Soak stain experiments on fabric

I wanted to see if I could make progress with using fabric as a painting support, having done a little of this in part 2.    Connected with this, reviewing my part 2 paintings with melting ice, and commenting on the ‘lightness of the pigments and the way the unpredictable is invited’ my tutor recommended looking at Helen Frankenthaler’s work with staining and bleeding.

I looked at both her paintings and her woodcuts.  The paintings are made with very thin paint – oils thinned with turpentine, and later acrylics thinned with water – on unprimed canvas, producing luminous colour washes.  Her compositions are abstract, based almost entirely on colour, although titles she gives to individual paintings suggest an objective inspiration (often the landscape). Is good as an introduction to her work.

(  quotes  Frankenthaler as saying ‘you have to know how to use the accident, how to recognise it, how to control it, and ways to eliminate it so that the whole surface looks felt and born all at once’.  This is particularly true in the case of soak stain, where pigment flows and spreads unpredictably.

The same web site states that ‘Determination is an essential characteristic of the artist whose work evolves from experimentation.’  This seems particularly true in the case of Frankenthaler’s work in woodcuts, where she and her team collaborated to push her creative limits, and those of the technique, to produce painterly prints that look as fluid and spontaneous as any of her paintings.

‘A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once. It’s an immediate image…one really beautiful wrist motion that is synchronised with your head and heart, and you have it, and therefore it looks as if it were born in a minute’  Helen Frankenthaler, quoted in


One of my ideas for assignment 3 submission is to use fabric as support for a portrait – whether it will work I’m not sure,but I started by experimenting with painting thinned watercolour washes onto swatches of various fabrics (cotton, linen, iron-on dressmaker’s interfacing), some raw, others coated with acrylic gel medium, pva glue, and gesso, and made notes in my sketchbook.  I found that the dilute washes spread and flow long after application, so that what looks like an interestingly loose, but readable portrait can disappear into paint which is still flowing and spreading as it dries. I admit to feeling disheartened, as though I were groping in the dark and getting nowhere. I didn’t even really know how I might be able to incorporate this approach in my assignment portraits.   Determination was definitely needed to continue down this avenue.   It seems painting in a loose and spontaneous way on unprimed fabric needs to be tempered by experience and careful control over the amount of pigmented water applied, if the outcome is to be at all defined (as opposed to completely blurred and merged).


I have a length of embroidery silk, a tightly woven, fine, semi-transparent fabric, which I could paint on and which might combine interestingly as a layer over another painting.  I tried monoprinting onto the fabric from a glass plate, using thinned oil paint, and produced an ethereal, ghost-like portrait which looked promising (bottom right).  I mounted a couple of the swatches into my sketchbook over handwritten text



In the exercises for Part 2 I had taken a ghost print of my uncle on semi-transparent tissue paper; I tried laying this over other portraits to see what would emerge.

This looks effective ; the colours – red on top, blue beneath – combine to make a rich shade of purple; the portraits are partly offset , so you can read each one separately and the two together (another way of achieving clarity while blending images could be to combine ahead and shoulders portrait with a figure, i.e. images on different scales); thereplentyof negative space in each of the compositions, so the blended image isn’t too busy.  

This experiment showed me that to mount a painting on a semi-transparent support over another painting and/or text, the top painting’s composition would need to incorporate unpainted, or flat, thinly-washed passages, to allow the lower layer to be at all readable.  The subjects of the two should be on a different scale so as not to confuse the eye.  Also the effect of different colours and tones on the physical layers blending optically would need to be considered.   How this could work for my Family Album isn’t clear to me yet, but im quite excited by the possibilities, and possible meanings – the example above combines the mother and the son, when they were each in their early twenties, so spans time and generations.



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