Alexandra Sheldon

How do we put collages together?

Alexandra SheldonComment

This semester we made a lot of interesting to put them together. There is always the NO PLAN plan. I call this the WILDCARD. I sometimes work like this. I have no plan, I just grab something that catches my eye. It is usually a piece of painted paper and it is usually something that I feel a magnetic draw to. I throw it down and see what might look good next to it. Sometimes I go thru my piles of papers and see what I feel impelled to reach for. I will sit on the floor of my studio and go thru stacks of stuff. I find that if you can find one little thing that feels good and magical, then you can look thru your stacks and other things will surface to join that initial piece.

At other times, I need a system, a theme, a series to continue on. For me, it is often related to walking outdoors and to landscape. I like a grid to fit shapes into. I will spend days painting papers the colors I have seen on the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard and then spend days fitting these colors into abstract grids. I like to find a way to work that I can sometimes rest in. I change all the time. I might start my day working on a series of very tight gridlike collages and then feel like doing the NO PLAN pieces. I think creative people rebel against authority. So you may think you have finally found your system, your theme but then another part of you gets sick of that and turns around and does the opposite. We are complicated creatures. What I find especially delicious is what happens if I work a whole day in the studio: I get freer as the day goes on. My brain has completely given up trying to control what’s going on and my body is finally free to let loose. Philip Guston said that when he went into the studio he would ruminate on his life and think about everyone and then they would all leave and he would leave and then he would paint. I totally get that: there is an emptying out of self that can happen. I experience it if I put in a lot of studio time. I sometimes think that what I love about being an artist is this shedding of ego and mind that you can achieve while spending hours making stuff. I get the same thing from gardening, yoga, hot baths, long walks and being with animals ( to name a few). 

So how are you going to put collages together? 

Look at artists and observe their systems and themes. 

Jim Dine and Jasper Johns consistently use symbols (flags, numbers, hearts, targets,etc) in their paintings. 
Louise Nevelson used the grid to organise her blocks and balusters of wood.
Helen Frankenthaler did not use a grid at all but rather she poured paint and experimented with “being in tune with your feelings” as she so perfectly put it. Her system of working was more with an intuitive listening, to herself and to the materials. 

Matisse said that for him, color and light = emotion. That simple. ( And by the way, Matisse influenced a generation of artists like Lois Dodd and Louisa Matthiasdottir who aspire to this direct kind of painting - very unintellectual, where the painting is delicious and direct). It is interesting to note that Matisse also said that everything in front of him flattened like wallpaper. He would paint the woman and the doorway and the vase of flowers all in the same breathy and exuberant way. So what was his system? Painting from life, his own interpretation of it. Even in his late paper cut outs the shapes usually refer to something from his life like water, flowers, a woman’s body, etc. 

Looking at artists like Fred Otnes, Gerhard Richter and Mark Bradford you find a richness in atmosphere, light and pattern. Paintings and collages may not necessarily have a focal point but instead there is a sweep or rhythm. This kind of work relies on a mood, a feeling, an atmosphere. Color and light can reign supreme as it does in Mark Rothko. The paintings are meant to be experienced as physical emotions. He wanted people to stand in front of the canvases and to practically fall into the mood and feeling of them.

Gelli Plate Printing!

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Commercial Gelli plates can be bought at art stores. They run @$29 for 8”x10”. I like making them. I had to fail a couple of times but here is the recipe that seems to work well:

Vegetable Glycerin (available at Whole Foods. I bought online, one gallon for @30.00$)
Isopropyl Alcohol 91% (@3.00 for 16 oz)
Knox Gelatine Packets (@$12.00 for a box of 12 packets)

Use a double boiler  (I just put a stainless steel bowl over a pot of hot water).
Put 1.5 cups of water in double boiler
Add 1.5 cups of alcohol. 
Put heat on medium and sprinkle 18 packets of gelatine into mixture before it is heated. Stir slowly with a whisk. You will be taking care with mixing the mixture because you don’t want to mix tons of air bubbles into it. Do not dump gelatine in one big pile because it will lump up and be hard to melt. Sprinkle it in as you mix with the whisk. Mixture will begin to melt as it gets warmer. Add 1.5 cups of vegetable glycerin.
Mix slowly for about ten minutes until translucent and dissolved. Unsuccessful gelli plates can be melted down again by the way but do not do this if there is any paint on them.

Next: Pour mixture into your mould. This recipe makes one 8”x10” gelli plate. But you could do two smaller ones. The gelli plates need several hours to set up. I left them to set overnight. Take a table knife gently around the edge of one side and gently nudge the gelli away from the mould. Then hold upright and allow the gelli to slowly peel away from the entire mould. Always store a gelli plate on a plastic surface as they will absorb any surface they are on like newspaper or regular paper. These store well and will last a long time. I allow paint to build up on them. Each time I print the old dried paints come off when it is reworked making interesting surfaces.

Choosing your moulds: I went to Michaels and bought a few plastic frames for photographs, these are about $5 each). You could use a glass baking pan or even a metal baking sheet. Just remember that it isn’t great to have grooved edges or rounded ones. I wanted a simple sharp corner. 

My first batch was too soft and the gelli broke into pieces but it turns out that they were really cool to print off of. So now I think I’d like to make a whole tray of gelli and cut it into interesting shapes for printing.

We used Open Golden Acrylics for printing because they stay wet longer than regular acrylics. However, any acrylics can be printed with. There are about a hundred different ways to print with these soft gelatine plates. This week we played with printing over magazine pictures. We also cut shapes to use as stencils and used plastic stencils. 

What’s cool about this method? The prints are soft and rather beautiful, reflecting the soft skin-like material. Printing with acrylics makes great materials for collaging later.
Colours can be printed over painted papers making luscious built up surfaces of different hues and intensities. Or shapes can be explored. Negatives, positives and the interaction of the two. Find graphic simple advertisements and print the rectangle shape of the gelli plate over them for an interesting graphic effect. Print on rice papers, sewing patterns or deli papers for a great transparent collage material.

Class #7 Collage with Alexandra

Alexandra SheldonComment

“Being creative is not so much the desire to do something as the listening to that which wants to be done: the dictation of the materials.”

Anni Albers

 Today we continued on working with Gelli Plates (technically this is a gelatine plate but the commercial name used is ‘gelli plate’)but in a different way from last week. Roll a color onto the gelli using any acrylics paints. Right away, stamp into the surface. If you lean on the stamp and hold it a couple of minutes it leaves a good impression. Let surface dry (you can use a hair dryer to speed up the process). Add another layer of paint to the gelli and while the paint is wet mash a piece of paper down onto the surface. Let this dry -well. You can meanwhile use another gelli so that while your paper is drying onto the surface of the first one you can keep making stuff. I find that patience is the magic word in using this process. Eventually when you peel away the paper it will LIFT OFF all the layers of paint on the gelli plate. This technique requires hours of trouble shooting and adding layer upon layer. You can get fantastic Venetian Walls effects: peelings, flaking, torn and uplifted colors, the sense of what’s on top is underneath and what’s underneath is on top. The stamps and patterns can come and go under and over the layers. Deterioration, decay, peeling, layering, exposing, surfaces built up and scraped away, etc.

You can also try using acrylic matte medium as a layer instead of paint to lift off the paint on the gelli. 
Remember to always store a gelli plate on a plastic surface as they will absorb material like newspaper.
You CAN use thin transparent papers for this process although sometimes they will rip and tear when being pulled off the gelli. You can use Bristol paper or card stock for a nice heavy durable paper for the prints too. 
Explore the gelatine plates using all kinds of paints: heavy body acrylics, Open acrylics, fluid acrylics and any old craft acrylics.

Class #5 Collage/Winter

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We started with an exercise in the small sketchbooks: take a piece of your painted paper and collage it down. Look thru magazines or books to find imagery to put in. Starting with your own papers is important because you are beginning with something that belongs to you. Mass media and printed material have a power and can dominate. I like to try to find stuff that flows into what I have started. See if you can take over the mass media stuff and integrate in into your material made from scratch (painted papers, prints, trace monotypes, drawings, etc).

I talked about Frank Stella and his quest for figuring out shape and shapes interlocking and puzzle piecing together. Try making small thumbnail drawings: over and over again draw a rough box and draw two or three shapes dancing together. The shapes can interlock or avoid each other. They can be in conversation or mute. Make some quick collages based on these simple sketches. ( I have been told that if you did these drawings daily that they would eventually begin to reflect the different types of  dynamics in your life).
Exercise: Do a drawing of many shapes together and then take a detail of your drawing and blow up the proportions and do a collage based on this simplification. In my experience we usually make about five compositions in one piece. See if you can play with simplifying simplifying simplifying. 
When making a collage try taking a detail of it with your phone. Often I realize that I’ve gotten too complex in my composition when I do this. 

I talked a lot about the importance of keeping a collage sketchbook. Sketchbooks in general are meant to be places of exploration and ideas. Allow yourself to make collages with a glue stick while traveling or waiting. Maybe at your kitchen table. Play with different materials and be open to doodling, grabbing images and making collages that are not necessarily meant for display but rather as a place to experiment and have fun. Lately I have felt liberated by collaging on vacation and using the limited materials at hand like a hotel flier, a museum ticket or something I found along the way. Limitations can be so freeing. 

Lately I have noticed a tendency in myself to be so serious as an artist. Yet I became an artist because it was so fun! So I’m going back to having fun and I do that by having a sketchbook where ANYTHING GOES.

Class #4 Collage Winter Semester

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We began with a fun exercise in making word collages: look thru print from old books or magazines. See what jumps out at you and cut the words out and collage them down as a poem. You can collage them into a simple background or just on a blank page. I am starting each class with a different small exercise as everyone transitions into our three hour plus class and gets settled. It is nice to start by doing something completely different. 

We made Trace Monotypes using oil paint and a piece of plexiglass. Put a very small amount of oil paint onto the plexi, maybe half an inch. Roll out using a brayer. You can mix many different colors using the oil paints. Very faint pastel colors do not work as well. You want to roll out a very thin layer of paint onto the plexi. Then put a piece of paper facedown onto the plexi. 

There are different techniques at this point to do:
1)Take a ruler and a pencil and carefully draw grids onto your paper. I say carefully because if you lean your hand onto the paper it is going to pick up the color. Peel the paper off the plexi and look at your print.
2)Use rulers and stencils to make interesting shapes with your pencil. Peel paper away to reveal your print.
3)Take a picture of say, a bird. Put a clean piece of paper onto your plexi with the oil paint rolled onto it. Take the picture of the bird and place over your paper and then take a ball point pen and trace over the image of the bird, bearing down on the pen. This will give you a print of the bird onto your blank paper. This is fun for people afraid of direct drawing! Remember that it will print backwards. 

Later we collaged with these trace monotypes. They can be cut up and collaged into pieces in progress. Or the grids can be collaged down on a substrate and then you can start collaging into the grids. Trace monotypes using oils have a nice rich color. They can be a great additive for collages in progress. 
We used different kinds of papers to make the monotypes:
White or brown deli papers - they are nice and transparent and great for collages.
Any rice papers are great. 
Basically any paper will work. 
Try some lovely Reeves printmaking paper too.

Some artists to check out:
Bice Lazzari at the Phillips Collection
Claudia Vasells (look at what she does with space!)
Dan Tirels: watch his YouTube tutorials on monotypes, they are wonderful.
Two Bauhaus shows in the area: The Fogg at Harvard and the MFA.
Also recommended: Graciela Iturbide photography show at the MFA (If you cannot get out to see this you can still watch an interview with her on the MFA website - its excellent and I think you will enjoy seeing a strong sensitive wonderful person talk about her work with such depth and sincerity).

Collage Class January 31 & February 1

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We continue to learn about Anni Albers, the brilliant fiber artist. I am encouraging people to make quick collages in the little notebooks using whites while everyone arrives and gets settled. I am also encouraging each of you to make small collages at home. Personally I am attempting to do a small piece daily for the month of February. I like to do them in a small notebook. 

We used Cold Wax this week. I have two similar kinds, one made by Gamblin and the other Jacquard. Cold wax is a combination of bees wax, paraffin wax, damar resin and mineral spirits. In encaustic the wax is heated. The way we were using the wax, the wax is cold, but soft and pliable like softened butter. Always use either barrier cream on the hands or gloves. We mixed about one tablespoon of wax on a plexiglass sheet with small dabs of oil paints using a narrow plastic scraper. We played with many techniques:
Using less paint for a more transparent wax color or more paint for a richer deeper hue.

Covering an area of paper with the colored wax - in thin layers, either using a scraper of a brayer (roller). These solids will make great collage material when dry.
Making paper stencils and templates and using the wax with them.
Using a brayer on the plexi and then doing ‘trace monotypes’ by laying paper over the plexi and drawing on the reverse side: this makes a print.
We introduced white into the colors to make greys and offwhites.
Why cold wax? Because mixed with oil paints (Windsor and Newton) the color is rich and wonderful. I also notice a texture that’s different. It feels soft, sometimes furry (especially when on rice papers). Next week we will start collaging with these papers and see what happens. We will also learn about the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. And watch a short film about Josef Albers.

Spring Thursday Class #3

Alexandra SheldonComment

Dear Marsha, 

Class#3: Mainly we played with Gesso, a white acrylic paint with ground chalk in it. I use Artist Grade Utrecht Gesso. It is nice and thick. We designed geometric stamps using Creativity Foam (available at places like Michaels and ACMoore) on cardboard. A great way to make a fast homemade stamp. I had everyone design a couple of stamps. Then brush Gesso onto the stamps and stamp into painted papers and/or directly into the collages. When the Gesso stamps are dry add a wash of paint (I also call this a 'glaze')  for a nice pop. This is a nice way to add grid-like structure back into the collages.

Constructing collages can be a balancing act between adding structure and tearing down structure. I like to show examples of how Robert Motherwell and Richard Diebenkorn constructed collages. The chaos and the control, the loudness and the calm. I compare making a collage to building a house: start with the foundation (space, color, light, texture, atmosphere). Start building the scaffolding (grid elements, forms and shapes like squares, images, horizon lines and verticals). Finish work: plastering and painting, details (drips and splatters, decorative stamps, painting). It's kind of ridiculous trying to describe art-making with so many words. Better to be in a room doing it. Mainly collage-making requires hours of trying and redoing and getting rid of and tearing off and adding back in. Put on some music and mix up some paints and paint back into the pieces (a great way to simplify a too-busy collage) and just go at it and have fun. Many of my students get together to make collages because it feels good having company and while it is fun to make art it is also hard, so to be together bolsters us up.

Spring Thursday Class #2

Alexandra SheldonComment

Dear Marsha,

Thursday night class #2: Working into the 'grounds' (the airy, space filled fields of color and light) by adding geometric shapes like lines, triangles, circles and squares. It's always helpful to go back to the grid. Cut strips of colored papers and collage them in. Absolute attention to color at this point. Feel the palette, intuit the colors, ask the piece: what do you want, what do you need? This is not about thinking, this is about following the feeling of the piece. I do not plan, I go one step at a time, always staying in the moment. Some people plan a collage and figure it all out before they glue anything down. This can be a great way to work and I am always intrigued by those who work like this. This is not my process though. I change one thing at a time and it shifts the piece into a new place. I suggest working on a series of pieces so that you can put things up on the wall and let them rest. Look at a piece from a distance. The image of the artist standing back and looking at the canvas on the wall is very true. Let stuff breathe, it will tell you what it needs if you let it. Suddenly you may get a message: more black in the upper corner. Listen, open, always asking the questions: Does it need more light? Does it need an image? It feels static, what could I do to enliven it? It became atonal, what can I do to the color to enhance it? I really like to work on a few pieces at a time. This way, when I get stuck, I can switch to another. Or try this: if you are stuck on a piece keep your hands moving - work thru the block. Every once in a while someone in the class says: I'm throwing this away and I run over and get the piece and ask "Can I sand it down with my electric sander?" It's always fun to take the sander and go at the rejected collage. Then, put a glaze of color over it and often you have another beautiful 'ground' to start fresh on.

Tonight I talked about abstraction versus using images. I don't see much difference. One learns what one wants. Jim Dine, the printmaker, talked about "needing a hook to hang his hat on".  He figured out that he needed an image, something realistic like a bathrobe or a heart to anchor him. I have a student who makes collages that are like drifts of colors, ethereal clouds moving through dreams. Her abstraction is what feels right to her. I travel around as an artist not unlike a hummingbird: I want to visit every flower; I draw houses and trees and I make very abstract collages too. What do YOU need? In art school I was told by a teacher named Don Moulton to visit many museums and shows and to find out what I loved to look at. He said to pay extra attention to the art that made me feel: "I know I could do that - THAT feels familiar and exciting". Maybe that's what inspiration is: when you can't wait to try it. It's contagious.