The Art & Science of Art

Everybody's heard the art vs. craft debate ad nauseum, right? You know: Is it art? Is it craft? It pops up all over again every once in a while, with people posting heated exchanges calling into question everyone else's aesthetic sensibilities. Gah. What's way more interesting is thinking about art vs. science, as in "the art and the science of any particular medium or technique." I've been thinking a lot about this, and it's endlessly fascinating. We'll use fabric dyeing as an example because it's what I know about (and, frankly, what obsesses me). There's the science of it (the chemicals, the timing, the process) and the art (color mixing, shading/ombre dyeing, resist dyeing, over-dyeing) The art part is what draws us to the technique in the first place. It's what we see and fall in love with. I love the idea of taking a garment that's boring or faded or just plain ugly (sorry, but to me, some colors really *are* ugly) color and making it into something fabulous, a vibrant color that makes the piece of clothing look better than new. I love working with a simple palette and mixing those colors to get a whole bunch of others, tweaking how much fuchsia I add to get a more vibrant orange, or adding more bright green to the chartreuse to bump up the volume on a formerly-mint-green tank top. I don't measure, and I don't time things, and I don't keep records, so every dye bath is a new adventure. That's the art. But the science? That's what came first. In dyeing, the science is in the chemicals--the uniodized salt that allows the fabric to absorb the dye, the soda ash that makes their bond permanent--and you have to learn that first. When I first began dyeing fabric, I measured everything and timed each step with a stopwatch. Later, as I got comfortable with the process, I began experimenting, leaving loads in the dye bath longer or adding a second color halfway through without mixing, just to see what would happen. The science part was invaluable in the learning process, and the same is true for anything else, from encaustic to watercolor. Before you can explore the art, you have to learn the science. Otherwise, you're going to spend a lot of time standing around fuming because something didn't work out--and by "didn't work out," I don't mean those cool non-mistakes that turn into something fabulous. No, I mean "didn't work out" as in the wax caught fire and set off the smoke alarms or the painting turned into a muddy mess and ruined an expensive sheet of hot-press watercolor paper. Those kinds of mistakes. Sure, you can learn from them, just as with any other kind of mistake, but, seriously: most of us would prefer to skip the expensive, smelly, possibly toxic-fume-filled mistakes and get on with something less dangerous and more fun. Learning that stuff is key, but it's a series of steps that beginners sometimes want to skip. People will ask for advice about the basics, saying, "Give me the short version; I just want to get to the fun part." But doing that isn't going to serve you well at all. By taking time to learn the science, you'll begin to understand what can be done and what won't ever work and then--then!--you'll see that there's a middle ground, a ground where there are things that might work and might not and might lead to something really cool.   I'm glad I spent time with the measuring spoons and the stopwatch because it made me more willing to experiment and play. Knowing the basics made me confident that I wasn't going to blow up the house or ruin the washing machine or destroy something valuable, and now I can tweak the process and see what happens. I don't care about the chemicals that make one kind of fabric take dye better than another or the chemical components of the colors that mix to create each particular green. I just love putting stuff in the dye and seeing what comes out. No matter how many times I do it, there's always a delicious surprise or two.

 You can go here to read the blog post about this particular dye bath

and about the art of dyeing.

  So no matter that you're totally right-brained and the word "science" is almost as scary as the word "trigonometry," take whatever time you need to get familiar with the way things work and why. Once you've got an understanding of those, the art awaits you.   Ricë also blogs at The Voodoo Cafe.
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