Discovering Art at Age Forty

I have vague recollections about enjoying art when I was a kid. Cray-pas, construction paper, tempera paints—brief flashes of all of these light the rooms of my brain when I think back to elementary and middle school art classes.

And all those hours of staring at the obligatory M.C. Escher posters in every math classroom I ever occupied.

I also have dim memories of a class I took in high school—“Humanities,” I think—where we learned the word, “chiaroscuro,” which I think means “light,” but I was far too interested in reading William S. Burroughs in the back of the room to worry about whatever the hell it was those Renaissance guys were doing.

I know shit about art. And I never really cared to learn.

From a very early age it was clear that if I was going to make my way in this world doing something creative, it’d be writing. A hilariously-gory short story to shock my teachers, or an angst-ridden essay on whatever imagined existential crisis I was going through at the time–that was art to me.

You know, I shouldn’t say that. I did appreciate one other art, and that was music. I’ve always found enormous pleasure in music, though I certainly couldn’t tell you anything more about a piece or song than whether or not I enjoyed it.

But drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture, collage, photography, mosaic? For the vast majority of my forty years on this planet, I never gave any of these a first thought, let alone a second. And I was quite content to remain ignorant.

Then, a few months ago, my attitude toward art changed.

It wasn’t due to any one specific incident or revelation. Rather, I just had this sense that I’d been missing out, a feeling that kept building itself up, becoming more insistent, until I decided that I should know at least a little about art forms which didn’t involve words or musical notes.

So, I picked up a book called The Annotated Mona Lisawhich bills itself as “a crash course in art history”–and started there.

“Les Grandes Baigneuses,” by Auguste Renoir. The first painting I think I’ve truly loved—and not because nekkid women.

Pre-historic, pre-Columbian, Greek, Roman, through the Renaissance, and up to the present day. There’s a lot here, and it’s laid out like a magazine, with many photographs (though not quite as many as I’d hoped, and there aren’t nearly enough color ones), sidebars, and timelines, all covering the major points of interest along the way.

At 216 pages, it’s more of an outline of art history than a deep dive, but that’s exactly what I was looking for: a skeleton which I could prop up and hang the flesh of further study on. And it was fantastic for that purpose.

Even before I finished it, I was looking up artists, finding large, full-color photographs of their major works, learning more details about the various schools and “isms” of the art world. On and on and on the book went, and I’m still kind of shocked at how easily it pulled me along with it. And how much passion for the subject it ignited in me.

As I alluded to in a previous post, one of the results of this foray into art appreciation and history has been to inspire me to get into photography, but it’s done even more than that.

It’s fueled a passion for art in general.

I’ve started looking more carefully at the art around me. I’ve begun to seek out new artists online, check out their work, and just try to understand–as best I can–what it is they’re trying to do and how they did it.

And yes, I’ll admit that I’ve been looking more closely at photographers and filmmakers than I have at illustrators or painters, but that’s a prejudice I’m hoping to rectify. And truth be told, I think it’s all accomplishing the job which I suspect was the underlying motivation I had for looking into this stuff in the first place.

It’s changing how I look at the world.

Let’s face it, in my “Hey, I turned 40!” post, I tried to be all blase about hitting that age, but you can’t live for four decades without forming a world view–and the last decade, at least for me, hasn’t made that view particularly pretty.

I won’t go so far as to say that my newfound-yet-still-severely-limited appreciation for art has turned everything all sparkly and colorful, but there are one or two more bright spots now, in what was once a uniform gray.

How To Weather Paper

Last week, I spent an entire morning baking paper in my oven.

See, I have an idea for a “concept photo” that I want to shoot (actually, I have many such ideas, but let’s not talk about that) and in order to pull it off I need to make a document that’s essentially been ruined, but in an interesting and “artistic” manner.

The problem: I had no idea how to go about such ruination. Or really any idea of how to make props at all.

So, I decided to start small, and focus on one piece of the puzzle: learning how to weather or age paper. Five hours of tutorials, tips, and trial and error later, I think I have a semi-decent handle on one method to do it.

In case you might be interested, here’s what I did, and how I did it.

Step 1 – Start with good paper

I went with Southworth’s “Premium 25% Cotton” inkjet and laser paper. I have an inkjet printer, so that much of my selection should be obvious. What’s more important, though, is that weathering paper means putting it through some serious abuse, so the paper you start with needs to durable.

We’re going for “looks ruined” and not “actually ruined.” You can get 250 sheets of this stuff for around ten bucks, and it held up well.

Step 2 – Make some tea

I did some tests with coffee, dirt, and muddy water, but tea gave me the best results by far. It’s a cliche for a reason—it works.

I used four Lipton black tea bags, because you can buy a box of a hundred for like three bucks. You’re not going to be drinking it, so go cheap. I tossed the tea bags into a cup and a half of boiling water, poked them around with a wooden spoon until they were soaked through, then turned off the heat and let them steep until everything had cooled down enough to handle.

I’ve heard various claims about what the temperature of the tea should be, but I didn’t notice any difference between hot tea and room temperature tea.

Step 3 – The soak

I squeezed out the teabags to retain their precious fluids, tossed them, then poured the results into this big glass baking dish I had laying around. Whatever you use, it has to be large enough so that your paper will lay down flat on the bottom.

Slip your first piece of paper into the dish of tea and carefully move it around. You want to make sure of two things: that the whole page is under the surface, and that there are no air bubbles under the paper.

Because I was experimenting, I soaked my paper for different amounts of time, ranging from two minutes to eight minutes. The longer it soaks, the darker it will get, obviously. However, the longer it soaks the more fragile it will get, particularly around the edges.

That can give you a bad time when you lay it out to bake.

Step 4 – The bake

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees if you’re an American, and 93.3333 degrees if you use Celsius. (Y’all must have some weird stove displays.)

Carefully take the paper out of the bath, shake off the excess as best you can (just so’s it doesn’t drip all over your work area), and lay it out on your baking sheet.

Small air bubbles under the paper are fine, creases and wrinkles are not. Creases and wrinkles will create harsh lines in the page once it’s done, which will probably ruin your day.

When your oven’s ready, stick the paper in it for 15 minutes.

Step 5 – Repeat the soak and bake

I got the best results with two “full” soaks and bakes, and one “edge” soak and bake. I’ll get to the edge soak in a second, but for now, just take your paper out of the oven and look at it. Too wrinkly and crinkly? Don’t worry, there’s a tip below to fix that. Just look at the color and pattern.

If it’s not dark or marbled/mottled enough, repeat steps three and four until it is. Then we’ll consider the edges.

Step 6 – Darken up the edges

As it ages, paper almost always gets darkest at its edges. So, we should make that happen. Do a quick, thirty second soak of the whole piece of paper, just to get it wet, then lay it down on the baking sheet.

Once down, use a paper towel to soak up some of the tea from the bath, and sprinkle/dab it just around the edges of the paper. Get a decent, thin bead of standing tea mixture on it, then carefully stick it back into the oven for another 15 minutes.

This will darken up the edge, and I think it gives a very nice effect. That said, it may take you a few tries to get the fade just right.

Tips/Tricks

That’s pretty much it, although there are a couple of other things you can try which may improve your results.

  • For a tattered or ragged edge, set up the paper as you would for an edge soak, but before putting it into the oven, worry the edge with a wooden toothpick. Work slow, taking tiny, tiny bites of the paper away from the edge to give it a subtle roughness, or go for big fat hunks for a chunkier look.
  • Paper too wrinkly for you? Iron it. Go ahead and crank up that iron to its hottest setting and give it a whirl. Just keep the iron moving, and do both sides of the paper a couple of times. Be careful, don’t set the paper or yourself on fire, and it’ll turn out fine.
  • If you need a single piece of weathered paper, plan on making four of them. You might get things perfect the first time, but don’t count on it. There’s a certain trick or art to this, and you’ll get the best results if you experiment, do multiple batches in parallel, and pick the best of the lot after all is said and done.

And lastly, a warning. Every one of my attempts to weather paper with inkjet printing on it have failed. The paper itself looked alright, but the print is far too crisp and resilient. It gave the whole thing an artificial look that just destroyed the aesthetic I was going for. You may have better mileage with pen and ink, but I haven’t tried that yet.

Look for a follow up post once I do.