Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Elephant No. 94: Impasto Painting

I've only tried impasto once before, and I didn't like it at all—mostly because it was incredibly messy. I also didn't much like painting with oils back then. However, I'm a big fan of paintings created with a heavy impasto technique, so I thought I'd give it a try today.

The word "impasto" comes from the Italian impastare, meaning "to knead" or "to paste", and commonly refers to a technique in which paint is applied thickly to a surface. The paint is usually so thick that the strokes of the brush or palette knife are clearly visible.

Happy Cow by Karen Tarlton.

There are several artistic reasons for impasto painting. One of the earliest was the fact that the ridges of paint reflect light in interesting ways. Artists such as Titian and Rembrandt used this property in small areas of their paintings to give added sheen to jewellery and the folds of fabric. Later artists, such as Van Gogh and the French Impressionists, produced entire works with the impasto technique, using the textures they created as an integral part of the painting.

Detail from The Starry Night, 1889
Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890)
Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Modern artists such as Paul-Émile Borduas, Willem de Kooning and Jean-Paul Riopelle have used paint as an almost sculptural element for large, bold works in which paint is trowelled on to create textural abstracts, rather than representational pieces. In paintings such as these, the action and direction of the artist's tools are often one of the most important aspects of the work.

Gotham News, 1955
Willem de Kooning (1904–1997)
Collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York

Oil paint is most often used for impasto, because it has a long drying time. Thick acrylic paint can also be used, for similar reasons. Because mediums such as watercolour and tempera dry quickly, they are not suitable unless an extender is added.

For today's elephant, going against the concept of impasto as something big and bold, I decided to try impasto on the smallest stretched canvas I could find. I think it's about 5 x 5 cm (2 x 2 inches), and even came with its own little wooden easel.

The tools I could use for impasto this small were obviously limited. The smallest—actually, the only—palette knife I have has a blade measuring about 10 cm (4 inches) long by 1.3 cm (1/2 inch) wide.

I decided to use acrylic paint for this, as oil painting still tends to scare me a little. I know I'm going to make a mess, even with a canvas this small, so better to use paint that doesn't require smelly solvents for post-painting clean-up. Luckily, I had some little tubes of cheap acrylic paint. The tubes are thicker than the acrylic paint in bottles, and I wanted to approximate the consistency of oil paint as much as possible.

The first thing I did was squeeze out some green and yellow paint onto a piece of palette paper.

Using my palette knife, I smeared it across the front and sides of the canvas. I added a bit of orange and brown after this first coat to make it a little less, well, green. I was actually really surprised at how much paint I needed to cover this tiny canvas. I didn't want any white areas showing through, and I wanted the dimensionality of thick paint, but it was astonishing to see how often I had to squeeze out more paint.

Once I was more or less satisfied with the green, I started on the elephant. I tried first with a blend of black, white and grey, but it was murky and unsatisfying.

So I started adding unlikely colours. The range of colours in this set was limited, and they made horrible colours when I tried to blend them. Purple, for example, was completely out of the question. I don't even know how you'd make purple from this set, and I'm actually quite good at blending very precise colours. Maybe if I mixed the brown with white with baby blue and a touch of red, tinged with a soupçon of orange and the darker blue. Not kidding.

This was indeed messy, and I had to clean my palette knife often to avoid getting completely mucky colours. I realized that a very delicate touch is needed if you're going to keep things from smearing too much. I finally got the hang of it, and started to like the technique more than I expected I would.

The final painting is certainly not high art, but I like it enough not to mess with it any further. I sort of wish I hadn't started with a green background—or any background, really—but it turned out well enough in the end.

Next time, I'll try oil paints (in truer pigments) and a bigger canvas. Although, to be honest, there's something to be said for doing a really small impasto painting.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephants engage in a form of social networking, just like humans. Although it has long been known that African elephants tend to form strong bonds, recent studies among Asian elephants show that, while they may change their daily companions, they also maintain large, stable networks, from which they choose their closest friends.

Researchers in Sri Lanka followed the friendships of more than 100 female Asian elephants for five seasons, analyzing the elephants' relationships over time. Although most groups had only three adult females, these were drawn from herds with as many as 17 adults.

Interestingly, although some elephants stuck to a few close friends, several were social butterflies who frequently changed companions. The elephants with few friends tended to be more loyal, and those with many friends tended to be less so.

Elephants are also able to track their friends over long distances by calling to one another and using their sense of smell. Even after a considerable time apart, they will recognize and greet their close companions enthusiastically, both vocally and by touching and entwining their trunks.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation 

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