From Decorative to Expressive Art

"Self-Portrait as a Knitter", a mixed media artwork by Peony and Parakeet

Last Friday, I traveled two hours by train to a yarn shop at Tampere. Not just to purchase new yarn, but to meet a famous knitting pattern designer Stephen West who had been invited to Finland. While I was attending his workshop, I was excited by the knits he showed and the stories he told. There were silent moments. We, Finnish women, counted stitches and pondered about what we heard. We Finnish can look very serious, quiet and occupied, even if we are about to burst with excitement. Stephen put it kindly: “Finnish carry themselves well.” That introvert attitude is also visible in this recent mixed media artwork, “Self-Portrait as a Knitter”. The person’s focus is so much on details that the inspiration, the yellow spot in the back of the head, doesn’t have room to show up.

From Over-Decorative to Expressive-Decorative

Sometimes similar kind of thing happens when we create art: the inspiration does not show in the result. There can be so much decoration going on, that not much room is left for the expression. We cover the background with little motifs and surface patterns, instead of enhancing what’s already there.

A watercolor background by Peony and Parakeet

I admit, it’s fun and fulfilling to work with thin brushes, pens, and pencils. Making a circle after a circle is like knitting a shawl, stitch by stitch.

Using Derwent Artbars, by Peony and Parakeet

However, it’s good to add a little more variety and contrasts so that the expression comes through. It’s like changing the yarn or needle size once in a while!

Using Faber-Castell Gelatos, by Peony and Parakeet

And like in handknits, just when you think your work is ruined, you need to calm down and do the finishing.

Unfinished artwork by Peony and Parakeet

When knitting, you sew the seams, iron everything carefully and add the final balancing details.

Decorative art. Folk bags by Peony and Parakeet.

When creating art, you bring up the most important details and connect the dots so that everything falls into its place.

You can create both expressive and decorative art.

Sometimes there are debates whether decorative art can be expressive as well.  But you can be both decorative and expressive. You can give meaning to your motifs. You can let motifs be pieces of a puzzle instead of covering everything evenly.

"Self-Portrait as a Knitter", a mixed media artwork by Peony and Parakeet. Creating both expressive and decorative art.

More decorative-expressive art with watercolors: Watercolor 101 for Intuitive Painting
If you are a knitter, check this out too: Folk Bag Workbook

How to Mix Colors?

On Sundays - An art journal page spread by Peony and Parakeet. Advice on mixing colors.

Here’s an art journaling page that I made to show you the gentleness of pastels and the strength of muted, darker shades. I often see art journaling pages that have a potential to be awesome, only if the color palette would be more unified! Meaning: only if the artist would have mixed the colors instead of using them straight from the tubes.

Choosing Color Combinations

Here’s the problem: we are pampered with many great colors by the art supply manufacturers. Like the colors of my Faber & Castell Gelatos, they look so pretty!

Faber & Castell Gelatos. Advice on mixing colors.

Still, you can pick colors there that won’t look so great together. Those colors have no common base color. Like the bright red, blue purple and mint green shown below. They have nothing in common. The bright red is a primary red; blue-purple is muted with black and mint green is muted with white. If you take out the mint green and mix the red and blue- purple, you can get a better combination. The brown, which is the mix of purple and red, ties the two colors together.

Advice on mixing colors.

Similarly, if you use only red, orange and pink straight from the box, they look more separate than if you also use the colors that are mixes of them. Like parents and children, they form a unified color family.

Another example: the colors that have a common base color, like the pastels below, suit well together. You can also mix them without fear: they produce lovely combinations. If you don’t want grays or muddy browns, avoid mixing contrast colors together. The contrast color pairs are red and green, blue and orange, yellow and blue-purple.

Advice on mixing colors.

Sometimes people are afraid of getting grays and browns, and so they avoid mixing any colors. But those muddy colors make the brighter colors pop. See how muddy colors support the other colors in the art journal page that I made.

A detail of an art journal page spread by Peony and Parakeet. Advice on mixing colors.

Playing with Tints and Shades

Advice on mixing colors.One reason to mix colors is to get more natural, lively look. If you look at any photo, you can see a lot of colors there. The variation of light causes the huge amount of colors.

In the late 19th century, there was a genre of artists called impressionists. They were inspired by the daylight. They wanted to focus on the light, not on the objects themselves. If you are afraid of mixing the colors, look closely at Claude Monet’s Cliffs at Etretat and count the various tones there!

Instead of using primary colors like basic bright reds, blues and yellows and mixes of them, I encourage you to play with tints and shades: mix white or black to the primaries and get softer colors!

Using Faber & Castell Gelatos

When I began creating the art journal page, I chose to use gelato sticks with acrylics and hand decorated papers. I decided to use the background that I had made weeks ago, as its pastel colors reflected the cheerful mood I was having.

An art journaling page in progress. Acrylic paint background. Advice on mixing colors.

I like to create backgrounds when I am tired or uninspired. Then, when I start creating, I feel that I am already half done. When using various supplies in each layer of a page, I will get more variation in color without extra effort.

Faber & Castell Gelatos. Advice on mixing colors.

Faber & Castell Gelatos look like lipsticks, and they have similar kind of waxy feel. You can dilute them with water, but I think the greatest way is to mix them with a paper towel or soft sponge.

Softening Faber & Castell Gelatos. Advice on mixing colors.

Gelatos work great on a painted surface. Notice that I created color mixes with slight variation in darkness. I used both tinted colors (mixed with white) and shaded tones (mixed with black).

An art journaling page in progress. Faber & Castell Gelatos. Advice on mixing colors.

Repeating Colors

One more thing to consider: color repeats. I am very careful of not repeating the same color too much. In general, when the color is used only once, it represents an individual. If it’s used twice or three times and the areas are closely located, they represent a group. But if the same color is here and there or evenly spread, it is often just a mess. The rational side of us wants to create color repeats. But once the work is finished it does not look rational at all! One more reason to mix those readymade tones!

An art journaling page in progress. Faber & Castell Gelatos and handdecorated papers. Advice on mixing colors.

When I began to add hand decorated papers, I followed the same rule of controlling the number of repeats: not too much of the same paper.

Using hand decorated papers is a great way to add thin lines to a page. The gelatos have a waxy surface that can be difficult to handle with thin markers. For the journaling, I used Faber & Castell PITT brush pens.

A detail of an art journal page spread by Peony and Parakeet. Advice on mixing colors.

To make the collage look more integrated to the page, I added color with Gelatos on the papers.

An art journaling page spread by Peony and Parakeet. Advice on mixing colors.

If I had to define art shortly, the definition would be: creating great color mixes and communicating with them. At least that is the step to take when you feel that the page you made does not represent what you wanted to create!

Read more about colors: Yellow, 5 Tips to Choosing Colors

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