February can be a cold month in the Rockies. We’re several months into winter, and several months away from spring and anything green.
I asked Joan to show me how to create the lovely mixed media backgrounds she’s brought to my studio during our tea-drinking visits. The ones I’ve seen in her handmade journals and cards.
For our play date, we gathered up papers of all kinds, stencils, stamps (hand-cut and store-bought), gels, mediums, acrylic paints, brushes, rollers and general ephemera. So many possibilities!
It was one of those days that I wanted to have no agenda. I spend so much time with goals in mind: theme cards for holidays, certain prints for a scheduled show. This time, I wanted just to rip paper, glue stuff and cover my hands in medium and paint. No goals, and nothing for sale. Just pure play.
I had gathered up a couple of music books and dictionaries we could cut and beyond that, I didn’t know. Joan also came just to play, without any project in mind. That can sometimes be a tough thing because with no focus, you can go a million directions. I started ripping spikes from the music books and laid them out on several watercolor sheets, thinking I could end up with four backgrounds for something.
Next, I layered tissue paper from several sewing patterns I had picked up from our local thrift store. I love these because their color is quite neutral, and they have funky markings and lines that create interest.
The tissue is quite thin, so brushing the back with gel medium meant it was fairly wet, and often tore, but this is what Joan calls happy accidents. “Just tear some more, and cover those holes,” she says. “Layer it on!” Which I did. Liberally. At times, the piece looked so chaotic, I thought I was maybe a little too liberal with the layers.
Bits of paper flying, glue sticking to everything. But boy, was it fun. We reached the end of Saturday and we knew we weren’t done. This is what our two 6-foot-by-2-foot tables looked like after several hours of “play”.
Waiting for Joan to arrive on day two, I smiled at the chaos and confusion. I went through my dictionary while I waited, cutting out bits of text to punctuate the collage background. It still feels a bit naughty to cut up a book, but I love the sensibility that text adds to a collage piece.
This piece was close to a blank canvas, but I didn’t know what to do with it, so I turned to another background.
The bird piece was further along, but I wasn’t sure I was digging it. It seemed very busy, between the paint layers, tissues, text and re-purposed prints I used. (Joan and I noticed the irony of the bird singing “simplicity”.)
Joan showed a steady hand with her piece. Her colors blended, her layers cohesive. She’s so fun to watch, and such a great teacher.
Joan applies color over her piece (acrylics thinned with medium), then spritzed it with tea that she poured into the squirt bottle — straight from the cup I had given her to drink earlier. Her theory? Use what’s at hand, and anything goes.
Packing up (she brought her travelling studio in bins) she adds it to several other piles of gorgeous backgrounds in plastic bins that she had shown me earlier in the day.
Here are my four pieces in various stages of completion. They may or may not come to anything, or they may get chopped up for other projects: small books, gift tags, card backgrounds. Who knows?
One thing I learned from all this play was that even the ink I have left from a print run can be spread over a background, instead of scraping it up and throwing it away. That everything can be added to a background-in-the-making: ink, bits of paper, old prints, torn sheets.
No wonder I don’t have any room in my studio. When everything can potentially be turned into art, how can you ever throw anything out?