Fungus Among Us……When Mold Invades Your Palette

Some artists have had the experience of opening their watercolor palettes, anticipating a productive painting session ahead, only to find fuzzy grey mounds of mold growing on some of the pigments.  Several of my students approached me, palette in hand, asking for a remedy. And so this blog post was born…

The grey and white molds that you might see on the paint pigments are fungus spores.  Spores like these will grow and flourish provided these four conditions are met: darkness, warmth, moisture and a compatible substance to call home. If spores can find a closed palette, freshly misted with water, kept in a warm room, it is possible for growth. In this case, the spores are embedding in the gum arabic.  Gum arabic is the sap from the acacia tree; it is used as a natural binding agent for most professional grade watercolor paints, allowing all the parts of the paint (like pigment, water, and other additives) to combine easily.

Nowadays, most professional grade paint also includes an antifungal additive in the mixture; often this is enough to circumvent the mold problem.  However, some artists purposely try to interfere with the mold process by letting their paints dry well, leaving off the palette covers, or storing their palettes in a cool place, such as the refrigerator. Those who regularly follow these practices are often convinced that they are beating the mold problem.

Occasionally, molds will grow no matter what measures an artist tries.  What should be done then?  Some painters have said to mix the mold up with the paint and use it that way.  This is not a good choice, as molds can alter the colors, be transferred on your brushes and grow on your painting.  Once molds have sprouted on a painting, only a professional fine arts conservationist can alleviate the problem.

Others have suggested washing your palette with an anti-mold liquid. White vinegar has been offered, though most would say that vinegar is more destructive than beneficial to the paint.  Another artist proposes to use a small dab of Pine-Sol on a paper towel to clean out his pan wells periodically, though the effect of Pine-Sol on paint pigments is not clear.  Finally, other painters have written about using either denatured alcohol or distilled water to clean the affected paint wells, neither of which are proven treatments.

Winsor & Newton suggests instead that the affected paint wells be cleaned out thoroughly and washed with a diluted solution of Dettol liquid.  Dettol is a topical antiseptic disinfectant that is gentle to your paint pigments. 

So, if the dreaded molds pop up on your palette, try the Dettol liquid.  I also welcome any other solutions that you have might have tried to either prevent or rid mold from occurring.


What the Heck is Yupo?

The tools that watercolor artists use are simple and straightforward; in addition to our paints, there are only brushes, water and paper.  So when a new product was introduced about a dozen years ago to the watercolor community, there was both interest and trepidation.  What is yupo and how would a watercolor artist use it?

During the late 1990s, yupo was created by two Japanese firms looking for an alternative surface to the traditional fiber-based papers.  The name “yupo” refers to its creation: YU is for the Misubishi Petrochemical Company, known as Misubishi Yuko in Japan; P is for paper, and O is for the Oji Paper Company.  The product was not available or manufactured in the United States until the early 2000s.

Basically, yupo is a completely recyclable, waterproof synthetic paper, made from extruded polypropylene pellets.  No part of it is taken from any tree product. Just like traditional paper, yupo is created in different weights or thicknesses.  Then it is spun onto large spools in long lengths and cut into widths from 16 inches to 66 inches.  Though yupo has many other applications, artists typically use yupo in weights comparable to 62 to 144 pounds.

So why use yupo?  The synthetic paper is extremely smooth with no man-made irregularities. Every sheet will be identical.  The yupo paper is very durable, waterproof and stain resistant; it will not tear or buckle.  Yupo has a very long shelf life.  Additionally, painting on yupo can give added texture to your work, and if you don’t like what you painted, simply wipe it clean with a moistened cloth.

However, there are some complications with painting on yupo.  Both dirt and oils can hinder the paper’s performance, including the natural oils from your own hands.  Therefore, I have started each yupo painting by wiping down the surface with a cotton ball saturated in rubbing alcohol.  I wear gloves while painting, and my non-painting hand is resting on a paper towel while I am working.

The watercolor paint remains on the surface on the yupo paper, without ever absorbing deeper like it does on traditional paper; because of this, the colors on yupo seem brighter.  Additionally, the only way for the paint to dry is by evaporation. During the drying process, I’ve watched other textures appear in the paint, especially if I am painting with extra wet pigments. 

Yupo is a surface to embrace, using it for those paintings that would best adapt to its particular traits.  Detailed paintings with layered washes may best remain on traditional fiber-based papers. However, a looser composition with intensive colors and textures would present well on yupo paper.  Yupo is definitely worth a try and who knows? Perhaps you’ll embrace it for some of your own paintings.  

Photo A shows the textures that I can easily achieve on yupo:

Photo B is a painting of the Point Lomos Lighthouse in San Diego on traditional paper:

Photo C shows the same subject on yupo:

Henri Matisse----The Cut Outs Museum of Modern Art, New York

Henri Matisse was an artist who was born in 1869 and painted in France until his death in 1954. Matisse was a sculptor, a printmaker and a draftsman, but he was known for his paintings. These oil paintings exhibited Matisse’s striking sense of color and his ability to create interesting and fluid shapes. In addition to a wide body of paintings, Matisse also created a specialized form of collage which he coined “cut outs”.  Matisse said he was “sculpting with a scissors” when he produced each cut out, showing the artist’s approach to this particular art form.

The cut out began with small pencil drawings that Matisse would do when deciding on various composition possibilities.  Then, using large sheets of pre-painted paper that his students would prepare, Matisse would attack these colored papers with his scissors.  The cut shapes would be pinned to the walls of Matisse’s studio or dining room, and the artist would move the pieces around until he was satisfied with their position.  Finally, the finished product would reveal itself and Matisse allowed the cut pieces to be glued down.  All of the cut away paper was saved.  In some cut outs, such as in Composition, Violet and Blue, the artist used the saved pieces as negative images of some of the shapes. Others cut off pieces emerged in later works as small squares of color.  Nothing was wasted.

Some of his cut outs are small, while others are very large, almost mural like in proportion. Matisse used simple images in repeating patterns and colors in a decorative manner.  In The Parakeet and the Mermaid, a larger mural, the shapes are boiled down to their simplest forms, yet these are intriguing and beguiling without being juvenile.  The huge size of the piece with its multiple-fingered seaweed makes us feel as though we, too, are below the waters.  

When Matisse painted Dance in 1909, it didn’t seem possible to break the human form down to anything more basic.  In this painting five naked people are holding hands and dancing with wild abandon to music we can’t hear.  The background is plain so that the human forms stand out against it.  Yet, in his two Blue Nudes, Matisse showed us that the figure may be even further simplified. Without seeing the details of each of these persons, we know what she is doing and feeling.  The most incredible figure cut outs are in The Swimming Pool, a large mural designed to put us, the viewers, right into the pool with everyone else.  The cut outs are all blue geometric shapes, forming parts of figures in action with water splashes. 

Some cut outs are diving, some are  sculling underwater while others are lolling in the pool. This piece has action and emotion…..and it is all done with simple pieces of blue paper on a white background.

Matisse was a diverse artist but in his later years when he could no longer paint the way he wanted, he turned to these cut outs to express himself.  I learned from this show, however, that Matisse actually made cut outs throughout his life, using this technique whenever he had a composition problem to solve.  It may help us to employ this same technique when we need to resolve composition conflicts in our own works.

In person, these cut outs have a vibrancy and illumination that cannot be translated into reproductions or fully appreciated in books.  I urge you to visit the show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  

Henri Matisse---The Cut Outs will be available for viewing through February 8, 2015.