Karen Smith has always been a painter. In fact, one of her paintings was placed on the lobby of NYC’s Lever House when she was just a grade schooler. But despite being a fine arts major, it was journalism that captured her heart and how she earned a living. If her name looks familiar, it’s because she’s our Style columnist here at Tucson Happenings!
“I kept painting, but it was never a full-time occupation,” she noted, “although I did have gallery representation for while on the west coast when I lived in California.” Those paintings were done in traditional fashion, using brushes and guaches, washes and other techniques.
Moving to Tucson, Smith set up her easel. Beguiled by the desert, she began painting again in earnest but felt her paintings were not really reflecting her intentions. “I started looking at new processes and spent a lot of time in galleries and museums. We are so lucky here in Tucson! There are so many places to see incredible art! I knew my paintings were missing something, but I couldn’t precisely nail down what that might be,” she recalls.
Today, Smith is painting in a totally different fashion. “I do acrylic pouring, and it’s absolutely remarkable. I find the process gives me complete creative freedom while allowing me to express my ideas on each canvas,” she said.
Simply defined, acrylic pouring is the technique of diluting acrylic paints and pouring them onto a canvas. What those paints are diluted with will affect the process, and what additives are included will change the results as well.
Acrylic paints have very rapid drying times, and they are fairly dense. By diluting them with an extender (Floetrol is common, so is Elmer’s Glue, water, and host of other things!) the paints become a lot thinner, and the drying time is significantly extended.
Additional additives produce different effects. Silicon oil creates ‘cells’, round areas in which paints flow through and around the lubricant. Rubbing alcohol creates voids, where paints attempt to get away from the solution. “My favorite additive is dimethicone, which is in most coconut hair serums, so it’s easy to come by!,” Smith explained.
“Pouring really refers to the action of one paint against another,” Smith explained, adding that her paintings actually reflect a lot of preparatory work. “To get the results I want, I need to know which paints are heavier, meaning they will sink to the bottom of my canvas by ‘falling’ through the other paints, and which are lighter, meaning they will rise to the surface, moving upward through the other colors.”
The major paint manufacturers provide specific gravity tables describing the paints they sell, which makes it easy for artists like Smith to figure out what will end up where as she works with the colors.
Factoring in the effects of the additives with the weights of the paints, she usually will layer paints into a cup, which she then pours onto a canvas, or pours individual colors onto a canvas and then uses a knife to move them into each other.
Smith hasn’t gotten rid of her easel or her brushes, but finds that by starting with pouring -- literally filling a cup with various diluted colors, arranged by differing weights, she can set up an organic process on the canvas that actually moves and changes on its own. Adding brush work or using a palette knife, she then manipulates the moving paints to create her works.
One of the reasons Smith likes acrylic pouring so much is because it is accessible to people who don’t think of themselves as artistic. In fact, people with significant physical challenges can create with acrylic pouring, and she often holds workshops to teach the process to others.
Last month, she travelled to Scottsdale to participate in Exploration Days at the Echo Canyon School, where she taught kids aged 12-14 how to pour. “It was really delightful, and they were so excited to see the results they could produce just by manipulating the paints!”
The results are unique, and she has developed a following both in Tucson and Phoenix. She is currently showing three pieces at Raices Taller 222 Gallery and Workshop, and has another piece at Solar Culture, also downtown. This weekend, her work is being featured at the Grand Avenue Festival in Phoenix. She also creates custom pieces for individual private clients, and her work is in many commercial spaces throughout the region.