Having serious second thoughts about this retablo business

Studio view of a retablo painting in progress © Wren M. Allen

A studio view of the retablo in progress

Oh, dear. Yesterday’s progress on the retablo was not smooth sailing. The liquid acrylic pigments dry almost instantly on the plate, so there isn’t much time to blend or scumble. And at 8″ x 10″, the image requires small brushes, which I don’t have, so I’m using an old synthetic watercolor brush, which doesn’t have much body to stand up to the heavy liquid. The dried paint has a rugged, crusty texture, which I find undesirable.

After 3 years of working solely in watercolor, I’d forgotten just how messy and nasty acrylic paints are in comparison. Clean up and set up take a significant chunk of the work period. I’m totally dissatisfied with where this thing is at right now, and having a serious re-think about what to do next, or even if this project is something to abandon all together.

Wondering if it’s time to punt.

Current project: Fund-raising retablo for Lawndale Art Center

Every year, Lawndale Art Center in Houston, Texas, holds a fundraising auction on the Day of the Dead. Local artists create contemporary versions of traditional retablo paintings and donate half or all of the proceeds to the center. This is the first time in 6 years that I’ve participated. After much deliberation, I decided to work with a combination of the “hand of Fatima” or hamsa icon and the Sacred Heart icon.

Transferring a drawing onto a zinc plate to paint © Wren M. Allen

Tracing the retablo drawing onto the zinc plate.

To transfer the image, I traced the drawing onto lightweight tissue, then placed Saral transfer paper between the tissue tracing and the prepared zinc plate and retraced.

Zinc Plate Ready to Paint with Icons © Wren M. Allen

Here is the plate with the traced image, ready to paint.

After transferring, I started to paint the image. I still have some CretaColor liquid acrylic pigments, so I started off with a quick layer of color on the central image.

First stage of painting a retablo with red and blue, © Wren M. Allen

The heart and hand have received the first coat of paint.

The color scheme is going to be bold and folkloric, to tie in with the basic retablo history in Mexican culture. The word retablo refers most often in Mexican culture to small votive paintings that are offered up when asking the saints for holy intervention in the prayer-giver’s life, or donated in thanks for the granting of benedictions/healing, etc.

Demonstration: Priming a zinc plate for a retablo painting

Priming a zinc plate for a retablo painting with acrylic paint, © Wren M. Allen

Steps in preparing a zinc plate before painting a retablo, © Wren M. Allen

Although the zinc plates that the Lawndale Art Center distributes are supposed to be primed and ready to paint, I find the gray surface just doesn’t give enough luminosity to the image that is painted on top. I prefer to use white acrylic artist’s paint to further prepare the surface of the plate before starting the retablo image.

Place the plate on a coffee can or jar to elevate it and prevent it from sticking to the support surface. Thin some artist’s acrylic paint with water, or a mixture of water and half matte medium and half gloss medium, until the mixture is about as heavy as half-and-half. Then use a large flat brush to paint a thin coat of paint in one direction. After it dries completely, apply paint in the direction perpindicular to the first coat. The idea is to almost float the creamy, loose acrylic fluid onto the plate and avoid brush marks of any kind. If there are any flecks of dried paint, or slight ridges, use a little super fine sandpaper to smooth the surface between coats.

Keep applying paint in alternating vertical and horizontal coats until the plate is a smooth, opaque white, free of any marks. Now you’re ready to transfer your image!

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