Tuesday, January 03, 2012
Cooling Off Period
It is summer in Australia, which means it's hot nearly everywhere. In Brisbane, where my studio is located, it's also stupefyingly humid. The moist sub-tropical air hangs over the city like a shroud and breezes are rare. Outside, everything smells cloyingly sweet , a heady mix of frangipani and choisya. Inside my enamel studio, the acrid miasma of enamel fumes takes much longer than usual to dissipate. This time last year, the city was flooded during what was to become the worst state-wide natural disaster since 1974. I had to move my studio from a tin shed on low-lying, semi-rural land to higher ground within an urban industrial estate. Shortly afterwards, the old studio was inundated. Even at the new studio, seepage from heavy rain and power outages wreaked havoc with my work. But the worst of it was the humidity.When the humidity is too high, enamel paint becomes uncompliant. It gets tacky and doesn't brush onto surfaces as smoothly as it should. It congeals between brush bristles of any type, stiffening them and causing them to rake rather than smooth the paint. Drying between coats increases from two days to around six. Worse, the surfaces dry to a lesser sheen – a disaster for pieces on which the seamless, high-gloss surface is part of the conceptual point.Last year, I tried to manage the environment within my studio using a de-humidifier and an air-dry heater. It wasn't successful. The surfaces of everything I worked on dulled anyway. I had to wait another month for each to dry properly before I could sand it back and repaint the whole image. In comparison, the paintings that I undertook a month or two later were completed in a quarter of the time and the finishes were some of my best. My current enamel studio is shaded and heavily insulated but there's no escaping the humidity. My skin is slicked with a film of sweat. It makes the rubber nose/mouthpiece of my filtered mask slippery, so I have to cinch the elastic strap tighter to try to hold it in place. Within it, my breath condenses in a little pool below my lip, then drains from the air-intake vents. If it drips onto wet enamel, an entire coat is ruined: water and oil-based paints don't mix. There are no floods this year. The afternoon sky is often dark with thunderclouds but there is less rain. It should be much less humid but it's not. Even on cooler mornings, the humidity is still 15 per cent higher than the maximum recommended for the use of enamel. And yes, thanks to a long-standing relationship with the Technical Department of the enamel brand I use, I have this sort of data at my fingertips.I expect to be back in the enamel studio at the end of the month. It will still be very hot but I will have to be there to receive a shipment of specialist paint. The brightest hot pinks and shiniest, most stable metallics are made in the USA, and like a lot of flammable, explosive material, enamel paints are shipped by sea. It takes several months. The sole Australian supplier went into liquidation unexpectedly last year – one day, I ordered my usual top-up of supplies, the next day there was no staff to answer the phones – and even without the humidity, this would have caused delays. A further couple of weeks will be needed to unpack the paints, organise the studio and get production back up to speed.In the meantime, I'm re-building my fitness. When I'm stronger, my brushwork is steadier and I can withstand the physical demands of bending over or stretching out across large canvases for several hours at a time. I suspect the enforced break will improve my last works in enamel, even if I'm looking forward to being done with the medium for good.