Acrylic: Mary Alice Braukman: Freedom Reigns, Beauty Results

0611brauws1_600x600_1Mary Alice Braukman finds that having a few rules in the very beginning of a workshop allows participants to better enjoy the bountiful artistic liberties that characterize her mixed-media work.

by Bob Bahr

Workshop students were supplied
with an array of materials.

Silver iridescent fluid acrylic paint, discarded buttons, tar gel, soft molding paste, shavings from a key-making machine; gouache paints and watercolors, window-shade fabric, fine pumice gel, custom-dyed tissue paper—these are a few of the materials Mary Alice Braukman uses in her art. Nearly everything she’s created recently has been mixed media or collage, with imagery ranging from the sparse to the thickly layered, and subject matter varying from the extremely abstract to the subtly representational. One thing has remained constant: all the physical elements are as archival as possible.

“I switched to Golden fine pumice gel from beach sand and builder’s sand because I couldn’t be certain that the builder’s sand was completely clean or that I could wash all the salt out of the sand,” says Braukman. “Every artist needs to choose the best materials that can be found because you never know if something is going to turn out to be the painting. So you must use archival materials, always. Even if the piece you are working on is not the painting, it is practice for it.” When examining Braukman’s work, it is imperative to consider her art materials carefully, because they are what free her. She has very thoughtfully selected the list of materials that she uses and that she supplies her workshop participants; they are chosen because they work well together. Braukman has pulled off the nearly impossible: she has convinced art-materials manufacturers to provide products for her workshops even though she also uses products from the competition. The lion and the lamb both give her paints, in part because they know she is selecting individual items specifically for their compatibility with the rest of her setup. As a result, each student has many toys to play with—plus 5"-x-7" cards that she has prepared ahead of time with various gels, mediums, and applications of layered materials. The student is able to see firsthand how applying or layering pastels, crayons, graphite, inks, and other fluid or heavy-bodied paints will look on this surface.

2006, artist-dyed tissue,
tar gel, illustration board, and
acrylic on canvas,
8 x 10 x 2. Collection the artist. 

Braukman drizzles paint and medium
on her collages using either a string
or a fine brush. In this painting,
she mixed gray acrylic paint with
tar gel to add the design on the
top layer. The black rectangle is
illustration board wrapped in black
tissue paper. “This is a good example
of how you can see what something
is going to feel like before affixing
it,” she says. “I moved that piece of
illustration board—which I wrapped like
a gift—around on the collage before
I applied it. Seeing this forgiving
process makes students feel a lot better.”

Inspiration is given free reign. That’s how Braukman works, and she makes sure her students have the same opportunity. “I can’t do too much planning,” she says. “That would take all the fun out of it. And once I’ve done it, I’ve done it. I may make something similar, something that has some of the same elements, but it will appear different. Even dreaming about a piece means I will never paint it, because I’ve already completed the thought. No two people see the world or a subject the same. That is the exciting part! My main goal is to keep it fresh and let it have meaning.”

With clear tar gel,
Braukman can affix small,
flat rocks onto a surface.

She also prepares items—both intentionally and unintentionally—for use in future pieces. Because she adheres to a consistent and fairly limited palette, Braukman can dye pieces of art tissue paper in advance, confident that the colors will work in a future collage. She also peels off the mixtures and puddles of acrylic paint from her used freezer-paper palette and adheres the colorful, random result to her support. The brass shavings from a hardware store’s key-making machine caught her eye one day, and now she visits that store occasionally and cleans their machine with a brush to gather the glinting metal shards. “My friend Annie Morgan told me to look at the ground wherever I go,” says Braukman, “and now I always find things on the roadside that look interesting. I am constantly looking. I am a scavenger.” These discarded bits become meaningful tokens in the artist’s work, although they may be buried under a thick skin of clear tar gel tinted with red acrylic paint or covered in tissue. A first glance at a Braukman work might suggest abstraction to the point of meaninglessness—until the order and movement of the collage begin to reveal themselves. All of Braukman’s abstract pieces represent something to her. All are rooted in strong design and a rigorous artistic background.

0611brauws4_600x458 0611brauws5_600x415
One of the mediums from
Golden that Braukman uses is
crackle, which allows an artist
to incorporate a cracked surface
into a piece and emphasize it
either by painting the exposed
surface or allowing a colored
surface beneath the medium
to show through the cracks.
Braukman favors Golden fine
pumice gel instead of simply
mixing beach sand or builder’s sand
with medium because Golden’s
product is archival.

Years ago, Braukman drew realistic sailboats and sea-gulls and beach scenes, and sold the work in the Tampa Bay area. She was represented by a local gallery and had items in gift shops all along the Gulf Coast of Florida. But she was not enthralled by realism. “It was selling, but it wasn’t satisfying me,” she says. She began to experiment and, rather quickly, her work became abstract. Her gallery stuck with her, thrilled with the development. “She’s gone wild,” one show announcement from her gallery read. “I put a lot of movement in my work,” Braukman says simply. “Each piece is different, but some people recognize my work by my movement. I want people to be able to follow a design. Every color has to connect so that your eye follows them in, like you are going across a stream from stepping-stone to stepping-stone. I don’t feel that every painting has to have a center of interest. It just has to flow.”

Sometimes Braukman peels off the dried
layers of paint from her freezer
paper or Styrofoam-plate palette and
uses the colorful blob in a collage.

In short, there is a method to her madness. Workshop participants find this out on the first day of a Braukman workshop. “I have them go back to the basics by tackling color and value,” says the artist. “The first day is all technical. One exercise is to choose a color they work with a lot and break it down by value, then experiment using only that group of colors and their complements. These students—and all of my students are at advanced or intermediate levels—haven’t done this for years. They roll their eyes, but at the end they say, ‘Gosh, I had forgotten all this.’ By the third day, the students are completely on their own, and I just walk around helping them resolve problems.” Often, this means putting a troubled piece aside and starting over, or recycling the unresolved piece for another work. Braukman prefers that each student have an eight-foot table as a workspace, but often tables must be shared. “The young ones sometimes leave their tables and get down on the floor,” she says with glee. This process mimics her working style: Once the basic rules are established, freedom reigns and beauty results.

Braukman says layering elements is a key component of her art. “It’s almost the reverse of unearthing,” she says. I disguise things with paint or medium; I want everything layered. I want the viewer to get into that work and crawl through it and feel it, dig down and find those elements.” Sometimes Braukman will go back into a layered work with a razor and peel off layers to reveal what is happening below. Not surprising, the artist studied geology and archaeology in college, and she is fascinated by the crevices and exposed areas in mountains that reveal history through geological layers. Her old geology textbooks remain in her rotation of reading material. Also not surprising: Braukman visits rock and mineral stores and buys the small, flat chips that settle at the bottom of big boxes of rocks for use in her collages. Her strict rule for layering is to blend the elements so they are completely integrated into the work. “If the viewer can figure out what you did, then you have lost your painting,” asserts the artist. Braukman wants the viewer to see the work as a whole and not become fascinated by a certain technique. All the various processes must become one integrated whole.

The working surfaces at a Braukman
workshop tend to be rather full.

The subtly revealed layers are analogous to the stages in one’s life, Braukman says. Art is critical to her emotional life. Creating art and otherwise immersing herself in it helps the artist deal with loss and pain and joy. “You have to have art in your life in some form every day,” she says. “No, I don’t paint every day. I will dive in one day and stay there, working on pieces, for three to five days. Then I’ll stop and work at my art a different way—I will study books or magazines or visit galleries. But I’m touching art every day.”

The creative act both engages and disengages the brain, allowing an open person to express feelings in a constructive, illuminating way. For Braukman, finishing a large piece is not necessary. It can be achieved simply by cutting colored construction paper into various shapes and placing them under a matted window, as the artist often does while watching television at night or slicing magazine images into ribbons and weaving them together, searching and pushing for a strong design. “I like collage because until it is adhered, you can move things around,” she says. “This frees up my students because they are not worried about something being in place forever—they can move things about, study the results, go away from them, come back and change something. That’s freedom.” Braukman takes this liberty further, allowing herself to work on several collages during the same painting session. At any given time, there may be five works in progress in her studio. “My mind is like a ping-pong ball,” she says, laughing. “I might be working on something and look over at another piece, get an idea, and run over and do what I’d thought of for a while, then go back to the first.” For her, freedom not only means being allowed to place any mark she likes on a surface but also being free to destroy a piece, recycle it, or simply abandon it for a burning idea she has for another work. Only the best are allowed beyond her studio door—she is a tough editor of her own work. “If you do three to five outstanding paintings a year, you’re doing it!” Braukman says. “I keep my pieces for a month and study them. I have to be proud of what I’m putting out.”

Look What Popped Up, No. 1
2006, artist-dyed paper
and mixed media on canvas,
10 x 8 x 2.
Collection the artist.

After she had created a few pieces
in this series, Braukman came
across variations on the same
theme independently pursued by
created a similar piece with
metal sheets, the other made
one with Post-It notes.

Clear tar gel mixed with
acrylic paint can affix
found objects to a surface.

About the Artist
Mary Alice Braukman is a signature member of the National Watercolor Society, the Georgia Watercolor Society, the Kentucky Watercolor Society, and The Florida Watercolor Society, where she has previously served as president and executive board member. Born and raised in Tampa, and now living in St. Petersburg, Florida, and spending the summers in North Carolina, Braukman helps with the Kanuga Watercolor/Watermedia Workshops, an annual weeklong school. The artist is in much demand as a workshop instructor and a show juror, and her work has been juried into numerous watercolor exhibitions over the past 20 years. Braukman was the guest editor of the fall 2001 issue of Watercolor magazine. Her art is in many corporate and private collections, and she has been represented by Nancy Markoe Gallery, in St. Pete Beach, Florida, for more than 20 years.


In the Flow
2006, mixed media,
stamped textures, and collage,
8 x 10 x 2. Collection the artist.

About Kanuga Watercolor/Watermedia Workshops
Mary Alice Braukman has served as one of the organizers of the Kanuga Watercolor/Watermedia Workshops-located in the Blue Ridge Mountains just outside of Hendersonville, North Carolina-for more than 12 years, and she continues to work for the workshop in a number of capacities, including as an instructor. All levels of painters are welcome, and lodging is available on the 1,400-acre conference and workshop campus. About 12 watermedia workshops are held at Kanuga every March during one week of activity; each instructor teaches up to 26 students in the classrooms. Spouses and friends are welcome to join participants at the facility for an additional lodging fee. Meals are provided.

Bob Bahr is the managing editor of Workshop.

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