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  • Writer's pictureKaaren Poole

The Predictable Ups and Downs of Creating Art

My art journal spread from this past weekend presented me with quite a challenge, but, amidst all the angst, I noticed a pattern of progress which I see over and over again - a promising start, somehow driving the project into the ditch, despairing and considering giving up, gathering my resolve, and finally pulling it out of the fire. Sounds dramatic, doesn't it? It is, and also somewhat emotionally tiring, but in the end, exhilarating! Either I've managed to make a success of it, or, if not, have hopefully learned some lesson or other.

I often try to take photos of each phase of creating my art journal spreads, but generally I forget pretty quick. This time, though, I captured a good record of how things went and thought you might find it entertaining. How I'd love to hear from you and how his little journal of mine matches your experience in creating whatever type of art you do.

But let's get started!

I've been working on a series of spreads featuring animal fairies and this was to be the third in the series. The first was a frog, the second, a Corgi, and this was to be birds - a species of my own creation, the blue-capped fey sparrow. Anyway, I knew I wanted the feel of a woodland setting and decided to begin by collaging relevant images over the entire page (by the way, it's about 11" 15"). Nothing special about this, really. Just covering the page as a way to start.

Some artists use an early layer of their art journal spreads to record their intentions in writing. This collage is similar, but my intentions are expressed in images - 'marker images,' I call them - rather than words. So, as I work on the piece I'll remember the underlayment of trees, branches, and foliage - a wonderful environment for bird fairies.

But now it's time to begin building my spread on this base. It's awfully busy and somewhat dark, so I decided to calm it and lighten it with white gesso. But rather than apply a smooth layer, I dropped some blobs, spread them with an old credit card, then added more gesso and softened some that was already there with a large flat brush. In areas where the gesso was thickest, I scratched some lines and swirls with the end of my brush. I never know how this texture will play out, but sometimes it works out really nicely later on as paint collects in the tips and incisions.

At this point, I can still see some of the original magazine clipping images, but they're much softer. The whole page is lighter, but there's still a variety of value. Remembering I'm looking for a forest feeling, what should I do next?

How about drips? I don't use them often, but they can create a vine-y look, so I give it a try. I don't have a huge selection of colors, but Sap Green is an obvious choice, and I go with it. After the drips begin forming, I spray them with water to spread them into a sort of branched mossy look and, in some places, I pull ink out from the drips with a bamboo skewer. I also add some spatters of gesso - an old toothbrush is the perfect tool for this.

By the way, I don't often use drips in my art journal because I find the unevenness of the folded page tricky. If I don't watch carefully and be ready to move the paper as the drips form, they can ten to run towards the ditch in the center, which is fine if that's what one wants, but generally I don't.

I'm really liking the places where the I spread the gesso with the credit card. So far, so good. But now it feels like time for more color. One of my very favorite techniques is laying down transparent color in washes, and that's what I do next.

Phthalo colors are so yummy bright and, I think, a bit mysterious as they don't seem to appear in nature. Those are the colors I use for the washes. Do you see the roundish light blobs in the blue areas at the upper right? While the washes are still wet, I drip clear water drops here and there. They pull the color up from the washes underneath them. After they sit for a while, I dab them with a tissue and lift the color they've loosened, leaving these nice lighter areas. I feel a bit of mystery in them. They remind me of unknown lights deep in the forest.

I'm still happy, but there's clearly a ways to go with this background. It seems pretty monochromatic, so I decide to add more drips in different colors - transparent raw umber and turquoise deep. All the drips are Liquitex acrylic inks. I also add some blotches of purple alcohol ink, and more gesso spatters.

It now looks to me like I have a sense of distance developing in the "forest," and, suddenly I'm seeing a snowfall! Cool! An unseasonal snowfall in the forest of fairies (which becomes my title). I add a little more gesso, applying it with the credit card where I think the ground might be to the left and right of center.

But I see too much of a color division between the two halves - the left is so brown while the right is nice and green.

My response? More! More green drips on the left side, more splotches of alcohol ink, more color washes, more gesso spatters. More, more, more!

It feels like time to add some leaves to what must be vines in this snowy forest. Yay! I really like pen work. So, I enjoy a peaceful interlude with my crow quill pen and the Liquitex sap green acrylic ink, drawing little hanging branchlets with leaf after leaf after leaf. The pen work on its own seems a bit stark, so I add washes of transparent green acrylic paint filling each of those tiny leaves. Even though the leaves are filled in, because my paint is transparent and I've thinned it, I can still clearly see the ink work. Good.

But why in the world did I do what I did next?

I add more gesso. Nooooo! In my mind, I've ruined my piece in one simple, ill-advised step. The spread had vibrancy before. Now it's flat, dull, and boring. Certainly no fairy forest. At this point, I hate the piece. Time for a break, and a long one! Then, as I think about it through the night, I hate it more and more.

But here's where one of the advantages of art journaling comes in. The pages don't tear out. Or, strictly speaking, yes, you can tear out a page but you've pretty much ruined the structural integrity of the rest of the journal. This means giving up is a very unattractive alternative. I can't get rid of the evidence! It's going to sit there, reflecting badly on the journal overall forever! More drama. (As I reflect further, I realize I could just paint over the whole thing, but for whatever reason, I just reject that possibility out of hand.)

That's all well and good, but what can I do to fix it? I don't really know what will work, but there's one thing I do know. The birds have yet to arrive. The real impact of the background will only be clear once the birds are in position, so I decide to work on the birds.

I have four little drawings on deli paper. I carefully tear them out and glue them in place with acrylic matte gel medium.

Once I start painting the birds (with opaque acrylic craft paint) I begin feeling better. The background fades, appropriately, into the background. I can see that I need to finish the birds then assess any problems which remain once the birds are firmly in place as the stars of the show.

At this point, I'm on a roll, encouraged with the possibility of making a success of this spread. But, unfortunately, in the excitement I forget to continue taking step by step photos, so I'll just have to talk through the rest of the process for you.

Once I finish painting the birds, I need to deal with the little margin of deli paper that shows around them. It's pretty easy to do using Pitt Artist Pens which are, I believe, alcohol ink. They're transparent, which is better than opaque for fading into a transparent background.

To be sure the birds are fairies, I add diaphanous under-wings with a beautiful Daniel Smith duochrome acrylic paint called Lapis Sunlight. From straight ahead, this paint is transparent. But from an angle, it's a beautiful iridescent. The birds also need aerials, which I paint in.

The birds need to be sitting on something, so I use a white chalk pencil to sketch a series of branches which I then complete with several lines from my crow quill pen and Sap Green and Transparent Raw Umber acrylic ink.

I've pushed back all my background branches and leaves pushed back with yesterday's final unfortunate wash of Gesso. I decide to add more - branches and leaves, that is - so that some of the background branches appear closer to the foreground.

I like to put a border on most of my spreads. For this one, I draw several raggedy overlapping ink lines, then fill in the space between the edge of the paper and the outermost ink lines with the Lapis Sunshine acrylic. It feels harsh, so I add a few more lines of ink over the Lapis.

My spreads never seem finished until I've added at least a few spirals with a liner brush, so I add spirals of Lapis Sunlight over all the purple alcohol ink splotches.

The upper right seems bare, and I try it out as a place for a piece of text. I like it! The underlayer is rice paper which has a beautiful transparent/opaque texture to it, letting bits of the background show through. For the top layer, I tear a swatch of light blue from a magazine, then brush gesso over the center, leaving a raggedly margin of the light blue. The gesso gives a good ground for the pencil writing. I emphasize the edge of this piece of paper with a quick brush of thinned burnt umber, then glue it in place over the rice paper, also brushing a coat of matte medium over the top of the paper to seal the pencil.

For the final details, I add some of my favorite falling leaves. These are small (about 1/2" long) simple leaf shapes I cut from magazine clippings of colors I like then glue down randomly over the surface. I outline them with pen and ink and give them their center veins. Then I feel I need more spatters of gesso to strengthen the suggestion of the snowfall and a splotch of pink alcohol ink.


I'm glad I kept going.

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