The past few weeks, I have been working on some ideas for a couple of pieces to contribute to the upcoming Prince tribute show ("The Beautiful Ones Always Smash the Picture") at the Thunder-Sky Inc. gallery. This is a show similar to the fantastic Bowie show from back in April.
The main piece I had been toying with in my mind was a robot painting titled "Computer Blue" (a favorite track from Purple Rain). Rather than using watercolor or gouache like usual, it occurred to me that I had a small, 2 oz bottle of blue "cel vinyl" paint lying around. I'll try to be as brief as possible with the background: as the name implies, cel vinyl is what just about every major commercial animated production was colored with before animation switched to digital ink/paint (the paint was applied to the backside of the pre-inked translucent celluloid or 'cel' before being shot on camera).
Essentially, it was used to create a flat (yet vibrant if so desired) color palette that essentially functioned as a physical, painted version of digital color fills, so it was no surprise that the switch to digital color was an easy transition (not to mention that it cut down on the manual labor and costs of having entire ink & paint departments on the assembly line).
Somewhat amazingly, the company who makes the stuff if still alive and kicking, despite the fact that not only the painting process, but cel animation in general has been dead for 15+ years now. And not only is it still surviving as a mailorder for nostalgic artists like myself, but they apparently still operate their brick and mortar storefront in Southern California ... the aptly named "Cartoon Colour Company". I don't doubt that they must be hanging on by a thread (as also evidenced by their website being outdated and a mess to operate), but it is truly wonderful that the stuff is still being produced. There still seems to be a niche market for it among artists, however minuscule that may be.
Not that I have personally experimented with the alternatives, but while paints like designer gouache exist (probably the pre-digital equivalent to cel vinyl for graphic designers and commercial illustrators), I believe cel vinyl's extreme opaque-ness is so unique that it is still very much desired by certain hobbyists. Looking around online, some use it in a similar fashion to what I am doing here (paintings), others use it to paint custom toys and clay sculptures, etc.
Back to the piece ... so I have a bottle of the stuff that I want to try for the "Computer Blue" painting ... but how do you use it, exactly? I grew up reading just about every animation how-to book I could get my hands on, but the processes of ink & paint were typically barely mentioned (if not ignored altogether). This is because, like previously mentioned, they were typically done by entire departments who created the finished, colored artwork once it was out of the hands of those creating the actual animated drawings and backgrounds. However, the process of painting on a clear sheet is not normal unless you previously worked in animation, and cel vinyl is not normal paint. For starters, the consistency of the liquid is thick, almost akin to a cooking batter of sorts. The bottle instructions also advise to "keep the brush wet". Similarly, I also remember reading somewhere to keep the paint diluted with water for best results.
After some initial (but not nearly enough) testing, I realized that the stuff seems to be as advertised re: being compatible with just about any surface. This was a concern, because I was unsure if it would produce the same, extremely opaque effect when applied to a traditional paper surface like watercolor or Bristol as opposed to a clear acetate. The bottle I am using watercolor paper, so I went ahead and dove in.
(the above pic features a pencil drawing of an older design ... most notably, the robot's legs/feet changed, and there were two little television/monitor-type things on each side of the bottom featuring "YES" on one screen and "LISA" on the other, based on the dialogue at the beginning of the song)
I quickly realized that, when covering larger surfaces as opposed to outlines, the process of color filling involves, shall I say ... "glooping" a big hunk of the wet paint into a designated area and carefully dragging the brush around to fill as much as possible before acrylic-looking streaks began to show. The key, here, was choosing the right brush to switch to depending on the size of the area that needed to be filled. This is the only strategy that seemed to be working for me, at least. In these pics, you can see the "drip" method of starting from the top and attempting to guide the wet paint down and spreading it around.
Along the way, I learn that the stuff can be extremely messy, especially when removing the cap (which annoyingly kept getting stuck on very tight) after shaking up the bottle, per the instructions.
This did not end up being the final painting (I will make a second part to this post with further explanation and the final product, which features clouds and purple rain coming down in watercolor), but here was a "first draft" experiment that I was pretty satisfied with. Using the cel vinyl was fun and unique, though a messy and tedious challenge with a lot of trial and error. If the bottles weren't so expensive and becoming increasingly more difficult to come by, I would love to use the stuff more often. I had intended for this post to be more about experimenting with the process (i.e. visual), but it ended up being mostly too many words. Oh well.