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Samhain 2009

Firewater Paint With Me
†updated 10/13/2009

by Rebecca Garcia

Years ago, when I was first starting in art school, there was an article in the local newspaper’s Sunday arts magazine that caught my eye and attention. I was left with an indelible impression of creativity and originality.

This impression was emphasized for me the following week, when I read a scathing letter to the magazine’s editor rebuking the author and the subjects of this article.

The letter-writer was my watercolor professor. He was furious—a startling revelation, as the man was (in my classroom experience) completely without passion. So you can imagine why the passive act of reading on two consecutive Sundays would remain with me so steadfastly.

The subject of the article? Whiskey Painting.

Huh?? Paintings of whiskey bottles or whiskey drinkers? What’s the big deal?

No. Not that.

The men interviewed for and written about in the article were watercolor artists in Akron, OH. But they were creating a name for themselves by using whiskey as their fluid, rather than water.

Whiskey Painters paint later in the evening, say, after 10 pm, in low-light atmospheres, and always a miniature painting. In this case, any size smaller than what will fit in a frame measuring less than 8”x10” is miniature. Painting with whiskey (or any alcohol; they didn’t discriminate) was intended to be a social activity, permitting the men to engage in “two of the three greatest pleasures in life while sitting on a pub stool or a dimly lit cocktail table any place,” according the rules of the Whiskey Painters of America. They don’t elaborate what the three greatest pleasures in life are, but it is unmistakably implied that they mean drinking whiskey (or whatever) and painting. The unnamed third pleasure must not fall within the realm of combining with those two…

Yes, they organized. There are rules that are serious and rules that are whimsical. One rule describes the purpose of the group is “to add interest to an otherwise dull evening.” Amen.

Sounds great, right? Innocent, even? So the objection to this could be what???? Who would stand in the way of harmless fun and a quiet drink?? And the answer to this is inevitably my dour, fun-quashing watercolor painting professor.

He did not object to old men getting together to paint. He made not the slightest critical comment about the quality of the paintings. He had no problem with the miniscule size of the finished watercolor paintings. Nor did he object to painting in a bar (I can’t count the number of times he and other professors would return to classes completely, though functionally, soused). He wasn’t offended by the Whiskey Painters’ habit of painting landscapes from memory rather than life. And THIS professor certainly did not object to the imbibing of one or two or eight good, stiff drinks.

The issue was that the brushes were dipped into the whiskey (or rum or tequila or…) to wet them, and that the same whiskey (schnapps, bourbon, vodka, etc.) would then be tipped to the painter’s lips to wet the painter’s tongue.

So??? comes the wondering cry.

So, indeed. This is where I have to not totally disagree with my infamously cranky but respected teacher.

Fully archival pigments are often derived from a wide variety of minerals, chemicals and compounds, virtually none of which are food-safe. In fact, many are downright poisonous. Anything with the name “Cadmium”, “Cobalt” or “Phthalo”/”Phthalocyanine” (yes, the pigment takes its color from cyanide; trace amounts, but cyanide nonetheless) is definitely a danger to your body. If the tube says “Flake White” or “Flake Black”, there’s lead in it. Actually, given certain legal regulations, that may no longer be true of the “flake” paints, but why risk your health and the health of potential offspring taking a chance with that? Once they’re in your body, many of these minerals and chemicals sit there and accumulate for the rest of your life; they do not process out with other waste. That’s dangerous neurologically and potentially a cancer trigger.

The Whiskey Painters strenuously pooh-poohed all that.

And frankly, they weren’t ingesting metric shit-tons of the paint as they painted. They always had an extra glass of water, specifically not for drinking, alongside their whiskey glass. It was in this glass of water that they would swish and rinse their brushes. There would be minimal paint on the brush when it went back into the shot glass.

Still, there would be some. I remember the photo of an old fashioned with whiskey, neat, next to the arm of one old timer. It was distinctly cloudy. And I remember that the reporter noted that the same painter had drained the glass by the end of the interview.

Do you like to live dangerously? Try painting dangerously. Paint with your firewater of choice—but sip with care.

†OOPS. Turns out that you can't always count on everything you are taught in school. This is why we should never stop learning! Here's a dose of better living through chemistry.

In my first year of art school, my watercolor professor gave us a select list of chemicals which made the pigments in some of the paints we were using. He did this to stress to us how important safe handling of our paints, palettes, and brushes was, including why it was a bad idea (though a popular one) to clean our brushes on the thighs of our jeans. (For the record, we continued to shape our brushes with our mouths and everyone's jeans were a badge of what cutting-edge scoffers we were, not to mention how very fucking unique we all were.)

Well, according to one of you very smart readers, I have learned that phthalocyanine does not contain cyanide, after all. Here's what Alex had to say:

That's actually not true. Cyanide specifically refers to molecules that have a carbon triple-bonded to a nitrogen - phthalocyanine does not have this, as you can see here: Phthalocyanine's name comes from cyanine, not cyanide. I completely agree with the point being made, but the fact listed there just isn't correct.

Still not a great thing to ingest, but it's good to have more accurate information about phthalocyanine. I trusted what my prof had to say, way back when, despite my usual habit of questioning most of what I'm handed. Thank you, Alex, for the correction as well as for the affirmation that vigilant questioning is an important responsibility!


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