This was my first major project with gouache. RISD is well known for its Nature Lab, one of the oldest, and most extensive collections of animal artifacts and objects in the country. As part of this research project, I chose to focus on the spider conch for its unusual shape and extremities. Using the specimen itself, as well as flora and fauna from its habitat, I created an asymmetrical, cyclical pattern around the mandala.

The constraint: to create the illusion of transparency and overlap without repeating a single color, anywhere on the canvas. I created a new and individual pigment mixture for each and every segment, everything is solid, no gradients or fades or blending. Think of it as a giant paint-by-number that I made myself. Neither the pattern nor the palette could be duplicative in any way. I began by spending time in the Providence Athenaeum, one of the oldest libraries in the US, researching the spider conch and its environment.

After studying it very closely, even under a microscope, learning about its form and colors and distinguishing elements, I began to create the mandala pattern. It was an exercise in observation, texture, contrast, scale, and color. What had appeared white to the naked eye was suddenly revealed, under the microscope, to be rich with detail.

Gouache is very difficult to work with as the pigment does not appear the same wet as it does dry. Paler colors darken as they dry, and deeper tones lighten, which can make it difficult to match colors between one painting session and the next. It was especially complex because no two colors could be alike.

I split the mandala into six segments, focusing on a different area of habitat for each one. I drew a series of elements from each habitat and used tracing paper to articulate them around the circumference. The heart of the circle is approximately 10 inches, with some extremities spanning closer to 12 or 13. This was also my first foray, freshman year, into the concept of a RISD All-Nighter. I finished at 5:13 AM, I still remember because I took a picture of my strewn desk when I completed it! I’m much better at managing my time now, of course :)