Painting backgrounds.

When do you paint a background?

Some prefer to paint them first, leaving the subject of the painting for last. Some prefer to paint them last, leaving the subject floating in a blank field until they are satisfied. Admittedly, there are advantages and disadvantages to both — though I still have my preference.

Personally? I like to paint them last.

One reason to paint them first is to more easily incorporate colors from the background into the foreground, creating a balanced, cohesive painting where everything looks like it belongs together. Highlights and shadows make sense, they are the same shades and hues. The subject of the painting looks like they are part of the world they inhabit.

I haven’t really had a problem with the reverse, though. I enjoy choosing colors for highlights and shadows without worrying about being true to the background. I don’t mind if my subjects don’t quite look like they fit — sometimes, it’s even preferable.

My biggest reason for painting backgrounds last is that I often prefer to use paint straight from the tube, to get the highest color saturation I can. Most of the brightest, most beautiful colors have relatively poor opacity, so, if I paint the background first, I run the risk of background colors encroaching on the space left for my subjects. If I paint the subject first, it’s easier for me to both fit the background around them, and get the saturated colors I prefer.

Painting the background last can also be helpful if you’re working on a painting for an extended session. Backgrounds are often relatively simplistic, they don’t take very long to paint when compared to the subject. By spending my time on the subject first, it’ll probably be dry by the time I get around to the background… and I won’t have to worry about smudging anything!

I have to confess, though, that I find backgrounds relatively boring. Subjects are more fun for me. I also like to avoid wasting time and materials, and backgrounds are easier to paint over. So, if I can see a subject isn’t turning out quite the way I wanted it to, I’ve saved myself a lot of grief.

Ultimately, there is no right or wrong way to finish a painting. There are as many reasons to complete the background first as there are last, it’s a matter of preference. As I mentioned in a previous post, a major component of creativity is play. Experimentation is part of that.

Play, experiment, see which yields you the kind of paintings you love.



I am cardiophobic.

It’s a very particular phobia — it isn’t blood that makes me feel lightheaded, it isn’t gore that makes my stomach knot and my head spin, just the related plumbing. Hearts, veins, arteries… I can’t stand them. It’s bad enough that an image search for “hemangioma” (I had Reasons) made me faint.

What’s so strange about it is that it doesn’t even necessarily trigger a panic attack, outburst, or any real emotional response at all. It’s as if the mere sight of an exposed vein or the recorded lub-dup of a heartbeat is enough to override all of the rest of me, digging right in to the primitive complex of my brain where everything is pure reflex. Without enough time to even really consciously register what I’m looking at, my blood pressure drops. And so do I.

Exposure therapy, much as its name implies, involves being exposed to your phobias in an incremental fashion, in a controlled setting, in the hopes that you’ll eventually be able to develop the skills you need to encounter fear safely in the real world.


I didn’t really have much of an idea when I set out to do this, or really much knowledge of where or how to start. I looked up pictures of hearts (so, so many pictures of hearts), but looking at them alone didn’t seem to help.

It was when I broke them down into their component shapes, began looking at them as islands of color and shade, that it became easier. (Easy enough that I could sit down and do this without passing out and whacking my head on the desk!) I don’t know if one picture is enough to prepare me for an operating theater, but it’s a start.

If you like, please enjoy this process video. Don’t worry — you won’t have to look at any hearts.

What I’ve been working on — 8.29.18

With my birthday coming up in a few days, I’ve decided to pose a challenge to myself. I want to finish at least one new painting a week, and I want to learn something new.

Unfortunately, I chose video editing for that “something.”

I say “unfortunately” because it’s been a staggeringly frustrating process — even if this weren’t fairly esoteric to me, I absolutely hate seeing or hearing myself on camera. Even though I’ve mostly been working on time-lapse painting videos, it’s enough to make me self-conscious.

Still, a big part of my introspective work is letting go of that self-consciousness. It isn’t going to help me in the long run, especially not in a world where embarrassing yourself is equally, if not more, profitable than otherwise. The worst that can happen is that nobody likes what I make, and sinceย Iย barely like what I make it means we’ll all be in good company.

In the meanwhile, may I present this compilation video of my cat giving hugs in his sleep.

Horror vacui.

There’s a particular feature that often distinguishes “outsider art” from its mainstream counterparts — particularly art created by people with severe mental illness. It’s the horror vacui, or fear of empty space. It is the antithesis of minimalism, the crowding of imagery into every available inch of space.

Horror vacui is also sometimes termed kenophobia, and it isn’t really an actual fear. It’s a description of a visual technique, or an artistic tendency to avoid leaving anything blank. It’s also something I find simultaneously beautiful and deeply unsettling.

The level of intricacy and detail incorporated into many outsider art pieces is an astonishing thing to behold, but it also imparts a tremendous amount of information. While horror vacui can refer to a piece entirely crowded by images, but words and musical notation are just as likely to appear. Some outsider works are astonishing amalgamations of art, music, poetry, and epic prose, all woven into a single piece. Some can be too stimulating to absorb, almost like the visual equivalent of sitting in a room full of clocks set to strike midnight exactly one minute off from each other.

It puts me in mind of a book I read as a child. I don’t remember the title, but it was a mystery book — an elephant held a grand feast for all of his friends, only for someone to make off with all of it before dinnertime. Like many children’s books, the pages were full of pictures, all of them beautiful, lavish, and very dense: animals dressed in fancy costumes, the rich velvets and patterned brocades of the elephant’s mansion, the gleaming china and polished silver of the feast itself. The reader’s job was to search every page for clues, from the position of the hands of a clock, to words spelled out in twisting tree roots, to code spelled out in the pattern of a rug. Missing or misreading a single one left the clues undecipherable, the mystery unsolvable.

Looking at outsider art that exhibits horror vacui gives me the same feeling I did reading that book as a child, and, to a lesser extent, books like the Codex Seraphinianus; the unsettling sense that there is something big and necessary held just out of reach, in the curve of a line or the twist of a limb.ย There’s always a sense that I’m about to stumble on something the creator didn’t intend to be found, or some secret the images might yield of their own accord.

This isn’t incidental, either. In pieces that aren’t considered outsider artwork, horror vacui is often employed to convey a sense of chaos or oppression, or even for artists to hide messages (or jokes, or slights) in lines and shapes too tangled for someone to spot them without trying. It’s also frequently seen in artwork created in a state of ecstatic trance, or through the use of entheogens. Makes sense, when you think about it — if nonordinary reality has secrets to yield from the margins of the real, the spaces and edges of artwork is where it would probably put them.

The funny thing about horror vacui is that, despite not being an actual fear, despite arising in trance, mental illness, and the deliberate depiction of chaos, it is a very ordinary and nearly universal feeling. What artist hasn’t felt intimidated by a blank canvas? What writer hasn’t experienced the fear of writer’s block, of being bested by an empty page? Who hasn’t been frustrated by the limitations of their materials when it comes to accurately depicting their inner world?

Kenophobia, indeed.

What I’ve been working on — 7.19.18

Like I somewhat hinted in my last post, I’m working on finishing some paintings right now — isolation coating and varnishing. With space at a premium here, I haven’t had the room to work on many larger projects.

Instead, I’ve been going building up my stocks of collage materials. I don’t collage often, though it’s something I enjoyed a lot when I was younger, but I still enjoy having a ready supply of pictures for inspiration. It can be an interesting kind of introspection, in its own way.

Pictures taken from Time, National Geographic, and other magazines I’ve been stockpiling.

I haven’t really found any rhyme or reason for how certain pictures strike me. It’s more likely to be a lovely color or quality of the light than the subject itself. Some fill me with a sense of peace, but others almost immediately give me an unbearable melancholy. A lonely photo of some piece of vintage tat, under the harsh, jaundiced glare of artificial lighting did it once. So did a picture of a generically beautiful model trying her hardest to make a dowdy floral nightgown look elegant, smile brittle and chilly as she stood on the porch of a home that was not hers.

I haven’t found a pattern to these, no connecting thread. I imagine that it’d grant a lot of insight if I could, but that would probably involve keeping track of which images elicit which feelings. (I really don’t mind looking at things others might consider gory or disturbing, but I don’t think I have the stomach to maintain an archive the weirdly sad and unsettling.)

Some of the pictures I’m drawn to will be trimmed and used for collages or mixed media pieces, others might be used to make beads. I haven’t decided yet. It’s often not an answer I have until I’m sitting with a folder thick with pictures.

I’m eager to see what they become.

Finishing a painting.

I have a piece done on unstretched canvas that is ready to be finished, so I thought I might take this opportunity to explain a little bit of how I varnish acrylic paintings.

It’s a little more complicated than picking a varnish and brushing it on, especially if it’s a piece you foresee having around for awhile — some varnishes can yellow and craze over time, and may need to be redone in the future. That’s where isolation coating comes in.

An isolation coat is a coat that separates the painting proper from the layer of varnish. From my experience, a layer of gloss medium mixed 50:50 with distilled water works very well for this. Don’t worry about the shiny appearance afterward, though. If you prefer a matte or satin finish, the varnish will take care of that. Do be sure to use distilled water, though. Regular tap water can contain minerals, chlorine, chloramines, and other substances that can damage paintings over time.

Next comes the slightly complicated part: drying and curing. While people generally use the word “dry” to refer to paint that’s finished drying, that’s not entirely correct.

Dry paint is paint that feels dry to the touch. Enough of the moisture has evaporated out of it until you can apply another color over the paint without the layers mixing.

Cured paint is paint that is completely dry. As much of the moisture has evaporated out as possible, leaving the paint as dry as it is going to get.

After the isolation coat dries and cures, it can finally be varnished. The curing part is important — while acrylic media may be dry to the touch in a half hour or so, it may not fully cure for a week. Some people prefer to wait about a month and a half to ensure that the entire painting is fully dry, especially if they’re working with heavy brush strokes and thickly applied paint. Without waiting for paint to properly dry and cure, varnish can end up looking cloudy from moisture trapped between it and the layers of paint.

I like using a matte acrylic varnish with a built in UV protectant. I’m not a fan of sprays, so I generally choose brush-on varieties if at all possible. Some types of varnish, like natural shellac, aren’t that stable and will yellow over time. (This can be more of a feature than a bug, though, particularly if you want to give a piece an aged, vintage look.)

After varnishing, I leave things in a dry, dustless spot to dry. Once the painting is completely dry again, it is ready to display!

Automatic asemic.

Sometimes, writing can be a visual art form.

I don’t mean in the same way logo design or typography are — just the shape and flow of text itself. The letters don’t have to spell anything, they don’t even have to be proper letters (just look at the beautifully evocative text of the Codex Seraphinianus) in order to have meaning.

A portion of a page from the Codex Seraphinianus.

In the Codex Seraphinianus, the artist chose to use an invented language that doesn’t map to an existing one — while he invented an alphabet to write in, these letters join together to form words that don’t mean anything. The overall impression is that of a young child who has gotten a hold of some beautiful and inexplicable book. They know the words mean things to those who can read them, and it feels like there is a whole trove of knowledge there for the unlocking. But, without that kernel of understanding — without some way to turn the jumble of shapes into something that makes sense — there is a perpetually tantalizing, mysterious feeling of knowledge kept just out of reach.

In its primary role, written language is bound by semantics. C with an A followed by a T spells “cat,” and you know the sounds each letter stands for and the small, furry animal to which they refer. Asemic writing is writing unbound by semantics. It has meaning, it can be interpreted, but these things are not subject to the rules and logic of reading. The shapes and repetition of letters are treated as a pattern, neither more nor less than the fronts of a fern or the shapes of Arabesque tile, and the feelings and images they evoke are what give them meaning. This necessarily varies from person to person — where one may read aggression in the slant of a garbled word, another may see exuberance — but this subjectivity does not mean asemic writing makes any less sense than language.

Magnified words.

It’s just different.ย 

In some of the magical and spiritual disciplines I work with, language becomes more than its literal meaning, too, and asemic writing can be doubly so. A sentence may have its vowels and repeating letters struck out, then the remainder rearranged into a sigil used to focus energy and intention. A planchette can dash across a page, leaving the uncertain scrawls of a spirit’s thoughts in its wake, while a group of breathless observers try to find sense in the jumble of lines and shapes. Scrubbed of their literal meanings, freed from the restrictions of semantics, letters and words (or alien shapes that merely suggest letters and words) can condense into something else.

There are whole areas of the study of literature devoted to analyzing word choice. “Happy” may not always mean “joyful,” and “patience” may not always be virtuous, and its worthwhile to examine why someone chose the words that they did. Even when words no longer have meaning, this still applies. Asemic writing is still made up of the lines and arcs we associate with text, and their placement is never random — there are things to be read in the ascending slant of a line, or a ripe, bubblelike downward curve.

Even when you can’t read the words, there is meaning to be had.