Cat BalcoNew Haven, CT
When I think about artists that I look at, from Agnes Martin or Richard Tuttle, they make art not really about anything other than consciousness. In these paintings the forms are associative, they look a bit like Eastern forms, like chakras, stars, or earlier I was thinking about these machine forms. They can be so many things but they’re not any one of those things. They don’t have content in a narrative way. They’re made from a place of awareness or presence. It’s important that they have a sense of light and this thin or shallow space. They are certainly spiritual; I think of Hilma af Klint or Emma Kunz, or artists who work with healing. It’s certainly an old idea that abstraction can in some way be healing. I used to ask how could a painting possibly be healing but it’s not really my job to know how the paintings affect people. It‘s my job to make them.
I like standard 11.5 oz. canvas. I used to work on panel, but it became ungainly when I started working larger. I’ve never felt compelled to use linen, it feels too high-end to me. Possibly because I still feel connected to my days as a housepainter, I prefer the straightforward, regular-grade canvas for my work.
I always tried to push against it, but the square is important. There’s something about trying to put as much energy into the work as possible. I’m pushing up against this kind of centripetal force, trying to balance the way the paint wants to scatter to the outside with the tendency to gather in the middle.
I feel compelled to make them really large even though it’s expensive and awkward and messy. I’ve been buying all of my stretchers, small and large, at Upper Canada Stretchers https://www.ucsart.com. Very good stretchers, very quick and professional company, and reasonably priced. The 7.5×7.5’s are folding stretchers. Before beginning them I’ll probably start with the 5×5’s and work up. And I’ll probably have to throw at least one out because that seems to be the way that it goes.
I used to work on cheap gesso but it was way too absorbent so now I use 2 coats of cheap gesso and then 2 coats of Golden. With 4 coats it really holds the paint, it allows it to be drippier and doesn’t absorb.
Paint and Mediums
I used to work as a decorative painter and a house painter and I love the consistency of house paint so when I mix it I want it to be just a little bit drippier than house paint. I use Guerra. It’s mostly silica flat with a little bit of Acrylic #65 to get the satin sheen right. Then I add a little bit of Golden acrylic flow release (which you mix with water).
I mix paints in plastic Tupperware containers as I need them. I think a lot about the opacity and transparency of the pigment. I’m always looking at these color charts when I’m mixing up the pigments. I sometimes add flashe. It’s so opaque and highly pigmented that I’ll mix it in with a bit of the base that I use.
I like being able to adjust the fluidity and saturation of the paints. The Guerra system, which allows me to mix up exactly the kind of binder I like, makes this easy for me. I occasionally use Fluid acrylics as tinters, but I always find myself mixing them into my custom made binder. Years ago, when I worked in oils, I used powdered pigment to make my own paints. When I started working with acrylics, I felt great about the pigment dispersions and it avoids some of the respiratory issues that powders create.
For the small pieces, I love the consistent flat quality and the lack of body that gouache offers. When I’ve worked small with acrylic, I haven’t liked its body, it looks too plastic-y to me. Gouache is so rich and velvet-y. Somehow at the larger scale, on the canvas, the acrylic body doesn’t bother me.
Brushes and Tools
I use angled house painting brushes almost entirely. I also work with this brush extender tool. I find with the brush alone I can’t make the larger gestures on the panting so I have to use this, which is great. I think house painters use it when they have to trim out high edges. It was like 6 bucks. When I’m making a big circle on a painting I can stand back and look at them.
They all come from these small gouaches. I’m trying to figure out with each how to get the right scale. I’ve been thinking a lot about being a former athlete and how that seems important to these paintings including the scale of them and wanting to make them bigger. I’ve made 3 of these 6 foot paintings and they’re starting to loosen up a bit but I don’t feel like they’re quite where I’d like them to be. The balance between intuitive and structured, that’s my challenge; how to have enough of a plan but not too much of a plan. When I have too much of a plan they’re just really boring and they’re not fun to make and I don’t feel like they ever really take off as paintings. But when I don’t have a plan it can be a disaster, especially at this scale.
I take a picture of the painting at every step and then I’ll just stare at it to try to figure out what needs to happen next. I used to feel like I had to make a painting in one sitting but I actually think that was very limiting. I was glad when I let that although they’re still quick paintings at all scales. And that’s maybe the athletic part of it; that it’s something that you execute. You just kind of do it. That’s why I’ll always make a lot of them; I’ll always throw some out.
I don’t really go back into them. I do sometimes use an ipad app for editing or before doing a big move on the painting but it’s still really hard to tell what it’s going to do. I’m trying hard to be more patient on the big ones. If I don’t know what to do, I sit on it for a couple days. Finding that clarity about what to do next is really the important thing. It’s something about doing exactly what I really want, not what I should do, and that’s a tricky thing to discern.
I have to paint now so that I’m the best painter that I can be five years from now. That means I have to struggle through these till I’m not struggling anymore. And in 5 years they will be as easy as those (gouaches). It’s a more complicated dive that you have to practice a bunch of times before you can do it fluidly. It’s very fun for me to make them. It’s the excitement of seeing what‘s going to happen next. The studio; the deepest joy is in here for me, that’s the best thing.
References: Agnes Martin, Hilma af Klint, Richard Tuttle, Emma Kunz, Guerra Paint
Artist website: www.catbalco.com