I’ve been painting a lot lately. It’s easy to set up a little watercolor painting area with just black and white pigments and a few brushes. Here’s a photo of my painting area.

This painting isn’t anywhere close to being finished, it has a long way to go. It’s actually quite a bit darker than this photo indicates. This is one reason why I don’t like to show my artwork on the internet, photos just don’t capture what the paintings look like. And that’s a deliberate choice. I work with a lot of chalky flat textures against shiny or matte black layers. Some layers are thin and transparent, and build up density slowly, some are opaque. It is almost impossible to see my paintings’ best effects without looking at the original surface. Photos just don’t work.

Lately I’ve been thinking about a quip by my favorite painter, Jean Dubuffet, he said, “the problem of painting is how to cover a surface in an interesting manner.” I think he was poking fun at painters when he said that. It’s easy to make an interesting surface, but what are you going to do with it? I never quite figure that out until I’m halfway through the painting. Sometimes I never figure it out.

One challenge I set for myself was to try to work watercolor media as hard as oil paints. It’s a lot easier to control transparent effects in oils, but water media tends to drag up the layer below it, if you paint white over black, you just get a murky, chalky grey. But I like those tones, so I paint layer after layer, building up tone slowly.

I like to tape my paper down to a board, since it buckles and swells when water hits it, but becomes taut and flat once it dries. It’s a lot easier to paint on the same paper over and over if it doesn’t buckle and warp. Then when you pull up the tape, the painting is framed with a nice clean white edge. A serious watercolorist would soak the paper and glue it down with paper tape while it’s still wet, then it would really be stretched flat. But that’s too much trouble and you have to cut the image out, leaving no margins around the image.

I also found my old “fudemaki,” that’s a Japanese “brush wrap.” It’s full of nice calligraphy brushes I bought in Japan a long time ago. Most of these brushes are so nice I have never used them, I was saving them for a special occasion. Then I figured, what the hell, I guess this is what I was saving them for. My particular favorite brush is the huge stubby brush at the bottom of the picture, I did most of this painting with this brush, using dry brush techniques. The brush is a little too large for a piece of paper this small, but I’ll make it work anyway.

I also have a bunch of cheap writing brushes, most of them have “300 Yen” tags, so I paid around $2.60. At the top of the group of 3 brushes in the picture is a crappy brush I bought locally at Dick Blick for over $6, it has half the hair and none of the great shape of the two 300Y brushes next to it. That crappy Dick Blick brush was what inspired me to go hunt for my best brushes, I knew I had lots of better brushes sitting in a box somewhere.

Also I found a cache of really good Holbein watercolors, some of the pigments I use in photographic printmaking. They’re really quite good. I used to make huge black and white paintings using cheap tempera paint, but this is much better.

So now that I’ve got my better materials all set up, I feel like I’m actually doing some good painting. I’m actually finding directions to go in each painting, and relatively quickly. One of my artist friends looked at my recent paintings, and encouraged me by telling me, ‘now you have to do a whole bunch more of them!” So I told him a story I heard about Jean-Michel Basquiat. When he was just starting to hit big, people were lining up to buy whole shows of his paintings, but he was still only working on one painting at a time, so his output was really low. His gallery wanted more paintings, more quickly, so they offered to send an assistant over to his studio to help him prepare canvases. Basquiat could spend more time painting and less time setting up. So the assistant comes over and finds Basquiat working on one painting. He sets up a few blank canvases and tells Basquiat he is ready to help shift canvases around when he’s ready to work on different paintings. But Basquiat never heard of this before, the assistant had to teach him that you could work on several paintings at once, switching between them, leaving some paintings to dry for later overpainting, coming back to them when your ideas have developed further. Suddenly Basquiat started really cranking out a lot of paintings. The gallery was very happy to have a vast supply of new works. Basquiat was raking in the dough, which only lead to his downfall.

Well when I first heard that story, I admit I was the same way. I usually worked only on one primary painting at once. So I tried working on several paintings simultaneously, it was surprisingly effective. I got a whole show of about a dozen paintings ready in just a couple of months. Of course I cranked out a lot more bad paintings too, but nobody has to see them.

So one of the reasons I post photos and other projects with my paintings, is to let people take a look at what is behind the easel. An art consultant once told me that people don’t want to buy your images, they also want to buy into your backstory as an artist. I may not have the same interesting backstory as a Basquiat, but we all, as painters, have to deal with some of the same issues.

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