Creative Catalyst artist, Jacqueline Sullivan is a mixed media, acrylic and calligraphic artist. She is well known for her pieces that experiment with texture, layers, paint, unusual materials, calligraphic marks, and words. She has a degree in graphic design and worked for many years as a publication and advertising designer. For over 30 years Jacqueline has also been a teaching artist and currently travels throughout the US and Canada. See her workshop "Acrylics: Textures, Layers, and Metallics" in the Creative Catalyst shop.
How do you begin a piece?
I usually start painting using fluid acrylics slightly watered down. I use large brush strokes and full body movements dividing the substrate and establishing some hints of tonality. I try to work intuitively and not think about what I am doing too much. Picasso said, “To draw, you must close your eyes and sing.”
Could you walk us through your process? What are you focusing on in each stage?
I start with thin transparent layers of fluid acrylics. Mostly at this stage, I am working in analogous colors. As the layers build I build the composition. I watch brush strokes to establish motion and direction to an evolving focal area. As I work, I am increasing the contrast in the piece, darkening the darks and lightening the light areas.
You paint with acrylics. What does working with acrylics give you that another medium may not? What kind of paints (heavy or soft-bodied) do you use and why? What do you like about how they work?
I use mostly fluid acrylics. The thin transparent layers build depth and interest into the painting. I prefer building my textures first and then painting over them, rather than have the texture coming from the paint. With the fluids, I can easily eliminate brush strokes in areas and leave them in others, just by controlling the amount of moisture used. I can build layer after layer quickly because the acrylics dry fast. Anything I don’t like can be quickly changed.
Acrylic paints are incredibly versatile which can be both a pro and a con. What is the biggest challenge you see in your students learning to use acrylic paints? What advice do you give them?
Many students struggle with the amount of moisture to use with the paints. Lately, I find myself teaching a lot about brushwork - how wet or dry to make the brush to get the type of stroke that you want on the painting.
Because I teach abstract painting, I think a balance of busy areas vs. blended areas is important. Lost and found edges can make an abstract painting very interesting, but it can be hard to establish this type of composition if you don’t understand how your brushes work and what type of mark it will make.
I often advise students to finish their paintings with a dryer, more removable media. I often have them use PanPastels or watercolor crayons at the end. This way they can try colors and tonality and if they don’t the color or the mark, they can erase it and try again.
What are the major design elements or principles at play in yours? How do you use them? Why are they important?
Because my training is in design, I teach abstract painting from a design standpoint. I stress composition and the Golden Mean Rule of Thirds to establish a focal area.
High contrast pulls the viewer into the painting from across the room and tonality establishes depth in the painting, which, in my opinion, encourages the viewer to stay interested in the painting for a longer time. The focal point is usually the area of the highest contrast in the painting. There should be suggested movement in the painting to guide the viewer towards the focal point.
How do you approach color?
With students, I try to get them to understand the transparent qualities in their paints and how to work with it to establish layers. This includes making tints and shades of each color. I usually start my paintings (and have student’s start theirs) with mostly analogous colors. This keeps me from getting into too much trouble too soon. Then as the painting develops, I start moving across the color wheel to establish the focal point and add interest to the rest of the painting.
I still work very intuitively. I have been painting my whole life and so getting into the zone comes naturally to me. But it is difficult for someone who is just starting to paint to work without a plan. What many people view as mistakes are just opportunities for creative discoveries. I think when you paint intuitively more energy and emotion comes out in your painting.
It is important not to create and analyze at the same time. They are separate brain functions. Paint for a while, stop and evaluate, make one decision on what to do next and then go back to painting.
Does order of operation matter with gels and mediums and other textures (like cheesecloth and aluminum)? In your process, do you have some you always use before others? Why?
I usually build from the lightest texture to the heaviest. Some of this has to do with drying time. There really aren’t any rules. But sometimes I will go back and add different textures as the painting builds. I use mediums as glues and I match the viscosity of the medium to the weight of the texture. e.g.Fluid medium for tissue and heavy gel for the aluminum foil.
Gels and mediums. It’s a lot to learn. What’s the biggest confusion you see in your students with the mediums and gels? Where should a student start?
There is an ever-growing variety of gels, mediums, and pastes. That’s the good news and the bad news. I think that it is a good practice to keep an art journal/ notebook and do tests and make notes. By experiencing the differences, you will remember them better. Read the labels. There is a lot of information there. Also, many stores have samples on the labels on the store shelves. Read and experiment. Always ask “What if.” Try things and keep good notes.
While most of us are visual learners, it is hard to keep everything in our heads. Make your journal or notebook your best friend. When you are having a hard time finding your muse, reading through old notes and ideas will help get you going.
Also, the paint manufacturers have a ton of info and ideas on their websites and YouTube channels. Take advantage of it.
In abstract mixed media, you could layer forever. How do you know when you’re finished with a piece? What does the piece need to have to call it done?
When asked how he knew when a painting is done Andy Warhol answered: “When the check is in the bank.” Particularly with acrylics, it is tempting to just keep working it over and over. When your painting feels good to you, stop painting and call it done.
It is always good to have artist’s friends that you can get together with and share your work and get honest critiques.
Learn more about Jacqueline Sullivan by visiting her website.
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