Painting Technique

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1762, acrylic

Q: I’d like to move on to your technique.  At this point it seems you’ve established a distinct working method involving some very specific techniques. When did you start working in this way, or in this direction.

ReeL:  From the very beginning actually.  There were hints of it in how I combined dry and wet media in that first oil I did when I was twelve. That piece that got kicked out of the student show when I was 15 and put into the professional show was in some ways, technically, a forerunner of my current technique. Then I experimented with a lot of other approaches, often returning to develop this technique further.

When I left college and was involved with the and/or alternative space in Seattle, a bunch of us  at and/or ordered an entire drum of Rhoplex from Rhom and Hass.  This is the basis for acrylic paint. But it’s a bit tricky to work with it in this form. There are additives that help immensely. But the feeling then was that most commercial and artists paint manufacturers over designed their paints.

Q: What do you mean over-designed?

ReeL: they add so many additives they narrow down the  possible properties so that too many alternate possibilities are eliminated.  They want to design the paint for too specific a purpose and too small a set of technical possibilities.

The simpler the paint, the wider the possibilities in most cases.  For example, in oil, certain manufacturers use only oil and a single pigment. This gives the greatest possibilities. This is how almost all artists  paints were made up until the 20th century, with the exception of a few special mixes, such as Payne’s grey, and there was all that 19th century experimentation with bitumen and asphaltum and all that, but most times paints were made with a single pigment and oil.  Other stuff was added later, while you were painting to control the specific situation, but you didn’t limit your paint from the start, only as you worked toward a specific application.  That all changed when artists stopped mixing their own paints and commercial artists materials companies started taking over.   The companies started designing the paints for the artists, to my mind to the great detriment of the possibilities  in the paint.

But back to what I was doing: what I was doing was experimenting with using pure pigments and dry media directly with the Rhoplex. That is the basis of my current technique.  I wanted to work with a wide range of transparency, To be able to shift the transparency of my paint from a very opaque white to totally clear. So I began working with simple white house paint, Rhoplex and dry media, even things like snap-line chalks.  Very simple, stripped down situation.   In college I  was working with pencil and a lot of compressed charcoal and just the clear acrylic medium.

In oils I gained a similar range by working with Alumina Hydrate ground into oil. This is a totally clear true pigment, that is, it behaves like a pigment, and creates a completely clear oil paint that can be mixed with any other oil paint to gain complete control of the transparency without altering the paint.

Q: Sort of like glazing.

ReeL: Except classic oil glazes are traditionally completely liquid, with the pigment thinned in a glazing medium made of things like damar varnish and stand oil and non-denatured turpentine, all of which also dilutes the pigment as well.  I was looking for a less diluted pigmentation situation.

Later, when working with Dan Smith supply, I got a hold of a range of Mark Golden’s liquid acrylics. These worked beautifully in the clear mediums I was using at that point,  It is like painting with  pure liquid color.

Pigmentation then came from either Golden liquid acrylics or dry media, usually pastels.  This let me get a more graphic quality to my line.  Pastels were just a convenient way to get pure pigments into the medium.  Everything was locked down with layers of clear medium.  So there are a lot of layers of paint in the paintings, but each is very liquid,  thin.   This is where things stood when I was in my early 20s.  From there its been a lot of experimentation and cycling back and pushing this original foundation further.

The other thing I did in my 20s was make a set of stretcher bars and just keep re-stretching other canvases on the same set and reusing them for exhibition and working.

Q: Is this why you seem to work on the same size, of canvases a lot?

ReeL: Pretty much.  At times I’ve worked on the same set of stretcher bars for quite awhile.

Q: How long awhile?

ReeL: A couple of decades. For example, in 1984 I put together a set of 48 by 54 inch stretchers and used them over and over again up until about 2014.  I still do this to some extent, but nowhere as much as I used to.  The bigger canvases I tend to do on the wall and leave unstretched until I need to stretch them.

Q: How big do you work now?

ReeL: the biggest painting I’ve worked on lately was 13 feet wide or long.  The Museum of Contemporary Art in Santa Barbara show had a couple of pieces that were 10 x 5 feet.  I tend to prefer working slightly smaller.   In a range where I can easily reach within my natural arm reach.  A modest scale really.  But I can scale up fairly naturally and easily.  If I have reason to.

Q:  Do you work on ladders?

ReeL: No. Besides I have problems with vertigo, an inner ear problem. In fact, I took a bad fall earlier last year and injured my hip.  I should not be climbing up on things anymore.  A good way to be reminded one is 64.  So I guess I am limited to a certain scale, unless I have assistants, or we use a process where I don’t need to get up on anything.

Q: But you’re otherwise in good health?

ReeL: Physically, I feel as good, and sometimes better, than I did in my 20s. I just can’t do certain things anymore.

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