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Art Tools of David Bailin

For this installment of Art Tools and Gears, we have guest artist David Bailin from the USA.

Originally from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, David is currently based in Little Rock, Arkansas. David studied Painting at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1976. Subsequently, he attended lessons on creative art at Hunter College, New York, where he had graduated with a Masters of Art in 1984.

David is a talented fine artist who specializes in Charcoal drawings and we have invited David to share with us his charcoal sketches and the art tools that he uses, as well as offer some tips for aspiring artists.

Qn: Could you introduce yourself to our readers?

I am a full-time artist who teaches drawing part-time at two regional institutions: The University of Central Arkansas, Conway, and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

I moved to NYC in the late 70s as a painter but moved into performance and theater to explore narrative. I was engaged in the downtown avant-garde of Richard Foreman (theater), Stuart Sherman (performance), Robert Ashley (music). The power of a single actor on a stage was inspirational and after leaving theater for more hermetic pursuits I began to compose my paintings and drawings as I did my directing: finding pieces of business within environments.

The Arkansas Arts Center, where I worked as its museum school director, has a world class collection of drawings by artists spanning centuries and from all parts of the world. That collection (especially it’s Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Matisse, Mondrian, Morandi, and others) convinced me that drawing was as powerful a medium as any painting, sculpture, play or piece of music. I put down my paints and my writing and began to draw almost exclusively.

Qn: Will you be able to introduce us to the art-tools you use for your charcoal drawings?

Besides Grumbacher medium, 16 charcoal sticks, charcoal dust, straight edge rulers, kneaded and white erasers, I use anything tool that could make or lift off marks on charcoal. I use rubberized texture tools, stencils, dried-up brushes, and rags. Socks are a favorite tool since you can use the ribbing to create wonderful hatching marks and by putting your hands into them you can control the amount of surface manipulation. Coffee has long been both a medium and a drink in my studio. I’ve occasionally added oil and pastels to my drawings as well.

Qn: I see that you draw in a mixture of charcoal, oil, pastel and coffee – how do you go about doing that?

Coffee is the primary means of creating warm passages against the cool charcoal tone. I also use it to punch up the charcoal by applying it like a wash over certain passages. I will dip a stiff brush into the coffee and then drag the wet brush directly over the passage or, sometimes, dip the wet brush into the charcoal dust from the floor and use that on the drawing surface. While the coffee is wet I can press into it for patterns and other effects or to remove layers of drawing. Oil and pastel are applied sparingly as I don’t care to use them to carry any emotional or ‘coloristic’ message preferring to use them only to create contrast in the work.

Qn: What type of prepared paper do you use for your charcoal sketches?

I use un-waxed milk carton paper covered with a layer of taupe-colored acrylic eggshell paint. I call it prepared because that painted surface allows for a number of important results. The painted surface allows me to reestablish the ground so I can start an area over. In addition, this particular paint reacts to my drawing style (punching and dragging the sticks of charcoal and eraser) in that by wiping out an area with a rag in various pressures or erasing a line or two, the area or erased line turns a coffee-color. That surface, then, gives me a warmish hue that contrasts with the normally cool charcoal hue.

Qn: How would you advise someone who has accidentally smudged his/her favorite charcoal sketch? (Can anything be done to 'save' his/her sketch?)

‘Save’ a drawing? That smudge is an opportunity to push your technique and to find some new approach. Working through accidents, wiping out weak areas, revising completed images is what I do all day. My art is the result of working through individual disasters. If there is no blow back from working the drawing, then how can I expect my viewers to find anything of value or take the time to look at it?. If things come too easily and my studio time goes by without notice, then all I’ve done is dream – create imagery passively. I call that the zone. I avoid that mental state at all costs. Drawing is my way of living through the day. I need to be conscious of it, fight the boredom, solve the problem, find the hook, the reason for the drawing.

There are several ways to push your art. It's not about realism or abstraction. It is about finding the right medium for your ideas. It's having at your command the techniques you need when you need them. The first way to push yourself as an artist is simple: to change your approach or style, change your medium. New techniques make you conscious of your procedures and ways of depicting things that have become second nature.

Second, if you haven't inadvertently destroyed a work by taking risks, then you haven't pushed yourself artistically. That doesn't mean you must take uninformed risks or lose control; it means to take nothing as given. Work and rework. Never assume that just because it looks right, it is right. If you are drawing a person, that person needs to be depicted as if you were creating a golem - pushing yourself past your assumptions, past the fear of destroying. Because once a work is destroyed, you have created a space to do anything - a freedom that is at the core of all art - where there are no limits and no mistakes.

Qn: What are some issues you have encountered in using your art materials?

Some time ago Grumbacher stopped making my charcoal. The only charcoal that consistently produced the line and tonality I wanted. When I heard about it I panicked and bought up as many cartons as possible. The brand is being produced again but I had several months of trying different charcoals and hoarding the Grumbacher. The same scare occurred when the paper plant where I get my paper was sold and there was a rumor circulating in the art community that the paper would never be available again. But my problem with art-tools or materials are pretty minor – all I need is a stick of charcoal, a rag, some paper and fixative.

Qn: Do you have any tips on charcoal drawing and the choice of art-tools for aspiring charcoal artists?

For charcoal, students should consider the medium as a painting rather than drawing and use the eraser as a paint brush rather than as just a tool to remove charcoal. Never use your fingers to manipulate the charcoal and remember to account for the change that fixative will bring to a drawing (I happen to like the look of a sprayed charcoal drawing, others avoid fixative like the plague).

But my seven tips for any approach to making art:

  1. Don’t make wallpaper
  2. Don’t contemplate your navel
  3. Don’t give in to the cheap shot.
  4. The artistic Pit is inevitable but fear the Zone that becomes a way of avoiding the Pit.
  5. Practice your Doodles (the circle, the daisy, the ball of string, the hatch and the cross-hatch)
  6. Use thumbnails
  7. Erase frequently

Qn: Have you read any art-book/s or instructional mediums related to charcoal art that you can share with us?

I read a fair number of articles on art history and criticism and subscribe to several art magazines. I look at Drawing magazines for ideas to take into my classes. But I really find more ideas and usable solutions to problems talking with my artist friends. I think this is true for most artists. It is hard for me to be in the studio for hours. It is one thing to work through one’s narratives on paper, it’s another to feel that they have become real in the studio. My artist friends understand this and our abreaction over coffee is as much a part of my artistic process as pushing the materials.

For me, though, the most effective instructional books have come from a few novelists who have shown me how to structure pieces of narrative and manipulate style to suit theme. Novelists like Franz Kafka, Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, J.G. Ballard, Umberto Eco, David Foster Wallace, Haruki Murakami, Neal Stephenson, José Saramago are masters of form and content. I can only hope that my work brings to my viewer as much depth of insight into the world that those fiction writers bring to me.

Qn: Which other artist/s do you think we should interview next?

We thank David Bailin for this very insightful interview and his generous spirit to share his experiences and knowledge of charcoal art. For more of David's artworks, you may visit his website or article page

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