Pass the tissue (paper painting)

Tissue paper, watered down glue, popsicle stick

‘The Flowers’ by Lulu

This week I had some  lofty painting goals. And then we all got sick.

My toddler, Lulu, attends a very sweet, play based, school program twice a week. When I picked her up on Tuesday her teachers warned me “she was the only one not coughing today…” Sigh.

So, now we all have it — the general malaise of short people germs, resplendent in yucky and gunky, and short on sleep. The baby, my little bean, has it the worst, as if teething wasn’t enough for her already.

The beguiling thing about a sick toddler is that, unless they are really sick, the illness can bring on a manic level of energy. As the sick mama all I want to do is slurp soup and watch Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and feel sorry for myself, but Miss Lulu wants to (figuratively) swing from the chandeliers.

What to do?

Typically our at home activities include painting, but as our usual mode of painting needs a certain exertion of energy in set up and clean up I presented LuLu with the tissue paper painting option.

Tissue paper painting is one of my favorite artistic tools. It can be used as a meditation device, or it can be appreciated for it’s hedonistic amounts of sensual enjoyment. It’s an intervention I used regularly as an art therapist and while I did, on rare occasion, meet a client who didn’t delight in the process, for the most part I think it’s a balm for all wounds, across all populations.

Tissue paper painting requires the following supplies:

  1. Tissue paper
  2. Elmer’s glue (or any glue similarly non toxic and easily washable)
  3. Paper (as high or as low brow as you want to go, I’ll explain more below.)
  4. A cup/bowl
  5. Water
  6. A brush, anything that can carry a water based solution, width at the artist’s discretion

There are two types of tissue paper: the kind that bleeds (the colors ‘run,’) and the kind that does not. If you look at Lulu’s painting you can see some blue, that is the dye leftover from the piece of tissue paper she first put down, but then subsequently removed. If you buy tissue paper at a craft or art store it will often be labeled as bleeding or non, I recommend the kind that bleeds — it’s more painterly, and part of the magic of tissue paper painting is how much work the medium does on it’s own — there’s a certain loss of control on your end, but if you don’t like that and want as much control as possible than the non-bleeding sort might be more up your alley. (Hoarding the tissue paper that comes with gifts and rolling the dice as to whether it will bleed or not is also a nice devil may care way to go about things.)

The glue is mixed with water, enough water to make the painting fluid, but not so much water that the tissue paper doesn’t adhere to the surface. Approximately a 30/70 or 40/60 glue to water ratio. If you want to get super zen about things you can just use water: some of the dye might run, but once the water dries up the tissue paper will slide off the paper and your art work will have been about living in the moment. The usual process is to put down the tissue paper where you’d like, and then coat each piece with the glue mixture. Today, though, Lulu painted the whole paper in the gluey water and then put down her tissue paper. It was one of those hand to head smacking ah-ha moments. It’s a much more immediate process that way, less control, of course, and I wish I’d known of that technique when I was working as an art therapist with the geriatric population. Toddlers, truly the best innovative artists around.

As for the paper, heavy stock water color paper is heavenly, and you can get super precise about things and tape down your edges so that the water doesn’t buckle the paper. Alternatively, any paper or cardboard with a coated surface is nice and celebrates the fluidity of this process, but, truthfully, there really isn’t a wrong paper to work with. As Lulu is a very prolific artist I tend to collect all sorts of paper and up cycle them into her works of art. The paper she used today was 8×11 office paper my husband had previously printed with a typo.

There is a lot more I could say about tissue paper painting, I could go on and on actually, but I’ll just quickly say that I prefer tearing the paper into shapes as opposed to cutting it, but adolescents, in particular, often got into cutting out letters/shapes and gluing them down, and that you can be a tissue paper purist, or you can incorporate anything else glue-able: glitter, beads, shells, collage, or — as you can see above — the odd popsicle stick. Dried tissue paper paintings done on thin paper and hung in a sunny window take on a stained glass effect, and layers and layers of tissue paper and glue become effortlessly organic. I’m not surprised that Lulu named hers “The Flowers,” somehow this process moves away from it’s store bought origins and gets quickly earthy, in the best possible way. When I would paint along with my clients I would inevitably layer blues and greens together — it felt especially soothing — and almost every group agreed that my finished product looked like the ocean, and so one day I intentionally choose reds and oranges and when it was all done a client observed that it looked like the sun setting on the ocean, it’s just that soulful of a way of creating art that I think it brings out our primal identifications with nature. (No, seriously, check out the cool water marks left in Lulu’s tissue paper and tell me that doesn’t seem like the relief of a fossil?)

If you do delve into this process I would LOVE to know your reactions to it. Meanwhile, I’m off to make a cuppa peppermint tea. Stay healthy, soulful artists, stay healthy.


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