Material(s) Girl Holds Auditions

Hello and welcome back! First, a confession: Remember last time when I was talking about habits, and said I'm trying to take in less stuff (including art supplies), AND start each day with art-making-just-for-me?

Well here's the deal about that second one. Ever since I started selling my artwork and little crafty things ten or so years ago (paintings, plus jewelry, ceramic do-dads, etc.), I have to admit that it's been really hard to just make stuff without a customer in mind. Even when I'm doodling, my mind often drifts over to that Someone looking over my shoulder who might consider buying it, because I sell doodled quotes-to-color in my Etsy shop!

Now, I don't have a problem with the idea of selling art or pleasing customers. I'm all for it. What I'm talking about is the ability to screen out the commerce part of my brain once in a while, and focus only on "art for art's sake," for lack of a better phrase. Just to play around with no end in mind. No potential sale.

So this morning I set out to beat the game by making something un-sellable. I can't wait to show it to you! Haha. :) While I was doing what I was doing, I started having this conversation with you. About materials.

Testing out the art materials.

Testing out the art materials.

Screening Applicants

I pulled out some veeerrrrryyyy old watercolors—they've been living in that blue Tupperware container for at least eight years—and a pad of cheapo watercolor paper that I probably bought for a project with grade school students a while back.

Watercolors and I have a difficult relationship. They want me to know when to stop, to have a light touch, and to think ahead about what parts will stay white. I'm a layer-er and a non-planner, so we don't get along very well. But every once in a while I like to see what they can do, because their translucency can be really stunning. Sometimes I'm up for the challenge.

Since I hadn't used these materials in a while, we needed to get reacquainted. As I was swiping the color onto the paper, back and forth, back and forth down the page to get the feel of it, I noticed my brain thinking like a casting director. The materials were auditioning for a part in my work (which is yet to be determined, and may or may not ever happen, but that's not the point). I was the boss, and these various components were under my (gentle) scrutiny.

Who/What Got the Parts

The brush: This was an easy "in," because the teacher of that one watercolor class I took way back when convinced me to spend $35 for a good one. Turns out that a watercolor brush has only two jobs: to be soft, and to hold lots of water. Not all brushes do that, but this puppy knows how to perform. Check!

The paper: Hmmm, not so good. When your pad's name is "Biggie Jr.," quality is probably not the priority! It's uneven in the way it absorbs paint, and puckers easily when wet. I have some nicer stuff downstairs, but I chose this because I was purely in a messing around mood. Therefore it was sort of a planned underperformance. I'll keep using it for rote practice.

The paints: Unfortunately I have no idea where these globs came from, so my testing can't inform future purchases (or scavenges). However, I learned what I'm looking for in watercolors: bright, vibrant colors that go on smoothly. None of this grainy, uneven crap, or drab lifelessness. The yellow felt very satisfying going on. The red(s) were passable. The blues, greens and purples were wholly uninspiring. Maybe I have something better in my drawer. I'll check it out next time.

A rainbow of watercolor papers at my feet—the results of a productive play session.

A rainbow of watercolor papers at my feet—the results of a productive play session.

My hand: It's sometimes hard to separate the skill of the maker from the quality of the materials, but I had fun pulling paint across paper. I also enjoyed the way my mind drifted around—like when I'm weeding or shopping at thrift stores—while I painted. In fact, the idea for this post entered my head and started composing itself. Therefore... it's a win! Plus maybe I'll end up using some of these big painted pages later on, as backgrounds for writing quotes, or practicing different styles of lettering.

Ok, So What's Really Going On Here?

Here's what I want you to notice about my morning play session:

  1. I took out materials and did something with them.
  2. Rather than judging whether I was "good at painting," I was listening for how the materials felt. There was no finished product today, nor the intent of creating one. Only exploration. And fun.
  3. All relationships, including with art materials, need time to develop. There's a checking-each-other-out phase. Some won't make the cut—you just don't click, or it's not what you're looking for. Other times you can see the potential, and it's clear that you'll be great friends (or they'll star in your show) once you get to know each other better.
  4. Every interaction with your materials is a chance to learn something. Maybe you'll learn that looking at the color yellow actually does cheer you up. Or you'll find a new use for some kitchen containers. Or you'll discover that browns and grays can be absolutely gorgeous when you mix them yourself and can still see traces of all their contributing colors. Or you'll notice that not all paintbrushes are created equally.
  5. I showed you my work, not caring whether it's considered "art." It's just part of how the sausage is made. ;)
  6. It got me in the mood to paint more! Might be with acrylics next time, so I can hang out with old friends.

Your Challenge

I know you've got a drawer full of art materials stashed somewhere. (Please tell me they're not still in that box at the bottom of your closet, under those other four boxes of stuff you don't use!) Here's your homework assignment:

Take out something you haven't used in a while—a set of colored pencils, oil pastels, watercolors, whatever. Grab a few sheets of paper and test the materials out with the mind of a Hollywood casting director, or as if you're the new neighbor checking out your first block party. Be inquisitive. See what they can do. Engage them in conversation.

If things aren't clicking, don't judge yourself! Maybe they're the duds, not you. Maybe you're ready to graduate from your kids' lame-o watercolor set with that horrible black stiff-bristled brush. Or maybe you and the decent materials just need more time together. This could be the start of a lifelong friendship.

Then tell me about it in the comments!

And of course, schedule another play date with your art materials, knowing that EVERY interaction is progress.