I picked this next gouache painting to write about because it is an example of the second way that I use gouache plus it’s one of my oldest gouache paintings. One of the first examples from when I was learning to paint in gouache. It’s undated as is a lot of my work from the early 1990s but in looking through the sketchbook that I posted paintings from last week I found the original tiny sketch for this spider. I believe that puts this painting some time in late 1993. I had even forgotten this one existed (despite the fact that it’s posted on my website) before I stumbled on that small sketch. That’s what happens when paintings get tucked away for years after I make them. I like the little sketch I found in that old sketchbook and might rework it into something new one of these days.

There were three things that I was thinking about as I was learning to paint like this in gouache. The first was opacity. I wanted the color to be strong and since, unlike oil paints, there is no surface to deal with when painting in gouache I mainly wanted the paint to be opaque. I like the solidness of the opaque color. Of course the blue on the edges of this particular painting is a transparent color because not everything can be opaque or it losses its punch.

The second thing that I was thinking about was the art of ancient civilizations. I’m a big fan of history and like to read about the past. I’m also a big fan of the art of ancient civilizations. My favorites seem to be the art of South and Central America. I really like Maya and Aztec art. They have worked their way into my aesthetic over the years and here was when I was first thinking about them. The art of ancient Egypt has also crept into my brain. I’m not as big a fan of that as the South American stuff but still it’s there influencing me even when I’m not expecting it to. I’ll mention Japanese art too. I have a few books on old Japanese wood cuts and prints that I’ve thumbed through many times over the years. There are probably more ancient art influences than that but I’ll stop with those four as they’re probably the biggest four.

The third thing I was thinking about as I started my gouache paintings was another type of old art. Russian icon painting. Oddly enough I hadn’t actually seen a lot of Russian icon painting at the time but I liked the idea of it. They are generally small paintings, around eight by ten inches, of the face of a saint. They were done in a flat style that was not quite medieval but with lots of decoration and gold added to the wood panels they were painted on. I liked the fact that these icons were precious objects.

In looking at this spider painting the first thing that strikes me is that I have no idea why I tore the paper into the shape it’s in. Sure I was following the contours of the spider by why isn’t it rectangular? This might be the only painting that I did this with. I must have thought it was a good idea at the time. You can see the flatness of the drawing as the influence of most ancient art as painted on monuments and tombs. It’s not about the spider being in a scene of some sort but the spider being a symbol. And decorative. The negative space shapes that are colored in are an echo of the gold placement on the Russian icons. I can remember making all of those little white brush stokes/tick marks and wondering where they came from. I don’t know. I started making them on this painting all those years ago and have continued to do so.

This next eight by ten inch painting that is titled “King” has the date of October 1, 1996 on it. Obviously this is from a few years after I had started learning to paint in gouache. It also seem to be more like a Russian icon painting than the spider. It’s also not quite as flat as the spider painting and has some shallow modeling in the face as do the Russian icons but it also has a lot of decorative and flat elements. The stylized hair and beard are definitely different from the face. I like spirals an often use them in hair so that is familiar to me but the beard is a different sort of approach. I’m not sure what I was looking at when I did that but from the looks of the moon crown that he’s wearing I’d guess it was some sort of very old Northern European art. I don’t think I’ve painted many beards like that.

His collar looks much more ancient American than the rest of the painting and its flatness of color stands out against the face. By this time I was using brush strokes and tick marks to make patterns. The background is one big pattern of opaque color on top of a transparent green and is not the afterthought that such marks in the spider painting were. This also might be the most Russian icon-like painting that I ever made.

So that pretty much wraps up my beginning gouache years. These paintings are all on paper rather than canvas and much smaller than my oil paintings. I’ve worked on all different sizes of paper but most of it has been eight by ten inches at biggest. I’ve made a lot of five by seven inch gouache paintings too. It’s painted on watercolor paper. Almost all of the early stuff is on 300lb cold press Arches watercolor paper. That’s a really thick paper that has a rough surface. I’ve branched out to try a lot of different papers since then but that was my favorite in the beginning. I rarely go lighter than 140lb paper since any lighter and the paper can buckle too much as it gets wet but I’ve tried a lot of different brands and surfaces since these mid 1990s pieces.