Saturday, September 8, 2018

Large scale watercolors underway at the Highlands

Last summer, after not having a regular painting practice for more than 15 years, I went to Paris for the first time with my sons Ethan and Bodhi and our friend Richard. Since then, I can't stop painting and dreaming of making work.

Mural at Cloud 9 charcoal, shellac and oil on rough plywood at the restaurant atop Aspen Highlands. 2013

This summer, recovering from Breast Cancer, I took some painting classes at Anderson Ranch in Snowmass, right near where I live. For the first time ever, I painted using something other than oils. We worked in Sumi-e ink, watercolor, dye, and acrylics.

I became fascinated (in spite of myself) with watercolors, and I started dreaming about making a large scale series using this amazing, versatile paint which, honestly, had intimidated me until now.

I had to do some research on how to work with large paper (although of course the first thing I did was save up $162 and bought a huge role of beautiful Arches hot press watercolor paper... nothing motivates me like having a blank canvas begging to be painted on.

"Otto is Sorry" 19" x 24" watercolor on paper 2018

It turns out that in order to work really well on large paper, you have to anchor it to a substrate which will not warp or bend as the water becomes saturated. Down the rabbit hole of construction and cost I went. Many people stretch paper over an aluminum composite board, which you can buy at Jerry's Art A Rama for $300 for 2 pieces, and spend an additional $300 getting it shipped to Aspen where I live. This puts my series of six paintings, and the beginnings of a second abstracted series out of reach for me. I want to make EIGHT monumental sized water colors.

We settled for EIGHT large sized water colors. Monumental will have to wait. (I'd have to cleat the substrate and collage the paper, it's a whole process, and would double the cost).

Here, for your pleasure, is the method we came up with, and how we are building them. I will update the blog as we go along to show you how it works out for us.

First, I texted my friend Kipp, who can build a house out of duct tape and chewing gum on the top of a hill and the moment you see it, you will want to live in it. I was looking for sheet metal, thinking we might build our own substrate. It won't be as light as aluminum, but it will be stable and much cheaper. For $600 (without box frames on the back yet), I can make all eight pieces at 4' x 7' (as opposed to the 5' x 8' I was shooting for, or the 8' x 10' I hope to move into).

Playing with technique in small studies. This is practice for the materials I'm using, not for the subject, although I kind of like this one and I am beginning to wonder what it would look like really large.
"Losing Track" Sept 2018 19" x 24" watercolor and pencil on paper.

He gave me a couple of suggestions, and we ended up finding what we needed at a reasonable price right here in at TE on the Frying Pan in Basalt. Chris at TE (who was amazing and helpful and not at all construction elitist, which I have encountered at building supplies where I'm like "I'm an artist, and I want to build...) suggested that we do not get sheet metal any thinner than 26 guage as it turns into a virtual razor blade for anyone handling it. Remembering that in a previous installation piece which Tom and I built into the side of a hill at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena in 2003, I had cut rriiiiight up to the tendon of my thumb on just such a piece of sheet metal, I took Chris's advice and we went with thicker, safer, heavier.

My friend Carlie suggested that we adhere the sheet metal to MDF, as it is smooth, cheap and easy to work with, although it can also be heavy and it can break when you move it. Putting the sheet metal on top of it should cure the brittleness issue.

I started out with a small piece of sheet metal and a study sized piece of watercolor paper just to see if it would work. I cleaned the sheet metal of grease, forgot to sand it lightly, and applied two layers of gesso to it. Once the gesso had dried, I spread PVC glue onto the gesso, soaked my paper until it was damp through, laid the paper down onto the glue, rolled it out smooth and stacked books on it for 24 hours while it all dried.

When it was all said and done, I had a beautiful piece of paper which would take lots of water without wrinkling. I did a small study of the llamas on the ranch where we live because they are funny to paint and will stare at you for hours, and it all worked out okay.

Llamas, 9" x 19" watercolor on paper. The stripes on the right side of the paper are a result of me experimenting with collaging scraps of paper onto the sheetmetal substrate to see if the edges would adhere nicely. The black lines are from the edges of the watercolor block, and so I used them to put the goat behind it's own fence. 

The next issue I had to tackle was building the pieces and then painting on them. My studio is a 7' x 8' box with a 7' ceiling, and it is completely full of books, paintings, supplies and an easel that we had to chop the top off of to make it fit into the space. These large watercolors need to be painted laying flat. I do not have a safe, clean space that is 4' x 7' in my life, and I set out on a quest to find one.

Here's the issue, I live in Aspen, Colorado. While it's one of the most beautiful places I've ever been in the world, it is also one of the most expensive. For instance, I pay $400 a month plus utilities for my studio box with heat and electricity but no running water. This is on the ranch where I've lived since 2007, so I know the owners and they are cutting me a deal. I couldn't even find a place to lay out my paper so it could uncurl so I could mount it, let alone a place to build and paint.

Highlands to the rescue! I did three large murals for Highlands, two in the conference area downstairs and one at Cloud 9 when they wanted to extend their remodel timeline. I got paid expenses for one of them, I didn't charge anything at all for the other two, I was just so stoked to be able to paint again. They are oil on the wall, or on mahogany.

I contacted my friend Megan, who called her sister Katie, who suggested I talk to Hags, who I already had done a mural for. They ended up finding me some temporary space in the corner of a locker room which we don't think anyone is going to come into for the next two weeks or so, as it's September. (You never know, though... people might come to town and drop off their skis. So we have to keep it super duper neat.)

The space is perfect. I had the paper, a place to roll it out, and space to paint. Now we just had to pick up the materials and make a plan.

Here's the plan:

Kate Howe’s Giant Watercolor project 4’ x 7’ 
eight paintings total

The order of operations is (as far as we’ve worked it out)

Notes: watercolor paper must stay pristine and clean through process

1. Cut MDF
2. Clean the pre-cut metal
3. Lightly sand metal on both sides
3.5 clean metal again 
4. Glue metal to MDF with contact cement 
5. Let metal/MDF cure (# of hours?)
6. Meanwhile unroll paper for 24 hours in a clean space with weights to flatten
7. Measure and Cut paper
8. Gesso steel, let dry, 3-4 coats, one day total dry time (about 1 hour per coat and 3-4 hours for full dry)
9. Soak paper front and back
10. Pva glue on gesso
11. Place damp paper right side UP on wet glued surface
12. Roll paper with roller to remove air bubbles and smooth surface
13. Stack all boards and papers on top of each other with plastic drop cloths in between
14. Cover with drop cloth and one extra MDF board
15. Weight with cinder blocks
16. Let dry 24 hours
17. Cut excess paper flush to edges
18. Build floating box frame on back, in-set a few inches
19. Let dry overnight with clamps

Painting process: 10 days - 2 weeks max

And here we go: 
Day One: Drop cloth and saw horses in place, 6 sheets of MDF and 8 pieces of Sheet metal. Yes, this means we have to go back and get three more pieces of MDF. 2 for painting substrate and one for pressure clamping. 

Day 2: I finally got to unroll it! 10 meters of 52" Arches Hot Press water color paper, baybee. You can see it in the above image sandwiched between the MDF boards. Weighting the paper for 24 hours still didn't flatten it all the way. 

Day 2, Step 2: Measuring the sheet metal to make sure the sizes are all consistent. Of course they aren't. They differ by about a 16th of an inch. Carlie suggests we cut the wood proud to the metal and use a belt sander to bring it back in to reduce the risk of getting cut while transporting or hanging these pieces. 

Day 2, Step 3: Cutting the MDF to size, preferably just a hair larger than the sheet metal.
Day 2, Step 4: lightly sand sheet metal on one side

Day 2, Step 5 Clean one side of sheet metal with lacquer thinner
Day 2, Step 6: Apply contact cement to clean side of sheet metal
Day 2, Step 7: Flip sheet metal onto dusted off surface of MDF
Day 2, Step 8: Register edges of metal to wood as closely as possible

Day 2, Step 9: Clamp edge

Day 2, Step 10: Peel back the sheet metal

Day 2, Step 11: Pour contact cement onto the MDF, you'll need a lot and you need to work fast because it soaks in. We used about 1 1/2 gallons of contact cement for eight panels

Day 2, Step 12: roll out the excess contact cement and scrape it into the bucket for further use
Day 2, Step 13: (no photo): lay down sheet metal and smooth out with body weight, rubbing it down all over with force with a rag to help adhesion, especially along edges.

Day 3, Step 14: Grind the panels with a belt sander to knock back any overhangs on metal or wood

Day 3, Step 15: Steel wool lightly sand entire surface of sheet metal adhered to panel. Make sure to scratch up every part of the sheet metal or the Gesso won't stick well. 
Day 3, Step 16: Clean entire surface of sheet metal with lacquer thinner really thoroughly. If it's not degreased well, the Gesso won't stick. 

Day 3, Step 17: Add Bondo to any areas in the sheet metal which are dented or not perfectly smooth, any dimples and imperfections may show through the paper

Day 3, Step 18: Sand Down the set-up Bondo

Day 3, Step 19: Apply gesso to clean surface

Day 3, Step 20: Apply a second coat of Gesso
Day 3, Step 21: Stack and pack, we have to leave the space as tidy as possible just in case someone wants to put their skis in their locker in September! You never know... Today took about 2 and a half hours with four people working. (I don't count, I was supervising after having about a pint of blood drawn this afternoon. Ugh.)

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