Monday, 25 June 2018

Where stains and traces meet: To touch is to believe

The way that stains are made changes the way we think about them. For instance if you have a wound and wrap it in a bandage, the blood that seeps into the bandage becomes a record of your ordeal. Alberto Burri was before he became an artist an army doctor and his images consisting of paint soaked rags were made to simulate the blood-soaked bandages of wounded Italian soldiers. The critic Milton Gendel in describing Burri's work stated: “The studio is thick-walled, whitewashed, neat and ascetic; his work is ‘blood and flesh,’ reddened torn fabric that seems to parallel the staunching of wounds that Burri experienced in wartime.” Burri's distressed surfaces were made by ripping, cutting and staining and often included blowtorched burnt surfaces. His work relies on certain conventions of mimesis and his creation of metaphors for the wounded humans he had treated as an army medic was essential to his ability to cathartically engage with the interface between art and life.

Alberto Burri

This approach is similar to but not the same as using real blood to create images. Burri is in effect still maintaining a certain distance from the subject. He does not use rags soaked in blood, but uses paint and a surface treatment such as cutting or slicing to evoke wounds. He wants his audience to think about things and is trying to use the drama of material association to frame the idea. Artists such as Hermann Nitsch and Portia Munson (see previous post) want their audience to make a direct visceral connection with the actuality of blood. How artists break through the distancing that visual metaphor creates is an old problem and it is often associated with the difference between looking and touching.

If we go back to the 16th century and look at Caravaggio’s 'Incredulity of St Thomas' I think we can see the root of the problem. Thomas can't believe that this figure he sees before him is Christ, he believed that Christ had been nailed to a cross and was speared; therefore he should be dead. But touch is a more powerful indication of the reality of things than sight, so Christ allows Thomas to put a finger into the wound in Christ's side. Sight is now confirmed by touch and Thomas is finally convinced of the risen Christ's new spiritual reality.

Caravaggio 'The Incredulity of St Thomas'

Margaret Atwood wrote: “Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth.” Atwood points to the fact that authenticity is vital to the conviction of our beliefs and 'things' have a substantial weighty 'reality' that words and images lack and therefore give authenticity.

The linking of looking and touching is an essential element in the moving of an idea like the stain from an intellectual understanding, to a much more visceral 'knowing'.

Traces of reality are left when one thing bumps into another. However traces are incomplete records of events, so they are often ambiguous, but even so we often read traces as signs. A brown stain can be a sign of a recently spilled cup of tea or of the passing of a wounded man. The physical reality of a stain highlights the idea that a drawing can be an object, a thing in the world that acts upon the world and can be acted upon, rather than being an illusion or window onto the world. In this way a stain can be seen as a record of facts after the event. A window onto the world also denotes a certain distancing, and the stain as a factual record again suggests that this is something we can touch as well as see, the 'fact' of life being more important than a reflection on it.

The Turin Shroud is an object / drawing that sits right in the middle of these issues.

The Turin Shroud

The Turin Shroud is one piece of cloth that was at some point folded in half and was used to wrap up a body. However the body's traces were somehow embedded into the cloth. You can just about see the face near the centre fold and once you can see that the rest of the body comes into focus, the top half of the image above carries a back impression of the figure and the bottom half the front. It is easier to see in negative (below).

The reddish-brown stains that are found on the cloth it is argued correlate with the Biblical description of the death of Jesus. The triangular shaped inserts are patches that were sewn into the cloth by Poor Clare nuns in order to repair damage caused when molten silver from an incinerated chalice came into contact with the folded up shroud during a fire in 1532. How old it is uncertain and how authentic it is also questionable, as long ago as1390 Bishop Pierre d'Arcis wrote a memorandum to antipope Clement VII stating that the shroud was a forgery and that an artist had confessed to its making.
The authenticity of the shroud has been at the centre of several forensic investigations, some concentrating on the materials used to make the image and others on the weave and consistency of the linen itself. The fact that the image of a man is of both the back and front has suggested to many people that the image it an actual print taken directly from a person and that this person may have had a fever that caused them to sweat extensively and thus stain the shroud in their image. Others have argued that the image is too like how someone would be seen rather than an imprint of the linen touching someone. Therefore it is argued the image is in some way 'painted' or impressed into the linen by an artist. What is interesting to me is that the more the image is seen to be the result of touch or direct contact it is authentic and the more it is seen to be the result of an artist making an image it is seen as a 'fake'. The stains in this case hovering between being symbols of Christian veneration and human artifice. Are these brown stains the blood of Christ (haemoglobin) or simply the result of iron oxide based pigments?

Iron oxide is of course also known as rust and if you leave a rusty object on damp paper or wrap it in cloth you will be able to make an impression. Rust stains are a common problem when clothes are left out to dry and inadvertently find themselves in contact with some old rusting iron. Some rusted objects are more associative than others. In certain situations scissors can be weapons. Superficially rust stains can look like scorching, both are usually brown but they have very different associations.

A scorch mark left by a hot iron

In this case we have something that can look like a stain but isn't and as we explore the difference we begin to see how a different set of meanings opens up. A scorch mark is much more a result of violent action. (Think of the holes in the Turin Shroud that required patching or repairing). We brand animals by scorching them and indeed we use hot irons to torture each other.
A tortured victim's iron burn

We seem to have come a long way from Burri's attempt to use red paint and distressed textile surfaces to signify his experiences of bandaging soldiers during war. The last thing I am suggesting is that as artists you need to be more directly engaged with violence in order to depict it. What I am trying to suggest is that the relationship between touch and sight is an important one when it comes to certain types of mark making. Staining in particular has a series of associations that begin to open out if we look at some synonyms.
To stain: to blemish, to soil, to sully, to spoil, to defile, to taint, to besmirch, to discredit.
Whereas the physical traces of something can mean: to hint, to indicate, to point to, to tell, to warn, to leave evidence or to notify. All of these inferences suggesting that a trace is only a partial indication of something, an incomplete account, which leads to a certain ambiguity. There is no ambiguity in the torture victim's iron burn, we are clear as to the intention of the perpetrators. The fact that whoever did this is not thankfully an artist is important. We might worry about the fact that our ideas are not clear enough or not 'getting through' to our audience. But part of the wonder of communication is that it can be very subtle and still work. You just have to be attentive.
Consider the tale of 'Clever Hans'.

Clever Hans

The horse Clever Hans was a mathematical sensation and he hit headlines during the first decade of the 20th century. If you gave Hans a basic addition or subtraction problem he would nearly always get the answer right by tapping out the answer with his hoof. No one could work out how Hans did it, because when his owner died the horse was still able to perform these feats of counting. Eventually someone solved the problem, Hans was clever but not as a mathematician, but as a reader of human emotions. Hans could sense the growing tension of people around him when he 'counted'.  As he neared the right number, Hans would gradually slow down his hoof beats, tension mounted in his audience and this would enable him to respond to the release of emotion as he reached the right answer. Hans was using a high level of emotional intelligence and keen observational skills to communicate with his not quite as sharp human friends.
Sometimes though we need some other information, because traces are as we have seen incomplete evidence. So consider these coffee cup stains below.

These stains were left over from a meeting between a group of people that were having to make a very important decision. The meeting as we can see went on for some time and several cups of coffee were drunk, someone in particular had slopped their coffee into a saucer, probably due to their agitation in relation to the meeting's agenda and as they put their cup down several times, they were inadvertently beginning to create the beginnings of a pattern. How does this 'drawing' communicate? Can we like Sherlock Holmes decipher this image by using inductive reasoning? Do we intuitively read the image as a sign for both a meeting and a long mulling over of an idea? Context and story line are both important here and it is hard to avoid certain narratives even when they are the wrong ones. Everybody thought that Clever Hans was doing what he did as part of some elaborate con trick, therefore the narrative of trying to reveal the trick became so dominant that everyone missed the reality of what Hans was doing. In this case if I told you that this image of coffee cup stains was a detail from a much larger photograph taken in 1942 at the Los Alamos National Laboratory immediately after a meeting between General Lesley Groves, Major John Dudley and J. Robert Oppenheimer, would it change the way you were thinking about the image?

See also:

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Stains and blots: blood, sweat, and tears

When you call a mark a stain, in our society it has intimations of something that you should be getting rid of. Washing powders are designed to wash out stains, their removal a sign of a germ free environment. People regard marks as a sign of previous use, the phrase "This has got a mark on it," suggests that someone is complaining about the fact that their purchase has somehow been diminished by making contact with something of the other. But stains have a rich history and another way to think about those stains is that they are places where things ferment. In particular new ideas can evolve from them. Darwin suggested that life itself emerged from warm pools of rich mixtures of slime and dirty water.  The problem with clean surfaces is that they may simply be devoid of life. 
In the mid 15th century Alberti published his treatise on sculpture, in this manual for sculptors he proposed that the beginnings of sculpture lay in the moment when someone came across a gnarly old tree trunk or lump of clay, the contours of which suggested something else, such as a face or an animal and that together with a realisation that the wood or clay could be further shaped to enhance this vision, an idea of art was born; an idea that placed mimesis and simile at the core of what art should be about. Nature is seen to be a sort of repository of visual ideas and the artist's job is to release them from the chaos of everythingness. A more recent understanding of this would be that human beings are prone to a psychological condition called 'apophenia', a tendency to perceive connections and meaning between unrelated things. A term that I feel was invented by a scientist rather than an artist, because the fact that things look similar is clearly a demonstration that they could be related and in nature the fact that one thing can look like another is often used to great effect. Consider the bee orchid. 

Bee orchid

Justinus Kerner came up with something he called Klecksography or the art of making images from inkblots, back in the mid 19th century, an idea that would very soon afterwards be picked up by Rorschach, who used the method to begin an exploration of the hidden thoughts of his patients. However Kerner, like so many artists before him, wanted to use these random but not random shapes to generate visual ideas. In particular because these ink blots are produced by folding a paper in half they are always bi-laterally symmetrical, a factor that would immediately create a visual connection to a wide range of animals, in particular to those that had found this type of symmetry a useful survival mechanism, the fold creating a visual and structural backbone for his blots. 

Kerner used Klecksography to generate ideas for poetry as well as visual fantasy.

Justinus Kerner Klecksographie 1890 Ink on paper

One way to think about Kerner's 'Klecksographie' is that he is returning these stains and blots back into the teaming pool of his own subconscious. The resulting images then open a non conscious channel from from one mind to another. These 'creatures of chance' as he called them were a product of a wider Romantic obsession with such things as Spritualism and Kerner stated that he thought these images came from 'the other world'. Blotto was also a popular parlor game in the 19th century. Players would make up stories or poems based on inkblots that they would either create themselves or purchase commercially, a fact that demonstrates another interesting feature of human nature. Things that are popular often produce a range of approaches, from the scientific, (Rorschach) via the artistic (Kerner) through to everyday usage (Blotto). The fact that this idea was probably originated by Homo sapiens during neolithic times, (some of the earliest rock art looks as if it was suggested by the forms the rock already had before shaping by people 40,000 years ago) and by animal and plant species from time immemorial (the spots on a leopard look like dappled shadows in a sun lit forest, a stick insect look like a twig), doesn't seem to worry either Rorschach or Kerner and like so many artists, scientists and academics before and since, they try to make a claim for originality that is plainly just one of those algorithms that works*.
Victor Hugo the great French novelist was another person fascinated by the power of the blot or stain to stimulate the imagination. His friend Philippe Burty had this to say about the way he went about stimulating visual ideas, ‘Any means would do for him – the dregs of a cup of coffee tossed on old laid paper, the dregs of an inkwell tossed on notepaper, spread with his fingers, sponged up, dried, then taken up with a thick brush or a fine one… Sometimes the ink would bleed though the notepaper, and so on the reverse another vague drawing was born.’ 
Victor Hugo Octopus with the initials V.H 1866 Pen and ink wash on paper

More contemporary artists have again returned to the idea and each time they do there is a another twist in meaning, our obsession for originality ensuring that someone will point out what is unique about this return to an old idea. 

In 1984 Andy Warhol made his 13½ ft high Rorschach Paintings. These were theorised as ironic reflections on the way that people looked for deep underlying artists' intentions or hidden meaning. Warhol was famous for reflecting back the world as it was, and for not having any hidden depths to his work. His was the art of "what you see is what you get". His giant ink blots are it was theorised 'meaningless' and in that meaninglessness they were in effect a critique of Abstract Expressionism an art that seemed to privilege the blot or stain. It's interesting that by simply adding the bi-lateral symmetry of the Rorschach inkblot, Warhol is able to bring in all the associations of its use in psychology. 

Warhol: Gold inkblot painting

Helen Frankenthaler made the painting (below) at about the same time that Warhol was making the painting above. 

Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler was known as an artist belonging to the post painterly abstraction, or colour field painting movements. Movements that were theorised as being about the elimination of emotional or mythic content and that were a response to the overly personal nature of gesturally dominated abstract expressionism. Both Warhol and Frankenthaler were a some point seen as making art that critiqued an earlier more 'expressionist' approach and yet by associating themselves with the stain or blot, they both attract older readings to their work. Just as the game 'Blotto' popularised the reading of ink blots as a parlour game for light entertainment, Warhol's images can be read as a game too. A game that explores the shallow nature of certain art practices and which demonstrates the power of the artist's signature. 
In a catalogue of an important exhibition of her work at MOMA Frankenthaler in thinking about the public reception of one of her paintings remembers that "at the time, the painting looked to many people like a large paint rag, casually accidental and incomplete." The catalogue goes on to explain that public reception over time changed and that eventually her work was seen to be as Nigel Gosling's review of an exhibition stated... "abstract but not empty or clinical, free but orderly, lively but intensely relaxed and peaceful … They are vaguely feminine in the way water is feminine – dissolving and instinctive, and on an enveloping scale." Although not a feminist, Frankenthaler would be eventually claimed by Feminist writers as a sort of precursor of Feminist painterly ideas, the theoretical reception of her work changing as society's understanding of itself changed. In many ways the stains and blots that make up her work becoming a field within which different theorists could 'see' different positions or ideas about the nature of what painting is. 'Apophenia' it could be argued is as ripe amongst critics as it it is amongst artists. 

Rosalind E. Krauss in her essay 'Carnal Knowledge' suggested that Warhol's Rorschach paintings are parodies of abstract art and that they remind us that "there is no form so 'innocent' (or abstract) that it can ever avoid the corruption of a pejorative interpretation." I.e. that we will always see things in abstract paintings, just as we will see faces in clouds or burnt toast. The condition now known as "face pareidolia" another variation of apophenia, leading many of us to do this and on a regular basis. It is though interesting that Krauss sees this as a form of corruption and that the sexual nature of these issues further 'defiles' the purity of the artist's intention. This feels similar to the 'marked goods' syndrome, once again someone is seeking purity, but the world is like sex messy and it is out of the mess that new things arise. 

Cornelia Parker is very aware of these issues and in her Pornographic Drawings from 1996, she reminds us of the Rorschach ink blot’s underlying erotic charge. She makes bilateral phallic shapes (i. e. carefully controlled images, and not random forms) using an ink made by dissolving confiscated pornographic videotapes in a powerful solvent. In doing this she reflects on the nature of ink blot making and suggests they are not chance forms, as well as making us confront our obsession with sex. 

The fact that underlying sexual issues have often been associated with a psychological understanding of Rorschach ink blots brings me to another reading of them as stains, stains that we associate with bodily fluids; blood, urine, feces, semen, mucus, pus and tears. Usually these types of stains are associated with 'the abject', and are seen as repulsive and disgusting, as we eject these fluids from our body, our embodied mind uses the process as the starting point for metaphor, therefore we associate these ejections of 'bad fluids' with a cleansing and the removal of contamination. Kristeva used this concept to show how xenophobia and anti-Semitism can be aspects of the abject. What we see as things to cast out become confused in our heads, the way that Nazi anti Jewish propaganda was at times used, suggested that Jews were like a stain on society that needed to be bleached out if the German race was to remain clean. In this case we can quickly see how the idea of the stain can become politicised. However, as we can see from Frankenthaler's work, stains are also beautiful. When we look at Rose Lynn Fisher's microscope enabled photographs of tears, we see something beyond the tear stains. In these photographs the tear's dissolved salts emerge as crystalline continents and as a beautiful new language of the emotions. Her title for these images, 'the typography of tears' suggesting that we can use these images to read differences in emotions, some may be microscopic enlargements of tears of joy and others of pain or anger. 

Rose Lynn Fisher: The typography of tears

Andres Serrano is another artist that has seen the beautiful in bodily fluids and in doing so has raised the ire of those who only see bodily fluids as disgusting. His photographic work, 'Blood and semen' being in many ways similar in intent to his more famous 'Piss Christ', whereby he photographed a small plastic image of Christ on the cross that had been immersed in a bottle of the artist's own urine. 

Piss Christ 1987

Andres Serrano, Blood and semen V, 1990

In 2011 Serrano's 'Piss Christ' was destroyed by an angry group of Catholic extremists in France. After the attack one gallery guard reported that an attacker shouted: "I'm going to pour donkey piss on the Qur'an." Hate emails were also sent to the gallery, one email talking about "plunging the diary of Anne Frank in urine". As we can see from this bodily fluids can still cause people to become emotionally heated, their association with disgust and stains to be eradicated is still powerful. It is interesting to compare Serrano's image with one that has been venerated for hundreds of years and is seen as one of the most holy relics of the Christian church, Grünewald's Crucifixion.
Detail: Grünewald's Crucifixion

The pock marked, stabbed and broken body of Christ is in many ways stained with the marks of death, but in this case we read Grünewald's intention to use the moment of horror in death to raise our awareness of the moment of transfiguration, to make us all the more shocked at how Christ was actually impaled on a cross and that he suffered a real death, a death that would have involved all the usual stains and disgusting release of body fluids that we associate with violent death. These are issues that are difficult to confront and we don't find many artists prepared to step into these territories. 

Hermann Nitsch: Blood picture 1962

Hermann Nitsch stated this in relation to his work; ‘I took cloth, wetted it with blood as well as pouring blood over it, then I fixed it on canvas’. The use of blood in this case suggesting some form of sacrifice. His work was ritualistic and reflected his awareness of how religious sacrifice was meant to provide a moment of spiritual communication between God and humankind. Your blood in some societies represented your soul, therefore to sign in blood often signified that someone had made a contract with the devil. Blood as a stain is in some stories indelible, as in Macbeth, where even the ocean couldn't wash his hands clean of the stain. A stain that would eventually spread into people's minds. Hands stained with blood continue to not only inhabit art but unfortunately life as well. The cartoonist Akram Raslan died under torture in Syria for trying to make visual his fears for his country under president Assad.

Akram Raslan

Portia Munson

Blood can of course signify many things and for women the monthly menstrual cycle is vital to an awareness of their own fertility. Portia Munson made menstrual prints every month for 8 years. She made the prints by pressing sheets of paper against her body during the time she was menstruating. Around each print Munson would inscribe a text of both personal and historical narratives about menstruation and menstrual rites. Once again a stain carries the information, however for Munson these stains also resembled creatures like angels, birds, or bats, the starting points for new narratives, stories that have fellow travellers such as Angela Carter or Kikki Smith. 

*just one of those algorithms that works.

I came across the following definition of an algorithm in Yuval Noah Harari's 'Homo Deus'. 
'An algorithm is a methodical set of steps that can be used to make calculations, resolve problems and reach decisions'. p.97
Humans are in effect therefore a type of algorithm. 'The algorithms controlling humans work through sensations, emotions and thoughts. And exactly the same kind of algorithms control pigs, baboons, otters and chickens. Consider for example the following survival problem: a baboon spots some bananas hanging in a tree, but also notices a lion lurking nearby. Should the baboon risk his life for those bananas?' p. 99

The calculations that the baboon will make in the split second of a decision making process will if correct ensure its survival. If the baboon is too cautious he will not eat, and if he is too impetuous he could be eaten by the lion. A baboon that gets it right more times than gets it wrong is more likely to pass its genes on, therefore it will as a creature over time develop a very finely adjusted internal choice making algorithm.  Harari goes into great detail as to how this works and it helped me to understand why I sometimes prioritise my emotional responses to life over my more rational ones. 

See also: 

Monoprint as a drawing process and how to respond to seeing shapes in the ink 

Frottage and photography

Resemblance mimesis and communication

Using pigments suspended in water which is what stains usually consist of

Sunday, 10 June 2018

More on water

I was in the British museum last weekend and spotted some more drawings of water. Images of water or clouds or smoke fascinate me because they are very hard to draw as you have the constant paradox of trying to make a static image of something that is in essence always in movement. 

In the image right at the top of this post the artist has changed the direction of the lines to suggest a changing series of sea types. In the foreground we have a rhythmic swelling sea, this begins to change as we move towards the shore, first of all the swelling is broken by swirling eddies and as the shore approaches the lines flatten out, suggesting that the sea calms as it nears the shore. The image immediately above, taken from another area of what was a huge print of Venice, (probably 7 to 8 feet wide and made up of lots of small prints) has a further range of sea water symbols, this time wavelet forms surround the figure of Neptune, and as we move towards the shore the sea is established by a series of straight lines with half circles breaking up areas of white in between. 

The two drawings of the sea below are from different times visiting the South Coast, one drawn during a storm a few years ago and then used for an animation (see further below) and another that was drawn when I was in West Wittering over Easter. 

The patterns that the sea makes are inspiring and craftspeople from a huge span of time periods and from all the continents have at one time or another used motifs inspired by the sea.

Wave design taken from Greek pottery

Atamoana textile with ocean wave pattern (New Zealand)

Ancient Pueblo (North America)


There is a wonderful series of paintings by Ma Yuan (ca 1160-1225). These are the earliest images that I have come across whereby an artist has attempted to freeze the complexity of moving water into images, rather than reducing images of water to a series of basic symbols, such as the Egyptian symbol for water below.

Egyptian symbol for water

All of the pattern images above have reduced the movement of water to a rhythmic formula, but Ma Yuan's Water Album: Ten Thousand Riplets on the Yangzi, demonstrates a deep awareness of both pattern and uniqueness, there is a sense that every wave creates a one off shape. Every wave is also a forming and un-forming part of a never ending rhythmic process. Ma Yuan can also invoke subtle atmosphere, his waters drift into and out of the mist as they form and reshape, his images are a reflection of water in its many guises, from rough waters to ripples, from flat lapping to sloughing through troughs and peaks.

Ma Yuan: Water Album : Ten Thousand Riplets on the Yangzi

However Ma Yuan's images are in some ways too sophisticated for a designer to use and and a Japanese artist such as Mori Yuzan fills that gap between perceptual wonder and designed clarity. 

The images above are from a book, 'Ha Bun Shu' (1919) by Mori Yuzan of wave and ripple designs. Similar work is also collected in Hamon shu (Wave patterns), a multi-volume work brought out at the beginning of the 20th century. Both these works would have acted as a kind of go-to guide for Japanese craftsmen looking to use wave and ripple patterns. You can find them on line here.
Mori Yuzan's images might not be as complex as Ma Yuan's but they are still fascinating because they have had to go through a process of clarification and simplification and if they are to work they once more have to hold that tension between rhythm and structure that communicates both structural integrity and constant movement. 

The sea is powerful and when you are in it and far from land its close proximity can be terrifying. Its constant movement, the flexing of its gargantuan water muscles make you feel as impotent as a mayfly. I have swum off boats in the Mediterranean, but only from tourist excursions and in calm weather, even so I well remember the slight nervousness I had when I realised I really was swimming in the cruel sea. More than 8,000 lives have been lost crossing the Mediterranean over the last two years, an ongoing disaster that we tend to lose sight of. The same body of water that I stand in front of and draw, has also taken the lives of thousands of poor people seeking another life in Europe. 

A short animation I made in response to the refugee crisis

The animation I made (above) tested out my ability to invent moving water, some sections are better than others and I may try and go back to this and redraw, but I found the subject a hard one to confront and constantly worry that I have not been able to deal with this subject sensitively enough. I tried to develop a soundtrack that reflected the tension and unease I had been feeling about the situation, which involved another very different form of drawing , as I had to develop a timeline and think about how to compose the distorted sounds that I developed using feedback-loops. What it must be like to be stranded on a small crowded unseaworthy boat I dread to think, but I had to try and respond somehow to the situation. The many facets of water are like moods and as moods develop they can become dangerous and difficult, the people in this animation are tiny, they may appear insignificant, but everyone on these boats, boats that so often disappear into the Mediterranean, would be someone with a complex full life, someone that if we knew them could become a friend or even part of our family.  

See also:

Drawing water
Beryl Hammill drawing water

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Drawing using pigments suspended in water

Watercolour as a drawing medium is a very useful fluid approach to image making. It can be thought of as a step towards painting or as a medium in its own right, and it's as the latter that I will be looking at watercolour in this post.

Sharon Kelly is an artist with a drawing led practice, she works across mediums and also produces animations, however this one particular image (below) made me think about how watercolour can really add to an image's metaphorical possibilities.

Sharon Kelly: In the raincloud, 2017

'In the raincloud' fuses together the expressive powers of graphite and watercolour. The dark gritty blacks of watercolour fixed graphite that compose these touching fists are set off against the fluid transparency of a watercolour body rising up into the raincloud. The lower body is barely brushed in, its faint form then becoming more solidified as the image rises, only for it to be lost again as the head disappears into the clouds. The image seems to embody our changing natures, the hard physical reality of hand/fist interaction, merging into a 'head in the clouds' feeling of amorphous day dreaming. We are all an amalgam of conflicting feelings and barely controlled physical elements, but somehow we manage to stay in one piece and hold it together long enough to make a mark and establish relationships before all the various elements that compose us once more disperse and go on to form other things. 

It is Rodin's watercolours that I first encountered as an answer to the problem of how to capture the body's fluid movement. Rodin's work enables us to read the nature of watercolour as a body of fluidity and the human body as a fluid container. These two ideas are conjoined in Rodin's watercolours as a metaphor for ceaseless movement and metamorphic material exchange. Rodin died in 1917, just over a hundred years ago, and yet I still find these drawings very contemporary, they seem to chime with what has been called the material turn, their appearance easily slipping between representation and presentation, their making still revealing itself as a process rather than as an idea of a finished thing. 

Rodin: watercolour and pencil sketches

Originally quick notes made in the studio from a moving model, Rodin's watercolour and pencil sketches throb with an energy that comes in and out of focus as the stains of watercolour attempt to move in one way and the directional lines of pencil another. It is as if energy fields are coming into being, the shapes of bodies coalescing into what could be a human being, but which could also be islands or continents of forming matter. I now find these drawings useful metaphors for thoughts associated with fluid gender, current concerns in gender politics finding a new resonance in a series of drawings done by an old man searching for new forms within an old tradition. 

Roger Ebert stated that art is an empathy machine, I think he mistook the art for the machine and it is really human beings that are the empathy machines. I tune myself into these images as I would when listening to another person telling me their stories. Sometimes I think we all operate like radio receivers. As a boy I spent hours trying to tune in to just out of focus radio stations on a crystal set built as part of a school science project, and the struggle to tune in made you very aware of how fragile signals can be and how carefully you need to adjust your dial to what is being communicated. 

A crystal set using a pencil lead attached to a safety pin pressing against a razor blade for a detector.

Another mazy run I know but tangents always seem to me to be important and those circuit diagrams for crystal sets were some of the earliest drawings I can remember, they were always so informative and yet when I look at them now they seem archaic, as if they are the products of some sort of lost civilisation. 

In this case I'm asking you to imagine the station we are trying to tune into is radio watercolour and the bandwidth is tuned to paints made of pigments suspended in water-based solutions. In French these are aquarelles or if we are looking at a very close cousin, water-soluble colored ink, these are called "aquarellum atramento", which could be the sound of an even fainter radio station from across the Channel. Perhaps time to drop this analogy but the way that these two very closely related substances work is however different and as 'the medium is the message', it's worthwhile looking at some of the actual ingredients of watercolour in more detail and as we do, to consider the implications of a more material led set of concepts. 
The term "watercolour" refers to paints that use water-soluble, complex carbohydrates as a binder, such as sugars and/or hide glues. Since the 19th century, the preferred natural binder is gum arabic, with glycerine and/or honey as additives to improve plasticity and solubility. The elements that will effect the final look of an image made with watercolour paints are a combination of several things which are:

1. The pigment or pigments used. Each pigment is a chemical compound that will 
absorb some of the light cast upon it and that will reflect the rest of it. Which wavelengths are reflected or absorbed depends on the properties of the chemical compound. In the case of cadmium yellow for example wavelengths of about 570 to 580 nanometers bounce back as these are the wavelengths of yellow light. The other important issue about pigments is that they will not dissolve in water. After grinding, the fine particles of a pigment are suspended in water, like river silt, and will settle to the bottom over time. Therefore the issue of dispersion is important because the more water added the more the gaps between particles increases; a badly stirred pot of watercolour may have particles closer together near the bottom and further apart at the top. This is one of the key attributes and the reason why you can make watercolour behave in different ways in relation to how deposits of pigment are left on the paper. This is also why manufacturers spend a lot of time thinking about pigment volume concentration and its role in how a colour will be applied
The other issue about pigments is that some are more powerful than others when it comes to tinting. Therefore some colours require a lot of pigment and others a much smaller amount, this in conjunction with the size the pigments are milled down to, usually 0.05 to 0.5 microns, can lead to more or less grains being moved around within your watercolour solution and therefore the type of surface quality left when the water evaporates.
The first watercolour paints were pure pigment bound with only a little gum and applied with little water. The finished effect was dense, colourful and bright. When a small amount of pigment is mixed with a lot of gum, and applied with a lot of water, the pigment is less dense and so the paint becomes transparent. This allows the painting support, such as white paper, to shine through the paint, and this tends to be how we think of 'watercolour' as a contemporary medium. My own focus on this is the fact that the drying up or evaporation of water deposits the grains of pigment onto a surface in the same way that large bodies of water dry up and that by using these properties landscape features ranging from puddles to salt lakes can be alluded to. The use of watercolour in some ways being a small scale model for one of nature's geological formations. Granulation is an effect made by certain pigments as their particles settle into the hollows of the paper and this property, together with f
lucculation or the tendency for pigments to be drawn together into clumps, (This tendency is usually caused by electrical effects) will be essential to the way different pigments will eventually settle onto the paper as the water evaporates. 

2. A brightener consisting of transparent or "white" crystals is often added to a paint to lighten the tone and increase the chroma of the dried paint. Brighteners are often materials that absorb UV light and then transmit it in the blue range to counter the effect of yellowing. They make whites appear ‘brighter’ to the human eye. This is a more recent development and is becoming more and more common because we have become attuned to brighter colours and in particular to whiter than white whites. Those artists that grind their own colours and make their own paints, are sometimes disappointed by the intensity of their colour mixes, it is though simply that they are in effect making paints from an earlier generation. This 'brightening' effect is something that has a very different series of associations. The fact that we need 'whiter than white' clothes reflects certain ideas we have about purity and cleanliness and darker, murky colours are also associated with more unacceptable moods. Tonality is a way of thinking about our society. In the past for instance a melancholic temperament was associated with a certain 'darkness' but this was quite acceptable and was thought of as quite natural especially for someone of a poetic sensibility. It is now however suggested that we should all aim to be happy, therefore we should be surrounded by brighter 'happy' colours. The association of colour with mood is an old one and it still persists, for instance see this link.

3. A medium that the pigment is dispersed into. This will consist mainly of water, which is essential to both the dissolving of binders, dispersants and moisture retainers and to the suspension of pigment and other particles. The main aspects of tap water that affect the process are pH and hardness. Water with an acid pH will eventually eat into the paper and may affect some pigments. Hard water can make paints granulate more and cause them to flow differently from soft water. However these are very subtle differences, the most interesting aspect for an artist is probably where the water is coming from. By using water from a particular pond, or from the Dead Sea or from rainwater collected from a puddle in the middle of a dry season etc. an artist can indicate an association with other things outside of the eventual 'look' of the image. Of course the fact that water evaporates is how the pigment eventually is settled out of suspension and laid onto the surface of the paper or other surface being used to paint on. Water is also 'the elixir of life' and has a long metaphoric series of entanglements with life, rebirth etc. etc. 
The next thing needed is a binder, now mainly gum Arabic but sometimes a synthetic glycol is used. Not only will the binder make sure the pigment will stick to the paper, the type and amount of it used will effect the way that the image is seen.

As you can see from the chart above, binders affect the colours we see. If you look at the diagrams below you can see why and how. Some binders will effectively surround the pigment, so that when they dry you need to look through them to see the actual pigment. Our colour perception is in effect shifted by the amount of reflected light bouncing straight off the surface. On the lower diagram we can see that light is coming directly from the grains of pigment (there is another issue as to what reflected light really is but that is another issue), the binder acting to stick the pigment to the substrata without having to smother the pigment. 

You can work with binders just as you can work with pigments. For instance gum Arabic can be used as a resist and a much more subtle one than wax or latex based resists. Turner used gum Arabic resists. 

A plasticizer, usually glycerin, to soften the dried gum arabic and help it redissolve. Without this you would not be able to transfer the colour from your watercolour pans or tablets.
A humectant, traditionally simple syrup or honey but now often inexpensive corn syrup, to help the paint retain mosture (especially in pan paints)
An extender or filler, such as dextrin, used to bulk out and thicken the paint without noticeably affecting the colour
Dispersants (to prevent clumping of the raw pigment after manufacture and to speed up the milling of the pigment and vehicle ingredients) 
Fungicide or preservative to suppress the growth of mold or bacteria.
A surfactant which allows water to be soaked into the paper, by lowering the surface tension between water and the paper. 

Andy Goldsworthy

Andy Goldsworthy: Snowball drawing

Andy Goldsworthy sometimes simply mixes local pigments into snowballs and lets them melt onto paper. 

All of these things can be researched and used as ways into thinking about different directions for your work. For instance you may want to dig for materials that you want to use for making pigments. But where from? Are particular locations important? Would you have to draw a map? The sourcing of a pigment and the associated journeys to access it may be as important as the grinding and mixing of various grains, or the making of the colours into 'pans'. Remember everything has the potential to become a pigment, it only needs to be ground down and dissolved, therefore all sorts of ideas can begin at this stage, Cornelia Parker had pornographic video tapes dissolved and made into pigments for her "Pornographic Drawing" and "House Blot" was made with ground down brick dust from a house that fell from the white cliffs of Dover. You could also think about these issues in relation to sustainability or put a focus on the process of sorting through various stones/minerals in preparation for grinding and making into pigments. 

I have posted on types of papers before, and of course these are just as important as the watercolour paints themselves. Every surface has a history. However it is worthwhile, just as it is with the pigments and other materials, to separate their 'ur'-history from their physical and chemical properties. 
The 'ur'-history of something (a Walter Benjamin term) is what you can deduce from the history of something's manufacture. Who made it? What terms and conditions did the workers who made the item work under? Why was it made? Who oversaw the making? Who profited from the making?  How many different people were involved in getting the object to where it is now? A sheet of paper may begin with foresters looking after a particular managed plantation, then lumberjacks brought in to fell the trees, then bulldozer drivers to move the trees, people involved with transport, the paper mill owners and workers that begin the process of turning the wood into wood pulp for paper. Then there are the people involved with the various processes such as sizing, (a chemical factory/s will produce sizes, fungicides etc. and all these places will involve human labour and interaction) and don't forget the drivers and loaders who move things around and the people that are involved in selling the paper, from shopkeepers to travelling salespeople. 

The networks and entanglements that lie behind things are where certain types of ideas begin. You can then illuminate these relationships and help people notice what they had not noticed before. This is why background research can be so important to you as an artist and so rewarding to you as a person. 

Links to some previous posts on paper