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How to paint like Yayoi Kusama

Creating an Infinity Net painting in the style of Yayoi Kusama involves applying a base coat of color, letting it dry, and then adding gestural brushstrokes. The process can be varied, and experimenting is encouraged. It's important to remember that oil can be painted over acrylic, but not the other way around. The comments and opinions expressed in this video are those of the speaker alone, and do not represent the views of The Museum of Modern Art, its personnel, or any artist.  Artworks shown: Philip Guston. "Painting." 1954. The Museum of Modern Art. Philip Johnson Fund. © 2017 The Estate of Philip Johnson. Yayoi Kusama. "Accumulation No. 1." 1962. The Museum of Modern Art. Gift of William B. Jaffe and Evelyn A. J. Hall (by exchange). © 2017 Yayoi Kusama #art #moma #museum #modernart #nyc #education #artist #kusama #yayoikusama #painting #howtopaint #infinity #womenartists #femaleartists #learntopaint #paintingabstraction.

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Video transcript

Today, we are going to be working in the manner of Yayoi Kusama. Specifically. her Infinity Net paintings. These are the paintings that really launched her career here in New York City in the 1950s. You'll see that we're working on, I guess what I'd say is a medium format painting. It will be an easel painting shortly, as you'll see. You'll also notice that this canvas is stretched. And it is already primed here. Kusama, typically, not always. But almost always worked on primed canvases. And very much like all the other artists we're discussing together in this course. There's not one way that Kusama made an Infinity Net painting. There's not one way that Martin made a gridded composition. So we're just exploring one approach here. Feel free to experiment quite wildly from this. All right. So what we're going to do here, first of all, is to apply a base coat of a color. Let that dry. And then we're going to work on top of that in so-called net to the gestural brushstrokes over this work. And in fact, because I'm pressed for time a little bit. And you may be, too, in the studio. I certainly could work in oil. Put on a flat coat of oil. But then I might have to wait a week for that oil to dry. So I'm going to work in a first coat of acrylic emulsion paints. Those are water soluble paints. I'm going to let that dry and use a hair dryer. You can dry it quite quickly. And then I'm going to switch to oil for the top coat. Rule of thumb here, one more time. Don't forget, please. It's totally fine to work in oil over acrylic. It is not totally fine to work in acrylic over oil. If you paint acrylic over oil, it's going to peel off rather quickly. Oil over acrylic, no problem. That's what we're going to do here. Okay. So let's talk about mixing paints here. I'm working with acrylic emulsion paints. These happen to be made by Dick Blick. But there are plenty of the other companies out there that make good ones. And what I've decided to do today Is to make a black and white painting. As Kusama did so many times early in her career. But black by itself is a little bit boring. At least I happen to think so. So I'm going to juice up this black a little bit by making it somewhat chromatic. I'm going to start off with a generous douse of black paint here. What I'm going to do is use a little bit of burnt umber. This is a much warmer color here. Kind of a dark brown color. Add some of that in there. And I'm going to make it a little bit complicated with a dioxazine. An organic violet color. Adding some of that there, as well. Now, black and white are colors that really overwhelm what other colors you add them to. So this is still going to look quite black by the time I'm done with it. Depending on the consistency of your paint out of the tube. You may need to add water. I don't, because this is going to be a nice brushable paint here. But if you're working with some artist quality acrylic, sometimes they have a heavy pigment load. Sometimes they're kind of toothpaste thickness. And you may want to add some solvent. In this case, some water to thin that. So, nice thorough mixing there. You can use the canvas to clean off your paint brush, your palette knife. Why not? Another thing to think about here is what is going to happen to the edges? Kusama usually left the priming visible on the edges of her canvas. And sometimes the net, the gestural composition, goes slightly over the edge. That's what we're going to do here. Again, feel free to deviate this from this model as much as you like. And what I'm going to do now. This is very similar to just the brushing technique of how to gesso a painting. I'm just going to stretch out this paint quite thinly. Quite widely here, using a lot of action with the bristles of the brush. Forcing that paint down into all the little interstices of the canvas here to make sure I don't have any white peeking through. Now, the reason I'm stretching this out is that I don't want to have a lot of texture here. Why? Well, the texture is going to come in that second coat, as we'll see shortly. Other things you may do, depending on your fancy here. You may use masking tape on the edges of your priming here. And what that would do is allow you to have a really crisp line between this dark violet brown color. Violet black color that I'm adding here. And the white priming visible on the edges of your canvas. Again, that's purely aesthetic. It has nothing to do with the structural dimension of the painting. It's really just how it looks. Okay. So just very quickly fanning out this nice kind of black violet layer I put on here. And now I'm really just barely kissing over the canvas here. Barely touching it. So I'm really smoothing out the surface and not leaving a whole lot of brushwork behind. Okay. And because this is an acrylic emulsion paint, it's waterborne paint. This is going to dry very quickly, I've painted this very thinly. So it should dry within an hour or something like that. Again, if you're in a rush. Using a hair dryer is a nice way to speed up this process. Okay, so our paint layer is now completely dry. And what I'm going to do next is to do some sanding here. I'll tell you why in a second. But any time you're sanding paint, you really need to make sure it's bone dry. Because if it's a little bit wet, then you're going to end up smearing it. And pulling and perhaps tearing the paint. So, what I'm going to do here is just work with a medium grit sandpaper. It's 120. You don't want to use something that's really rough here. But it's not so critical what grade you are using. And the reason I'm going do some sanding here is twofold. One, I want to matte out this surface. As you can see, in the way that the light is reflecting off the surface here. It's pretty glossy. And, in fact, the top coat that I'm going to put on is also pretty glossy. So I want to provide a little bit of interesting matte gloss relationships here. So I'm going to sand out the surface to matte this out. To provide a kind of counterpoint to the glossy top coat that I'm about to put on. Number two, in sanding. [SOUND] I'm also starting to expose the tops of the weave white again. So, in other words, I'm sanding off some of this acrylic paint I just put on to give me a really nice active surface. Not something that's so flat here. And you can see a little goes a long way. So, just very light sanding. [SOUND] One thing you don't want to do is sand too hard. Push down too hard on the edges. Because remember, looking at the back of the canvas. You have this wooden stretcher bar here. And if I'm sanding right over that edge. And I'm pushing down the canvas. I'm going to get a rather stupid looking white line. A box within a box, all the way around the painting. So, don't press here. Really just some light sanding is all we need. [SOUND] All right. So we have the canvas on the easel now. We're going do some work with the brush. And I just want to emphasize that this is not the way to make an infinity net painting. Kusama worked in many different ways. Sometimes with sanding, sometimes without, for example. What I've chosen to do here is to work with a titanium white oil paint. Remember, oil over acrylic no problem. The reverse, big problem. Working with titanium white, which is kind of a neutral white color. Not too warm. Slightly on the cool side of whites here. And hopefully has a nice contrast with this roughed up background here. So what I'm going to start doing here is just to squeeze some of this paint from the tube here. And you see that its consistency is very similar to toothpaste. Quite thick or quite pastose. As I'm getting a feel for this paint here, it's quite sculptural. In fact, I'm actually working as a sculptor here in the palette. Pushing this these really pastose, this really stiff paint around. And it's that kind of use of oil here. The sculptural use of oil that we're really going to be playing with. And my first brush load, you see here, is kind of a scoop. Typically, you'd wipe off excess paint from your brush to paint like this. I'm going to use that excess paint. I'm scooping that paint up, almost trowelling that paint onto the brush. And as I'm getting ready for the first mark of the painting here, it's just going to be kind of a looping mark. Now I'm going to simply reload and then make a similar one of those marks. And we start to see that, okay, the gesture here was almost identical for those two marks. What kind of gesture is it? It's a movement of the fingers. The wrist is pretty much stationary. The elbow's absolutely stationary. So as we start seeing here, each one of these brush strokes is a little bit different. They're all off kilter, they're all cousins. In a way, it's the same kind of gestures here again and again. Slow, tracing gestures using curves of the fingers,the thumb a little bit of the knuckles here. Not really the wrist, not the elbows and certainly not the torso like the. So something serial, there's definitely something repetitious about this kind of brush work. There is something therapeutic about this kind of mark making. There are many legends about Kusama, many of them propagated by the artist herself, that she would stay up for days on end, with this kind of brush stroke and a huge canvas, literally doing exactly what I'm doing right now for three days straight. Now, whether that's actually true or not, well, maybe we'll find out, maybe not. But, regardless, what I'd like you to try to do here is really lose yourself in this serial activity here as a way to quiet the mind. Now I'm talking here and trying to describe what I'm doing. But very likely in the studio, if you can really lose yourself in this activity, you won't be thinking about your job, or your children, or whatever it is, whatever kind of stresses that you have on your mind. Normally, you can really lose yourself in this activity. And this is not unique to painting. Some people get the same loss of inertia and escape from anything repetitious. Chopping wood, running, sowing, whatever it is that you're accepting what's happening here. You're not doing any kind of aggressive editing, you're just allowing the mind to just accept what the hand is doing here and really just to go with the flow. Because I'm working with paint unadulterated here, straight out of the tube, you'll notice that there's a lot of very rich imposto. There's some very loud tracks of the brush, if you will. All these bristles leaving these strokes in the paint here. And you'll see that in some, but not all of Kusama's work, because as I run out of this paint. I'll change it, I'll do something else to it, and then a different zone of this infinity net will take on a different character from a preceding one. It's important that these brush strokes go all the way to the edge, and perhaps over it. These infinity nets, they're all over a composition meaning that. Just kind of slow gestural, tracing mark making does indeed go all over the canvas. It's not something that is kind of relational composition where you're reading one part to another part. Instead, this entire painting will be able to of a kind, it will have a kind of optical flow. Couple of things I'd like to bring your attention to here. First of all, I'm not doing a whole lot of editing. I'm accepting almost every single mark that's made here. Also, I'm trying to really have some kind of consistency. Not exactly the same kind of mark, but same kind of speed, the same general amount of paint on the brush. Also, I'm leaving roughly the same amount of empty white space between all of these marks, but you can see that none of these are identical. Of course, each one is different, but they're all informed by the same general parameters of mark making. Where did Kusama's technique come from? Well, in the slide lecture this week, we talked about her hallucinations that she had as a young girl. But certainly, when she arrived in New York City in the 1950s as a Japanese woman, the odds were stacked rather violently against her chances of becoming a successful artist in this very male dominated New York Avant-garde, Kusama a very bright young woman. You better believe she did some careful looking at the other painters around her. And I promise you that she was deeply and very sensitively aware of the abstract paintings of Philip Guston in the 1950s. Guston known for his very slow anxiety-ridden kind of nervous brushwork. Which doesn't look identical to what I'm doing here, and what Kusama often does in her work, but rather, it's a reference for Kusama. The slow sculpture or sculpting type of brush stroke here. Because actually, if you look at each and every one of these marks here, think about them as individual sculptures. And in fact, when you start to explore Kusama's work, you realize that she does make sculptures but all these strange little organic protrusions off of them and really those are an extension on this very sculptural process of painting that she practiced. Okay, so I've a nice start here, and we can see some really beautiful texture being developed here, a lot of really bizarre and interesting little nnoks and crannies. These voids, these black voids in there. But I am going to use something a little bit different. Adding a little bit of a material called Maygilp. Maygilp has been used since the Italian Renaissance and you can see it's thick, kind of this honey consistency. But you can see it's like adding honey into your paint here. And it's going to soften the texture of the paint considerably. So, this next area of the painting that I'm going to be working with, is going to have more of a buttery consistency, rather than that toothpaste consistency of our first paint application. Kusama would more typically doing this, adding some more medium to her paint in a different hour of painting, let's say. So that although the infinity net is relatively consistent in terms of the color, in terms of the brushwork, etc. The paint itself does have these does have these rather nebulous zones floating around within it. And what you'll notice in a studio, when you start adding more medium into your paint, whether it's maygilp, as I'm working here, or perhaps Venetian turpentine, another medium. Or just more binder, more linseed oil or poppy. The oil is that the feed back from your own hand has changed. And be sensitive to what this paint feels like. Because it's really part of the process as I'm feeling out this canvas, as I'm allowing painting to really grow in front of me here. The friction this really slow, solid, mark making that I started out with here has been replaced by something much smoother, much softer and much more buttery again, here. So that you hand knows that, and as you're becoming a better painter, now when you look at that paint, you should be able to know, that's what that paint feels like. And this is going to help you when you start going to museums and galleries, and you start understanding how some of these gestural paintings, the aesthetics that the artists are dealing with, have so much to do with the way their body moves with the way. That they've prepared the material to track the different actions or gestures of the body in different ways. So, even though my hand is moving in the identical way, as I did earlier here, the pain feels different, the paint looks different, and really, this is the name of the game here. This is how this painting is going to grow in an organic way. Okay, and for the third application here, sticking with nice titanium white here. But now I'm just going to use good old fashioned linseed oil. This is the binder that's already in this paint. So, I'm just going to give it a haphazard nice generous douse there. And again, I'm not going to be to methodical about blending this paint perfectly. Because in fact, I like the fact that each one of my brushstrokes are a little bit different here, so, I’m just going to get some of that nice juicy medium in there. And this is good enough, a kind of heterogeneous, incompletely mixed, blobby, kind of slimy mixture of this paint. And this heterogeneity is what I'm actually going to capture here. What I'm also going to capture is a different geometry of my hand here. Because everything I've been doing, I happen to be right-handed, everything has a certain logic to it, based on how a right-handed person is going to move the knuckles and the wrist, so on and so forth. I don't want that to inform the entire painting. So rather than paint left-handed, although you could do that if you're feeling daring, I'm just going to change the orientation of the painting, and I'll continue to do this a couple times throughout the painting. So that, again, it's one more variables that each one of these little zones Within the entire infinity net composition is imparted with a slightly different character. And now I'm going to carry on painting exactly the same kind of gestural slow brush mark that I made before, but look at that already. You'll notice that because this is so poorly mixed, intentionally poorly mixed, that it's falling off of my brush. It's going to have a slightly lumpy, moving blobby kind of a texture. Great, I'm accepting everything here, and that's the name of the game. Work with it, don't try to force it to follow any kind of preconceived notion of what the painting should look like, and allow it to be translating your hand in different ways as you move across the canvass. Okay, so after a nice course of painting here, a painting that could be finished or could keep going. Couple things I want to draw your attention to, first of all, these different zones of the painting that each have their own character. This area here, you can see these dry brush marks, which really highlight the texture of the canvas, at the end of those brush strokes, contrast that to a much more richly painted area that has some really thick, kind of blobby soft areas of paint. And then, contrast that to some more thick paint, but here the texture is much heavier. We have a much more crisp kind of impasto there, kind of a crackle of the paint as you have some of these real stiff spikes of paint peaking up. The reason for changing that consistency is that, okay, this is an all over composition, but it doesn't get boring. Because your eye has no center of gravity here, your eye kind of, restlessly moves around this canvas, and it's not the same, so that, wherever your eye roams, there's always something really satisfying for it to appreciate. This is the reason why Kusama's painting work when they're real small. When they're medium format, or when they're huge and almost environmental. Other things to think about, some Kusama paintings are not painted as thickly as this. Some are actually quite thin, others are thicker than this. So start to think about how you want to handle your paint. Also, this painting is not necessarily done, sometimes what she does then is to go back into these black holes, if you will, with something really dilute,and to color them, or to make them glossy, or to make them matte. So that essentially what we are dealing with is a figure and a ground, only two part painting, but she does very, very complex handling of that figure and that ground. So a painting here looks really simple, white on black in the beginning but as we start to test our hand and also our eyes on them, we realize that there's actually a lot of complexity here.