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Painting of flowers by Bernice Koff

Since I began teaching abstract painting and collage a few years ago (through a joint appointment with the Durham Arts Council and OLLI program at Duke) I have looked for ways to both stretch myself and give my students some new ways of starting their paintings. Last year, dealing with the trauma of a flooded and destroyed art studio, I also needed something more intuitive and less planned, since my ability to concentrate was often compromised by fatigue and distress. I began paintings by coating thick watercolor paper with a coat of gesso and then a coat of matte medium… this is not unusual for me to do. But then I began layering in 8-10 coats of alternating colors or acrylic inks and fluid acrylics. Using a very wet and wide brush, I alternate colors, using as many transparent ones as possible, by coming close to the opposites on the color wheel… if not a pure yellow after a purple, then perhaps a gold or raw sienna, or a silver instead of a blue. This is completely intuitive and at no time am I worried about “what the painting will be” …I’m having fun and making art and that’s all that matters. But when one of these started to really resonate with me, I began spraying areas with alcohol which cuts into the acrylic, then scrubbing it with an old toothbrush, and magical things began to appear. The resulting painting, which took months to complete, became Blue Hydrangeas III. It is for me one of the most beautiful I’ve ever done, but it also set me on a path of discovery that seems to offer infinite possibilities.

Painting by Bernice Koff

This painting has about 7 layers of acrylic and acrylic ink washed over watercolor paper that was treated with gesso and matte medium. Each paint layer is allowed to dry and then a new thin layer, often of an opposite or close to opposite color is applied… it is important that the paints be mostly translucent and only an occasional opaque be used. At this point I have sprayed areas with alcohol and water and scrubbed into them with an old toothbrush and other tools. The piece is now turned in various directions until an image emerges.

Painting of flowers by Bernice Koff

Later stage of same painting… now being developed as a hydrangea painting with many more layers of paint for background first and then the design work begins. After scrubbing circular areas with the alcohol/toothbrush combo, I sketched in the floral shapes with chalk. I then added back in some paints, both the colors such as the blue and teal that were in the painted layers, and some purples and golds that I will want in the finished piece.

At this point I will continue to develop the painting with this back and forth technique… adding some leaves and softening areas.

Since I am a collage artist, I will stop for a time and decide if the painting will be more successful with or without the addition of thin, artist painted collage papers… that is ultimately a personal decision for me as the piece will work either way.

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