change of levels) does happen sometimes. But it has to be deserved (forced) through hard, long and persistent work.

    When you finally reach your goals in terms of technical skill, when you get the feeling that you can do almost everything with it, you will probably find yourself on a new crossroad. One path will lead to the use of gained skill in order to make a certain number of skillfully executed paintings (lots of people would admire these). Another path might bring you the idea of switching to another form of art. Yet another one could cause you to think about the ultimate content of your paintings, or the amount of true Art (whatever that might be) in your art. Or perhaps you will choose yet another path, still unknown to others.

    When/if these questions pop up in your mind, you will then perfectly understand what I try to explain now. That little story about the Zen master and the professor is about this developmental stage.

    Fortunately, Art is too huge and too incomprehensive phenomenon to be fully defined by our modest insights and our limited thinking. We only can guess what would be called Art by the future generations. It would partly depend on us, the contemporary artists, and how far we would be able to push the existing boundaries, in terms of definition and experience. It is our job to show to our communities and to the world what else could be experienced as and called Art. The modern 20 century art already showed us that there is much space for Art beyond skill, beyond correct drawing or “good” composition, and even beyond that what we now experience as beauty. So, where does the development of an artist stops, is a matter of the personal choice and talent.

    Bill – It always amazes me when I discover an artistic soul mate in an artist from another part of the planet, although his art as well as his developmental path, differ greatly from mine. Art must be a set of complex vibrations and consisting of many different wavelengths, so that, when two artistic souls vibrate on the similar wavelength, they could understand each other, regardless the differences in their cultural backgrounds. In that sense Art is a kind of magic, isn’t it? Wonderful! And, please do take that coffee often, Bill.

    Moish – Thanks for the information about "The Creative Habit" by Twyla Tharp. Very interesting!

    Thank you! Much obliged, guys.

  9. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Petar and Bill (yes, I am a "he")!!!
    Now everything seems so much clear...I think I have already experienced one of those "quantum jumps", but it wasn't like waking one day and being thrillions of times better than the day before, but in the lapse of some months (maybe it is just normal evolution, but it seemed so fast to me).
    Again, thanks a lot, Petar, your post has helped me more than a dozen books I have lately read about art and its evolution, and has made me win some insight to be able to recognize when I have arrived to the crossroads you mention ( I think of it, at the crossroads you can sell your soul to the Devil for success, isn't it what it is said in USA? ;-D ).