Experimenting with materials is one thing all artists do. It’s as natural and playful as a child rolling down a grassy hill. They dip their hands into the plaster, they squeeze the clay until it expands between their fingers, or they stir the intense colors on their palette making spiral swirls and then stub their brush on the paper printing fuzzy multicolored blotches. As I read Faye Hirsch’s interview with Roland Flexner in September’s Art in America I couldn’t help but think of the visual importance of exploring a medium’s limitations. Flexner suspends india ink, water-soluble graphite, or sumi ink in water on paper creating a marbleized blot full of variably contrasting values. Sometimes he manipulates the dark medium with his breath (not unlike what you did with a drinking straw as a kid) and other times he lets chance dictate the results by transferring the image to another paper like a monoprint. The resulting images have fluid and atmospheric qualities resembling textures from a coral reef.
In high school we spend a lot of time practicing or learning to control a medium. Countless hours are spent trying to get uniform gradations, or to make flexible clay appear flat, smooth, and ridged. Disciplined control of a medium is an important lesson, but often young artists ignore the natural qualities of a medium. In batik the wax is runny and drippy. Lines from a tjanting tool are naturally high quality by their varied thickness. Wouldn’t it be better to choose a composition or subject that exploits those loose drippy characteristics rather than making a batik look like a painting? The same holds true for the natural flexibility of clay. Look at the hands-on pinching and tooling on Giacometti or DeKooning sculptures. What do they know?
So although control is an integral part of what students do when learning artistic techniques, one cannot ignore the visual purity of splashy, bleeding watercolor washes or the jewel-like waterfalls that occur when one glaze flows into another. The powerful dark mark a stick of soft charcoal makes as opposed to a pen or pencil brings a different reaction from a viewer. These are the attributes of a medium that need to be explored at an advanced level. Often, media based artists like Roland Flexner present the visual characteristics of a tool or technique without a subject at all, as pure abstractions. And at the same time the way a medium is used might enhance or suggest a subject as Flexner’s sometimes suggest crystalline landscapes. The amount of time you spend experimenting with a medium or technique may be the thing that makes a picture or ceramic pot look like art.