The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Is someone watching me? The name of the author of a short article in the latest Palette Magazine is not familiar, but she was almost certainly writing about me. Maybe I should search my studio for video bugging devices.

Video surveillance wouldn’t be necessary.  I readily admit all and plead guilty as charged - guilty of falling for slick promises about art gadgets that can purportedly - miraculously - make my paintings wildly successful.  My studio has an impressive 30-year collection of good, bad, and ugly art gadgets.

I actually do use “Uggly Brushes.”  No, I didn’t misspell that. These brushes are manufactured for ugly jobs and are therefore called "Uggly Brushes." These are tough brushes manufactured for jobs that are equally tough, so they don't last long and are not expected to. They have an odd, easily recognizable pattern painted on the handles and are perfect for applying masking fluid or adhesive or even gentle scrubbing out. They keep me from abusing my quality brushes so even if they are billed as “Uggly” I think these brushes are good.  

Another “good” tool is a set of three, transparent 8.5 x 11 acrylic sheets, each with a graded primary color.  The sheets can be set on a painting individually or in any combination  to decide what color glaze would work best. Any two sheets provide a secondary color. Stack all three for a perfect neutral. Arranging these sheets in different ways provide an infinite array of transparent colors.

I have three “Funny Brushes” in different sizes. They have short handles and the working ends appear to be made up of strands of hefty rubber bands. Each makes the same type of mark in small, medium, and large sizes but in over 20 years I’ve never found a need to make these marks. Subscribing to the adage, “Never say never!” I stubbornly keep the Funny brushes – just in case.  I don’t know if these are good, bad, or ugly. I simply haven’t found a use for them unless I would ever need to paint eyebrows for Groucho Marx.

Once my students try my own “Fritch Scrubbers”  they invariably buy a few of their own. They are short handled brushes with stubby, stiff bristles meant to do what their name implies – SCRUB!  Sized like other brushes, available in several different shapes, they can scrub out small areas of the most stubborn colors. In fact, they could easily scrub right through the paper! Even though that would be bad, I rate these brushes as “good.”

Someone recommended a black pigmentm but when it arrived in my order I asked myself, "Was this a joke?" The pigment was incredibly granulated, and even felt gritty as I brushed a wash on my paper! It felt and looked like dirt. When I touched the dry paper a bit of the grit came off on my hand! Eeeeew! Still, it made interesting textures. The black was different than any other I already had.  I used this pigment wholesale in a painting that turned out well, won a prizes in a competition at both the regional state levels. The painting sold the very first time I showed it. All of that caused that tube of paint I first thought was both bad and ugly to steadily grow in stature. I will probably buy another tube of this pigment, and that must mean that for me, it’s good.

Toned watercolor paper? Not for me. Long ago I bought pale green, tan, and pale blue watercolor paper I’ve scarcely used. It seemed like a good idea. But even though I usually apply an underpainting as a first step, I still leave parts of the paper white, and love the glow of the white of the paper. With toned paper there is no profound white to reserve, and I miss that sparkle. I’m eating my hat though, after a friend recently painted some lovely paintings on toned paper. What was ugly for me is good for her.  I’ll give her my toned paper.

I’m still “out” on an unusual new folding palette I own but have not yet used.  The small size and the rubber seal to keep it from leaking are certainly appealing. The fact that it is lined with bulletproof glass is unusual and amusing. Is that to keep disgruntled artists from taking out their disappointment in a failed painting on their own palette? Or perhaps to hold up as a shield in case jealous artists start throwing darts? I belatedly noticed the disappointing disclaimer on the package that reads “Not meant to stop bullets.” So why line this palette with bulletproof glass? Because watercolor pigments can stain most palettes faster than a speeding bullet, but bulletproof glass stains not at all.

Water soluble graphite pencils, rubber brayers, Gatorbord to stretch paintings: good good good.

Liquid paper, fluorescent pink masking fluid, a reducing lens: bad bad bad.

A stained old toothbrush used to splatter paint, a tortured McDonalds straw used to blow paint around, a much used kneaded eraser: ugly ugly ugly.

The article I read advised artists to resist the temptation to rely on the dubious promises of miracle materials . That resonated with me. Since I already succumbed regularly over the last 30 years, it is time for me to clear away gadgets I’ve tried but not found useful.  The author, Sarah Hay wrote, “Great art happens when an artist regularly practices…skills and applies them to her own sense of style.”  It is still January so it's not too late to make a New Year's Resolution, and that sounds like a great one for me.