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Rabbits’ Holes...Or Where Paintings Can Take You

When I start a painting, I like to have a fairly good idea in my head or see what I am going to paint. I’m not one that can just start painting an empty canvas. (I envy those painters!) My starting vision is just that – a starting place – but sometimes what I imagined at the beginning is radically different from the final results.  I’ve discovered that letting go, and being open and present during the process allows me to respond to what is happening.  This sometimes takes me down an unexpected path, or in this case, down the proverbial rabbit hole.

My original intent was to make a painting inspired by Alice in Wonderland .  I had wonderful laser prints of the Rabbit, Mad Hatter and Caterpillar, along with some old alphabet text and children’s papers from 1913.  I wanted bright, happy colors – think spring flowers and vintage children’s books – but as the piece developed, it clearly had a mind of its own.

I started with Fast Medium/Fixer mixed with Atelier Interactive’s Brilliant Magenta and Titanium White.  I applied this mixture with a painting knife on my gessoed canvas for texture.  I used Fast Medium because I knew I wanted my background layer to dry quickly, and I wanted a fluid paint for the next few layers.  I was thinking about circuses, chessboards and my recent visit to the MacKenzie-Childs store in New York, and that’s how the harlequin/checkerboard pattern started, using Carbon Black, Arylamide Yellow Light, Permanent Green Light and Brilliant Violet.

When I was happy with the background and it was dry, it was time for an image transfer – what to use?  I decided on the Rabbit.  I applied a layer of Binder Medium, placed my image face down into the wet medium, waited about 15 minutes, and then removed the paper backing.  The image transferred ok, but it looked a little distressed, which was not my intent. My vision was a crisp, bright piece, but now it looked worn and a bit shabby.  Happily, I had lots of paint and images at my disposal!

I painted over the transfer, adding more color and making the lines sharper. I like to hide messages in my mixed media works, and I found a great phrase,  “Seven (some word) Stories.”  I collaged this using some Binder Medium, and then, because I didn’t like the second word, I painted over it. I don't even remember what it was now. But if you look closely, just the words “Seven Stories” are visible.

As I was painting, I needed some imagery in the top right quadrant. Color and pattern alone didn't capture enough interest.  As I flipped through my vintage papers, I found images of old scissors.  Many years ago I saw a phenomenal film called Alice (the story of Alice in Wonderland, told with stop motion animation, in a surreal, dream-like way).  This dark interpretation featured scissors, and I had a “Voila!” moment.  I hadn’t thought about this film in years, but when I found those scissors and had the Rabbit right there, it all clicked. (You can read about the film here.) My rabbit was worn and torn, the scissors were the instrument of distress, and now the painting started to come together.

So instead of a bright, happy piece, I went darker, a bit more garish and a bit more nightmarish in a childlike way.  I used pure untinted colors that created complimentary reactions with other colors, such as yellows and violets, pinks and greens. I collaged old papers with Binder Medium, and started to cover up some imagery and papers. I turned small scissors into flowers (the garden that Alice finds), and transferred letters of a child’s alphabet (the poetry that is throughout the books), in order to visually connect the Rabbit and scissors.  I made glazes with Acrylic Glazing Liquid and Gloss Medium to add depth, and when parts still weren’t glossy enough, I applied Heavy Gel Gloss (Impasto Gel) on just some areas and let that dry. Soon my painting was catching light in cool ways, with parts that were very textural and glossy while others were more satin and flat.  I added swirls to represent roots in the hole in the ground, as well as the actual tumble itself.  

My painting is done, at least for now.  I am still considering applying a final layer of Heavy Gel Gloss or Chroma’s Gloss Solvent Finishing Varnish over the entire thing, because the shiny parts look so good…but I also like the interplay of the satin and gloss sheens. However, titling the piece was easy – Mad Rabbit .  Not only did my Rabbit look a bit upset, but also the whole painting is visually crazy and has dark imagery that implies madness. The painting certainly named itself.

So the next time you paint, just go with what’s happening and let the work develop the way it wants. You’ll be amazed at what rabbit holes you go down…and trust me, the results are always surprising!

If you want to view a video on Image Transfers, click here.

Some technical notes on Image Transfers:

Images to use

Most printed or toner-based images can transfer. Newspaper, magazine and computer laser (not ink jet) prints work well. Some things like newspaper, laser print and old catalogs on uncoated paper will transfer directly without the need of a photocopy, but some images such as photographs and coated magazine pages will need to be photocopied. Be sure to use your own work (a great reason to get those drawings photocopied!), or work that is copyright-free.

Mediums to use

Most traditional, fast-drying acrylic mediums can be used for transfers. All have slightly different effects, so be sure to experiment!

  • Binder Medium
  • Matte Medium
  • Gloss Medium
  • Regular Gel (Matte or Gloss)
  • Heavy Gel Matte or Heavy Gel Gloss (Impasto Gel)
  • Molding Paste (Modelling Compound)

To apply an image directly to a surface:

1. Apply your chosen medium directly to the surface using a brush or palette knife. You do not want the medium to be too thin or too thick, about 1/16-1/8” is good. (The more gel you use, the more opaque the transfer will be.) I find that brushing horizontally and then vertically helps to eliminate brushstrokes.

2. Closely cut out the image you want to transfer. Remember to flip (make a mirror image) of any text you want to read correctly.

3. Apply the image face down into the wet medium and smooth it out so you don’t have wrinkles. Turn a corner up, so you have a tag that you can use later to remove the image. If you want a very clean look, be sure to feather the edges of the gel at the edges of the paper.

4. Let dry. You may need to wait overnight, about 8-24 hours, for heavier mediums like Heavy Gel Gloss (Impasto Gel) or Molding Paste (Modelling Compound). Using a hairdryer to promote fast drying does not produce good results. Only time does. Binder Medium, Regular Gel and Matte/Gloss Medium dry the fastest.

5. Wet the paper backing. I often apply a wet (not dripping) washcloth and let it sit on the paper for a bit. Remove the cloth, and then very carefully, begin to rub the paper away with your fingers in a circular motion. Apply more water as needed to remove the paper backing. As the water dries, you’ll see a white haze where some of the paper is left behind. Let the transfer dry, and repeat the process until you don’t feel any more paper.

Note: How long you wait before removing the image, and the image itself, are all factors in the success of the transfer.

To create a separate transferred element to be collaged:

1. Apply Heavy Gel Matte or Heavy Gel Gloss (Impasto Gel) directly on top of the printed image using a brush or palette knife as described above. Using this method, you won’t need to reverse any text.

2. Let dry overnight (about 8-24 hours). The gel will be clear when dry.

3. Wet the paper backing and remove as described above.

4. Cut out your image, paint the backside for a vintage look (if desired) and adhere using Regular Gel.