Work Process

“Untitled (Artist’s Love Letter to Himself)”

or

Let’s take a glance into my dumb work process!

I love painting yet I barely paint. This is mostly because I anticipate not doing a good job and get scarred. I think that’s the most concise way to describe how I feel around my own work. That or I’m just a virgo, go figure. I’m sure it’s natural for many, but nonetheless, I generally feel that my lack of a straightforward painting approach keeps me from being more productive. Simply put, from start to finish, the entire painting process only has as much or as little actual painting as you decide – but everything else is mandatory: stretching, sizing, gessoing, and priming a canvas… blah, blah, blah.

Enter my 2nd biggest general artistic interest: collage.

If something is true about the work I made in 2019 is that I circumvented almost the entire painting process by making separate paintings on paper and illustration board and then collaging them to canvas instead of ever laying actual paint to canvas. The most recent example of this is my work “Untitled (Artist’s Love Letter to Himself)” – a piece completed over the course of two-ish months. With the help of my then assistant Julie, I sketched, under-painted, painted and attached different things to canvas.

Another way I circumvent my own circumvention process is by using primarily acrylic mediums as opposed to actual adhesives. I’ve just been using gel mediums for so long that it makes complete sense to use them (at least as far as works on canvas are concerned). As far as I can tell I’ve used acrylic mediums as persnickety substitutes for glue more than I’ve used them to actually give my paints elasticity and modify their appearance and application. And it’s not helpful either, which is a testament to my whole cutting corners mentality. So much of the time I spend working with acrylic mediums boils down to baby sitting collage methods that would probably be no-brainers otherwise. It’s not that I have no interest in collaging paper to paper, I just like making works on canvas more and well… if it works (despite the work process-related frustration) then it works!

Maybe one day I’ll be faced with the harsh reality that my works are no good unless I fully paint them from start to finish like Allison Zuckerman or Dana Schutz: without the collaging shenanigans. Until then, cutting corners it is babes! Here’s a bit of what I would call a WIP trip down memory lane for my piece “Untitled (Artist’s Love Letter to Himself)”

As I often start my figure paintings, I worked from reference photos – in this case, pictures my younger sister took of my arms in our living room. I thought the lighting was great and I had really been into the two t-shirts I took the reference photos in. The photos sat on my phone for a while before I finally decided to project and draw them on prepared pieces of drawing paper. Julie was of instrumental help – she sketched the arms for me, and gave me the general value placement, from which I could work on laying down color.

Painting then happened in two or three stages: the first of which consisted of laying down cool undertones – blues, dark greens, and purples – basically colors I enjoy putting down first to offset my skin-tone palette which consists almost entirely of warm colors and white. It took me altogether about a week to finish painting the arms. Because I was working with acrylics on paper I was mindful of needing to completely finishing certain areas in the span of a few hours. It was not difficult, seeing as it was only two arms, but painting the skin tones a week apart might’ve made them look completely different. It was important that they made sense as a pair, even if my original goal was to use each for a different piece.

The canvas I eventually pasted the arms onto was originally created for something else as well. I wanted a dirty, stained background – something that reminded me of the plastic cloth covering my studio work table. I got Julie working on the initial wash of paint and I went back in later with multiple ink washes. I was doing this while working on three other things alongside the two arm paintings because this background was meant for another collage. Soon however, I realized that what I originally wanted to collage onto this background would’ve looked entirely out of place. Nothing about that original idea was going to be enhanced by this background. So with that decision out of the way I decided to take it up a notch and did everything in my power to muddy it up even more. I doodled on it, scratched it with charcoal, rubbed the surface with a rag, left a puddle of dirty ink water to dry on the surface, glued things to it, etc. Anything to make this background as beautifully gnarly as I could.

For a while the different elements I attached to the canvas were on with just a few strips of painter’s tape. I did this just so I could live with the work in the studio for a while before making a decision about whether or not to adequately affix the arms to the painting, and while I was at it I found a dirty piece of dried paint (probably peeled from Aferro’s basement floor months prior) and naturally it was just the right color story to plop it right on as well. And after I decided the piece was good the way it was and not missing anything I went ahead and used (you guessed it) a mixture of acrylic mediums to paste the long, weird paint chunk along with the arms onto the canvas. Since then I’ve posted the final image to social media and looked into framing options for this peculiar square canvas. I’m also wondering whether I’ll have the opportunity to show this piece in 2020.

Alas there we have a look into the physical process of creating “Untitled (Artist’s Love Letter to Himself)” – a piece that continues in my tradition of glueing paintings of myself on paper to labored canvas backdrops. I think if myself from 3-4 years ago could see the self-portraits I got to create in 2019 he would be pleased. I’ll be frank, there was little in the way of actual substance in most of my 2019 work. One or two pieces possessed any kind of message, and only one was at all poignant but the work I made that most closely resembles painting revealed to me that I’m still very much interested in painting, that I’m still very much capable of painting a portrait and that I’ve gotten to make some beautiful paintings. It’s what 21 year old me would’ve wanted.

– Juno Zago

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