Customizing a Sketchbook
Stage 1 - Research and Preparation
Cy Twombley, born Edwin Parker Twombley was an American painter (April 25, 1928- July 5, 2011 who worked mainly on large scale paintings often with light coloured backgrounds and who used scribble-like mark making methods as well as swooping cursive-inspired marks and more chaotic graffiti-inspired marks. He is known for incorporating hand written text into many of his paintings. He is known for painting the backgrounds with simple house paint and scratching words, phrases, and poetry into the background with pencil.
Twombley’s large scale paintings were such a feat that it’s said that he would sit on the shoulders of a friend who would scurry from one end of the canvas to the other so as to allow the artist to make uninterrupted marks across the surface. Some sources also say that his work as a cryptographer with the US Army in the ’50s influenced his signature style of incorporating both literal text and shapes reflective the movements of cursive handwriting into his work. The painting below is the first of two Twombley paintings I’m exploring. The one below is titled, “Roses” and it is an Abstract Impressionistic piece. The original measures nearly 24′ in length.
The above hardcover novel was my selection of books to alter for the exercise. The pages were fairly thin so I opted to stick them together using tape runner. This proved to be a wise decision as the water used with the gouache was at times a real challenge for this thirsty paper. I chose a hardcover because I knew that the book would be packed up and taken about to places such as our remote, off-grid cabin in the Yukon wilderness. I needed a book that would withstand rough packing. So far so good. Also, I quite liked the title of this novel, “Come a Stranger”. I thought this to be very fitting given it was to be a place where I got to know both the media and the artist being researched.
Knowing that this exercise was using gouache, a medium I had not yet explored, I wanted to be in a position to really explore its abilities and limitations. I chose a Twombley painting that used saturated tones, many layers and techniques that I suspected might be a challenge on this highly absorbent paper. I was also very curious to see how his enormous works could be recreated in such a small scale.
Stage 2 - Painter Inspired Translation
In my first page, I blended a mint colour to resemble that of the background of Cy Twombley’s painting titled The Roses VI. It shows a similarly coloured background as well as Twombley’s signature rough hand written cursive somewhat carved into the paint. I chose my own words for this first experimentation – wistful, love, poetry because that is what this particular painting made me think of. I think the text in the original painting is in fact a poem but am not certain.
My next entries (above) are simply laying down colour onto the novel’s paper. This series of pages is where I experiment with blending both colours as well as water into the paints, varying the opacity of the gouache. This is definitely not paper intended for absorbing much water as it sucks up the moisture leading to a lot of buckling (and subsequent waiting as the paper dried). Without electricity, I have to proceed with each painting the old fashioned way – by waiting – rather than using a hair dryer or some other tool to expedite the process. I feel like I’m connecting to Twombley’s process a bit more closely as I doubt he used a hair dryer to hasten the drying of his own works between layers. He’s quoted as saying that he would often just sit in front of the canvas for hours considering his options and then that he’d fly through the actual painting in fifteen minutes. This is a good bit of insight for me in this work to allow me to try and create as the original artist did. Be pensive before making a mark and then commit to making those marks with confidence and speed.
I set this sketch up to be one where I could pay attention to how the seemingly unplanned, spontaneous drips behaved on the page. Knowing this was “thirsty” paper, I was really curious to see how the drips travelled. I painted a background from the mint tones and then applied a dark maroon flower. Because the paint is gouache, the moment the wet paint (maroon) travelled over the previous layer (mint) they began to mingle which led to my top layer being lightened but I tried to manage this by not scrubbing over the surface of the paper too much, instead, reloading the brush with the maroon tone and laying it down in shorter strokes. Once I had created a loose flower shape, I began to experiment with dripping the paint down the remaining 2/3 of the page. The first thing I noticed was that I had to add a lot of water to give the drips enough weight to go anywhere. Several applications of very wet paint did create drips, however the drips stopped travelling once they reached the edge of the mint coloured background boundary. I had to encourage the drips to continue down the page rather than spreading out across the horizontal edge of the background. Once I guided the drips downward, I had to continually add fluid to the drips so it had enough weight to go anywhere. In fact, I also had to tap the book against the table surface to get it moving. When researching Twombley’s style and techniques, I recall reading that every one of his drips were very deliberate. I can see how this would have been the case.
Having not anticipated some of the challenges of painting on the novel’s bare, unprepared pages, I had to use what I did have on hand which was silver metallic acrylic paint. I wanted to create a barrier between the paper and the gouache but one that wouldn’t compete with the imagery itself. The acrylic was very wet and buckled the paper a lot. I had to wait a long time for the surface to be ready for another application of paint. I was concerned that the buckling was going to interfere with the route the drips were to take but it seems that wasn’t much of an issue.
With the second attempt at the maroon flower painted, I immediately found a muddying of colours when the maroon colour was applied atop the mint background. There was no way to minimize this so I just let it happen. I then created subtle paths using the tip of my wet paintbrush for the drips to follow once I turned the book upright onto its end. I tried to experiment with using a finer brush to create narrower paths for the paint to follow but wasn’t able to create finer lines than I’d managed to create with the previous brush. This made me wonder about the scale of the original Twombley painting and the size it must have been in order for the drips to appear as fine as they do. I was also thinking about how meticulous and deliberate each and every drip had to be in order to produce so many individual lines of paint. If they were slapdash and thrown onto the canvas, they’d be heavy, disorganized blobs instead of the fine, numerous drips that they are. I believe that Twombley would have allowed layers of drips to dry to avoid having them merge together into one large, ugly drip.
Light purple – the application of the direct painting was pleasant enough. I mixed the colour a little lighter than I wanted, knowing that the darker colour from below would come into this new lighter colour. It did as expected and the squiggly lines of paint were easy enough to paint. Incorporating the drips was another story. I used the fine brush to pre-paint drip guides based on points of accumulating paint I could identify when the book was stood up on end. Eventually, when enough water was added, drips formed and mostly followed the paths I had created but they were very much impacted by the darker colour below. This was disappointing as I was hoping he colour would maintain a little integrity… or at least more than it did.
After allowing time for drying, I was able to apply the red, however as with the colours before, contamination was inevitable. So to mitigate this, I mixed the red as thickly as possible for maximum opacity and then to create the drips, I added water a little at a time but I did have to use the fine brush to guide the trips once again. But regardless of the narrowness of the path, the weight required in each drip to cause it to fall made for a wider line than I wanted. But that aside, I managed to maintain fairly intense red colours with minimal blending with the preceding purples. The final colour in this exploration is the yellow. I am keeping my expectations low as I know it will mix with the red and purples but am hopeful to maintain the integrity of the original painting as much as I can while still allowing for exploration and learning.
The yellow was actually quite exciting. I worked with the fine brush and as with the red, kept the viscosity of the paint low so as to keep the opacity high. I wanted intense yellow but I also wanted fluidity. I think both were achieved. I then turned the book up on end to see where the drips wanted to naturally form. I used small amounts of water to encourage small drips. I then refilled some of the watered down areas with bolder yellow. I also loaded the brush with watery yellow and flicked a little onto the flower. The original has a few rogue yellow drips but knowing this scale wouldn’t allow for that, I instead let the drips fall more organically and to end wherever they did.
I painted two fields per page over two pages for a total of four fields. I used each pair to write the lyrics of a song that was playing as I was working. I don’t like writing in cursive so this was a great way to stretch my lettering preferences and skills. I created each mint coloured field using the gouache as before and with red and yellow pencil crayons (similar to what Twombley used in the Roses panels) and wrote the lyrics quickly and without overthinking the technique. I first wrote in red and then again in yellow. I didn’t wait for the gouache to dry but because the page wasn’t primed with gesso (or house paint, as with Twombley), the thirsty paper made for simply a fragile page rather than once I could really carve the letters into as with the original artwork. However, I was able to emulate the technique and found it to be effective and thus a success. I repeated this over two pages to get a feel for how the materials interacted. It was definitely beneficial to have glued two pages together to lend a lot of strength to the wet, freshly painted page.