Back to Basics

A second post for Tools of the Trade, a series that looks at the tools we use to make art.

A tool like a paintbrush is an extension of the body. Finding an appropriate one depends on the need of the individual artist. The result will depend on how it’s used.

At times it takes forever to decide what material to procure at an art supply or hardware store. You can end up leaving empty-handed because you can’t find that one particular item. At other times you end up buying out of desperation or in haste for instant gratification. You keep unsuitable items because it’s easier than returning to the store. Sound familiar? How often do artists purchase useless art supplies? Many of us are guilty, to be sure. So when I look for a paintbrush, say, sable, I spend a good amount of time stroking it like a pet to see how it behaves or feels until it meets my standards. In a brush, I look for particular characteristics, like resistance or stiffness, and that means avoiding the limp and lifeless ones. If it paints and writes, it’s good.

My tools are simple, rudimentary, and unromantic. And so is my studio. But the studio is a place to be creative and productive—a sanctuary, to use a cliché. It looks like a bricoleur’s workshop, a friend said a long time ago. It’s an apt description and an appropriate context for my work since I like to tinker with workaday ubiquitous materials in an urban setting and be all over the map. A tool reflects the user and how it is used tells us what could become of an object. The work may go through metamorphoses many times over, but the tools remain the same.

Mariano Del Rosario artist tools

To err is human, to measure divine. A measuring tape is essential and indispensable in the studio to get things right, but it can also go against spontaneity and gut instinct. Whether the artist is stretching a canvas, building a panel, mapping the daily course of action, or just winging it organically or symmetrically, it comes in handy. It’s available in different styles, sizes, brands, and forms such as metal, plastic, paper, and now laser. One presumes that we measure things in the world to make sense of the chaos surrounding us.

Mariano Del Rosario artist tools

For my new 2015 cement paintings series, the trowel and the spatula deliver best. They are the same tools I used for my first New York solo exhibition at OK Harris Gallery in 1988, and before that at the prestigious Cultural Center of the Philippines in Manila. Stripping cement’s original context and removing it from the sculptural and conventional construction processes are what the cement painting is about. As masons or bricklayers do, I can feel the gravelly grating sound the concrete makes when troweled over the canvas. It is visceral; it rouses the senses.

Mariano Del Rosario favorite artist tools

More importantly, I depend on this simple, unique, steel stool for stability and comfort to conserve physical stamina. It is possibly an old dentist or machinist stool that I found at a Brooklyn antique store many years ago, pre-owned. As in car dealership lexicon, it’s so much older than it is. Working on the floor expends much oxygen and energy from the body and so a short break always helps. And if it’s padded, it’s probably not good for my back. I still hang canvas on wall screws out of habit despite having a twenty-year-old heavy-duty easel with a crankshaft that can hold an eight-square stretched canvas. But this stool is an unsung hero.

Visual art is akin to culinary art, to use a baking analogy. Both require measuring the right mix of ingredients, temperature, attention, and, by extension, an acuity which makes or breaks the outcome of the alchemical process.

Mariano Del Rosario teaches at the Art Students League of New York.


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