Last week I finished a commission for Edmonton’s Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation and their fundraising event The Courage Gala. The assignment was to create a ‘map’ that described what the proceeds from the Gala were able to achieve over the last five years. When I found out that they wanted me to use both maps and anatomy imagery, I was very excited—my two favourite things!. The project was a lot of work and I had to put myself under house arrest for two weeks to get it done on time, but I was happy with how it turned out. Here’s how I put this piece together.
How I did it
I started with a few sketches of what I wanted the piece to look like. Over the course of conversations with the client, it went from one large piece to five pieces so my ideas had to change quite a bit. There were certain elements that needed to be included and others I was free to play around with. I wanted to have a path from one board to another, with the path representing the theme of the Gala for that year (Water, Fusion, Words of Reflection, Elevation, and Exploring the Road Map to Courage). I decided to have the path originate with a face looking into the future, and end with a heart that symbolized the Foundation. It took many attempts to get the design of this looking right and I did tons of sketches while I tried to figure it out.
I also knew that I needed to illustrate each achievement and include text that explained its impact. At the start, I wasn’t sure exactly how I would meet these two demands, but I left space for it and hoped for the best.
To make the backgrounds I used an acrylic matte medium to attach torn pieces of maps, tissue paper, and two different kinds of graph paper to the foam core support, then scrubbed thin layers of beige and red paint over them with a rag. I added some more torn pieces of paper, then two more layers of paint for a total of 6 layers. Acrylic dries really quickly so it was easy to rotate through the boards with each step. It took two days to do all the backgrounds.
Next, I taped some kraft paper to the boards and drew the head and the heart and the paths connecting them. I cut out the shapes and taped them in place so that I could have a look at all of them lined up next to each other and make any adjustments. Just drawing these elements took a whole day.
I traced the cut-out shapes onto the boards and filled them in with a light wash of purple paint. Then I did a similar process as I had for the backgrounds, glueing down maps, tissue and graph paper and scrubbing them with pink paint and then again with purple paint. I’m not sure if all the layers were necessary, but I think it adds depth to it that wouldn’t have been achieved without all the steps.
At this point, I got pretty stuck because I still wasn’t sure how to add the text or how best to represent the achievements. I tried printing the text on tissue paper—something I’ve done before—but didn’t love how it looked. I wanted something that would blend in more with the background so I eventually decided to try acrylic gel transfer.
This is an interesting technique where you paint acrylic medium over an image (or text) that has been laser printed (inkjet printing won’t work), let it dry, then wet the paper and peel it off. The image or text will remain on the plastic acrylic medium. This was incredibly time-consuming and there were a few mishaps that involved last minute runs to the copy centre to print more text, but it worked and I was (mostly) happy with how it looked once it was glued on.
Finally, I used transfer paper to transfer my drawings of the achievements to the boards and collaged them with maps and tissue before blocking in the values with beige paint. I liked the way it looked so I kept going, adding darker and lighter shades to build up the volume. I saved some of the finishing touches, which mostly included adding darker values to the drawings, for the event itself, where I had been asked to paint while guests arrived.
I arrived at the event and felt a little intimidated since it looked so professional. It was right at the entrance to the hall since they wanted people to learn about what the Gala has achieved as they entered. Once I got set up I felt more relaxed (it helped that Matt reminded me that I was supposed to be there) and I painted while people dressed in gowns and suits mingled around me drinking champagne.
What I learned
Since I haven’t done a project like this before, there was a pretty steep learning curve. I tried some new things and made some mistakes. It also helped to reinforce lessons that I’ve learned in the past. Here are some of those lessons:
- Communication is everything when working with a client. To help ease the stress of meeting deadlines, I need to make sure that I get all the information before I give a quote or agree to do the project.
- Focus makes time expand. I only had 10 days to do this project from start to finish so I cleared my calendar and gave it all my attention. Narrowing my focus meant that while I was working I wasn’t stressing about other things or being distracted. I was 100% engaged and that helped me work more efficiently.
- It’s still important to get enough sleep, get outside, exercise, and eat properly. Except for the last day, I made sure to get up from the table and take care of myself. I even found that these breaks for naps or walks helped me to be more productive since they broke up creative blocks and eased any tension or stress I was feeling.
- You can only take things one step at a time. I didn’t know exactly how I would pull it all together but I trusted that I would figure it out and just started working. When I felt stuck I knew that I had to choose a path since I didn’t have time to sit in indecision. I kept making small decisions, and eventually figured out the bigger questions. The trick is to keep moving and trust that whatever you choose will be the right choice.
- Done is better than perfect. I didn’t have time to fuss over the details or change things that weren’t exactly how I wanted them to be. I had to keep moving to make it to the deadline and let the imperfections go. Once it all came together the imperfections didn’t mean as much anyway.
- It’s okay to get upset when things are really hard, but the only way to get the work done is to find a way to calm down. The night before it was due I ran into some trouble with the acrylic gel transfers. I had to redo them and didn’t have 24 hours to let them dry. I started to panic but my partner Matt helped me to calm down and figure out a solution: we borrowed a friend’s heat gun and Matt dried the pieces while I applied glue and peeled the paper off.
- I was reminded of what an amazing support system I have. People I care about are always ready to step in to help or at least lend a supportive ear.
- When doing acrylic gel transfers (which I had never done before this project), it works best if you apply two layers of medium, one in each direction, and allow each one to dry thoroughly. A heat gun or hair dryer can speed up the process.
- Foam core is not a good support for this kind of work. As you can see in the photos, the boards warped and wouldn’t lay flat.
- I want to do more large scale 2D pieces. I had so much fun making the backgrounds for these, and got so many compliments, that I really want to continue using this technique on a larger scale. I’ve been using this technique on my anatomy sculptures but it would be fun to see what else I can do with it.
- We should celebrate our successes. After I left the Gala, I put on a dress and met some friends for dinner, drinks, and dancing. I knew that I would need a way to release the stress I had been feeling and this was perfect. While not every success needs a night out on the town, I think it is important to treat ourselves when we do something we’re proud of.