I am an artist who works with soley natural or upcycled materials. I use mineral pigments mixed into a hand-made milk paint, found objects, plant dyes, grasses and seeds, pre-used goodies – whatever I can get my hands on! With these, I create intuitively – meaning that I never know what I’m going to create when I start out; instead I follow where my curiosity leads me.
I have a two-year-old son. His name is Gabriel. So often, as many mothers of young children, I get frustrated that I don’t have more time to dedicate to my creativity, but I also know he’s a big part of the reason I started painting – which I only did at the beginning of 2015, having never picked up a brush before.
For the last 10 months, I’ve been developing an intuitive piece for him – one full of fun, colour and life, just like him! It’s progressed in stolen hours, during his naps, in the moments that his Dad could take over the reins. It’s a piece that’s 100% natural, made of milk paint, natural pigments, upcycled wrapping paper and even our breakfast egg shells!
Here’s how it came to life:
I started with a large piece of sustainable-forest plywood that I sourced and had cut to 100 by 80cm. Milk paint doesn’t work so well on canvas, it’s too bendy, and I had the urge to do something large, so needed a solid board. I used animal skin glue and whiting to protect and coat it.
I stared at the huge white board – I wanted to create, but had no idea what!
I felt the need to use some blue. And I wanted to use my hands. So, I hoisted the board onto the
floor and literally threw dry blue pigment onto it. I then poured some of my made-at-home milk paint binder (I make it from casein, the protein found in milk) on tpo of that, moved onto my knees and massaged that board! It felt great – gloopy, sticky and mucky – and I loved getting my hands dirty knowing that nothing I was touching was harmful to me, or the environment it had come from.
I looked at it. The blue reminded me of an underwater scene. So, I decided, that was what it was to become – for now at least….with intuitive painting there’s room to change your mind at any stage, and I often do. But for now, it’d be underwater.
I wanted to add plant life, so I built the painting up by dripping seaweed-like trails down the board and the added darker blues to the water with my fingers tips.
I’d been reading Julia Donaldson’s book ‘Tiddler’ with Gabriel, and, seeing the sea, I wanted to put ‘fishies’, as he calls them, in it. I imagined lots of colour, fun and joy coming from the piece.
I’d never drawn fish before. So I turned to Google images and found some inspiration, cutting out cartoon fish and laying them onto the board to see if I liked my idea enough to go ahead with it. I did!
After isolating the blue background colour using a damar resin/natural citrus varnish, I painted on the outlines of fish, seahorses, a jellyfish, an octopus, a crab and a lobster using white home-mixed casein paint and I painted in a seabed using earthy sand colours.
I had kind of assumed I’d be painting the fish, but,when I stared at the outlines, I knew that paint wasn’t quite right. They needed to stand out more. They needed more vibrancy to shine against the luminous blue background.
It was my niece’s birthday that week. I thought about her opening all her presents at my sister’s house and then the idea came to me – I could use wrapping paper to bring my fish to life. I text my sister right away, “Can you save me all the wrapping paper from Lucie’s birthday?” She said yes!
Soon I began the often painstaking task of selecting colours and cutting the paper into tiny squares. I didn’t want to use standard PVA glue – that’s not what I’m about, this piece was using natural materials…but I’d never collaged before. I thought about the casein that I used to make paint. I knew it was a binder – essentially a glue, so thought I’d have a go at using it to stick the paper on. I had no idea if it’d work, but I was used to not knowing what I was doing! It was successful, save for a completely metallic paper, which, a day after I’d completed my jellyfish with it, started to flake off.
The fish were looking good!
Seeing it coming to life really made me smile. And I knew, looking at the fish filling the water, that this piece had to be for my son - to celebrate the fun and joy he’d brought into my life and to commemorate the brave move we’d made as a family, 6 months earlier, to upend our whole life and move to the very tip of Cornwall.
As the board filled with colour, I looked down at the sand and I wasn’t happy. It needed more… more colour, more texture. I thought for a few days, Perhaps I could collect sand from the beach here in Penzance and somehow get it on there? Perhaps I could use salt? But nothing struck me as quite right. I’ve learned, by creating intuitively, not to move forward with something until it really feels right.
So I carried on my days, spending time with Gabriel. Over breakfast with him one morning an idea struck me. We were having eggs, Gabriel’s favourite and he’d just graduated to eating his out of the shell, in an egg cup. After he’d finished, he’d delight in slowly breaking up the egg shell into many, many pieces and spreading them wherever he could manage. I looked down at the pieces and thought – perfect, they can be my sand!
So for the next 3 weeks, I saved the shell from every egg we ate. I washed them and then broke them into small pieces, removing the inner membrane that clung to them. I had no idea if I needed to do this – I’d not heard or read about anyone using egg shells for art before, but I figured it was more degradable than the shell, and I didn’t really want perishable food on my painting! I then put all the pieces in a bag and bashed them repeatedly with a rolling pin to get very small shards of shell.
I blithely moved forward using the casein binder as glue, not knowing if it would work, but feeling that, if I acted like it would, it really would! Once the egg shell was laid, and appeared to stick, to define it more, I mixed up two differently-coloured batches of natural mica sparkling pigment and brushed it onto the shell fragments.
And here, I came to a stop for a long time. The thing about intuitive creation using natural materials, is that 1 – intuition doesn’t always work on a schedule, especially towards the end of a project, when decisions seem so much finer, and 2 – choosing not to just go to a shop and buy yourself some art supplies, means that very often, what you want isn’t readily available.
So, for weeks and weeks, my son’s painting sat in the corner of my kitchen that was my art studio, waiting. I knew it wasn’t finished, but I didn’t really know what would finish it. After some time, I thought it needed the addition of some plant life – but what materials to use? I thought about fashioning fishing net into weed-like forms and picked up some of the many meshes of net washed up on the beaches here in Cornwall, bringing it home. I held it up against the piece, hopeful, but it just didn’t look right. Next, I thought old cassette tape ribbon might work, and I put a call out of Freecycle for some…but nothing was forthcoming.
And weeks went on.
Intuitive creation is a great teacher of patience.
I am always working on multiple pieces at the same time in my studio – and in the meantime I was experimenting with starting new pieces by dripping the left over paint from previous sessions onto recycled paper. One afternoon, I made a bold, brave move on one of these and hated it. Painting intuitively doesn’t always work out how one wants it to. I turned the piece around on my easel so I couldn’t see it as I felt my creative joy fading away. I let my disappointment sit….and, after a few days, I suddenly thought I could cut the very colourful piece up and create petals to collage flowers with…so I sat on my studio floor one afternoon and set to it with my scissors.
..And as I did, the shapes left behind started to look more and more like seaweed. Excitedly, I realised they were just what I was waiting for my my son’s piece – they would finish it perfectly. I safely kept all the left-overs for my underwater scene.
Then, very quickly, it all came together. I laid the off cuts onto the piece and then used my milk binder to stick them down in seaweed forms.
To add that final touch of bling, I used a hole punch to make tiny ‘bubbles’ out of some used metallic silver wrapping paper I had and added a spark of life to my little fishes.
It was done. I finished it off my adding another coat of the citrus oil and damar varnish.
10 months. Intuition. Natural pigments. Upcycled wrapping paper. Home-made milk paint. Egg shells. It was beautiful.
A few weeks after I finished this piece, we moved home. After a year of renting in Cornwall, we had decided it was time to put down roots and had wonderfully managed to buy our own house. My son, Gabriel, has a room of his own here and the piece sits beautifully on one of the walls.
Many thanks to Alison for her wonderful post, you can catch up with her over at her website alisonfaithkay.com