From the heart of Muskoka, award winning Contemporary Paper Artist Col Mitchell works with pen and ink and sculpted papers on canvas or panel, capturing the impression of magical nature experiences through an original technique that resolves itself into works as individual as the fingerprint of that experience. Mitchell’s work has featured in Times Square NYC; the 2010 G8/G20 Summit Media Centre, Toronto; online & print magazines; art publications; popular art blogs; and juried global exhibitions.
Carrie: Welcome to Artist Strong Col! Tell us: how did you discover your interest in paper as an artist medium?
Carrie, it was a series of fortunate events that played out like falling dominoes. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a long story, but there is no other way to tell it. I’ll try to keep to the really important bits.
I attended a paper on canvas workshop early 2008 (Jan) led by Artist Donna Parlee. I was working in pen & watercolour at the time, and although I had no real interest in working with paper as the workshop information described I held (and hold) the belief that stepping out of one’s comfort zone, experimenting, and trying new techniques is essential to feed and grow one’s creativity. Spending time with other artists can also be highly inspirational.
This workshop project involved soaking in water a sheet of paper that was larger in size than the canvas support it would be applied to. After applying gel medium to the canvas, the paper was spread over the canvas with the edges of the paper lined up along the edges of canvas, which left a surfeit of paper to “play with” in the center.
It was while Parlee was bunching up the wet paper into a ball that I noticed the quality and character of the crumple lines; and I thought to myself those lines would make great tree branches. Inspired, I deviated from the instruction and deliberately manipulated the paper into a tree. Fortunately (and I’ll come to the why shortly) I applied tissue paper on top to add variety and a different quality of line.
I could see the lovely tree shape made from the paper: the interesting lines of the creases, the surface quality of the two papers. But while the other participants went on to paint their new works during the class. I opted instead to take mine home to see how it would look completely dry.
A day later I had no idea what to do with it. It was beautiful and I was not all that confident I would not wreck it somehow by painting over it. I worried acrylics would obliterate the finer details, and knew watercolour paint would slide off the surface.
More fortune: Just the previous week I bought acrylic inks. I had no idea inks came in acrylic form, and I found the discovery appealing enough to purchase the 3 primary colours, plus black, white, and a pen-nib. It seemed I had a solution on hand. (In my other hand I had a spray bottle of water standing by in case it all went horribly wrong!)
Proceeding with caution, I first misted the entire surface with water. Then I used the droppers in the bottle to drip the ink. The result was dazzling! The ink spread like fireworks, traveled, hugged crevasses thinned and paled with absorption. Most importantly, and this was the pivotal discovery which spurred my ongoing practice, I noticed how the two types of paper making up my tree interacted differently to the ink staining.
Excited and mesmerized, I repeated many applications of thinned ink creating even more surface interest. It was all lovely, soft, delicate, yet I still felt I could take the piece further. It needed some definition. So, I pulled out the pen-nib and added even more lines.
Then I sat back and marveled at the possibilities offered by all the different papers in the world.
I still have that first piece. It’s titled “When Season’s Meet.”
Carrie: When did you first embrace your desire to be an artist? (Were there obstacles in your path to creativity?)
Such a complicated question!
Do you mean when did I start a professional career as an artist? That would be around six years ago. Though I had plenty of creative outlets, serious art making had been absent from my life for far too long (since College). It is quite simply, at my core, something I need to do.
I’ve been actively creative all my life. I can recall a spectacularly intense moment when I was four and first came across the Kindergarten craft station. That rocked my young world!
Obstacles came by way of subtle social messages and absence of information. I grew up in a sports enthused family in a small, sports enthused town. Aspiring to be an artist, to pursue a creative career even, was not something presented as a feasible option, when presented at all. I would name confidence and circumstances as the reasons why my “embrace date” did not occur until I was in my forties.
Carrie: Walk us through your creative process. How does your work move from idea to finished product?
My work has mainly focused on single subjects: trees, birds, wildlife, so I start by looking at resource images. I’m not a sketcher. I prefer to work out compositions on my computer.
It depends on the subject how I will proceed from there. For some subjects I just need a little inspiration. For others, the outline shape is crucial as I will work the paper into that shape, or I only need to know where the eyes go and the rest of the body is formed as the paper inspires me to go.
Once the paper work is dry and hardened, which is at minimum overnight, I apply many layers of translucent acrylic based washes until I am satisfied and inspired by the interaction outcome. The paper is still surprisingly absorbent.
I then decide on ink colours. I mix my own ink colours and this can take hours to create the needed range as I test lines for opacity quality and value differences.
After the wash stage has dried I often begin with black ink to define shapes, such as finding branches and leaf groupings in trees. The entire image is then worked up line by line with a dipping pen nib and the prepared acrylic inks.
Carrie: How do you navigate the feelings of vulnerability that show up during the creative process?
Your question reminds me of a meme going around on the creative process which goes something like this:
- This is going to be awesome!
- This is tricky.
- This sucks.
- I suck.
- This is awesome!
I can so relate to this meme. Feeling vulnerable is unavoidable, and I think acceptance of the inevitable helps. I reach #4 every time. Every. Single. Time. But I get past it every single time too. (Though I don’t always reach #5, maybe more like 4.3 where I’m moderately satisfied.) So I accept that I will reach #4. When I do I try not to focus on the negativity and insecurities (which can go far beyond the work at hand if fertilized). I remind myself it will pass, and I try to focus on the beauty of the colours, the texture, the lines.
Carrie: What strategies do you use to help yourself when you feel “stuck?”
Sometimes reconsidering and reworking a piece that has stuck around for whatever reason, is a good kick start for me. There is a freedom gained when reworking an older or unsatisfying piece as once I’ve decided to re-do, I have essentially decided that piece is expendable so it makes for a great opportunity to go a completely different way. And a lot of the “hard work” has already been done.
Carrie: How do you decide when an artwork is finished?
I know when I am near completed, but I need a few strategies to determine when that last line is reached.
We have to remember here the final stage I’m working in, which is applying short to shortish-ish thin lines of ink..
It’s similar to filling a bowl with rice, and then adding one or two grains to determine if it’s a full bowl or not. Which sounds completely ridiculous to me and yet that is what I often go through. A grain here, a grain there. When I catch myself doing that I then have to decide if that single grain is going to make or break the piece. To help myself out, while working I will determine if a small space, a two inch square for example, can be considered finished on its own.
Because of the importance of line in my work it is important to me that the eye flows comfortably over the lines. I let my eye travel all over the work, and if my eye “catches” on something (in a ragged fingernail on a sweater kind of way) I’ll consider if it does actually need addressing before I add another grain.
As I spend so much “close-up” time with my work, towards the end, I also consider how the work reads from a distance and adjust accordingly.
When everything meshes, near to far, to my eye, I can consider it finished.
Carrie: How does your life experience and emotional state feed into your art?
A particular aspect of my childhood defined how I make art today. From birth, I was fortunate to spend most of my summers immersed in some magnificent natural surroundings. The few amenities available meant nature was a strong presence, very much “in my face.” My art reflects my process of viewing and experience of nature as I remember it, coloured by childhood imagination and fancy. My works show a single predominant subject, designed to catch the eye through shape and colour. The texture reads as movement or energy. As you explore further, get closer, the details emerge. The complexity of the interwoven coloured lines heightens the sense of discovery which (hopefully) ignites and connects you to your own memories of discovery that have a sense of the fantastical to them.
While working, and at the final stage, the line work is quite meditative, I am often in real danger of nodding off! It is during this stage that I play music, but I am careful of the music I play while working. I listen to radio and it took me a while to find a channel that keeps an even, light, positive tone and song choices. I don’t like to be randomly emotionally manipulated up and down while that focused nor have my line work affected by that.
Carrie: What is one piece of advice you have for struggling creatives?
Take time to Play. The way Artists play, which is very far and different from how the word ‘play’ is defined. ‘Play” is an essential TOOL for artists. It is necessary to creativity, and the benefits are immeasurable. Own the word and activity as a tool for your creative growth.
(Take stock of your supplies and ask yourself how you could use them differently. REALLY differently. Go for crazy.)
Carrie: What is one creative resource you can’t live without?
Though that’s probably not what you mean… 🙂 so I’ll add Rethinking Acrylic: Radical Solutions For Exploiting The World’s Most Versatile Medium by Patti Brady
Carrie: Who/what inspires you?
In 1931 my grandfather built a cottage on Smoke Lake in Algonquin Park (Ontario), and with my family I spent time there every year for over 20 years. No electricity (no TV, no Gameboys, no iPhones) meant imagination was King. We planned our entertainment, invented games played on both land and water. Enjoyed lazy quiet times and admired lush expansive views. Much time was spent crouched in intense contemplation of tiny life forms or fauna. We were tickled or bitten by insects, entranced or startled by sound (please don’t be a bear!), buffeted or soothed by wind, warmed or burned by sun.
It is my memories, those experiences I reach for when art making. That random pendulum of intensity and tranquility, the shape, colour, line, and texture I associate with and recall from my youth of nature’s wonders, beauty and complexity
Carrie: How do you define Creativity?
These are not my words, but I fully get behind this, and this is a focus in my own course I teach at Haliburton School of the Arts:
- to imagine or invent something new
- to generate new ideas by combining, changing, or reapplying existing ideas
- an ability to accept change and newness
- a willingness to play with ideas and possibilities
- a flexibility of outlook
- a realization of other possibilities
- to continually seek improvements
- to continually improve on ideas and solutions, by making gradual alterations and refinements
Source: Robert Harris
This is probably a good place to point out that my work places great demand on my creativity. I have no idea how my art will turn out. I know what the subject is, I can see it easily enough in the paper, but after that I am working in response to the interaction of the materials. The only preplanning is the subject, the type of paper I will use, and the colours I would like to incorporate. But the colour plan can change well into the line work. I have to be flexible. For instance, I am constrained by gravity, ink falls down the pen, so I have to work somewhat flat. My reach is also limited by the needs of the pen, so I am always having to work a piece sideways and upside down as well. I’m constantly imagining as I work, and making gradual alterations and refinements.
BE COURAGEOUSLY CREATIVE: How can you embrace play as an essential artist tool? I want to know! Tell me about it in the comments below.