Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Banning cadmium in artist paints

Inside the sludge bucket
decanted solvent ready for reuse

Reading Katherine Tyrrell's excellent blog "Making a Mark" on Monday, I discovered that there;s a proposal in front of the EU to ban the use of cadmiums in artists' paints in Europe.  While I use cadmiums and love them for their intensity and opacity, I think this may be a good thing.  In my experience teaching classes and workshops to all levels of painters from beginners to professionals, I've found a scary lack of understanding about the toxicity of the pigments that they're using.  From holding brushes in their mouths, to washing paint down the drain, painters are doing crazy and dangerous things every day in the privacy of their studios.  It's not intentional and most of them are appalled to discover that they're polluters; the information just isn't out there.

Cadmium, cobalt, titanium, and many other pigments are toxic - regardless of whether they're bound in oil or acrylic bases (or watercolour, for that matter) - and have to be considered hazardous waste. That means that artists should dispose of them with as much scrupulousness as we expect big companies to use when they get rid of manufacturing waste.  The drain and household garbage aren't options.

So what's an honest painter to do?  Start by getting a bucket with a lid like the one in the photo at the top. That old honey container is my sludge bucket.  Whenever I clean out my solvent container, I dump the lot into that bucket and scrape in all of the pigment sludge that has accumulated over a few days' of painting.  It's a grey mess when it goes in, but overnight it settles out and the solvent rises to the top, clean and perfectly reusable.  The pigments settle into a layer at the bottom.

It took me 3 years to fill the last bucket with pigment sludge, and then I took it to the hazardous waste disposal section of the local landfill.  In my city, some fire stations also accept chemical waste.  I expect that every city's government website will list facilities for chemical drop off and disposal.

We should all be doing this, but I think paint manufacturers need to step up and educate consumers as well. Paint displays should outline safe handling and disposal of their products. The tiny MSDS warnings on tubes of paint just don't cut it.

Can educating artists help to save cadmiums in Europe?  I don't know, but it will certainly save health and waterways, and that matters more than great colour.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Sun and sand and paint

Sand Piles
11 x 14
Rope Swing
20 x 16
Water noodle
16 x 12

I never get tired of watching kids playing in water. They seem so completely engaged.  Probably, they look as engaged on the X Box at home, but not nearly so picturesque.

Water and sunlight are a joy because they give me an opportunity to bounce reflected colour around the figure: saturating the shadows with warm purples, reds and delicate greens.  The photo references for these figures show the shadows as near black, but I knew that couldn't be right.  With such intense sunlight bouncing around the scene, I'd see a higher-key shadow and plenty of colour, so the photos were useful for gesture alone.  In fact, I worked mainly from black and white, overexposed versions of the photos so that I wouldn't get sucked into believing their lies.  If I were a very fast, on-location sketcher, that would have been the best resource of all.

These paintings are available at Oceanside Art Gallery in Qualicum Beach, BC.  If you're playing in the sun and sea near the gallery, I hope you'll stop in and see them.

Happy painting!

Saturday, June 7, 2014

How long did that take you to paint?

Catching the Light
14 x 11
One of the questions that I get asked often is "how long did that take you to paint".  It always leaves me feeling a bit panicked: do I tell the truth and say I did it in an afternoon, giving the impression of virtuosity, but also, potentially, that the piece is an insignificant trifle, or do I tell the other truth and say that I slaved over it over days and weeks, tweaking and revisiting, scraping and restating? Does that simply make me seem inept? Why are they asking, anyway?  Are they trying to calculate my income per hour or is it the honest curiosity of a fellow painter, trying to figure out every aspect of another painter's method?  I tend to think it's the latter.  We're all curious about how other painters achieve their results and, for non painters, they want to know what our days in the studio look like.  BBC even has a series called "What Do Artists Do All Day?" which is fascinating and addictive.

I walk across the yard to my studio every morning, back across for a 15 minute lunch, and then out again until it's time to make supper (or well past time, as my family will tell you).  The studio is filled with paintings in various stages of completion.  Many look finished to visitors to the studio, but, until they look finished to me, they're not allowed out in public.  That may mean weeks of sitting on a shelf enduring my critical glances before I take the piece up again, make a few marks, and put it back on the shelf again for another spell of waiting and studying.  Many paintings will never leave the studio because I don't stand behind them; I just can't like them. Some of these have been praised and appreciated by others, but that only embarrasses me as I can see their flaws, and my eye is the only one that counts.  Every year I slash and trash many of this group.  

Alex Kanevsky told me that "painting is an inherently wasteful process" and that phrase has been my solace when I discard weeks worth of work and countless dollars worth of paint, linen and worn brushes.  I'm just doing what artists do: following in well-worn footsteps along a slow and tortuous path toward my idea of excellence.  

So the short answer is: it takes as long as that painting needs.  That may be a duration so lengthy that it will sound silly to you when you hear it or, if I'm in the flow, it may fall off my brush in a blessed afternoon. 

The painting above is in the second category and so I look at it with gratitude for the fact that it didn't offer resistance during its creation.  It happened in a smooth and sure dance in which my brush picked up the right colour and value each time I touched the palette.  And, crucially, I knew when to stop and say "done".  Most don't happen this way, but I can forget about those and the toll they exacted in order to be created.  Just don't ask how long it took me to paint them.  

Happy painting!

Sunday, June 1, 2014

2 spots left in Painting the Portrait from Life workshop June 28/29

My son's graduation photos came in the mail this week.  "Complimentarily retouched" to perfection, his skin as smooth as a Ken doll's, it struck me that he looked like so many awful painted portraits that I've seen. The Photoshopping tech had created an even, unrelieved surface where, in life, there are tiny colour, temperature and value changes, maybe even a blemish or two. With a complete lack of understanding for how a human face works, the well-meaning fixer had dehumanized my boy, making him fit to play a robot in a futuristic movie. Or to be on the cover of a glossy magazine with all the other retouched humans.

I've seen portraits that look the same. Slaved over for days and weeks, the faces in these paintings never ring true: the parts are all there, but, with our instinctive understanding for what comprises a face, we won't be fooled. The face doesn't live.

Which is why every portrait artist should spend some time working from a live model. The experience of looking hard and translating what they see into paint gives artists an awareness for how a face works. That awareness can then be applied to the wasteland that is a photo reference, injecting dimension and life into its sanitized surface.

\I'll be teaching a 1 1/2 day :painting the portrait from life" workshop in Kelowna, BC next month through the Federation of Canadian Artists. There are still a couple of spots left so, if you'd like to experience the difference between rich life and 2-dimensional prints, please join me.  

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to call the photography company and see if I can get my son back.