Official music page and soapbox of Matt Snell

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Painting with Bug Blood

Boisea trivittata, in my kitchen
I got bug woes. In the summertime masses of red and black insects sunned themselves on my eaves, before winter drove them into the wall of my office.  Now that the warmer weather is coming, they have begun to emerge again, this time in the house. Although harmless, they are a particular nuisance because they cannot be squished without leaving a long bloody smear on the wall or bookshelf.  On first look you wouldn’t guess they are so chock full of blood. In order to cope with the problem I began to collect them in plastic cream cheese tub and chuck them out in the snow. Even so, the frequency with which they appeared discouraged me from going outside every time, and my collection grew.

My bug collection
A couple weeks ago I was over at a friend’s house, and he was sharing his squirrel woes. Apparently he can hear them knocking in the walls at odd hours, driving his Siamese cats mad. “I can sympathize,” I said. “I’ve got a container full of bugs on my shelf right now.”

Without hesitation he said, “You should paint with them.” It hadn’t occurred to me, but of course he was right. I did a little research first.

I have an infestation of Box Elder Bugs, also known as the Maple Bug or the Zug. Boisea trivittata in scientific nomenclature. The tree in my backyard is their summertime host, and they winter inside my walls where it is warm.  Although they are not a threat to the tree or the house, their sheer numbers are unsettling. I went to the art store.

Art supplies
I am a musician and a writer, not a painter. With my hands full practicing those crafts, I have never bothered to explore the visual arts. Bug blood is just the thing to get me started. Until the infestation goes away, I should have enough blood to paint my way through a beginner’s method book, at the rate of one painting a week. At first I was thinking watercolour, but the books I found on that subject were complicated and required a sophisticated palette. I settled on Chinese Brush Stroke style, which focuses on simple, often monochromatic arrangements. I picked up a manual, paper, and some bamboo brushes.

Settling into position
A brief note, lest you be inclined to call me morbid.  The cochineal, an insect native to Mexico and South America, is the source of carmine dye, which is found in everything from artificial flowers to cherry pie filling. British artist Chris Ofili uses elephant dung in his compositions, and has been exhibited in the Brooklyn Museum of Art.  The colour purple is associated with royalty because of the rarity and expense of Tryrian purple, a dye manufactured from the “mucous secretion from the hypobranchial gland of one of several medium-sized predatory sea snails found in the eastern Mediterranean” (Thanks, Wikipedia).

The smell was unexpectedly rich
It was time to get painting. I have heard painters insist on natural light, so I choose a seat nearest the window. I brought with me my supplies, including mortar and pestle. I have never made paint before either, but I figured simply by mashing the bugs and diluting the product with water I would obtain a passable red. I set my brushes in a cup of water to remove the sizing from the bristles and turned my attention to the container. As quickly as I could, I lifted the lid and shook out a handful of bugs.

The unstrained mixture
They were eager to escape the mortar and pestle, and several got away before I could mash them. I tried my best to round up the stragglers while mashing with my other hand. The smell was unexpectedly rich. Looking in, the bodies were so dense I could not see any liquid at the bottom. Reluctantly, I added the rest of my bugs and ground them in as well. I added a splash of water, swilled, and poured it into a dish.

Paint, after straining through a teaball
The mixture closely resembled Campbell’s tomato soup. I was disappointed the red was not so vibrant, and feared I may have added to much water. I dried my brush, dipped it into the paint, and made my first experimental stroke. Too soon – the paint still had traces of grit. I took a teaball from the kitchen and strained the mixture.

Making the first stroke
This was more what I was after. My book advised me to practice my strokes before attempting  a composition, but the container of bugs had produced too little blood, and I was reluctant to waste it on practice. Luckily, I had discussed the idea at a dinner party, and friends had given me some great ideas for things that are white and red.

Again, I was worried about being labeled macabre for wanting to paint with blood. I needed an idea which would appeal to the lady on the street, an idea my countrymen could get behind. I wanted the kind of idea you can bring to school. Here it is, because I am a loving patriot:

Stay tuned for the next installment of “Painting with Bug Blood!”

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