04 September 2014

An Experiment in Acrylic Painting

Women in Cultural Context, a group exhibit, showed at Tansey Contemporary on Canyon Road. I went to see Teri Greeves’ large scale wall pieces—beadwork mosaic appliqués on raw silk. While there, I discovered the work of another artists in the show, Patrick McGrath Muñiz.

Muñiz is Puerto Rican artist who uses Renaissance techniques to make biting and clever social commentary on today’s global society. Besides his portfolio website, he maintains an informative blog. I poked around and discovered his post “Sharing My Own Approach to Painting Sixteenth CenturyVenetian Way.” Artists willing to share their hard-won techniques are rare and should be celebrated for their magnanimity.

These days, since launching First American Art Magazine, I don’t have any time left to paint; however, I agreed to participate in ImagoMundi. This international art exhibit showcases Luciano Benetton’s collection of artworks from around the word—all 12 cm x 10 cm—Imago Mundi is presently focused on Native America. So I had a tiny panel to paint and a new method about how to paint it. We’re running an article about Mapuche silverwork, so I thought perhaps I could paint something on that subject.

When I work from historical photographs, I try to find works in the public domain, such as Gustavo Milet Ramírez’s 1890 photo of a young Mapuche woman from Traiguén, Chile. The French-Chilean photographer, who lived from 1860 to 1917, was known for his photographs of Mapuche people.  Milet Ramírez took several shots of the same girl, many of which were made into postcards; I chose the photo in which she was grinning. Being extraordinarily nearsided, I’m fairly adept at teasing out information from grainy black-and-white photographs. The texture of her clothes and mantle are different; coarse woven material versus fur, which might be a quillango, a guanaco-fur cloak. Guanacos are the increasingly rare, wild cousins of llamas and alpacas, and their pelts are tawny with creamy-white underbellies.

The day before I had painted the wooden panel purple, so I began sanding it down to create a drawing surface; however, the texture was appealing, so I left it for the background and just gessoed the area that the girl would occupy. Gesso is far easier to draw upon than white paint. In composing the piece, I included the hands, since hands can be an expressive as the face

Step #2 Disegno (drawing)

In his blog post, “Sharing My Own Approach to Painting Sixteenth Century Venetian Way,” Patrick McGrath Muñiz’s Step #1 is Bozzetto (preliminary sketch). He recommends drawing on a separate paper and transferring it to the canvas for Step #2 Disegno (drawing) I just draw the girl’s basic features and jewelry directly on the panel.

Step #3 is Sotto Disegno (underdrawing)
His Step #3 is Sotto Disegno (underdrawing), in which he suggests paints the lines with burnt umber and turpentine. I should mention I’m painting with Golden acrylics, not oil paints, so mixed the Burnt Umber with Golden Acrylic Flow Release, which reduces surface tension and makes the paint “wetter.” The end result looks something like an R. Crumb illustration, and her eyes are way too big—but it’s painting; it can be fixed!

Step #4 Imprimatura (toned canvas),
Step #4, Imprimatura (toned canvas), requires a translucent wash of Venetian Red thinned with linseed oil and turpentine. Golden recommends substituting Red Oxide for Venetian Red. I used my typical concoction of Acrylic Flow Release, Retarder, and Acrylic Glazing Liquid. Typically this makes a wonderful “soupy” transparent wash that doesn’t dry quickly; however, I found Step #5: Togliere Strofinare (wipe-out technique) challenging. With oils, you can wipe the light areas clean with a cotton cloth; however, my wash dried quickly. I could wipe away sections but the transition was not smooth, so I just touched up the lighter areas with Titanium White. I’m impressed that at every stage of the painting, Muñiz’s sketch of Titian’s The Gipsy Madonna was gorgeous. Mine had ups and downs, but wacky looking stages can be redeemed.

Left: Step #5: Togliere Strofinare (wipe-out technique). Right: my typical painting formula
Step #6 is Sotto Dipinto (underpainting) involves two processes—painting the cool, backgrounds with a grisaille, a range greys mixed from Ivory Black to White, and a citronage, a range of colors mixed from Ivory Black, Yellow Ochre, and White. I’m a huge advocate of underpainting, especially for fleshtones. Typically I use a verdaille, or an olive-green underpainting, which makes fleshtones pop beautifully.

Palette for the citronage: tones of Titanium White mixed with Yellow Ochre,
and shades of Ivory Black mixed with Yellow Ochre

Step #6 Sotto Dipinto (underpainting)
The heavy lifting is done, so Muñiz’s final step is Step #7 Velaturas (color glazing)—the fun part! First step—I hate the Red Oxide wash over the purple, so to move the background back to the back, I gave it an Anthraquinone Blue wash. I also painted her clothing blue, then used Payne’s Gray and Titanium White for her silver jewelry.

Step #7 Velaturas (color glazing)
I laid down the base colors for her guanaco fur cloak, then painted on the furry texture. Here soupy paint bleeds too much; the paint should be less diluted, because the individual strokes should show clearly. I had to fight myself and use the No. 2 brush as much as possible before skipping to the extremely fine 0/20 brush. I tweaked out too much on the right side of the fur, so tried to stay loose on the left side, then went back and smoothed over areas on the right side of the fur cloak. More work does not necessarily mean a better painting, nor does more detail. The detail should be concentrated on the composition’s focus—in this case, the girl’s face—not every corner of the painting.

Step #7 Velaturas (color glazing)
Finally the time has come to cure the girl’s extreme case of jaudice! Her eyes and teeth both look okay as is, so I add color to her lips—the challenge being to make her look natural, not as if she were wearing lipstick. Dramatic shifts between the lip color and dots of white highlights help make the lips appear moist.

I can finally give her skin some color. My typical palette for fleshtones include Titanium White, Naples Yellow, Pyrrole Red, Burnt Sienna, Raw Umber, and Payne’s Gray. In larger, more detailed portraits, Violent Oxide is fantastic for shadows, but not needed here. Here’s where the paint should be extremely soupy, with generous portions of Acrylic Glazing Liquid for transparency and blending. Each stroke is nerve-wracking because the slightest shift to a mouth, an eyelid, etc. completely changes the expression of the subject.

This is a seriously tiny painting: 12 cm x 10 cm
The purple dress was annoying me, so I gave it a glaze of Alizarin Crimson Hue (Golden doesn’t create toxic colors, so approximates the more historical toxic colors as close as possible). Her jewelry was lumpy, so I tried to straighten it out with bolder edges. It’s a gamble whether to paint silver-like colors or actually to use silver paint; however, this can often look fake and cheap. Gold paint is very attractive, but silver paint can flop, so I opted to leave the jewelry blue-white.

In lieu of a frame, I sanded down the edges to the white gesso. So small, kind of funky, but finished!

Mapuche Girl after Milet Ramírez, 2014, acrylic on wooden panel
While painting I have hours to ponder issues such as cultural appropriation. Why am I, a Swedish-Cherokee artist painting a Mapuche person when I’ve never even been to Chile? By painting a portrait, hopefully I’m not stepping over the line of respectful outsider. I’m not trying to assume Mapuche identity; it would be bizarre if I tried to create Mapuche silver jewelry or painted drums—to attempt usurp their style.

Painting portraits based on historical photographs, although a ubiquitous practice is not by any stretch of the imagination cutting-edge art, and yet it does have some value. Our tribal histories are still invisible in mainstream culture. Painting is not a neutral representation—it’s a time-consuming practice laden with its own ancient history. Painting someone puts them on a pedestal, exults them. Taking this antique image and bringing into the 21st century, in vivid color, is a form of time travel and a statement that this person and her culture are important—that we in North America should look at and learn from South American tribes. I kept thinking about the idea of an “Indian princess,” because a “princess” is most ready European archetype to describe this young woman—confident and smiling—draped in luxurious furs and extravagant silver jewelry.

Thanks to Patrick McGrath Muñiz in sharing guidelines for this small experiment in painting!


Painting said...

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