How I try out new materials

I often see people at art material trade shows or art supply stores, trying out pencils, pens, paints or papers by making a few quick strokes.  In ten seconds, they’ve already decided whether they like it or not and will ever buy it.  They put it down and walk away. This is unfortunate.  Think of how many things you hated or were awful at on your very first attempt or usage:  climbing a tree, driving a car, wearing a bra, drinking beer, speaking in front of a group, ice skating, using a new phone.  In each case, there is nothing inherently wrong with the object or activity, it’s only that one quick try isn’t enough to understand it or have any skill with it.  One needs to invest a little more time with it, and then it’s fine.  It might even be better than fine, it might be terrific!

Many art supply manufacturers know of this short-attention-span problem and give out free samples for folks to take home and try on a small project.  A small sheet of paper, or a pencil, for example.  But that doesn’t seem to help; many artists I know have drawers or boxes full of free samples they’ve never used but can’t bring themselves to donate.

I have a few free samples laying around, too.  But if something comes recommended, such as a particular brand of colored pencils or a particular type of paper, I don’t simply do a quickie scribble.  I launch into a full-scale project with it.  By the end of the project, I’ve spent several hours learning how that material behaves under the full range of my expectations, and I either have a new finished artwork to add to my body of work, or a binned failure.  The latter is pretty rare, though, because I can generally augment the process with materials I do already like and it turns out fine anyway.

Two recent cases illustrate my point.

Case #1: Pencils

Tree of Stories, 15"x20", colored pencil on Stonehenge paper

Tree of Stories, 15″ x 20″, colored pencil on Stonehenge paper

Tree of Stories was my first time using Faber-Castell Polychromos colored pencils.  It’s 15″ x 20″, so I knew I was in for several weeks of familiarization.

The first few strokes I put on my Stonehenge paper, I thought “Uh-oh, this isn’t going to work at all.  I’ve made an expensive mistake buying the whole 120 set.”  They are oil-based so are much more powdery than waxy Prismacolor Premiers or Caran d’Ache Luminance.  Because of that, I could lightly run my finger across the surface of the paper and quite a bit of pigment lifted right off.  Horrors!  But then I thought, “Well, maybe I can use that powderiness to my advantage–it probably will fill the tooth of the paper easier.”  And it did.  I was careful to keep a paper shield under my drawing hand at all times and never scoot it to move it.

Then after a day or two I noticed that it seemed the darker colors had faded and I had to re-apply them to enforce their intensity.  It wasn’t my imagination.  From talking to other artists I learned that Stonehenge paper seems to absorb something in the Polychromos.  That was easy to fix–I added a bit of Prismacolor on top of those areas.  By the time I finished a few weeks later, I knew how to use Polychromos pencils to do what I want, admired their range of browns and greens, and had a drawing that was good enough for acceptance into the 2014 CPSA International Exhibition.

If I had stopped after those first few strokes, Tree of Stories would still have happened with other pencils, but I would be telling people, very mistakenly, that these great Polychromos pencils are awful.

Case #2: Paper

Mutual Support, 14"x21", graphite on Canson 88 paper

Mutual Support, 14″ x 21″, graphite on Canson 88 paper

Mutual Support, 14″ x 21″, was my first time using Arches 88 paper.  I had been looking for some good paper for graphite, to achieve darks without a lot of shininess.  Stonehenge paper works great for colored pencil but isn’t quite what I wanted for graphite.  Gil McMillon, the owner of Accent Arts in Palo Alto, suggested another printmaking paper, Arches 88.  It’s 100% cotton like Stonehenge but has almost a plate surface.  I was skeptical–how could such a smooth surface work for graphite?  I bought a single 22″x30″ sheet for about $8.50–quite a bit more than a sheet of Stonehenge costs.  The first few strokes I took on it seemed to confirm my fear–there was virtually no tooth at all, so the graphite went on very smoothly.  I thought “Oh no, the pencil is going to skate right off the surface and the whole drawing will end up light gray. I just wasted $8.50 on this big sheet I can’t use for anything else.”  But I kept going, and within an hour I was sold on it.  The fact that it’s 100% cotton makes it hold graphite despite its plate surface. It’s easy to achieve smooth shading and very dark darks since there is virtually no tooth to fill.  I used only a 4B pencil for the entire drawing and am very pleased with how it turned out.  I returned to Accent Arts yesterday to buy two more sheets!

To summarize, it takes more than a few strokes to decide if an art material is right for your way of working; you won’t really know before you invest a few hours with it.  Be brave, launch into a full-fledged piece with the same determination you give to your usual work.