Category Archives: Artists’ Materials and Resources

Inspiration in Paradise: A Love Letter to Puerto Rico

Tropical Flower on Wet Asphalt
digital photograph
© Amy Funderburk 2016, All Rights Reserved
At the parking area near La Coca Falls, El Yunke Rainforest, Puerto Rico

In December, Jimmy and I took a much-needed vacation to a place where we can just relax and recharge our batteries – Puerto Rico. This was our third trip to the island, so it may surprise you that this destination now ties with both Ireland and England for the number of visits we have made.

We seem to have a thing for islands.

Even though this wasn’t a working art trip, you can’t turn off being an artist – it is in your soul, and always takes hold when you see inspiration. The muse of Puerto Rico never disappoints.

The narrow, cat-filled, cobblestone streets of Historic Old San Juan are lined with textured color: the crumbling decay of buildings perhaps kissed by one too many hurricanes stand side-by-side with restored, repainted beauties, all from a by-gone Spanish colonial era. Without staying here any longer than they seem to, I don’t know how the day-tripper cruise ship tourists can get a true feel for this vibrant city.

This time, we took in Castillo San Cristóbal, conveniently located just a couple of blocks from our bed and breakfast. There was a small arts and crafts fair happening there during our stay, and two of the fort’s stately iguana invaders made for fascinating models. One of these scaly friends may aspire to be the basis for a dragon one day!

One night after dinner, we took a stroll down to the side of the fort, lit only by the cool, almost-full moon on the ocean side, and just a bit of golden street light spilling over on the right. Inspired by the limited range of low key values I could discern, I decided to invoke the Victorian expat artist Whistler and think “Nocturne!” as I quickly drew the 15 minute sketch shown below.

Considering just the touch of light I had to work by, I didn’t really know exactly what I had until I returned to our room! When I saw the drawing, I felt I had responded to the values and shapes in a rather energetic way. As I worked, I couldn’t help but think of the Old Masters creating by candlelight. However, I’m in no danger of reenacting the legend of van Gogh wearing a halo of candles around his straw hat.

Calle Sol, Old San Juan
digital photograph
© Amy Funderburk 2016, All Rights Reserved
Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

The Mourner, reference photograph
digital photograph
© Amy Funderburk 2016, All Rights Reserved
Statue, Cementerio de Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis
Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

As our top pick for artistic inspiration in Old San Juan, the sheer magnitude of the Cementerio de Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis makes it a don’t miss – this was our second visit.

Dramatically situated above the ocean, these large grounds are awash with statues of angels and stone mourners. I have yet to visit the renowned cemeteries of Paris, but this Cementerio has set that particular bar quite high.

The oldest section of the cemetery dates from 1863. After photographing just a few potential candidates from among the many beauties there, I spent the afternoon under a hot sun with the figure shown above, first executing a pencil drawing to warm up, then honing my watercolor skills with some painting studies.

It was here under the bright blue Puerto Rican sky that a preference for my beloved panel surfaces by Ampersand swelled to the devoted level of a firm and lasting commitment. As I worked, I completely gave up on the watercolor block produced by a leading manufacturer after it refused to perform remotely how I expected. It simply would not tolerate my predilection for scrubbing and lifting (isn’t that just like an oil painter?), unlike the tolerant Aquabord and Encausticbord Ampersand panels. Indeed, these panels seem to revel in my oil painter-like behaviors.

The Formation of Clouds, reference photograph
digital photograph
© 2016 Amy Funderburk, All Rights Reserved
Pico del Oeste (West Peak) from the Yokahu Tower, El Yunke Rainforest, Puerto Rico

In the El Yunque Rainforest, even if you aren’t up for a hike, you can enjoy lush natural beauty from your car as you drive down the PR 191. Several waterfalls, most notably the impressive La Coca Falls pictured below, are right by the road.

As home of Yuquiyú, the indigenous Taíno tribe’s “Good God,” El Yunque is sacred ground. To protect his people from destruction, Yuquiyú was said to do battle with Guabancex, the fierce Goddess of storms and chaos; her storms were the Juracán. Indeed, the mountains of the El Yunque rainforest do just that, acting as a hurricane barrier to the land beyond.

The Yokahu tower stands guard beside an impressive overlook with a view all the way to the coast. From the top of the 69 foot tall tower, we could see the Los Picachos and El Yunque peaks in one direction, but the real show was happening around the Pico del Oeste, the West Peak (above).

Jimmy realized what we were witnessing – the actual formation of clouds as the sun dramatically sucked up moisture vapor in slow, snaking tendrils. When the light would occasionally break through the sun’s fast-moving, thick cloud collection, it was pure magic. My very quick watercolor pencil sketch felt like a meager attempt to capture just the essence of this ever-changing weather drama in action.

This cloud nursery is the very reason they don’t call it a sunforest, however. As soon as we began our hike down the Big Tree Trail, the rainforest began to live up to its name.

After remembering the old travel adage that it’s about the journey rather than the destination, my perception changed to one of appreciation. I immediately began to notice how eerily limited the depth of visibility was within the canopy of surrounding lush vegetation. We were inside the moisture-laded clouds. You can see what I mean in the photograph below. Art supplies stuffed into my backpack remained unused – nothing like soft rain to impede the creation of a watercolor.

La Coca Falls, El Yunke Rainforest
digital photograph
© 2016 Amy Funderburk, All Rights Reserved
El Yunke Rainforest, Puerto Rico

Value Changes, El Yunke Rainforest
digital photograph
© 2016 Amy Funderburk, All Rights Reserved
El Yunke Rainforest, Puerto Rico

My View of Paradise with Sailboat
digital photograph
© 2016 Amy Funderburk, All Rights Reserved
Our spectacular island backyard, Puerto Rico

School of Blue Tang with Friends
© 2016 Amy Funderburk, All Rights Reserved
Snorkeling in our backyard, Puerto Rico

After leaving Old San Juan, our next stop was one of the smaller remote islands off the coast of Puerto Rico. It takes a bit of extra effort to get there, which is part of what keeps these islands from getting too commercialized. Staying in such an off-the-beaten-path location can give you a different perspective on the elements, even if you are someone who tries to stay in connection with nature as much as possible in a modern world.

Before we left, I was sure to purchase a wide range of watercolor pencils in those saturated blues and greens that unmistakably say “Caribbean.” Of course, snorkeling gives you a window into a remarkable world fit for sprites and mermaids that you can never imagine if you only look at the surface of things. Not to mention, a chance to swim with the unassuming underwater rock stars – the sea turtles!

Since our rental house used a cistern for its water supply, we were careful not to leave water running unnecessarily, and had to use bottled water for cooking and toothbrushing. Nothing makes you even more conscientious about your water use than repeatedly returning to the supermercado for mas agua.1

While you might not normally want any rain during a vacation, after a few days without it, I began to wonder about the water level in our cistern. We welcomed the pattern of quick-moving, brief afternoon showers that started midway through our stay, knowing that they replenished our supply.

This shift in perception to an island mindset about rain was best illustrated during a fantastic local drumming performance. The bayside restaurant that hosted the event had been built with one side open to allow little boats to dock. When a brief shower suddenly blew in, instead of voicing any irritation over getting wet, the drummers simply moved their drums three feet forward, and everyone cried joyously, “Mas agua!”

Underwater Rock Star: Green Sea Turtle
digital photograph
© 2016 Amy Funderburk, All Rights Reserved
Snorkeling in our own backyard, Puerto Rico

Orion and Friends
digital photograph
© 2016 Amy Funderburk, All Rights Reserved
Winter Solstice, Puerto Rico

Of course, these rains are carried on wings of air.

While the trade winds alleviate the need for air conditioning or a clothes drier, when it is strong, the wind is a magpie that likes to steal things. It pulls clothes off the line, hides papers in corners, and folds yoga mats into origami.

It also stole a bit of my sleep. A couple of days into our stay there, the wind got so loud at night that I repeatedly woke up. A pair of earplugs later and this was sorted, but it certainly gave me respect for what it must be like to wait out a hurricane – an infinitely larger proposition than just the harmless rush of a noisy, thieving gale.

At night, we could see the Milky Way, and more stars than you could ever count. My old friend Orion was easily recognizable in the Winter Solstice sky, and perhaps brighter than I’d ever seen him. I could even discern the Orion Nebula without a telescope as the fuzzy middle “star” in his sword. The only light pollution was the warm glow of St. Thomas, one of the US Virgin Islands, at the horizon.

We had the seasonal visual cues of charming holiday decorations, some a bit weather beaten and sun faded. But who knew winter could look like this? Suffice it to say that we didn’t miss the bitter cold snap that hit home while we were in this tropical paradise. But even though the first day of winter here was quite warmer than what I am accustomed to, the days felt noticeably shorter in this place where we wanted to spend all of our time outside.

This is how we were able to mark the season.

Somehow, my conceptual experience of the elements on this trip is going to make its way into the broader scope of my work. Going beyond your daily routine to color outside the lines of life can lead to wondrous experiences that are rich creative fodder.

All the best, and Namaste,

Amy

Sunset Behind Cayo Luis Peña from Playa Tamarindo
watercolor study on Encausticbord, 5″ x 7″
© 2016 Amy Funderburk, All Rights Reserved
Culebra, Puerto Rico

Castillo San Cristóbal at Night
December 12, 2016
5 1/2″ x 8″
sketchbook drawing, pencil on paper
© 2016 Amy Funderburk, All Rights Reserved
Old San Juan, Puerto Rico


1 Mas agua – Spanish for “more water”; supermercado is a supermarket.


 

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Art’s Purpose

The Wishing Tree mixed media interactive installation © 2012, Amy Funderburk All Rights Reserved

The Wishing Tree
mixed media interactive installation
© 2012 Amy Funderburk All Rights Reserved

“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” – Aristotle

I often engage in fruitful philosophical discussions about art with my sister, poet Julie Funderburk. During the course of one recent conversation, she wrote:

“Art’s most important purpose isn’t about permanence, is it?

Depending on environmental conditions and the techniques or materials used, the ravages of time can take its toll on even the greatest of the Old Masters. Examples like Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper illustrate this all too well. Painted in the late 15th century, unfortunately the mural has suffered extensive deterioration – yet it remains one of the world’s most iconic works of art.

“A beautiful body perishes, but a work of art dies not.” – Leonardo da Vinci

Perhaps in unfortunate cases like The Last Supper, we can consider the ephemeral “beautiful body” that da Vinci speaks of to be fragile substrate and pigment, while the true work of art is the artist’s surviving conceptual idea.

I could list several other cautionary tales of artists whose works typically suffer from deterioration. Mark Rothko used unbound pigments to create luminosity in his oils. Albert Pinkham Ryder’s paintings, due to the artist’s careless use of his materials, are notoriously unstable.

“It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academicism.” – Mark Rothko

Rembrandt, on the other hand, is considered a conservator’s hero. It was long assumed that he must have used a complex painting medium to achieve his effects. As it turns out, his secrets were simply linseed oil and great technique.1

How does one balance an artist’s drive for creativity and innovation with doing one’s best to foster longevity via the materials and methods employed?

I think the first answer to this question may lie in the intention for the work.

Artist Andy Goldsworthy masterfully uses natural materials such as stone, leaves, and ice, but the way time and elemental forces evolve or disintegrate his elegant works is just as important an element in his creations as the physical components.2

Tibetan Buddhist monks fashion intricate sculptures out of butter as offerings. Their colorful sand mandalas are created and then ritually destroyed.

The purpose of creating the sand mandala is to engender healing and enlightenment. Through its ritualized destruction, the monks then illustrate the Buddhist concept of impermanence.

As an artist who cherishes the ideal of greatest longevity for my work, I purposefully explored the liberating idea of impermanence during the creation of The Wishing Tree installation. Though my team and I coated the pieces of bark with wood preserver, I know the materials will eventually biodegrade. From the inception of the project, I planned to burn the wishes that visitors tie to the removable branches. The ultimate purpose of the installation is community interaction.

Yet despite my initial impulse to explore impermanence, once I had the idea to use the resulting charcoal and ash as a drawing medium to illustrate the participants’ wish categories, I tested the materials for durability prior to making a mark on the first drawing.

I was delighted to find that, once sprayed with a workable fixative, the homemade charcoal and ash seem much more permanent than traditional vine or compressed charcoal.

While artists cannot control future environmental conditions or how a buyer may handle one of our works, if we do due diligence by researching, networking, and experimenting before using new materials, we are doing the best we can to insure longevity.3

If you agree with my sister’s point that art’s most important purpose is not about permanence, however, what do you feel is the primary raison d’etre of my field?

When I asked Julie, she replied:

“Art affects and reflects what is human.”

When she said this, I immediately thought of the title of an old art book: Man Creates Art Creates Man. Despite the gender-specific title, the concept expressed is the same as my sister’s statement.

“Art, like life itself, does not have to be defined or understood to be enjoyed. It must simply be received,” author Duane Preble states.4 “Above all, works of art reflect us.”5

I agree with Julie’s definition. Artists reflect what we – or sometimes our patrons – consider important. We chronicle our environment and what is happening around us in society, politics, or religion.

As Pablo Picasso said,

“Painting is just another way of keeping a diary.”

and

“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”

How would you answer the question, “What is art’s most important purpose?”


Julie Funderburk is the recipient of a 2015 North Carolina Arts Council fellowship. LSU Press will publish her first book, The Door That Always Opens, in December of this year. Her poems appear in 32 Poems, The Cincinnati Review, and Ploughshares. Her chapbook Thoughts to Fold into Birds is available from Unicorn Press. She teaches at Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina.


1. Virgil Elliott, Traditional Oil Painting: Advanced Techniques and Concepts from the Renaissance to the Present. (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2007), 98.

In this book, Elliott includes a thorough and enlightening section on Rembrandt’s painting techniques.

2. Andy Goldsworthy, Time. (New York: Abrams, 2000)

3. There are a lot of resources available to artists if you have questions about your art materials, though you may find conflicting information. Art making is sometimes subjective like art itself.

Start by contacting the manufacturer of your materials for one of the very best sources of information. Leading manufacturers conduct rigorous testing of their products. The various technical support representatives with whom I have spoken have all been very thorough and helpful. Networking with other artists who use the same materials is also invaluable.

New technology and conservation discoveries are expanding our field rapidly, so even certain information published a few years ago could now stand to be updated. As a good starting point, however, I highly recommend the following book:

Mark David Gottsegen, The Painter’s Handbook. (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2006)

Additionally, an invaluable resource is a forum hosted by the University of Delaware: Materials, Information, and Technical Resources for Artists (MITRA). Look through their copious extant information, or post a question of your own. I highly recommend this website.

4. Duane Preble, Man Creates Art Creates Man. (McCutchan Publishing Corporation, 1973) 5.

5. Preble, Man Creates Art Creates Man, 7.

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