Thursday, April 27, 2017

Embracing a New Paradigm

Some earthshaking discoveries in science sneak into the public consciousness slowly, and many are never even widely known. The same thing happens in the science of the art world from time to time. Unless you work in a certain medium, you may never be aware of significant changes in the things artists have available for creative expression.

Polymer clay was this sort of ‘earthshaking’ discovery. Most people outside the art world have no idea what it is or that it even exists. It’s a synthetic clay that never dries out, takes color from many different sources and in any hue you desire, cures at a very low temperature, holds its form while curing with very little support, can be formed into very thin sheets without breakage, and is stable for millennia, as far as we can predict. All things that traditional earth clays do not. I think it’s a hoot that what I use to make jewelry is the same material, engineered into pipes, that carries bathroom waste and water through our homes out to the sewer, or in my case, out to my septic field. I often wonder what Leonardo Da Vinci would have made with PVC in the form of polymer clay?

"Apocalypto" extruded beads, placed in Bead Dreams competition

One of my earliest polymer mixed media pieces - mokume gane polymer disk,
steel, brass, textured polymer donut

"Little Bumble Beads" - shown in a tutorial published in Stringing Magazine

Soon after I began working in polymer, tired of my inability to control the interaction of colors in the extrusions and mokume gane I was blending, I started texturing the clay and applying color to the surface of it, rather than blending factory-supplied colors. At first, the only medium I knew about that could be used to color clay was heat-set oil paints. My go-to technique was to apply color deeply into the texture and then sand it back so that the texture was highlighted and there was space to add more color. I happily worked like this and taught this technique for years in my classes.

'Ruffle' beads, colored with Genesis Heat-Set Oil Paints

"Tuareg" - Translucent Premo and Genesis heat-set oil paint - published in Designer Showcase article in Belle Armoire Jewelry, Sept/Oct 2011

The Emperor's Nightingale" - Mixed media piece - polymer, wire, acrylic paint, handmade textures - private collection

"Everglades" necklace - polymer clay, heat-set oil paint - private collection
Well, I’ve been called a ‘mad scientist’ since any and all mediums are fodder for my experimentation when coloring polymer clay. In my artistic life I’ve dabbled in most crafts, from pottery to fiber, rughooking, knitting, professional dressmaking, papermaking, furniture painting, etc. My brain seems to enjoy asking ‘what if?’ a lot and I never reject an artistic idea, no matter how loony it sounds at the time! Having a background in many craft processes, I can see how unusual combinations of things might be serendipitous artistically. This is how innovation happens.
The medium that most mimics polymer for me is handmade paper. In its liquid state, it is infinitely shapeable, taking the form of any mold into which it’s poured. I loved the work I did with this medium when I lived in Berkeley, CA back in the 80s and took classes at Fiberworks with Nance O’Banion. So it doesn’t surprise me that I have lately been exploring the marriage of polymer and paper in my work. The new Distress Oxide paints that I’ve been exploring from Ranger really love paper, were made for it but all the coloring media that work on polymer also work on paper.

Paper clay donuts - Ranger Distress Paints
"Clovis" - Paper, Distress Oxides Paint
"Kali" - Watercolor paper, acrylics, pen
"Can-can" - Watercolor paper, crayon, pens, Distress Paints
I’ve never been a polymer purist, thinking of myself as more of a ‘mixed media artist working in polymer’. All the common wisdom of the artistic (and art-as-a-business) community says I should stick with one idea and squeeze every ounce of creative and financial juice out of it before moving on. I say, listen to The Muse and let your intuition steer you out onto the vast waters of the creative sea. Shift your paradigm and see what shows up.

"Purple Study" - Paper, Scratch Foam, Distress Oxide Paints, pen, acrylic
"Emergent" series - Paper, polymer, acrylic, alcohol inks, pen, Distress Oxide Paint

Monday, April 3, 2017

Randomness vs Control

As artists, one of the most important things we do when we create is to edit. For instance, when faced with a stunning landscape, the impulse may be to capture it, so you take a photo and in that action, you are editing. You pick a focal point—a waterfall, an animal, an outstanding natural feature—and edit out the rest. You’ve exercised control over the final image. If you just went around snapping shots of pretty leaves and flowers in bunches without editing, you’d have a whole lot of colors and shapes without any coherent idea to make them interesting. Maybe it’s just a human impulse to try to have some control over our environment—we arrange flowers in a vase, we create a still life arrangement on a platter, we place images just so in a painting--we tell our story with the way we choose and organize the elements.
Paper, texture paste, Ranger Distress Oxides - random colors and textures on cardstock
"Earthwheel" - Pendant element - Paper, alcohol inks, modeling paste, polymer - edited shapes, layered
Raw polymer veneer-- Acrylics, Pan Pastels
"Emergent Series - Piercing the Veil" - polymer clay pendant - layered shapes, handmade texture sheets, opaque and translucent clays, Pan Pastels, acrylics, alcohol ink
I’m not against random colors and shapes per se but they don’t hold my interest or engage my mind without some intervention, some organization, some higher idea expressed by the exercise of creative editing. I’m told even Jackson Pollack had a plan to his (seemingly) random paint drips on canvas. This is the main beef I have with paints, processes or materials that ‘do it for you’. The Pebeo Fantasy Prisme line of paints and Swellegant are examples that come to mind. I love patinas as much as the next person but I prefer to mix the various colors myself and apply them slowly over time, choosing where to place them and controlling the reaction. I’m doing the editing. I’ve been making my own texture sheets for years and it’s something I teach in my classes. I just bought a Curio cutting machine not so I can make multiples but so I can make my own stencils. And what about colors—clay, paints, yarns, crayons, alcohol ink, etc—right out of the package? Somebody else is making the choice for you, is choosing the palette. One of the reasons I chose Premo clay when I first started with polymer was the fact that the colors were the same as a traditional painter would used to mix a custom palette from the basic colors—alizarin crimson, cobalt blue, phthalo green, etc. I kept meticulous track of all the ‘custom’ clay colors that I developed and used in my mokume gane mixes. As long as I could get basic colors of the clay, I could always mix the blends myself and not be dependent on some large company that might just decide to discontinue my favorite choice (as Premo eventually did with Cobalt Blue which made a lot of color aficionados very unhappy).

Alcohol inks applied to textured polymer -- handmade molds, pencil
Leaf earrings - polymer clay, handmade leaf texture, applied
patina using VerDay paint system
"April Fool" pendant - polymer clay, alcohol inks, modeling paste, acrylic, layered
Currently my method is to apply color to the surface of polymer clay but my philosophy hasn’t changed. If I’m using a product that I can’t easily make myself, like alcohol ink, I mix colors together to come up with my own blends. I layer paints and sand down to the base color and layer more colors. The result never looks like the original color and that’s the point! Over the past year I’ve been having a lot of fun with various mixed media products and techniques and this idea of randomness over control has cropped up more than once in my thoughts. It’s cool to drop alcohol ink onto a surface and watch it randomly spread out into circles but so what? What you do next with that clay veneer is really the whole point—that’s where intervention/creativity comes in. Give the same colored polymer surface to two different people and watch what happens. What choices do they make? How do they express themselves? What story do they tell with the materials? How much intervention is needed before you can call it ‘art’?
The point I’m making is—the more choices you make and ways you modify/enhance/control your materials, the better—this way, your finished work will reflect you and nobody else.
Alcohol inks applied over acrylic paints, technique from
"The Many Sides of Me" - polymer clay pendant -- Previous veneer sheet pieces applied to white base, crackled, textured and painted, added to translucent base layer