I thought that I would write about something different this week – I’d like to describe how many of my paintings are created. As many of you already know, I love to paint on the spot at live events. It would be much easier to copy photos of course, and the end results would be much less impressionistic and more realistic. But that isn’t why I do it – the buzz I get from having to be so focused and attentive to what I am seeing, and then allowing my hand to follow instinctively is hard to explain. Copying a photo just doesn’t do it for me.
I am lucky to be able to paint at many different events in Malta. Because the country is so small, I am quite well known for asking if I can paint at performances and rehearsals, and most people say ‘yes’ quite readily.
I usually begin with a sense of trepidation – what have I talked myself into this time? Will I be able to do it? Will I just produce an embarrassing mess? This has happened in the past, so it keeps me on the edge I suppose. I am certainly not complacent.
The painting above, ‘Flying Trapeze’ was started on the spot at a circus performance a couple of years ago. I had asked to paint there, not knowing what to expect, and had turned up with two enormous sheets of paper – and then felt completely overwhelmed. There was just so much going on and I wished I had brought smaller sheets, and that I had gessoed them. For some reason I hadn’t.
Gesso is great – thick white (or black) creamy stuff which is traditionally used to coat canvas or wood so that oils or acrylics don’t sink into the surface. I buy great tubs of it. It’s a wonderful secret weapon for saving money and sanity. It will completely cover any painting that hasn’t worked and give you a nice clean surface again. It’s water resistant, so using watercolour of gouache on it is really interesting, as the paint sits and collects on the surface, drying in lovely pools of unpredictable patterns.
I gesso sheets of paper, wood or board and, if I am working live, use acrylics as they cling and dry quite quickly. Sometimes I add colour to the gesso to give unusual and exciting backgrounds. I like to work on a neutral or black background at night, as this helps the subject to be lit as I see it.
So, back to the ‘Flying Trapeze’ experience. The circus was outdoors and the evening was typically humid. As I said before, I hadn’t gessoed the paper, so the suface became extremely absorbent and the paint was soaking straight in and not flowing. I did the best I could and just drew with paint, trying to capture all the movement and excitement. I wasn’t that happy with the results (but then I rarely am at the time) and put the drawings/paintings in the cupboard and forgot about them.
I found them again the other day and wondered how to work on them without losing the action in them but still allowing the paint to flow. I put a thin layer of gesso over everything so that I could still see the figures, and then used three colours of gouache; orange, yellow and blue. I wish that I had taken a ‘before’ photo to show you, but I do have the other sheet still untouched………..
This has a bit of every act at the circus on it, and might descend into complete confusion when I start to work on it, but it’s an interesting challenge. I also have an acrobat, which was on the same sheet as the trapeze artist, so this shows you what I did on the spot.
It is very sketchy and unfinished, but the proportions and balance feel right. I like the tension in the body and I will have to be careful not to lose it.
The message is – have some fun with pictures that you are unhappy with and are not too attached to. Let go of the outcome and experiment. Play with different approaches, methods and materials. You will learn an awful lot from this, even if the end result is a total mess.
If it is, just gesso over it and start again!
To see more of my work, please visit www.jenicaruana.com