I have been asked to work with first year studio 'P' students to look at some pretty basic questions concerning 'what' people paint with. One of the issues I have touched upon in this blog is sustainability, so as well as asking students to explore where and how different paints come from and who is involved in their manufacture, I am highlighting the fact that the process of investigating these things is as much about art making as anything else, and can lead to a much better awareness of the relative carbon footprint of different approaches to art making. This also helps to question the position of painting within the art canon and to open out a dialogue with other ways of making meaning. Painting perhaps being just one element in a practice that extends to engage with relational practices, video, photography and other art forms.
John Sabraw using a glass muller to grind his own paint
The artist John Sabraw makes his own pigments, including strong yellows and reds made from the oxidized sludge of abandoned coal mines in Ohio. I was interested in this because he is embracing pollution, seeing it as something to engage with and not just moan about. The paintings he makes with the paints could have been totally abstract as far as I'm concerned, it was the thinking process that led him to work with others to make new pigments, that I thought was the most interesting aspect of his practice.
Pigments are everywhere. Natural pigments can be sorted into three categories: those obtained from plants, those from animals, and those from minerals. Every bit of ground is a collection of various chemical compounds and minerals, some already in powder type forms and others needing ground down. Sometimes you need to heat them to intensify the colour and before doing that you would also wash them, which strengthens and also intensifies the colour. Some artists use natural found colours very directly. Every sand drawing is done in whatever colour the sand is.
Vanuatu sand drawing
Australian aborigine sand drawing
Look at how the difference in colour intensity changes the way we read similar approaches to making images. Even at such a basic level, colour is operating powerfully, but is this painting? As this is a blog that centres on drawing I could easily argue that it is coloured drawing or drawing in colour, the reality is that it doesn't matter and this issue over whether something is a drawing or a painting is actually a problem with how words work. (Read the first paragraph of this old post)
herman de vries, (he never uses capitals when he uses his name) is a Dutch artist that travels the world collecting soil samples. The concept he works with is that all nature is art, therefore putting capital letters in front of our names signifies that we think we are more important than other things. I like the way that he follows through his ideas.
From the earth: herman de vries
A typical herman de vries installation consists of an array of collected soil samples from various parts of the world, they are simply used as pigments and samples put down that are always the same size and which are then archived in special boxes and then brought out at different times for exhibition purposes. (This post on documentation describes the process in detail)
Detail of the surface of one of Mark Bradford's paintings
Everything is though nature. We are of nature and the environments we make are also part of nature, we might like to think of nature as an idyllic other thing over there that we have not sullied or dirtied up with our pollution, but we are actually one of nature's animals just like all the others. Therefore Mark Bradford's collecting of street papers and other detritus and use of them to create paintings, is just as environmentally sound as herman de vries' work. There is a detailed post on Bradford's practice as part of this post's reflections on collage, however he says of himself, he is an artist that paints with paper.
Whatever you use to make an image with will carry some sort of meaning, but we sometimes forget that this is the case. Compare these two images made using various pigments.
Vic Munoz ‘Valentina, The Fastest’ The Sugar Children’:1996
Vic Munoz made this portrait of Valentina using sugar, sugar a substance which for girls like Valentina is both a future and an existence. (Read about this in more detail here).
John Singer Sargent had a remarkable ability to draw with a brush. Because of this he was the painter of choice for many of the rich and famous of his time. Typical of his work is this portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw.
John Singer Sargent: Lady Agnew of Lochnaw
Gertrude Vernon was born in 1865 and married Sir Andrew Agnew, 9th Baronet of Lochnaw Castle, in 1889. The public success of the painting apparently endowed her with additional notability and prestige. It still still hangs in its original antique French rococo frame. It is painted in oil on canvas and measures 50.0 × 39.8 in. At the time Sargent would have obtained his art supplies from companies that you might well still recognise the names of, such as Winsor & Newton and Reeves and some of their archives still survive. The beautiful soft tints whereby he was able to subtly modulate the appearance of light reflected off various surfaces were mixed using lead white. Several painters have historically been known to have succumbed to lead poisoning including Rembrandt and Goya, but the workers who made the paints in the 19th century were exposed to much heavier doses of its toxic fumes than an individual painter. A blue-purplish line along the gum, was a typical trait of the intoxication, and mental disorders often resulted from ingestion of even minute amounts of lead. Because its effects were often at their strongest when young children were exposed, in the UK, children were finally forbidden to work in white lead factories in 1878. Neither Sargent nor the Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, would have been worried about the conditions of the workers that made lead white.
Human lives and the material substances that go to make up the world are always inextricably entwined.
Bringing it all together