Stepping On Fresh Grass
Art supplies industry isn't that different from the food industry. Having all our groceries harvested using an automated process, fresh and ready for us to pick up from a supermarket is easy, even though it still makes us groan because getting groceries is such a drag! Not too long ago, we had to produce our own food supply. Kids today don’t realize that fruits are born out of pollinated flowers. Every year, food is being wasted on a massive scale because we take it for granted, and because we are not familiar with the journey it took to grace our tables. We don’t know the story, and we don’t care to know it. The food is just THERE. When it comes to art supplies, time was when artists or their apprentices had to create their own paper, canvasses, and boards, dig out their own clay, grind, and mix their own paint. Art took time just as did the preparation of the materials. No paint was wasted because just enough was mixed to be used for one particular project. Sheets of paper were filled with sketches. Not one white area left to shine! Blank canvas back then wasn’t really blank. There was already a workload invested in every single one before it could be painted on. There was a story behind it. Today’s canvasses are truly blank. Machine-made fabric is stretched on a machine-made stretcher with a mechanized canvas stretcher. A machine applies immaculate white acrylic gesso onto the surface before it’s placed on a shelf next to hundreds of identical canvasses. The mechanized production chain becomes broken only when it is taken to an art studio unless the artist uses some sort of machine to create the paintings. Readily available art supplies don’t require any work, and there is no story behind them for us to know about. They are invisible to us. All we need to do is apply paint from an industrially made tube. What kind of pigment and medium was used to make that tube? Who cares! Discarding failed art comes as easily today as throwing a perfectly good batch of fruit into a dumpster. Why would someone want to paint over a failed artwork when getting a new blank canvas is so easy!
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Recently, I have embarked on a "make your own art supplies" journey myself, but my road towards creating art with natural and sustainable homemade materials has been a rocky one. It has become my obsession. Some might say it’s a white savior guilt syndrome. "Save the planet one napkin at a time!" Yeah, right! Regardless, I feel horrible rinsing my brushes in a sink and knowing that all the cadmium and other toxic substances are being washed into the oceans. So… I bought natural earth pigments, but the color selection isn’t as wide as it would be with toxic pigments. Let’s just say the color palette resulting from using natural earth pigments is quite Rembrandtesque, and the time it takes to grind and mix the powders is all it takes to forget what it was I wanted to paint. There is no room for immediacy and spontaneity when things have to take more time. My creative impulse is gone way before the paint is ready to use! Still, I’m pleased with a shiny blob of ultramarine blue I just mixed up, so I just end up staring at it and drooling. Then I made my own paper. Used coffee filters, paper towels, and some scraps became raw materials for creating richly textured thick sheets. The result? I'm very proud of having created my own sheets of paper, but the pride and the sheer workload it took to make my own sheets keep me from using them for art. I might never use them, in fact. Staring at the beautiful alpine landscape of a texture becomes enough to satisfy my sense of wonder. A homemade sheet of paper, with traces of coffee grounds, cat hair, and other debris of the past, has enough of a story to tell. There's no need to apply some mediocre pretentiousness on top! The experiment continues. Limitations resulting from my decision to only use sustainable and non-toxic materials seem almost insurmountable, but they pose an interesting challenge. So far, it has been quite an exercise in slowing down or even stopping and starting over. And what if the solution is stopping altogether? Perhaps that's the reason why it is always better to either make art supplies for other artists or just use ones made by others and NEVER try doing both? After all, it’s much easier to step on fresh grass, not knowing what it took for it to grow.