Blowtorches, Ketchup, & Moss: Why Did You Light Your Painting on Fire?
Assistant Editor, Production Assistant
I often get asked why I use unconventional materials in my artwork. I paint with instant coffee grounds and sand, and I sculpt with recycled pallets and plastic shopping bags.
Seventeen years ago, Heinz released a line of brightly colored ketchup called “EZ Squirt.” As much as I loved drawing on paper, I loved painting on my plate during meals. Though my parents were not happy about it, they saw my passion for art and let me cover my plate with Funky Purple and Blastin’ Green ketchup during meals. Very early on, I found that creating with strange materials was more interesting, and infinitely more fun. Much to my dismay, Heinz discontinued EZ Squirt in 2006.
The Art Lesson by Tomie dePaola was a picture book published in 1989. The story features a first grader named Tommy who wants to be an artist when he grows up. However, he is disappointed when he finds out that his art teacher expects him to copy her artwork. Tommy feels as though his creativity and individuality are limited in this setting.
Although the theme of this story is meant to show creative compromise, what strikes me was how story rang true for me as well, starting in elementary school and all through high school. I loved painting with small sticks and paint I made from flour, water, and food coloring. In school, I was required to draw with sharpies, pencils, and watercolors. Always. There was rarely any variation of materials, and little room for creativity. Through my junior year of high school, I rarely got to use anything else to create art.
Two years ago, I had surgery on my ankle that left me with little mobility for several weeks. My leg had to be elevated at all times, but I still had to complete my school still life assignment both in and out of school. I was immobile, and very bored. Drawing a wilting plant and an old lantern using only pencil was the last thing I wanted to do.
After class, I went home and painted over an old spray paint piece with gesso and began to experiment. I painted acrylic paint that was watered down, rubbing alcohol, india ink, and did gel transfers of newspaper. I splattered paint everywhere (again, my parents were not happy). I topped it all off by drawing with colored pencils. I let my materials drip, smear, and blossom. The process was a little scary, but it was the most fun I’ve ever had with a still life.
The summer before the start of my senior year in high school, I resolved that I was going to try as many new materials as possible in my artwork. I continued to experiment throughout the year with materials I had never thought to use, including live edge wood (wood with bark around the edges), beeswax, moss, eggshells, teabags, and cacti.
I used blowtorches, sewing machines, and box knives. I sculpted a life size sea turtle from plastic bags, and painted on disassembled and recycled pallets with repurposed house paint. I created digital drawings and then interpreted them with gouache and charcoal later on. I painted a ceramic sculpture with instant coffee grounds, wine, and shoe polish. I made a sketchbook with scraps of leather and sticks.
The possibilities felt endless. My mindset about what art should look like changed drastically, and I felt that I could approach creating from many different angles. I finally felt released from the confines of traditional art media.
Now, it’s your turn.
Go find something that is completely different from what you’ve used in the past. You use acrylic paint a lot? Mix in some sand into the acrylic paint. Or coffee grounds. Or dish soap. Pencil is your favorite drawing media? Try adding a collage element.
The choice is yours. Map uncharted territory, or look at your old territory with a new set of eyes.
5 Tips for Using Unusual Art Materials
Layering your materials is key
Integrating the material into the piece is beyond important. Adding many layers will help to create a cohesive piece and allow the unconventional material to look like it belongs.
Choose your materials wisely.
Does the color work well with the piece? What about the texture? Does the material relate to push your concept forward?
Don’t be afraid to experiment.
Things do not always go according to plan when working with mixed media. Use this as an opportunity to learn about how your material behaves. Keep your mind open about what the final results will look like. Do a small scale trial run of your material in your sketchbook first. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it, that the material is “too weird,” or that it won’t look good. Do it anyway, and have fun!
Search for inspiration everywhere.
Keep a sketchbook and camera (or a phone with a camera) with you just in case you see a material that you think has potential. Collect items that you could use later, such as moss, teabags, or train tickets. Record everything; you never know what could be useful later.
Never put yourself at risk. If you’re not sure whether a material is toxic, or if you don’t know what precautions to take, either find a professional who knows, or just don’t use it. It’s not worth the risk of your own safety.
Take the appropriate precautions when using toxic or potentially dangerous materials. Some items, such as paint thinner, require both proper ventilation and need to be disposed of at Hazardous Waste centers. Plaster should never be poured down the sink. Wear gloves if you are handling material that would be difficult to clean. Blowtorches require safety glasses. Be mindful of your materials and always make sure you’re being safe!