Guli Buchanan

Art by Guli Buchanan

St. Helena Historical Society Aug 21 – 1995

Guli Buchanan: In oil. And he discovered acrylics because he was doing a lot of thin layers. Instead of having to wait so long, he said, “These are great because what I used to take a month to do I can do it in a day or two now.”

Female Speaker: Uh-huh.

Guli Buchanan: I think that’s the first time I remember hearing about them when I was in school. I had thought of you as pastels and oils. I didn’t even know that you were [indiscernible].

Female Speaker: Anyway, just to document this. August 21, 1995, and I’m visiting Guli Buchanan in the south of Napa at her home and studio and we’re talking about acrylics since we both paint with them and she’s willing to share some information with me on it, and we’d like to share it with you.

Guli Buchanan: Well, I think I told you that I went to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico for several sessions of a month or two at a time. When I first found acrylics was probably in the late 50’s. It would be in ’57, ’58, something like that. This class was under James Pinto, who was a very well known painter in Mexico. I had been doing portraiture in oil and was trying to break away from it, really. Because —

Female Speaker: How long had you been working in portraiture in oils?

Guli Buchanan: Oh, gosh. Probably about 1945 I started doing portraits. I’d been playing around on my own for a long time, but then I began getting itchy and I went to Leon Franks in Hollywood for portraiture. I worked with him for a while, and then after coming up here to St. Helena we had the shop, if you remember, and I had art materials there. So when I went down to Mexico I took my oil paints with me and I was going to try to get myself working into some other direction than just portraiture. So in this class with Pinto, we happened to have a model that day and I was fussing along working on this so-called figure study that I was trying to avoid committing into a portrait. The lady next to me was working in a sketch she had of the big church in town that’s quite well known. She was doing the façade of the front of this church, and she had some strange paints with her that Pinto said, “What in the world are you using there?” And she said, “Oh, it’s acrylic. I bought it up town. They had it in this little tiny shop in town, it was really a bookstore. She had about eight colors, and they came in little jars. Pinto sat down at her easel and started messing around on her painting and playing with this. He had never seen them before, never used them. He said, “I’ve heard of this stuff, but I’ve never used it.” There, in front of her eyes, he transformed that painting of hers into the most beautiful thing you ever saw and he’d never touched that stuff before in his life. Well, I was so excited about it that I went up to the town after the class because I got really just absolutely staggered by the color he was getting. So I went in, and they did. They had eight colors. Black and white, and — you know.

Female Speaker: The basics?

Guli Buchanan: The basics in between, and that was it. I had to bring the stuff home with me to play around with it at home, and I found out that there was no such thing in this country. We didn’t have acrylics. It was then that I found out that it really was a Mexican creation. The man that worked out the formula was named Gutierrez and he was an artist and a chemist, and he worked out the formula for the acrylic paint and he gave the formula to the world. He said, “Here it is, that’s the recipe.” He did not take out a patent on it, and no one else could either because it was obviously his creation. In this country, it finally came out under the name Liquitex and that is the original formula Gutierrez developed.

Female Speaker: You were saying around 1957-ish, that’s when you first started playing with it?

Guli Buchanan: No, this is — that’s when I first started playing with it, but —

Female Speaker: Those are the ones you bought in Mexico, that you brought up here?

Guli Buchanan: Yes, I brought — the product in Mexico was called Politec. When I came back to St. Helena I found out there was no such thing in this country, so I wrote to the people in Mexico from the label on my jars and found out that they had an outlet, a dealer somewhere in Los Angeles, through whom I could order this stuff. So it was imported into the shop in St. Helena directly from Mexico under the name Politec. Then I, at this point, discovered that no one knew how to use it in this country because it wasn’t here. So I had to teach myself more about it, and how it worked, and all the rest of it. So in order to introduce it to people here in this country as a teacher, I had to learn how to do it myself.

Female Speaker: When you started, did you actually just start on canvas with it, or paper, or how did you —

Guli Buchanan: Yes. I was in the habit, you see, of painting on canvas because I was an oil painter. So that was the material I was most familiar with. To me, it was difficult to convert to a completely different medium that dried so fast and worked totally differently. I was using everything I could that was familiar. So the canvas was familiar to me. In the earlier stages, I really fought with the medium because I was not used to working that fast. I had to learn to paint like a house on fire in order to figure out what was happening.

Female Speaker: Did you ever get any information — it seems that I remember in a previous conversation that you had said something about it being created by this artist/chemist for the uses of murals or something like that?

Guli Buchanan: Yes. It was actually the murals painters of Mexico, like Rivera and Siqueiros and all the rest of them, were interested in finding some material — and they had been working on it for a long time — to find a material that would work on walls outdoors and not fade in the sun and remain resistant to weathering. In the course of their experimentations, they went through all sorts of things, like wax and enamels and even synthetic paints of various types. This particular formula was developed by Gutierrez, and there was a book written by Gutierrez and a man named Roukes, I believe. R-O-U-K-E-S. I’m not sure the pronunciation. That book told a lot about the chemical background and all about the preliminary stuff that went into working this out. You know?

Female Speaker: Research?

Guli Buchanan: You know, the research and whatnot. But they went through a lot of experiments. That’s why some of those paintings of the early muralists have suffered a good deal in time, because of the fact that they didn’t know what they were doing or they were working with. Some of the colors are going and chipping and other. Nowadays they are using acrylics definitely for their murals, and have been for a number of years. That, as far as I’ve recollected, is pretty much the story. For me, I had to teach. Because if I was going to import this stuff into the shop I’d better know how to use it and how to tell anybody else how to use it. So, as a result of being a shop owner and having to make a practical use of it —

Female Speaker: And you loved it.

Guli Buchanan: And I loved it, besides. I had to make the darn things pay for themselves.

Female Speaker: What are some of the first people you remember got interested in your shop that you worked with?

Guli Buchanan: Mm.

Female Speaker: That picked up on it, and got excited like you did?

Guli Buchanan: Actually speaking, it didn’t set anything on fire in St. Helena, except me. That was mainly because at that time painting as a — well, as a hobby if you want to call it that, or any other practical use of it was still pretty far down on the list. Because when I first came to St. Helena in 1952 there were no art materials, at all, period, available north of Napa and only a very, very few at Baker’s Stationary in Napa. They had some oil paint when I came from southern California all fired up to paint up a storm. I couldn’t find anything to work with. That’s why we started the art department in the shop. Because I had to have supplies. I figured if I couldn’t drum up some other people that were interested in it, I was in trouble.

Female Speaker: I guess I was lucky you were there, because that’s where most of my supplies came from.

Guli Buchanan: Really? Yes, I know. Eventually — [overlapping conversation] — we developed a pretty decent art department, considering it’s a small community. We did draw people from Lake County and all around. As far as having any famous names are concerned, they really didn’t get into acrylics right away. Most of the people that I can remember were working in water color or oil.

Female Speaker: I heard about pastels, and —

Guli Buchanan: And — [overlapping conversation].

Female Speaker: Well, Helen Casp [ph] was a wonderful pastelist, and she was working in pastels. The only other — let’s see, Ethel Wendelist [ph] was working in acrylic, and Lameda Severs [ph] eventually got started in acrylic. She was really a terrific watercolorist, and she went to San Miguel with me a couple of times and was working with watercolor down there mainly. She eventually did switch over to acrylic. Under my so-called tuition she did start using it and her style was totally different. It was very interesting because she became quite a different painter in acrylic than she was in watercolor. Let’s see, who else? I don’t know, the names escape me now.

Female Speaker: You were mentioning that you got together with a group in Napa with Eltemura [ph] and —

Guli Buchanan: Oh, yeah. When —

Female Speaker: Did you use acrylics there at all?

Guli Buchanan: No, that was a drawing group, and it was life drawing and we were mainly working in charcoal or coated crayon or something like that, fast stuff. Because we were doing the three minute, five minute, ten minute sketching. You know, from the live model. That was pretty fun. That group got quite a few of the local artists working in it. Richard Borgwardt [ph], Helen Casp, and Arnold Casp, George Cook [ph], Lucy Case [ph], Lameda Severs, and myself. A number of people I did not know at the time, and I’ve seen around but I still don’t know their names. A lot of the local people went for that class.

Female Speaker: With the acrylics, then, would you say that mainly through your own little workshop in St. Helena is where you got it out a little bit? You did it yourself and you got a few people — [overlapping conversation]

Guli Buchanan: Yeah, I did it. For the most part, I sponsored it in the early days of acrylic painting in Napa Valley, and in any of the classes that I was teaching it was always acrylic or oil. I was teaching portrait and still life painting in those days. So I did have some people who were quite interested in the acrylic thing. A number of them are not around here anymore, because they were passing through or what have you, but it was not a big issue with them. Most of them were perfectly willing to work in oil until they found acrylic, but then they loved it because it dried so fast. You know? I used to be amused because in the early stages when they started teaching it in the schools, the art departments and that, kids would come into the shop and say, “Oh, I like to work in acrylic because it’s so easy.” I used to sit there like, “Oh, my.” Have you got a lot to learn. It’s not easy. It’s one of the most difficult of all things, because it’s very versatile. You can do a lot of things with it. More than with any other medium. At the same time, it is very demanding. You have to work rapidly and try to know what you’re doing, and you do have to pay attention. You can’t just —

Female Speaker: Do you remember — like your [indiscernible] that I’m looking at here. When you had your first showing that was really acrylics and out of oils by then?

Guli Buchanan: Yes. Yeah, that was — I believe the show that these things were in was about 1978. The previous show I’d had at Mondabies [ph] I’d had a combination of oils and acrylics and pastels, but I didn’t have very many acrylics in that one. The second show that I had there was 1978, and that one I was often running. Really in acrylics, I had mainly acrylics in that show. The Mayan series of mythology was the main, the larger pieces. Then I had a lot of other things I had done in Mexico and Guatemala. I had also a lot of pastels and drawings that I had been doing because I go to this workshop once a week, and have ever since I came to Napa Valley.

Female Speaker: I’m just curious, when you start your acrylics. These are obviously well thought out, to me they’re design pieces plus they’re telling a story. It seems like you’ve been going to Mexico since the beginning of time.

Guli Buchanan: Well, yeah, for me.

Female Speaker: Continuing. Continuing. So when you do your pastels, do you do preliminaries in pastels or anything for your acrylics? Or do you just start right out with the —

Guli Buchanan: Well, generally speaking they start out with an idea in my head, which might be scribbled out on paper with — generally speaking, I work a little bit in charcoal to get the basic design on just 9×12 size sheets or something like that. Then when I have the concept of I try to plot out approximately the size that this design will fit into. I always see the work as though it were framed. I’m seeing it in a definite rectangular format, and therefore the edges are important. The size of objects and figures and that sort of thing are going to have to relate to that rectangular shape. So I plot that more or less on paper. Roughly I get somewhat of the approximate —

Female Speaker: You design it first.

Guli Buchanan: Yeah, shape and relationship of objects. Some things just absolutely demand a larger size, and I feel more comfortable painting when I’m working in things that are, say, half or three quarter life size. That’s why some of these have gotten to be a fairly good sized canvas. Because it’s more comfortable for me, that size.

Female Speaker: You really don’t do color studies small, it’s just the charcoal drawing and then —

Guli Buchanan: I don’t do — no. And mostly [overlapping] —

Female Speaker: — the picture comes when you get to the canvas?

Guli Buchanan: When I get to the canvas, I get the sketch roughed in on the canvas in charcoal so that I can erase it. I work on a linen canvas that is double primed so that it has a relatively smooth surface. If you work with charcoal on it, you can erase it very easily with just a paper towel. Wipe it out enough that you can, you know, forget it. It doesn’t bother me if there are a bunch of scribbles on the canvas anyhow. You know, I can see through that. Then, once I get the design sort of plotted out on it, I start thinking in terms of spaces and color relationships so that as this progresses the composition is one of color composition as well as spaces. The design is working at all things at once.

Female Speaker: I sort of picked up on that comment you made about the edges. Because in my work, it’s like to me the edges are so crucial.

Guli Buchanan: Uh-huh. They are.

Female Speaker: To me, so many people, they just look at the center of the painting, but to me —

Guli Buchanan: No. No.

Female Speaker: — what makes it work is the edges.

Guli Buchanan: Yeah. You can — absolutely.

Female Speaker: What’s going on in the edges is excitement. I mean.

Guli Buchanan: Yeah. So it’s very exciting, and hardly anybody thinks that way about painting. I see so many things in art shows where they’ve plunked an object in the center of the canvas and it drives me nuts. I want so badly to go up to it and put some other stuff around it to tie it to the edges to make it feel as though —

Female Speaker: Or move it across it, yeah.

Guli Buchanan: Yeah, yeah. Do something with it. Crop it or what have you. If there’s too much space, get rid of it, but if there isn’t enough motion going on.

Female Speaker: Just like there where those knees are going out the bottom a little bit —

Guli Buchanan: Uh-huh. Yeah.

Female Speaker: — creates interest at the edge, yeah.

Guli Buchanan: See, the little things like that. To me, tying it to the edges is an important bit of composition. Because, in fact, I deliberately look at the ways I can tie this design all together. That’s why the edges are so important. The corners of something are not empty to this. They may just be space, but that is not — it’s a very vital piece of space. It isn’t empty in that sense. It may not have any objects in it, but it’s very important to that design. Lots of times, in fact almost always in my work, the edges and the subject matter are coming together. It doesn’t bother me if they run off.

Female Speaker: I like them to run off, actually.

Guli Buchanan: I like it run off. You know, I learned a lot from photography. Not that I was a photographer, or that I can even take a good picture, but merely I used to look and study photography magazines. I used to look at how they cropped pictures and made them more exciting and more dramatic and more vital.

Female Speaker: I do the same thing.

Guli Buchanan: To me, it’s extremely important that there is that dynamic thing going on. That there is activity and that your eye is led in and out and all through this, and you’re never allowed to escape. The fact that it’s touching the edges doesn’t mean you’re going to run out, it just means you’re going to run on to the next piece. I cannot work without the concept of the frame is there.

Female Speaker: Right.

Guli Buchanan: It doesn’t have to have a frame, but —

Female Speaker: Boundaries.

Guli Buchanan: — the boundaries are there, and that they have become part of the picture.

Female Speaker: I think that’s a hard thing. I know I work now from photographs more than I ever have before. They always had to be out there.

Guli Buchanan: Yeah.

Female Speaker: I could never feel that I got a sense of movement, or I would think I could do it but then I would come home and it would be gross, what I’d made. I just couldn’t stand what I’d made.

Guli Buchanan: I know, I couldn’t either.

Female Speaker: So I had to work on location for so many years. It’s only been more recently that I’ve been able to combine my sketching with photography. Taking those two together, and then coming back home and putting stuff together that I like. That I like as well as I used to like it when I used to work outside. It’s just physically become painful to have to haul everything out on location all the time, so I’m having to work in the studio.

Guli Buchanan: Right. Well, that is what forced me to become an indoor painter, and I rarely work on location. If I do anything at all, it’s when I’m traveling or in some place — I generally speaking always have a 4×6 sketch pad in my purse, and a Pentel, or something of that. Even a pen, or anything to [overlapping conversation] —

Female Speaker: When you go to Mexico now, because you still go.

Guli Buchanan: Uh-huh. Yeah.

Female Speaker: You still go down there every year? Or what?

Guli Buchanan: Not every year, but I have gone mostly every year since I first started going, until the last [overlapping conversation].

Female Speaker: So you used to go, and it sounds like you used to go and take all your gear and work right there.

Guli Buchanan: Oh, yeah. Oh, man.

Female Speaker: Now you’re just taking this?

Guli Buchanan: I never take any of that sort of thing much anymore, unless I’m going to join a workshop which is on location there or something like that. The nice part about doing that is you have somebody else to carry the luggage. You don’t have to haul it yourself. Mainly when I get out on trips in Mexico, off in some distant far out village, I have a sketch pad in my purse, and either a piece of charcoal or a Pentel as I say. I have a tiny watercolor box. One of those little bitsy things that’s, you know, 3×2. I put a little bottle of water in my pocket here, and when I’m someplace where I don’t want to be observed actually sketching I can get off into a corner somewhere and do a quickie, or a number of quick sketches of people and objects, whatnot. I have this little watercolor kit that is a ring on the bottom of the thing. It slips on your forefinger so that you can open it. You’ve got, say 3×4 to work with and about 12 tiny colors.

Female Speaker: That’s amazing. Twelve colors?

Guli Buchanan: Yeah, it’s amazing. But they’re there. It gives you enough to make color notes. I never try to do anything in the nature of a painting, you understand, it’s merely so I remember. When I take those things home, I may or may not ever use them but they’re in my head. It’s frozen there for all times, as far as I’m concerned. I draw on years and years and years of what I’ve seen. It’s mostly memories that I paint from nowadays.

Female Speaker: Also your things have to do with their culture a lot.

Guli Buchanan: Uh-huh.

Female Speaker: It seems like you’re telling stories, not just painting the people you actually see. It’s like you’re doing more than just painting what you see. You’re putting together a history.

Guli Buchanan: In a sense, yeah. When I am doing just things of people, it’s the culture that is being incorporated into that so to speak. If it’s an individual person in the marketplace, or that they’re doing something that is part of daily life and therefore part of culture, or that particular culture. So when I put together groups of people like that, for example, they’re still putting down a period in history.

Female Speaker: Statement. Documenting. Documenting their history.

Guli Buchanan: It’s a statement. You know, it is documenting something in a way. Yet, there is always part of the artist in anyone’s work. Because it’s how that hit you. It’s going through your mind. And you’re seeing something of yourself, because it’s what you put on, you apply yourself to that situation or that view you’re looking at. It comes out, it has undergone a see change so to speak because it’s partly you. What this does for you. What you want to express about it. But you’re there all the time, it’s always you. That’s why every artist puts his signature on his work, regardless of whether he signs it or not. It’s there. It’s the person.

Female Speaker: You’re saying it’s his perception no matter —

Guli Buchanan: That’s right.

Female Speaker: — what the interpretation is?

Guli Buchanan: That’s right. Because you can’t — you know, you can look at that — for example, if these people were sitting in front of you now, you and I would do this totally differently.

Female Speaker: For sure.

Guli Buchanan: You know that.

Female Speaker: Yeah.

Guli Buchanan: So it’s the same about all things. Even what I remember of what I saw.

Female Speaker: Would be different from what I would remember.

Guli Buchanan: It’s going through my memory, and you, if you saw the same thing at the same time, would come home and do it totally differently.

Female Speaker: Have you ever gone back with your family and talked about something you did like 20 years ago? And you don’t even remember what they remember? It’s like two totally different experiences?

Guli Buchanan: Oh, I know. I know. My mother used to do that to me, because she had a wonderful memory. Boy, she could always remember every single thing that you ever said, or particularly negative things. I couldn’t remember those things. I remembered a totally different thing. It was a happy day and we said this, and that, and the other thing, and she said, [Indiscernible], that was the day you told me bli, blah, bleh. But no, it’s just like that with painters. I’ve been in group things so often in workshops in various locations; Tahiti, Fiji, and everywhere. We all saw something completely different and we were looking at the same scene.

Female Speaker: That’s exciting, though. I think that’s super exciting.

Guli Buchanan: It is, yeah. I know in Tahiti, this was a watercolor group with Tony Sheets. His father, what’s his name? Isn’t that awful?

Female Speaker: Millard.

Guli Buchanan: Millard Sheets, yeah. Was supposed to take that group. I thought, oh, it would be fun to go and work with Millard because I always admired his work when I was young. Poor guy got sick and he couldn’t do it at the last minute. Tony had never taught one of those things before, but he was willing to try. He’s a good watercolorist on his own, he didn’t have to apologize to anybody. That first watercolor workshop he did was on Tahiti, and we went to Mo’orea and we all had these little cabanas, whatever you call them. I was by myself because I was having so much trouble with my back I didn’t need to have anybody sitting around watching me agonize. So I stayed by myself. While everybody else was out there sitting uncomfortable on the grass, I went back to my room and sat perfectly comfortably and painted acrylics. I was working from inside my head and they were all [indiscernible] at the trees. It was really funny. Finally Tony missed me and he came around and said, “Oh, so this is where you’re hiding.” I had by that time done about three paintings that were taped up on the wall with masking tape. When we finished that workshop, we had a show of all our stuff, the things that we’d turned out. Really it was fantastic to see what people had — I didn’t get to see all of their work until that time because I’d been with my nose to my own paint. They had some of the most exquisite things, completely different from each other. Yet here they’re working on the same teacher, listening to what he’s saying. Yeah, it was great. The upshot of it was that I sold two paintings out of it, so I don’t know that that was too bad.

Female Speaker: It sounds like [overlapping conversation].

Guli Buchanan: Yeah, it was great fun. I have been on a number of those, that sort of thing. That’s the only way I would go with equipment anymore, to paint on the spot. It isn’t necessary to paint on the spot. I just go and soak it up.

Female Speaker: I find that also if I go somewhere I like to go and just stay at a place, so I have a chance to get real familiar and relax there.

Guli Buchanan: Uh-huh. Yeah.

Female Speaker: Not be packing up and worrying about if I’ve left a brush, or left something here or there. I wanted to ask you, too, about all these sculptures that are around. These figures?

Guli Buchanan: Yeah, those are all the work of Bill Case. Lucy does watercolor, and Bill does sculpture, and their daughter — [END]