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Before & After: Succulent Wordplay

September 30, 2011

Big word

The word of the day is ALOE. Writ large, this piece of typographical garden art adds color and graphic punch to a cool, mostly neutral, vignette. A favorite vintage chair, a large glass bottle in a simpatico tone, some concrete and metal bits and bobs, and, of course, aloe blossoms, work perfectly with this easy paint project. This is one of two pieces I’m doing for sale at the upcoming Rancho Reubidoux Garden Bazaar (new date soon) and it’s a fun way to use canvases that’ve languished in the garage. Here’s the step-by-step:


For the ALOE piece I used a 20″ x 60″ pre-stretched canvas I already had (previously painted red), drawing a line down its vertical center (as seen here with the letters for the AGAVE piece). The letters are papier maché, 12″ tall, from Joanne’s Fabrics; less than $3-per on sale. I draw a vertical center line on each of them as well.


Using the line on the canvas as a guide, I place the letters and adhere them with a heavy duty white glue; I weigh them down and allow them to dry for several hours … I want to be sure they really get a grip on their new background.


Fully dried, I can begin the next step: Neutralizing, then texturizing, the canvas and letters by adding acrylic gesso. Gesso is a liquid primer medium that is terrific for adding texture, whether smooth or rough. It’s like plaster you can brush on. I love it as a rough base for my fine art paintings as it adds depth and surface interest; I expect it will do the same for this project.


I use a stiff, very loaded, brush to apply the gesso loosely all over the canvas and on each letter, making sure to get into all the nooks and crevices. Totally primed, the piece has a ghostly appearance with a pronounced brushstroke effect; I leave it to dry overnight. I want to be completely certain of the gesso’s dryness before adding the first color.


That first hue is a nut brown latex housepaint I dug up in the garden shed. Arbitrary? Maybe; but I think it will work well in the context of the piece since the color is warm, with an earthy glow. It’s easy to see in this photo how the gessoed brushstrokes inject an energy to the painted surface. I use the housepaint full-strength; I love how it collects in the striations in the gesso.


First coat: it’s such a warm day it only took an hour to dry completely. See all that loose, virtually accidental, and gorgeous texture? That’s exactly what I want … but the real color excitement is next.


Aloes are usually shades of blue, green and yellow, but I don’t want to go to those literal colors yet … instead I add a very bright, almost turquoise acylic paint. (As with the canvas and the housepaint, I had all acrylic paints on-hand already.) Again, I apply the paint full-strength, with a fully loaded brush. I brush it on in a random motion, sometimes with, sometimes against, the visible surface texture, letting the brush go almost dry before reloading with paint. By varying the pressure and wetness of the brush I can emphasize the textured surface. This first blue is almost a direct opposite to the orange-y brown base on the color wheel; this contrasting color relationship adds visual excitement.


It’s easy to see how the paint has collected in certain areas and how the nutty base color still shows through in spots. Satisfied, I allow the entire piece to dry again. Acrylics dry even faster than latex housepaint, so in a half-hour I can add the next colors … including more literal aloe shades.


A loosely-centered stripe of a lighter turquoise and a true green come next. I move very quickly, again allowing my brush to go almost completely dry as I move the colors into and across the surface; I allow the brush to catch on the edges of the letters here and there, too; this provides definition. The first (base) color is still evident, and this keeps the blues and greens from being static and one-note. After all, in nature aloes are far from a single color. I continue adding colors, allowing for some darker shades now … I do some painting, step back, look, then add other colors, turning the canvas to take in different views … By the time the piece feels finished I’ve used the following colors: nut brown, two versions of turquoise, a true green, a darker blue-green, a persimmon orange, purple, true blue and an oxblood red … then I decide to go glam up with the piece and add one more:

Sheen, too

An iridescent, metallic gold. Why? Why not? Burnishing with gold adds emphasis to the letter forms as well as overall movement and shine … this sets off the cool blue tones of the piece and adds richness to the red/yellow ones.


I’m happy with this completed canvas and I think it could enjoy a place in a variety of garden settings; adding spice to a minimal corner, or injecting a contemporary element into a more traditional tableau. The AGAVE piece almost finished, and I’ve gone in different direction with it, eschewing expected color choices entirely. But, that’s another post; see you then!

NOTE: I enjoy having artwork outdoors but would probably want to display this one as here, under an eave. For added protection from the elements, I might brush on several coats of either a matte or shiny acrylic varnish.

29 Comments leave one →
  1. Guida Quon permalink
    September 30, 2011 4:56 pm

    Great…I’ll be saving this post for sure….Thanks

    • reubix1 permalink*
      September 30, 2011 5:35 pm

      Send pics if you do something based on this project, Guida… I’d love to see them!

  2. Donita Smith permalink
    September 30, 2011 5:27 pm

    Love it. Thanks for the step-by-step. This could be adapted for so many things.

    • reubix1 permalink*
      September 30, 2011 5:34 pm

      Yup, easily adapted to so many things, Donita … when I saw the big letters at Joanne I just had to do something with ’em.

  3. September 30, 2011 7:39 pm

    So beautiful. And I bet if you used wood instead of canvas and papermache (though where to get wooden letters?) they would even work completely outside. Love it!

    • reubix1 permalink*
      September 30, 2011 7:44 pm

      Sounds like something I need to do, looking into a source for the letters now!

  4. September 30, 2011 11:55 pm

    Wooden letters can be found at Michaels craft store. I like this project…I’m thinking for my Rose garden, but I’m not promising! 🙂

    • reubix1 permalink*
      October 1, 2011 12:04 am

      Hey, Kim, I’ll check out Michael’s letters supply … and if you do get around to the project send me pics!

  5. October 1, 2011 1:02 am

    That accretion of color is mesmerizing. I want to do my whole crappy fence like this…When do you start on YUCCA?

    • reubix1 permalink*
      October 1, 2011 2:05 am

      OOOOhhhh… YUCCA! Back to Joanne’s …

  6. the invisible gardener permalink
    October 1, 2011 2:22 am

    i would have one that spelled aeonium arboreum atropurpureum

    • the invisible gardener permalink
      October 1, 2011 2:27 am

      i’m new here and what attracted me to your site was i came across the Sherman Library & Gardens post. somebodys doing a lot of thinking with that place. incredible.

      • reubix1 permalink*
        October 1, 2011 2:56 am

        I agree, Sherman’s is extremely well though out… a large part of what makes it so irresistible…

    • reubix1 permalink*
      October 1, 2011 2:55 am

      Ah, the classic overachiever!

  7. Nancy Rivera Brooks permalink
    October 1, 2011 2:35 am

    Another great RR project! Did you see your painted couch project on Apartment Therapy today? Congrats!

    • reubix1 permalink*
      October 1, 2011 2:58 am

      Thanks, Nancy, it’s a fun project … you should try it! I did see us on Apartment Therapy first thing this morning (over 800 hits, by day’s end), which I must say is a tough room! Didju see those comments?

  8. Vickie permalink
    October 1, 2011 2:53 am

    Such an inspiration to myself and so many others. Now I have to think about how I can use this at my place. Thanks again for being such a wonderful feller!

    • reubix1 permalink*
      October 1, 2011 2:58 am

      Aw, thanks Vickie …

  9. October 1, 2011 6:40 pm

    i love your ability to just go for it, trusting that texture and color will build and meld into something special. and they did! really appreciate the diy primer!!

    • reubix1 permalink*
      October 1, 2011 8:21 pm

      Well, there is that trust that ‘it’ll all work out’ … but there’s also the terrifying moment when I’m sure the project will go ‘pear-shaped’ and be ruined, too! Both feelings are a big part of my creative process… I’m glad you found the step-by-step helpful!

  10. scohoon1Sharon permalink
    October 2, 2011 4:02 pm

    Gorgeous. Thanks for the step by step process.

  11. October 4, 2011 6:12 pm

    My first time here. Awesome blog and super post. Well done.

    • reubix1 permalink*
      October 4, 2011 6:48 pm

      Thanks, and thanks for commenting!

  12. October 10, 2011 12:08 am

    Aloev it! 🙂

    • reubix1 permalink*
      October 10, 2011 12:20 am

      Clever you… Waddaya got for YUCCA?

  13. November 12, 2011 7:46 pm

    Love your technique. I admire the way you can stop. I always fuss too much and therefore never achieve this lovely looseness! Very nice.

    • reubix1 permalink*
      November 12, 2011 8:47 pm

      Citing me for looseness make this all worthwhile … I love how the piece turned out!


  1. Succulent Wordplay: Coolness Factor « Rancho Reubidoux

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