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Before last October, I crafted artwork in a way that I now find stifling to the creative process. I devised pieces in a manner that I can only describe as linear: I would imagine a scene, create different compositional sketches, and then draw and color the final piece. My work was realistic, small and tight. It was an important place for me to start as an artist, as it helped me to develop strong technical skills. But it was just that: a starting point.
Around the springtime of 2015, I first began to diverge from this strict method because I had to finish my concentration for the AP Drawing portfolio. During this time, I began to think in terms of design more than figurative fine art. As senior year began, and my art class became more focused on design, I started experimenting more with different types of mediums and subjects. That October I devised a piece called The Mortician’s Deathbed, which I believe defines the beginning of my new artistic style. My art teacher, Milo, had decided to push our boundaries, to force us into working with topics that we would normally never consider creating art about. He gave each student a card from the board game Apples to Apples and made us do a piece about it. My card was “Mortician” and for some reason I was inspired to do a painting.
That piece was a breakthrough in another way: while recently I have been working with acrylic paint, in October I had never painted. I was inspired by the texture in Milo’s most recent painting and wanted to replicate something similar. I found a large canvas and began dripping thick lines of acrylic across the surface, then while letting it dry I stared at the canvas and tried to see something among the lines. I saw a figure and the rest of the piece came to me. In a rush I started laying down color, and the outlines of figures. Intentionally, although without a clear reason in my mind, I decided to isolate cool colors from warm ones, and keep the figures simplistic and without features. For the first time I felt passionate about a piece and had a burning desire to work until I felt it was finished. This attitude towards art was a sudden change in how I worked and is how I continue to work. Before I used to make realistic drawings, copying from images or drawing from life. Now my process is about exploring creative expression through texture and an abstract lens. I rarely go into a piece now with a clear cut vision about what it will be.
To begin a piece, I normally prime a canvas and stare at it until I see an image I want to paint. Then I go and paint some of that image, stand back, and stare at the canvas again. Through this process of painting and staring I see a variety of different compositions and directions the painting can go in. Most of the time the painting I start with is completely different when it is finished. I will paint something, stare, and realize that the painting is about something different. I then paint over the piece while maintaining a few elements. I like to spray the canvas with water or thinned out paint while it is still wet with acrylic because it allows for parts of the underpainting to shine through, creating a more layered look. I enjoy the look of layers and a variety of textures, so I add those elements whenever possible.
In September I remember talking to Milo about different mediums, saying that I hated painting. Milo responded by telling me that it was fine for me to not like painting, but that I shouldn’t give up on it completely–there are a lot of different types of painting and I had only explored a small portion of it. I didn’t understand what he meant then, but now I do. Painting had been a tedious process, where I tried to paint as realistically as possible, now I rarely use a brush. My favorite part of working is finding new painting techniques. Over the course of the past four months I have used plaster, steel wool, water, thinned out paint, palette knives, sponges, paper towels, instant coffee, gel medium, oil pastels, scraps of wood, oil sticks, charcoal, and my fingers as textural elements and tools to paint with. The change from having a plan while making art, to this loose fluid process has been incredibly liberating. A result of not knowing what my paintings are going to be about during their initial stages has made the topics of the paintings personal to me. When I stare at a canvas and try to figure out what to paint I usually see the same types of images.
One motif that has appeared in multiple of my paintings is that of a falling figure. I wasn’t sure what it meant when I first began painting it but by working with the subject many times I realize that it represents two of my deep rooted fears of failing and being alone. It first appeared in The Under Toad as a representation of a motif from the novel The World According to Garp. In that piece it represented what it meant in the novel, a fear of death. The falling figure appears in a similar context in the second piece I did with it, Conflarent. The falling figures symbolize souls falling from heaven. They are in context of death, but to me the piece was less about death and more so about failing to achieve and reaping the consequences of that. I used the falling figure in The Rat King, which was about suicide. The painting, made in a surge of anger, depicts a rat who was responsible for the falling figure’s death. The figure did not represent myself, but someone who was lonely and was failed to be supported. The last piece I did with a falling figure is my favorite piece and the one most personal to me. In recovery. the navy blue triangle symbolizes me falling in the past, while the white arrow in the graph represents me moving forward in the present.
In a couple of my recent paintings I have experimented with text after being inspired by Basquiat. Right now he is my main inspiration and the artist I look at the most. I particularly admire his childlike strokes and use of text. My piece The Rat King was heavily inspired by his work. I find it interesting the way he juxtaposes bright colors and childlike marks with disturbing figures and sometimes heavy topics (including race relations and modern policing). My interest in him began when I watched the film Basquiat. I found the way he worked dynamic–moving from painting to painting, simultaneously working on multiple pieces. I have mimicked that way of working recently and appreciate the method. Being surrounded by multiple canvases is freeing because I don’t get stuck on one painting. I can work on one piece, look at another and see an image that was inspired by the piece I was working on; this fluidity in working creates continuity within my work as I use similar techniques and motifs throughout multiple pieces.
Lately I have been working on 36 by 48 inch canvases but I want to expand my breadth. Transport and cost limitations have restricted me to only working at this size, but I want to work larger. One way I am planning on doing this is working with unstretched canvas. I have been looking at some pieces by one of the “art gods” who went through my art program, and had been exploring patterns and textiles. After seeing her work I thought it would be stimulating to take unstretched canvas, cut it into pieces, and sew back the remains with thick red yarn or twine to create a surface with a refreshing shape, larger size, and textile-like quality. Currently that is one of the projects I am working on. I like working on canvas, but sometimes the surface gives too much and I cannot work as aggressively as I would like. To combat that problem, I have begun to work on 2 by 4 feet pieces of wood. One of my most recent pieces, Stunned, was done on this and it was one of the most enjoyable pieces to make. I took one of Milo’s old paintings (with his permission) and painted the entire thing black. I then went and sprayed spots with water and began scraping the surface of the wood with a palette knife to bring back some of the color and expose the wood’s innate texture. Similar to how I find new tools and techniques one of the best parts of painting, exploring different surfaces is exhilarating.
While art has always been a part of my life, recently art has overtaken and consumed my life. The corner of my bedroom, which used to house a coffee table, bookshelf and sofa, has become my studio. I moved the couch out of the room and now the bookshelf and coffee table hold my paints, palette, and other materials. I come to school at 7:00 every morning–a half hour earlier than the school day actually begins–so I can paint. I have taken over a corner of the art room with my easel, canvases, paints, and variety of tools. For Christmas, instead of offering money or gifts, my parents gave me canvases; my sister even bought me sketch books. I hope I can continue and explore this passion more in the coming fall at the University of Michigan. Who knows what innovations next October will bring?
Remember: This is just a sample from a fellow student.
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