Post #3286: Learning to Paint

I haven’t been writing much in the last month because I have been totally absorbed in a course I am taking through Maiwa which teaches how to turn natural (plant and insect-based) dye matter into paint. The amount of course work per week has taken up much of my free time, and I am totally immersed in colour and techniques at the moment. I have also come up against my total inability to make any kind of representational art (but more on that in a minute).

Painting fabric with natural dyes requires a number of manipulations, both to the dyestuff and to the fabric itself. Cellulose fabrics such as cotton and linen must be mordanted before dyeing, in a process where both alum and a tannin are infused into the cloth. This creates a chemical bond between the dye matter and the mordant (it’s also why you can’t just use any old plant to dye fabric, only some plants make the chemical reaction required).

When turning towards painting and printing with natural dyes, there are several techniques we are learning to deploy: applying mordant to only select areas of the cloth and then dyeing, mordanting the whole cloth and then painting with a thickened dye, and applying a mordanted/thickened dye paste to select areas of the cloth. Each of these produces a different effect, as does the application of iron or soda ash to the dyes to shift their colour. When the fabric is finished and cleaned (through steaming and rinsing), it is not “painted on” but dyed, and retains the full flexibility of cloth which makes it highly usable in sewn applications.

Mixing and making colour samples is a place of true joy for me. Even more than the natural dyeing learning I undertook last summer, this has become a bit obsessive since the course started in mid-September. However, once I have mixed the paints, what to do with them becomes a bit of a question for me since I am not at all capable of creating representational painting – or drawing (to make a stencil) for that matter. My work is as though a five year old has set upon a box of paints – lots of squiggles and rough strokes, ending in spatter painting to get the damned thing done. I’m not too worried about it at the moment, the purpose of the learning is to get the colour-creation techniques down, not to create fine art. But I would like to learn more about the painting side of things as a way of advancing my surface design capacity for bag and garment-making in particular.

Even so, I’ve learned quite a lot by just messing about thus far including:

  • the quality of the brush really does make a difference (I will never use craft store brushes again)
  • making a palette of finished/dried colours at the outset is essential since the colours change significantly in the finishing process
  • when stenciling, less paint is better
  • blocks for printing can be made out of anything that holds paint
  • masking tape helps make straight lines – and a lot of patterns can be made with straight lines

I have also been watching the occasional painting tutorial online and find those helpful in the sense of understanding how a set of lines makes a representational image. I don’t have a mind that breaks objects into shapes in order to understand the construction of image – so it helps to see those who do at work. I am very taken with Chinese ink painting, and I feel like these materials lend themselves to that type of brush stroke and limited palette. I haven’t actually tried to replicate however, so at this point I’m just guessing.

As a younger person I really confined myself to things I knew I could do, so I wouldn’t look foolish or feel “stupid” in the process…. but eventually I learned that without making a mess, there really is no progress. Over the last couple of decades I have gotten a lot better at trying things I am no good at or don’t have experience with and that has lead me to sewing, knitting, weaving, and now here to dyeing and dye-painting on cloth. Who knows if I will take it further or turn it into something else – but it’s been fun so far and I’m not at all afraid to show my work even though it’s pretty rudimentary at this point!

One Comment on “Post #3286: Learning to Paint

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