Your Math Teacher Wasn't Lying

When your math teacher said you’re going to need addition and subtraction in everything you do, he wasn’t lying. Painting is a process of what you add and subtract, and the result is just as much about what you didn’t do, what you removed, and what you left incomplete as it is about what you did do, what you added, and what you completed. We’re going to start with basic paint mixing techniques, and somehow end up creating a link between underpaintings and monotypes– positive space, negative space, additive painting, subtractive painting. Seurat, Vermeer and Degas will definitely be involved… perhaps a few others. Game on.

Paint, being the incredibly versatile medium that it is, can be mixed and applied to the surface of the painting in a variety of different ways. These ways can be broken down fairly simply into categories of Direct, Indirect, and Optical Mixing. Direct Mixing is pretty straightforward; if you mix alizarin crimson with ultramarine blue on your palette or on the surface of the painting, you will get purple. The term “wet-into-wet” definitely falls under this umbrella. Indirect Mixing is what takes place if you apply a layer of ultramarine blue to the canvas, and then (after it dries) you apply a transparent glaze or scumble of alizarin crimson over top of the blue. The purple you’re seeing is inarguably present, but was made by the blue and red joining in an indirect manner. As a few loose rules of thumb, Indirect Mixing often involves transparencies, usually involves one of the hues being already dry on the surface, and always involves layers. Optical Mixing perhaps takes the most finesse to integrate into a painting; this method consists of small marks, hatch work, or fractures of both alizarin crimson and ultramarine blue placed directly adjacent to one another on the same painted surface, although not blended or mixed together whatsoever. The way these small marks of color reverberate against one another causes the eye to Optically Mix them, thus perceiving purple when upon closer inspection, you can observe the technique that creates this illusion. Think of a Seurat painting. Or a TV screen. Whatever paints you the clearest picture. One painting can easily encompass all three of these techniques, or it could just utilize one. The way in which artists choose to technically handle their paint often dictates the stylistic output, thus making technique a very elemental factor of periods, eras, and movements of art.

Detail of Seurat's La Grande Jatte that showcases optical mixing via Pointillism, a technique that Seurat spent a large portion of his career investigating

Georges Seurat | La Grande Jatte, 1884-1886 | The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL | image credit

Now that we've got a general knowledge basis established, let’s step back a few hundred years to 17th century, Netherlands. The work of Johannes Vermeer, celebrated painter of the Dutch Golden Age (a movement parallel to the Baroque Era, which was taking place in basically every other part of Europe) aptly displays the form and function of “dead-coloring,” “grisaille,” or, most commonly, “underpainting.” Underpaintings were employed as the first painted stage of any composition; artists would flesh out the entirety of the image using brown, gray, or otherwise neutral tones to establish the value structure of the painting. The result of this technique looks about like a sepia or black and white photograph, and serves as the playing field for artists to use transparent glazes and other methods of indirect mixing to bring the image to life in full color. While there are not many paintings that were left as underpaintings due to the high level of "finish" that was sought after in this period, there are even fewer that have been preserved to this day. This technique was the norm of painting through approximately the 19th century, and while nowadays artists commonly start with a thinner layer of paint closest to the canvas, the underpainting has been scarcely engaged in its traditional form throughout the past hundred or so years of art history.*

*What about [insert contradictory example here]? Yes, there are plenty of exceptions; we're talking in broad strokes here. 


Detail image of Vermeer's The Geographer painting that clearly showcases the underpainting, with just a few glazes of color over top

Johannes Vermeer | The Geographer, 1668-1669 | Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main, Germany | image credit

Leap forward. As we all know, Edgar Degas was an original member of the Impressionist group. The impressionists (like all the Parisian avant-garde both at the time and after) were inspired and influenced by the Japanese printmakers. Their intricate craftsmanship and skillful, nuanced use of color was appealing to the French. Can you blame them? Degas was regarded as the most masterful printmaker in his circle; Mary Cassatt made her very first print in the studio and under his tutelage of Degas, and perhaps only she could’ve given him a run for his money. The process that Degas utilized in the most prolific strides was that of monotype printing, nicknamed “the painter’s print” for its gestural, intuitive process. 

As with most forms of printmaking, the monotype process begins with a plate, in this case a piece of glass or plexiglass. You essentially make a drawing on the plate, either by adding ink onto a blank plate to create form, or by removing ink from a fully inked plate to create form. Starting with light and adding the dark, or starting with dark and removing the light. After the drawing is complete, you flip the plate over and print it onto a piece of paper– the results are rarely predictable, always in reverse, and the concept of the multiple is simply nonexistent (emphasis on mono), which is exactly why us painters love monotypes so much. Rather than stopping at this stage of the process, Degas used his prints as the beginning of a drawing, the armature and value structure over which he applied chalk pastel. Pastel is a rich, highly pigmented medium, but its downfall is that it’s quite a dusty, frustrating process to establish a decent value structure–an essential building block of creating space and illusion.

Degas inked the entirety of his plates, removing ink to create the light and negative space, and leaving the ink to create darkness and positive space. He utilized subtractive techniques to construct an underpainting of sorts, over which he layered pigment to build out a fully rendered, colored space. His process repurposed the tradition of the underpainting in a modern way, simultaneously (and perhaps inadvertently) paying homage to that technique as well as the works of the Japanese printmakers. 

Degas' first monotype print, credited in collaboration with Vicomte Lepic who taught this process to Degas. You can see him beginning to incorporate color with pastel over the print.

Edgar Degas and Vicomte Lepic | The Ballet Master, 1874 |
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Rosenwald Collection | image credit

Fully rendered landscape, pastel over monotype print

Edgar Degas | Landscape with Smokestacks, 1890 | The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL | image credit

For me, the lines connecting these processes and concepts were drawn out within my own studio practice. I began making monotype prints last spring, and was hesitant at first. Tepid, even. I had dabbled in some printmaking before, about enough to know that it was definitely not for me. All the steps, all the rigid processes, the removal of the hand from the work itself, and all that icky sticky ink... no, thanks. Nonetheless, I dove into all this monotype business. They must be called "the painter's print" for a reason, I figured. I started playing with the different layers of media the process allows, beginning with watercolor, which I very much consider home turf. I was very interested in what would happen when you print a water-based ink on top of watercolor. When printing, it's ideal to dampen your paper so that the fibers soften and pick up an optimum amount of ink from the plate. Since watercolor is a water-soluble, re-workable media (no matter how long it's been dry for, if it gets wet again, the paint is reactivated), it's quite a delicate balance to wet the paper enough to pick up the printing ink effectively without turning the preliminary watercolor into complete mud. This balance is compelling to me, and creates a lot of visual tension on the paper as things sort of fade together and stand apart. The images feel very layered, and the layering doesn't necessarily follow the subject matter, stacking backwards into space. Rather, the layering follows the value scale of the image. The strangeness this conjures for me allows the prints to function both as representational spaces, while also being an abstract combination of shapes carving out positive and negative space. Certain parts become flattened, others take on immense physical form. Throughout the process of making these images, I use the printing ink to both create objects (below: the chainlink fence, the silhouette of the windows, the edges of the water pools) and to create nothing (the dark caves in the rock face, the depth leading into the tunnel). The potential for material meaning is immense, and really forces the artist to play the games of addition and subtraction. I didn't expect to fall in love with monotypes, but I really did. 

Six of the first mixed-media monotypes I made incorporating watercolor, gouache, ink, and pastel. 2015.

Three of the most recent mixed-media monotypes I made incorporating watercolor, graphite, and water-based oil paint as ink. 2016.

I am always (surprisingly) surprised at (you'd think I'd have come to terms with it by now) how one method or idea that I'm working through always cross-pollinates to other practices. It's often difficult to fully understand why you do something, why you're thinking about what you're thinking about, why you employ the techniques that you do, especially while you're doing it. When I'm making work, it often feels way too close to me to really bring it into focus. The expression "just put two and two together" is obvious, and yet it's always advice given from a third party perspective. While I was exploring the monotype process, I continued to work on medium to large-scale oil paintings, as always. It was at this time that I began working on "Blackhead (Shorelines)," and I began it in a way I never had before. I covered the entire canvas with a very dark purple-toned glaze of oil paint mixed with Neo Megilp, a Gamblin product that adds transparency to your paint without taking away its body (my fav). While this thin layer was still wet, I began erasing. I erased out the entire value structure of the composition by removing the lights with solvent, brushes, and rags, and leaving the darks in place. I carved the physical space out of darkness. 

Before and after images of (left) the preliminary, subtractive "underpainting, and (right) the finished piece. 

Blackhead (Shorelines) | Oil on Linen | 2015

I was excited. Intrigued by this process. Driven by this new challenge. Pushed by my own perceived 'innovation.' This type of beginning served as a great way for me to further explore paint application. The nighttime green of the grass in the painting above was made through Indirect Mixing, applying a light, yellow-toned green glaze over top of the deep, purple plane of paint. The illuminating glow behind the mountain was handled similarly, using a cerulean tint over the purple-gray. The dark line of trees towards the background and the bricks on the walls were both Directly Mixed. The bed of small rocks in the foreground was applied using Optical Mixing, peppering shades of blues and grays side by side so the surface danced like a partially illuminated bed of rocks. All of this sat on top of an underpainting, although I didn't recognize it as such at the time (in defense of my obtuseness, underpaintings aren't usually purple). It wasn't until I had completed the painting and let it sit for a few weeks that it all finally came into focus for me... I handled this painting the same way I had been handling the monotypes. I, as a painter, was inspired by a method of printmaking. Now, there it was, right in front of me, in paint. And in paint, it wasn't so much a print as it was an underpainting. A contemporary underpainting created through subtraction. Who would've thought.

It was only as I continued to explore these processes (more deliberately, now that I had put two and two together) that I began to really close the loop on all of these ideas. "Paved Earth" also began with a subtractive underpainting. I became hyperaware of positive and negative space, applying thick, forward-leaning skies over a thin glaze of transparent green trees as you see in "Implied Course or Recourse," and many others that followed. The broader my scope became on what I was doing, the more acutely aware I became of the techniques that were being called into the discussion. Not only was I, as a painter, inspired by a method of printmaking, but I, as a painter, was inspired by a method of printmaking, that was inspired by a method of painting. A method of painting that Degas and the whole Impressionist movement were surely aware of, and were surely pushing against in an institutional sense. A technique of painting which was seen as canon at one time, and distastefully conventional sometime after the turn of modernism. A turn of modernism which was catalyzed by the Impressionists, Degas included.

It was this exact opposition, these positive and negative forces discovered through positive and negative space, this simultaneous coming together and falling apart, that has shaped my journey with the construction of space via paint. This paradox. I am quite frankly in awe of the way painting as a practice continually revitalizes itself: recycling techniques, bringing old techniques into contemporary contexts, incorporating various media as our contemporary art scene encourages. The complete lack of canon means all is fair game. So game on, I say, but not lightly. It's our responsibility to take great heed with what we're doing, and to understand that every time we touch paint, we are entering into a conversation about the history of paint, the history of art, whether we're ready for it or not. We must recognize and learn from all that has come before, not only for the sake of homage and respect; we must recognize and learn because all that has come before has allowed us to proceed in the directions that we are currently going. And while those directions may be intuitive, they inherently are (and should mindfully be) informed by study of our history. 

So that's it. Add and subtract, both with paint and within the picture plane. Those additions and subtractions mean things... I guess that's the short of it all. Do what's been done, and know why you're doing it. Know why you're able to do it. Do what hasn't been done, and realize what you're calling into the discussion by doing so. We all know that history repeats itself– let's repeat it, and then some.

Current, in-progress oil painting. Title (currently) unknown | Oil on Linen | 44" x 34"

I usually only share in-progress shots of my work with my mom, but I thought this might be a decent time to make an exception. Here's a sneak peak of the underpainting currently waiting on my easel. Stay tuned.