Pigments, binders, brushes and supports...All have characteristics unique unto themselves, but it seems to me paint more so than any other material. I think about materials a great deal; to me, materials are the most important part of a piece of work. What are they composed of, what is their nature, and most importantly, what will they allow me to do with them. The question is not what can I make from a material, but what a material will allow me to do with it. To answer that question, I must understand what the material actually is.
For most of my artistic career I have used acrylic paint for pieces going to galleries; galleries prefer paint that will last forever, doesn’t have any odor and is uniform. I, however, have always disliked using acrylics, particularly on natural materials. It seems a sort of sacrilege to put plastic on leather and wood, or to expect materials to last for all eternity.
I have stopped caring what the galleries “prefer” and ceased the use of plastic paint on beautiful natural materials and have begun working with distemper paint. It may not be permanent, but it is not my intent for what I make to last as long as the stars. When something leaves my studio, I send it on its way with the wish and hope that it is used, worn, worn out… that it has an exciting life beyond me as a functional object rather than something to be hung on the wall and pointed at when company comes.
All paints, and in fact all colors have individual characteristics that make they easy or difficult to work with. I find that certain colors of acrylics (when all else is equal) move differently from others: red seems to always be a little reluctant to flow, and it’s difficult to achieve good opacity. Black tends to flow nicely and create a nice hard edge to a line. Blue often depends on what the actual pigment is: cobalt doesn’t move as well as one of the phthaloes, but it has better opacity. Then there are the side effects, for instance, it doesn’t seem to matter what red pigment is used, or what type of binder it’s mixed with, red in any form wears out paint brushes faster than any other color; I’ve been painting for more than 40 years and this is consistently true.
Over so many years of painting in houses with various kinds of heat I’ve discovered I have to have a humidifier going while painting in a house heated solely with wood and it’s a major chore to keep the room I’m working in evenly heated because paint does not move well when the room is cold. And it dries too fast when it’s too warm. Rainy days my paint always moves better than dry days, and on the hottest summer days I don’t even try to paint at all; it dries in the brush faster than I can spread it.
Other artists may not have experienced these things but because I work so much in formline (northern NWC Indigenous art), it is necessary for me to paint clean, sharp lines and edges, to fill in blocks of color with uniform opacity, and to bring the edge of one color right up against the edge of another color…I feel that if I overlap colors it is a form of cheating. This all, of course, requires paint that moves well, provides great coverage, doesn’t leave any visible brush strokes and looks ultra-crisp.
This all brings me to distemper paint. I love incorporating the natural pigments I use with traditional hide glue to create paint. The resulting paint flows so beautifully it makes me feel like I’m painting with liquid silk. Hide glue enriches the colors of my pigments without interfering with their natural properties of color, texture and saturation. Each color vibrates with intensity like a jewel in the spotlight making it a joy to watch flow onto the surface on which I’m working.
Distemper, even when compounded with plenty of pigment, is variable. It isn’t always perfectly opaque and the color may differ from one section of a piece of wood or leather from another. Part of this is due to the nature of pigments, part of it is due to interactions between the substrate and the paint. I don’t know how many times I have noted slight color differences on the same substrate. When it’s commented on, I just respond with “It’s the nature of the materials showing.”.
Distemper paint is not waterproof, but I don’t care. In the whole gestalt of allowing materials to do whatever they’re going to do naturally waterproofing isn’t part of the equation. For as long as Native Americans have inhabited the Americas there has been a respect for materials, respect for their sources, for what they can provide, and for their natures that includes the belief that everything has its own life and should be allowed to do it’s own thing. The oxidation of copper salmon on a drum, that beautiful blue patina, is part of the natural process. And if it leaves a mark or stain on the drum, that is part of the drum’s process. Likewise, regalia that the baby spits up on should be held in higher regard than regalia kept in a box or just hanging on the wall.
It is in the understanding of and respect for our materials that allows us to meet our highest creative potential, And, it is in the life, the living of a thing that we see and learn how the universe works around us, not for us, not necessarily even with us, but with the natural breath of each thing.