Today, I’d like to talk about symbolic mark making and painting with alternative tools. Traditionally, painting has always been considered a practice where brushes and panting knives are the primary mark-making tools. But, exploring outside of those traditional options can present interesting textures and marks onto the painted surface, adding meaning to the overall piece!
For the ancient Egyptians, the scarab beetle was considered sacred, holding magical powers for protection against dangers in this world and the next. They made amulets and other things celebrating its presence. The messaging behind the scarab beetle was one of renewal and spiritual maturity. It symbolized the aspect of looking beyond what is in front of us. It conveyed a knowing that was more intuitive in nature.
In my painting entitled Emergence shown above, I looked towards the scarab beetle and its powerful influence on the side of life that is more intuitive. If you look at the shape of the figurative face, you will actually see that I am pulling from an abstracted silhouette/shape of the scarab beetle’s body. I also kept the overall gesture of the work spontaneous, as to make the face appear like it’s coming out of a dark void. When we emerge into our true selves, we often come out of a place of struggle.
In the work, the background drips like water down the face and the darkness begins to dissolve. Water, specifically the Nile, was highly symbolic for the Egyptians. It was timeless and provided life to crops and game, often serving as a universal symbol for life. The sun and the eternal desert were also symbolic to the ancient Egyptians, as they conveyed a sense of continuance. The white background of my painting is quite textural, almost sand-like. To create this effect, I used a textured brayer to apply gesso and paint in layers, allowing each layer to dry in between coats. In addition, I used a plastic card, various sponges, an eyedropper, spray bottle and a wooden chopstick. For some of the facial details, I used brushes. But, the majority of the image was created with alternative tools.
In the piece, I worked from bold mark making to more definitive areas of textural detail. I put the background on broadly using a textured brayer. When I rolled the brayer in black gesso and acrylic paint, it applied a very irregular imprint onto the surface. My brayer has so much built up matte medium and matte gel medium on it that it has created a relief texture of its own! My textured brayer is shown above. Once my initial color field was dry, I rolled over the dark areas with heavy white gesso that I used straight without diluting it with water. You can see the thickness of the gesso and the pitted look of irregularity that it creates in the detail image below. I love the texture that paint in layers makes!
To alter and define the larger areas of black and white, I used various sponges. Sponges make really interesting marks onto the surface that are different depending upon the design of the holes in the sponges you choose. I have an entire selection of commercial and natural sponges to work with. I cut them up so that they are in a workable size for the job at hand. I also used a flat-edged plastic card like a painting knife to apply acrylic paint to the surface. If some of the marks become too heavy, I used a wooden chopstick that is sharpened at the tip to break up the shapes. I also removed things with a wet cotton swab and other non-traditional tools shown below.
For the more fluid applications, I filled up an eyedropper with liquid acrylic, letting it drip down the surface in certain areas of the painting. As it was drying, I used a mist spray bottle to bloom some of the areas of liquid acrylic along with the more impasto applications that have been previously applied to the surface. I also used some blotting techniques to further create texture.
Once my more refined shapes were in place, I began to pull out suggestive facial features and refine them as necessary. I also employed various acrylic paint for more definitive detail. At this point, it became a game between not making it too real but yet believable enough.
As you can see, brushes aren’t the only thing that you can use when it comes to making a painting imbued with symbolism. Look around your studio and your home to see what tools you could apply in your next mixed-media work! I have included a step-by-step demonstration on how to create a custom painting and or debossing tool for you to download: https://www.muddycolors.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/CYR-Lisa-Bonus-Technique.pdf
Since the work was delivered to an exhibition, I matted and framed the piece. To create a distinctive framing element, I textured the matte with gesso using a drip technique and flattened some of the areas with a plastic card.
For more mixed media painting techniques, check out my book Experimental Painting!
Experimental Painting investigates exploratory methodologies, techniques and approaches in mixed-media art. Throughout the highly visual book, many exciting in-depth demonstrations are featured, documenting cutting-edge mixed-media painting processes from concept to final execution. To offer an extensive array of visually-stimulating possibilities for artists to explore, both two-dimensional and three-dimensional techniques are covered in a range of subject matter. Conceptual and thematic approaches include using symbolism, metaphor and allegory, incorporating pluralism and non-linear storytelling, utilizing automatism and freeform painting and employing costuming, props and theatrical settings. Developing works both in multiples and in a series is also included. In addition, special sections on creative exploration detail the playful act of experimentation, utilizing alternative tools, materials and techniques. By delving into the myriad applications of mixed-media painting, the creative process is reignited, opening up a gateway for artistic works to grow and flourish.
To assist artists in venturing out on their own creative path with a unique voice and vision, topics on nurturing the creative spirit within, developing personal content through journalism, embracing a multidisciplinary mindset and creating message-driven art provide insight into the development of an artistic personality. The book closes with a chapter on creative self-promotion, revealing the latest marketing and presentation strategies for the working artist. There is an ever-expanding interest in exploring unconventional processes and approaches to establish aesthetic distinction in the marketplace. For artists that are looking to push their work to a new level, this book will be a valuable resource and an ongoing source for creative inspiration.