another experiment with my art materials. this time jim did me up some homemade clayboard, which means mixing kaolin clay with rabbit skin glue (instead of using marble dust) and painting it on like gesso. he made one of my new luan panels into a clayboard surface, and i just sat down and made a watercolor out of it. 7 3/4 by 8 inches. so it’s basically life size.
but since jim had made the clayboard by hand, and it turned out so smooth and shiny, i couldn’t resist, and so sat down to paint the front porch, as a present for my sister. which sister, since i’ve promised both of them, and my daughter, one of my watercolors? the sister who just was sitting there soaking up the 90 degree heat a couple of weeks ago. it’s going to be consolation for my giving her the marie’s fountain painting (below) to keep only as long as it takes me to get over there and take it away from her to give to its rightful owner.
well, one painting is 20-something inches high, and the other barely rounds out 8 inches. but she’ll like the one of the porch and too bad about the other one.
clayboard is very absorbent. jim put 7 coats of kaolin gesso on it, and then scraped it with the edge of a razor blade to smooth it down. i hit it with a piece of fine wet-dry sandpaper, and then started drawing on it with a pencil.
clayboard is very smooth. it’s delightful to run my fingers over. the clay settles down into the surface even better than calcium carbonate – chalk, marble dust – and makes s smoother and more luxurious surface.
it’s highly absorbent. run a sopping brush over it, and it’ll leave a puddle of water, but then watch the surface suck it in. it doesn’t evaporate, it gets drawn into the surface of the gesso. so your brushstroke stays where you put it, and a lot of the usual softening strokes you do with watercolor won’t exactly work here.
i can soften an edge with clear water, but i have to soften and then loosen and then spread the edge, because the edge is somewhere beneath the surface of the clayboard. that’s how it seems.
at any rate, clayboard is excellent when you want to do detail. it won’t work for large, wet-in-wet expressions of color and movement, unless you aren’t going to want to rework the stroke or do a lot of adjustments while it’s still wet, because it stays wet about as long as chinese shrimp crackers do. (ever put your tongue on a shrimp cracker? those fried pork rind-looking things in chinese restaurants? don’t. they’re like some tree mushrooms, and will suck all the moisture out of your tongue and keep sucking.
detail. clayboard is great for detail. because it’s so absorbent, i don’t know why because, just because, the strokes you put down stay down, stay sharp and beautiful and pointy. it’s the reworking that causes trouble. because with clayboard, everything you put on it will lift. even staining pigments. the trick is not to overwork it.
it’s a bit like egg tempera, so jim tells me. they both dry really quickly, allowing for almost no fucking with. they’re both really good for persnickety paintings. you can do a million glazes, but you’ve got to be careful not to lift colors that are down.
another thing that happens differently on clayboard than on paper is that the colors go on in actual layers. with watercolor, every time you put on a glaze of some color, you’re dissolving all the colors beneath it back into the mix. apparently not so with clayboard.
this means that the painting remains transparent as long as you’re using transparent pigments. this gives the painting remarkable snap and depth.
normally in watercolor, ultramarine is my strongest dark, and if i mix it with raw umber it approaches black in strength but doesn’t deaden and overpower like black does on paper. all this is after years learning how to make strong darks without creating mud.
but on clayboard, something about how it absorbs the pigments, but the colors don’t turn to mud the way they do on paper. i can put on a layer of blue to shadow the glider seat, but it won’t darken. it just turns blue. so i tried to put on a wash of raw umber, and it turned dusty and opaque on me. umber is not an opaque color. neither is ultramarine. but on clayboard they don’t darken the way they do on paper. they don’t seem to mix, or something.
on clayboard, if i want a clear dark, i have to use black.
this is anathema in watercolor. but it’s the rule with silk dyes. if i want a shade of a color, i have to add black in silk work. if i don’t use black, i won’t get a dark color. period. so you learn to use black in silk. but you leave the whites, just like in watercolor, and many of the techniques are the same.
watercolor on clayboard is supersaturated. the blues were intense blues, like on silk. not muted blues as in an oil painting. the whole thing looked garish.
so the next morning, to finish the painting, i intended to merely glaze a bunch of neutral darks over most of the painting, and sign it.
it took all afternoon. and what a lovely afternoon it was, all cool and drizzly, with a fine breeze to dry the sweat off my brow as i sat out on the porch and painted my picture.
i noticed as i was washing an earth green over the cobalt wall, trying to tone down all those bright colors, that the lines of the siding were fading. this happened even more with the next wash. now, i wasn’t exactly letting the board dry before putting on the next wash, just putting it aside until the pools absorbed in. so i guess the surface was still wet when i went over it with another wash. and i guess that made it lift.
so, if you get the surface wet, you can lift anything. even if you don’t want to. the lesson here is to leave out the lining and details like that until the surface is the way you want it, don’t outline shit before you’ve finished messing with it.
that’s why the right hand side of the painting looks so rough. jim disagrees with me on this point, tho. he says that the scratchy effect is from the underlying gesso not being smooth enough, while i think i’ve gone and raised the grain of the wood underneath. we have yet to ask the relevant archive questions from our favorite website of art experts.
altogether, i’m very happy watercolor painting on luan plywood clayboard. it’s cheap as dirt when you make it yourself, and the results are bright and snappy. i think i’m going to paint a few watercolors with it. and that’ll get me back painting watercolors, which everyone keeps telling me to do.