Today it is my pleasure to bring you Robin Brickman as my Featured Guest. I was fascinated by what Robin tells us about her experiences and her journey as an artist.
Robin began her illustration career after college by creating art for magazines, trade and textbooks, medical illustrations, and foreign postage stamps. When she had children of her own, she turned her attention to children’s picture books. Little did she know that she was about to establish herself as an award-winning children’s book illustrator and respected paper artist. Now, here’s Robin. I hope you will take a few minutes to relax and enjoy her story.
HOW I CAME TO WORK WITH CUT PAPER:
I worked for 15 years as a professional illustrator, using pen and ink, watercolor and pastels. All along, I have explored other materials and techniques such as fiber arts, glass, jewelry, bookbinding, and papermaking. As a professional artist, it is important to set your work apart and in 1995 I became interested in cut paper. My own development of this technique set out to blend the scientific accuracy I am known for. I cut watercolor paper, paint it, and shape it by hand into a realistic form. Then, I glue those elements together and unify everything in the painting. Up to three inches deep, my work has overlapping elements and dimension. Paintings about natural science subjects require scientific research, and a lot of detail. Therefore, those paintings are often time consuming. There are a number of artists who do cut paper or dimensional art for books, but I believe that I am the only person to work with as much realism in paint with cut paper. Some people assume that elements in my paintings, such as wood and leaves, are real or found objects. However, I make everything in my paintings out of paper, with the occasional use of hair and small bits of plastic film.
In addition to conventionally illustrated works, such as the classic I Am An Artist, written by Pat L. Collins, I have illustrated other picture books in 3-Dimension, including A Log’s Life, by Wendy Pfeffer, and Beaks!, One Night In the Coral Sea, and Wings, written by Sneed Collard.
THIS IS HOW I CREATE THE SCULPTED ART FOR MY PAINTINGS:
I always start by researching the subject, using my own collection of references, libraries, museums, field research, and so on. I draw with pencils on tracing paper, continually checking for accuracy and inspiration. Sometimes the page breaks are pre-determined by a book’s format, as in Beaks! and Wings, some books are more flexible in that regard.
When I first began to cut and shape paper it was a wonderful discovery, artistically. Depending on how paper is cut, it can be graceful, or messy, malleable and strong. It was transformative to begin working this way and to tap into my scientific interest, my drawing skills, and my love of handwork. Although some paper artists use X-ACTO blades, I use ordinary scissors. This cutting method feels quite natural and I can do it for long stretches of time.
Often, I start painting and sculpting the featured animals and plants, or those that are in the front of a scene. Conversely, I might start with the background of a painting. The different levels of focus are a constant consideration and challenge. Elements in the foreground are clear and defined but background elements may be more stylized or less detailed. As I cut out different elements I keep every scrap of paper that is left over. I have used these bits of paper, often as small additions, to make my paintings more interesting. Keeping all of these scraps both saves me time and adds to the complexity of my work. It is like using herbs and spices when I am making soup!
In addition to paper I sometimes use clear or frosted Mylar for insect wings. I also mix paint with glue to create eyes, and occasionally I use hair for elements like spider webs and whiskers.
I create fine details, like an insect, by simplifying the forms: the legs, body parts, and wings. Then I reassemble the parts I’ve made, painting, shaping, and gluing the parts together. This deconstruction and re-construction step is often hard for younger students to understand, but it is second nature to me. Creating a flower is another example: I cut a flower’s overall shape, an oval or a sphere. Then I cut the individual petals, keeping them connected at the center of the oval. I will sometimes indent petals or leaves with my fingernail. When I paint those impressions become darker inside. The center of some flowers are created by placing bits of paper pulp and painted glue onto a small disk. This disk is then added on top of the petals. By adding painted features I build up what I want to create.
A third example is the way I cut feathers like fringe. A bird’s wings are “built” by making layers of paper that are glued like shingles on a roof. You can see these combinations in the face of the King Vulture in Wings. In addition to cut and painted paper, the wattle is paint and pulp that was placed onto the piece of orange paper serving as the beak. The texture and hairs of the face were created in pen and ink, and the fringe on the top of the vulture’s head is composed of slender pieces of black paper that were glued to the top of the Vulture’s head.
The logs and dirt in A Log’s Life are other examples of detail. Soil scenes are created with paper pulp, bits of cut paper, paint, and glue. I push down on the pulp to make an uneven surface. I also use paint and additional scraps of paper to create a textured appearance. When people ask me what I do, I tell them I’m a painter. It is my combination of these materials that creates my paintings.
If I get backed into a corner, artistically, I will experiment with my art supplies to figure out a solution. I discovered I could use glue to create a water drop on a log, and that hair makes a good spider web or chipmunk whiskers.
The curved features of tree trunks and branches are painted paper, reinforced on the back side with glue and additional paper. Sometimes I use craft wire to support slender branches or twigs. I also make paper pillars to prop things up, but mostly I can use paper pulp and glue to support elements from behind. I have studied bookmaking and papermaking, which I draw upon.
MY SCHOOL PROGRAMS:
I started to teach my workshops when my own sons were in elementary school. I was asked to talk about being a book illustrator because it’s an unusual profession. I realized that I liked the experience and I discovered that I had something unique to share: I could bring an art and science component to kids I also wanted to have a message, namely the science of what I illustrate. As a parent, I knew that young children would be bored by a long presentation. So I created a workshop format where I show photos and movies of what I do as an artist, and then say, “Now it’s your turn!”
Over the past ten years, I developed several workshops based on my book illustrations. The most popular and successful workshop is the creation of a forest or ocean habitat mural. Even the youngest students practice my cut, color, and sculpted paper techniques with these programs. Sometimes the workshops supplement the curriculum at a school but my books are always the starting point. Other workshops are take-home projects, but the community murals stay at the hosting school and they include everyone’s artwork in one scene. I like going to schools to demonstrate what I do and to show all ages they can do the same thing on their own using common materials such a paper, glue, paint, and scissors. The larger workshops for younger students use in-expensive paper, crayons, and scissors. I teach watercolor painting and more sophisticated techniques in smaller groups teenagers or adults, and when there is a longer time period available.
I present workshops across the country and love doing it.
EXHIBITING AND SELLING ORIGINAL ART:
It has been almost 20 years since I began working in my sculpted watercolor technique. A lot of the art from my books has been shown at galleries and in museums. Many of my paintings are in public and private collections. I have been honored with three solo shows, one was at the Bennington Museum and two were at the Berkshire Museum. Two more are planned for 2011 and 2012. I think it is important to show the original paintings because they make quite an impression over the photographed images in the books. In addition to art for books, I do commission work for private individuals. Those paintings have been very gratifying to create and I welcome the opportunities to do them. A private commission is a luxury purchase for people, so I am grateful to the collectors of my work. But, buying a book is in most people’s price range.