I’ve always loved the D.C. based artist Morris Louis, who was a contemporary of Jackson Pollock’s, and part of what is known as the Color Field School. You can see some of his work at the National Gallery and it’s like standing before pure color. The hues are so bright and at the same time create these layers of blended color that form new hues and shades.
I was also fascinated by his technique. I knew from observation and my own technical knowledge that he worked on unprimed canvas, which is what allows the colors to seep into the cotton and bleed into the other colors. Usually artists prime their canvases with a gelatin like substance that seals it, then they build up paint on top of this. This allows them to create figures and more realistic forms. And it also means a longer lasting piece of work. But with the modern movements of the 20th century, artists started playing around with the canvas and the line (think Kandinsky, Pollock, Rothko). But, unlike Pollock, Louis’ paint bleeds into the canvas. Just like I was inspired by Louis, he was inspired by Helen Frankenthaler, another contemporary. She introduced him to the world of staining canvas with her painting, Mountains and Sea.
I decided to see if I could make my own Morris Louis inspired forms, to play around and see if his blended hues were recreate-able. I have to admit, this is the first time I played around while making art in such a long time! Usually, I am more focused on a composition or mastering an image I see before me. But this was almost pure play, and I really want to do it some more! I want to find out what other fun I can have messing with canvases and oils.
First, I scoured the internet to see if I could learn about how he painted. Did he use a specific paint thinner, or was it oil? How did he get the paint on the canvas? Obviously he paints at an angle, but what was the actual technique?
Louis didn’t allow anyone to observe him at work, but I did manage to find an image of some other artists who stain their canvas. One was trying to recreate some of Louis’ later paintings to learn the technique, just as I was. Another, Rodney Graham, is a fascinating musician and visual/performance artist in his own right, but he lead me to this image:
I love it for so many, many reasons. First, he’s painting in his silk PJs! I can get behind that. No artiste attitude for him! Secondly, that house! Beautiful, and sort of my dream house. But thirdly, and most importantly for our topic today, he’s showing a way to mimic the way Louis worked.
Then, I played around with thinners. I tried linseed oil and turpentine, but found turpentine to be the best at capturing this affect.
So, I bought canvas and stretched it. Mixed pigments and thinned them. At first I poured them from glass jars but found the effect to be sloppy. So, after that, I purchased plastic squeeze bottles and filled them with my oils and turpentine. They allowed for a much more directed style.
Here are my two works, in order of completion. I’m fairly pleased. At least as much as I could be when I am an amateur (I won’t even say gifted) and this was my first attempt at a new technique. They do look nice on the wall, and lend some much needed color to otherwise dreary, large beige walls.