This post coming to you from fun and friendly St. Louis, where we've been enjoying this beautiful city for the past couple of weeks (we even did a TV interview!) before we pack up the Scamp and head on to Peoria, Illinois for the Peoria Fine Art Fair.
If you've ever seen my paintings in person, your attention was most likely first grabbed by the long-limbed characters inhabiting my art. Their stretched out arms and legs draw your eye in and upon closer examination, you notice that they're not simply painted on; rather, they're made out of another material and attached to the canvas. Is it metal?, people often ask. Nope. Wood? Not that either. It's paper.
I create my characters from hundreds of hand-torn collaged bits of kraft paper. I do this not only to make them "pop" off of the canvas but also because I want the job to be the focal point. The main reason that I created The Jobs of Yesteryear was to preserve the stories of these forgotten occupations. Collaging the figure out of paper drives that story home more effectively and leaves a lasting impression.
Back in 2010 when I first started painting The Jobs of Yesteryear, I created the collaging process to give my characters an added dimension. It is this process that I will share with you now, as seen through the creation of one my latest paintings, The Cordwainer, which was another name for a shoemaker.
Every Job of Yesteryear begins in my sketchbook. I use my sketches to work out the general composition and get a rough idea of what the finished painting will look like. This is not a time-consuming, labor-intensive process. I sketch them small and quickly, careful to not labor over the details, as I like to allow the paint to surprise me and just let it happen on the canvas.
I then conquer the proverbial blank canvas by layering in the background and big shapes using acrylic paint and masking tape. In the case of The Cordwainer, it was a grungy shop setting illuminated by a window to the viewer's right. I typically use drips and splatters to add both visual variety and organic shapes, which contrast with the straight geometric edges of the walls, window and bench.
I continue to add details as I work my way forward, adding the shelves, tool hanging board and the McKay stitching machine (seen in the next room on the left) which serves as the modern technology that replaced The Cordwainer. In each painting in the series, I include the modern technology that ultimately led to each job becoming obsolete. I chose to do this to encourage the viewer to think about the progression of that industry and how it connects to our present lives.
At this point, the painting component of the piece is mostly done and it's time to move on to making the figure out of paper. I start by sketching him out on watercolor paper, being careful to make him the right size and posture.
After a fair amount of erasing and redrawing, I then get out my trusty X-acto knife and carefully free The Cordwainer and his tools from their paper prison.
Next, I begin to cover the cut-out figure with torn pieces kraft paper (which I tear up by hand while listening to my favorite storytelling podcast). I use PVA, a book binding glue that is acid-free (meaning it won't yellow or destroy the paper) and archival (meaning it will last for thousands of years). The overlapping torn edges give it a nice, random texture. For added variety, I will typically glue the face, hands and tools onto kraft paper and then cut them out, rather than covering them in torn pieces.
Once I'm done covering him from head to toe in torn paper, I let the glue dry and then flip him over to trim the edges from the back.
The final step before I affix the collaged figure to the canvas is to add a wash of black acrylic paint to further highlight the texture created by the overlapping torn edges as well as give the figure detail. By a wash, I mean that I use water to dilute black paint when I want a lighter tone and use undiluted black paint when I want a darker tone. At this point, the painting is nearly done and I will start rocking out (the Pixies or My Morning Jacket do the trick), excited to see the completed piece.
Once he's all painted up, I carefully affix The Cordwainer to the canvas using that nice and sticky PVA. You can see how the figure and objects don't quite look grounded. Time for shadows...
The very final step is to cut out a little TV and glue it in the corner. I then walk away and give my wife and son high-fives. Relief and satisfaction wash over me and gratitude settles into my soul. Another Job of Yesteryear has found its way onto the canvas and this little bit of history has been preserved in my kinda way.