Artist Techniques | Larry Wolf
Larry Wolf, coming at it from a different side
Pick a painter, any painter. The odds are almost 100% that they paint on the FRONT of the canvas, right? Not me. I’m my own kind of odd: I paint on the BACK of the canvas!
For the past decade or so, I’ve been utilizing a unique process whereby I push paint through the back of a silkscreen material to achieve eye-catching, often unpredictable results with vivid colours and layered textures of acrylic paint.
Silkscreens, invented in China over 1,000 years ago, are thin canvas meshes (stretched taut over a wooden frame) that allow the paint to pass through. Artist Andy Warhol used silkscreens to make art prints, masking out portions of the silkscreen with glue so that paint couldn’t penetrate those blocked areas. Then he would take a squeegee and push paint through the remaining porous areas to create amazing art prints.
Today, silkscreens are commonly used for printing things like T-shirts. Stencils are placed over the canvas to block paint, and colours are applied one at a time, each passing through a different stencil to produce a consistent multi-colour image on each shirt or item. Then the silkscreen canvases are washed and reused countless times.
I looked at the silkscreen and saw something else entirely: not simply a tool for transferring paint to another surface but rather a full canvas unto itself.
Rather than washing and reusing my silkscreens, they become the canvases of my artworks.
I begin with a blank silkscreen and then push paint through the back to the front. Sometimes I do this process freehand and freeform. But more often, I use pieces of masking tape to block off specific areas with various shapes, both large and small, that will be left without paint. Then I apply the paint with any number of spatula palette knives, pushing it from the back through to the front. Each new layer of paint builds thickness and adds textures in unpredictable ways.
Sometimes the paints mix and combine; other times, after removing the masking tape and opening up the blocked areas, new coloured shapes and textures can emerge with delineated borders adjacent to previously painted elements.
Eventually, I reach a point where I must decide on opacity. Unlike traditional canvas, because silkscreens are translucent, thinner areas of paint will allow the natural colour of the wall on which they hang to come through. Light from the front can pass through slightly, reflect back, and sometimes even give the piece a slight glow. But there are times when I don’t want such an effect. In these cases, I simply apply large swathes and layers of paint beneath what is already there. And because I am still painting from the back of the canvas, these new layers of paint form a thicker base underneath the textured shapes on the front of the canvas, making those areas more opaque to light.
Of course, opacity itself can then be manipulated through the use of colour.
A large swath of white paint allows more light to pass through than a large swath of some darker colour. On the other hand, a medium green or blue base layer can cool down the area above it, while a warm yellow or a hot red can produce the opposite effect. The possibilities are endless!
When complete, the wooden frame of the silkscreen (which is necessary to hold the canvas taut) becomes the natural frame of the finished piece. The simplicity of the frames gives the pieces a modern, edgy quality while at the same time allowing the artwork to be the center of attention without distracting from it. Standard silkscreen frames usually measure around 22” x 19”, so the pieces turn out a uniform size and are small enough to transport easily and ship relatively cheaply. They also typically don’t take as long to complete as larger pieces.
To my knowledge, no other artist is currently using this technique, although I certainly don’t mind if others experiment with this fun and creative process.
Up until now, I’ve been focusing mainly on abstract works using these silkscreens since that is my preferred style. But lately, I’ve begun pushing myself to create more literal and recognizable subject matter like landscapes and common household objects. Who knows where my silkscreens will take me next!
I was born, raised, and am still living in Los Angeles, California. I spent more than 45 years here as a practicing criminal defence attorney. Over the past decade and a half, I have slowly and methodically transitioned my beloved painting hobby into a successful second career as an artist. My vibrant, colourful, and textured artwork, collected under the umbrella “A Brush with the Law,” attempts to convey the intensity of emotion and wealth of experience that I’ve gained through a lifetime of rich and expansive interactions with the world and the fascinating people who live in it.
My award-winning work has been displayed in galleries throughout Southern California, across the United States, and as far away as Germany and China. My pieces are currently carried for sale in the Laguna Art Gallery in Mission Viejo, CA, as well as the 3 Square Art Gallery in Colorado Springs, CO.
Larry Wolf, Los Angeles, California