This last year I hit a unique career milestone; students started writing to me (a self-taught art school dropout) to ask questions about my art practice. Of course, I am always happy to share what I know, and thus, took my time responding as thoroughly as possible. Unfortunately, that means it takes me a while to get back in touch, and even then, I felt like my responses might be a bit rushed.
I never made it a priority to use this journal to share my technical process within this space, but by doing so now, I'll have a prepared more thorough response on hand for when someone asks. My hope ultimately being that this info could be used as a blueprint as someone is building their own unique process. (Something that would have been very helpful as I was developing my own.) As such, I'll be sharing more info like this throughout the year.
So, first things first, here are the two questions I get asked the most. (+ a bonus question!)
Q1: What is your set up for the black and white #workinprogress images you share on Instagram?
A1: When I first started with "Warmth" in 2014 (my first true digital collage) I had no idea how to make a convincing composite, much less how to approach something like a digital collage. I didn't even know a digital collage is what I was doing when I started. So in the beginning, I didn't know any better and just took my camera out and photographed whatever, wherever it was and however it was naturally lit. I then taught myself how to cut the images out one by one. This took forever and was messy and hard to organize. "Warmth" is infamous for taking two years to complete, but it would have taken much less time if I had the tools and system I have in place today.
So after a few years of experimenting, I have come to build a personal set up that suits both of my main priorities; in that these photographs are intended to be part of a more significant piece, and so, the photographs themselves must be easy to read, cut out and use in Photoshop.
Also, the setup must be a reasonable mix between cheap and reliable, because instead of "GAS" or "Gear Acquisition Syndrom" that most photographers have, I instead have "IWTRSS" or "I Want To Retire Someday Syndrom" -- and I see no need for expensive equipment for the sake of it being expensive equipment.
So here is my little recipe of tools, complete with (unaffiliated) links if applicable;
Black corner: I have a dedicated mini shooting corner in my teeny-tiny studio. It's made of two old v-flats I purchased from Glazers many a moon ago, and gaffer taped together like a book. Over the years I've beaten it up so badly that when I moved into this space, I cut it down quite a bit and much prefer the more manageable size. I rarely need a wider backdrop for this process, but if I do, I can just pull it out and lean the whole thing fully open against a wall.
This worked well for me because all of my collages are built in a Photoshop file with a solid black background. It also made working and thinking through my collage more comfortable, since I could now "see" it in place better and also made cataloging and searching that catalog for "just the right shape" much more manageable to navigate.
However, the black side of the v-flat is actually a blue/black and surprisingly reflective if light spilled directly on it. I often had to make some adjustments in Lightroom on import, and even then, there would usually be variants of a blue cast to my photographs that I would have to address individually within the collage.
That changed when I found Black 2.0 -- this stuff is something else, and I would buy a gallon if I could. Sold as "the most pigmented, flattest, most matte, black acrylic paint in the world" no less, it was formulated by artist Stuart Semple in response to some other artist's drama with another black material. Unlike that material, Black 2.0 is easy to use, not prohibitively expensive, safe to use, and it sucks up light like a vacuum, just as promised. I painted my little corner and immediately saw a difference in how quickly I could process my images. I keep a bottle around at all times for touch-ups.
I like to wrap all the edges in black gaffer tape to keep it tidy, and I have a "travel" board I take with me if I need to photograph something on location. It's essentially the same thing, just smaller.
Light source: This light. Yes. That's it. I did mention that I don't care if something looks cool or is "proper" photography gear.
This fits my needs perfectly, it folds up out of the way, can be brighter or dimmer, is flexible and most importantly, it was just a few bucks on Amazon. This little light source is actually huge (bigly?) compared to my subjects, so it's all I need to replicate a sunny day. I can photograph the same item three different ways by just moving the light source around with one hand, which ultimately saves me time and money.
If I need to diffuse the light shape a bit, I wrap a piece of white paper around it. If I need the light to be wider, I turn it up and face it into my white wall. If I need the light to be sharper or more precise or whatever, I take tin foil and cover half of the light bar or more until I get what I need. But I'd say nine times out of ten, I use it as is. It's not fancy, but it doesn't need to be. Light is light.
The only thing I would change about it is I would prefer the base to be heavier and therefore sturdier, and it would be nice if it was rechargeable so I didn't have to keep it plugged in while working. Neither of those are deal breakers though, and if I broke this lamp today, I'd probably just go ahead and repurchase the same thing.
When I'm on location, I use a bar flashlight, which works more or less the same, but I'm on the hunt for a replacement. Mine doesn't have reliable light intensity settings like the lamp as mentioned above, and somehow always produces a different level of light each time I turn it on. Not my favorite, but it's still in my bag until I come across something better and reasonably priced. That said, I'm not going to bother sharing a link for it here.
Other: When I started using the black background technique, I started by laying the flowers flat on the board, and sometimes that still works -- but it is hard to give the sense of gravity artificially, so I instead needed something to hold these items in place, but also let them move naturally. That problem doesn't have a one size fits all solution, so over the years, I have collected everything from glass bottles (with rocks in the bottom to keep it sturdy) to a styrofoam head. All these various forms help give shape or hold my subjects in place. Most have a coat of Black 2.0, or are at least black, so they melt into the background and are easily removed from the intended subject.
Details: My favorite thing about this process is how I end up with exactly what I need and how it allows me to be in charge of the tiniest of details. One of my favorite ways to do just that is by misting any floral subjects with water for a fresh, dewy, feel. I have two bottles on hand, one is for large drops, the other is for more of a mist. Both have their advantages.
There is more I could go into, but honestly, I already dove so far into the weeds that half of this info wouldn't be useful to anyone but me anyway.
The lesson here is that as an artist, you have a responsibility to figure out what you need to do what you do well. And don't be afraid to make what you need if you can't find it.
Q2: Would you ever print and sell some of the black and white #workinprogress images you share on Instagram?
A2: After getting this question at least once a month for the last year, yes! I am releasing eight open edition prints on Society 6 today!
Now, this means that I won't be able to sign it or inspect each finished print. And that makes me a bit nervous, so please consider this is a limited time experiment. I'm trying this out because I know that some of you prefer these black and white images and also because I firmly believe that art should be in every home, and the price point for Society 6 artwork supports that. If this goes well, I'll add to the collection.
Bonus Q: Why do you bother to convert the collage material images to black and white when your finished collage artwork is in color?
A: I always want to explain this, but no one ever asks! I strip the images of color momentarily because I try to organize my catalog with the light coming from the left, even if that means turning the image upside down, and it's easier to quickly process which way to rotate the thumbnail if I remove the color. After a while, I just liked how a few looked and decided to share it on Instagram, the rest is history.