Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Plankton Progress

It has been just over a year since the Healy set out from Dutch Harbor, and although I have not had any more arctic adventures since then I thought I should give an update on how the artwork is coming along. I described my initial idea for a plankton bloom wall installation in my Art Recap post toward the end of the cruise, but the idea has evolved substantially as I have worked on it over the past few months. 

When I wrote about my artistic process for the blog and the Arctic Spring site I talked about three basic stages in my process: 

Refining the ideas into drawings and generating imagery 
Making the finished work. 

I realize now that I forgot a major stage though: technical problem solving. In between the drawings and the finished work I spend a lot of time experimenting with materials and techniques and making prototypes before I finally settle on a medium that will work well for my idea. 

My plan for a plankton bloom installation calls for many small images of plankton that will be displayed in circular frames on a wall. Each piece will be able to stand alone as a single object, but displayed together they will create a visual graph of a spring plankton bloom building up from just a few ice algae diatoms here and there to a wall that is nearly filled with plankton. The question is how to make these many circular plankton images so that they capture the glowing, translucent, detailed beauty of the different kinds of plankton and are also able to be displayed in a modular way on the wall and be produced in large numbers by hand. 

So far my experiments have included appliqu├ęd and embroidered fiber pieces framed in wooden embroidery hoops, colored pencil and water color drawings on translucent vellum, and white on black scratchboard drawings. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, but so far scratchboard seems to be the best balance of visual and technical qualities. I was very happy with the aesthetic qualities of both the fiber pieces and the vellum drawings, but both of them had major drawbacks in terms of production and display. The fiber pieces were prohibitively slow and labor intensive to make in large numbers and the shimmery translucent fabrics I would need to use to get the effect I wanted were extremely difficult to work with in the way I wanted to use them. The vellum drawings were easy to make and I loved how they looked, but because of their translucent and fragile nature they were going to be such a challenge to display that I would have ended up not only making the pieces themselves but also having to build all of the frames and design and construct a complex custom lighting system. That would have at least tripled the time frame (and budget) for the project and required all kinds of skills I don't really have. While it is not perfect, the scratchboard seems to strike a better balance between aesthetics and practicality.

In case you were wondering, scratchboard is a thin piece of masonite coated with a layer of white clay and then a very thin layer of black ink. You draw on it by scratching through the black ink to reveal the white clay underneath. It lacks the ephemeral, light and airy quality of the vellum drawings, which I do miss, but it solves many of the technical problems and has its own appealing visual qualities. I can achieve much more detail much faster this way, and I do enjoy the graphic quality of the white plankton on the dark ground. I think if I can find a successful way to incorporate color into the scratchboard it will work pretty well. It may not be the perfect solution, but at some point I need to make a decision and go into production or I will never see this project through. But for now the experimentation continues and I would love any feedback or ideas on what people like or dislike about the different techniques!