Filled Zones

I’m pretty sure I didn’t invent this, so perhaps it is known by other names. In any case, I call it the “filled zones” technique.

I start with an empty canvas.

I choose one or a small number of typically darker colors, or black, and I squirt lines randomly all over the canvas. I try to get close to all the edges. I keep adding curved and looping lines over the canvas until it has been divided into irregular shapes about 1 to 3 square inches in area each. I don’t want squares, of course. I want weird shapes. These are the zones in the filled zone technique. More zones means fewer opportunities to place colors, which is neither good nor bad in itself. It is merely under your control. Lots of tiny zones takes a long time to fill. Too few zones and you’re probably doing what might be called a clean pour.

To fill the zones I choose a palette of colors I think will look good together. I like using a lot of colors. I squirt them inside the zones with enough paint to touch at least one of the dark lines that define the zone. When there is enough paint surface tension spreads the contact point until the paint fills the entire zone. Sometimes I go back and add more paint if it didn’t seal itself against the edges of the zone.

I squirt what I think is enough paint into one zone, and then the same color in other zones some distance away. I usually want to separate where the same color appears on the canvas. Two adjacent zones with the same color is just like a bigger zone of that one color. Sometimes I’ll put all the blues toward one side and the greens toward the other, for example. Any pattern is fine, of course. Sometimes I’ll put more than one color into the same zone because why not?

When I’m done filling all of the zones I usually add paint along the outside edges, so the entire canvas is covered. This is especially important if the next steps will include a swipe.

This is the point at which I make sure that all of the sides of the painting (the vertical edges of the canvas) are covered with paint as well. I always cover the edges on my paintings, but you don’t need to if you don’t want to.

I usually will use a swipe after filling all the zones and adding paint around the edges. I like using colors from far away on the color wheel when choosing the color to swipe over all the paint already on the canvas. For example, if I laid down blues and greens I might swipe with orange or red. And, of course, you can always swipe with black or white or any kind of gray. I add whatever swipe colors I want along the starting edge for the swipe.

I lay down the swipe color all along one edge, in lines one after another usually. But, really, any pattern will do as long as you add more paint. It needs to sweep over the top of the cells. I might add the thickets layers of paint possible for about 10-15% of the canvas on one side and then swipe that pile across the whole painting.

I use a piece of laminated poster to swipe over the painting. I found that a laminated poster can be cut Into widths suitable for different sized canvases. Mine had a natural curve from when it was stored in a tube. I cut a piece about 8” long and it formed a curve with a radius similar to a soccer ball.

I drag the curved piece of laminated poster across the paint, ensuring that I have good contact along the entire width of the canvas. I usually try to swipe all the way to the other side of the painting. If you run out of paint and the swipe runs dry it sometimes looks good too, so don’t fret if that happens. It probably means you needed more paint along the starting edge before you began the swipe.

Once I’ve completed the swipe I try not to hold the plastic sheet across the painting again because it will drip. I’ve tried dripping it on areas with too little paint, but I prefer to use enough paint because I think the results are better. You can add more paint, for example by swiping from the other direction and stopping in the middle. I might add a bunch of new swipe colors on the side the original swipe didn’t reach. Swiping back toward the middle from second side can yield really nice results! But stopping in the middle without dripping can be a challenge.

After the swipe or swipes are done I look at the painting and decide what kind of cells I might want to create, if any.

If I want to stimulate cells I take the tip of a pointy palette knife and wet it with a tiny amount of pure silicon oil. Much less than a drop. Then I touch the point to the painting wherever I want. I look for places where there are many layers of color on top of each other. Those make the best looking cells. If I touch the painting near to another cell both cells will find each other. If I touch a lot of places in the same area it takes on a biological look because all the cell walls touch each other and look like a cross section microphotograph of some kind of living thing. If I touch the painting far from other cells the cells can grow to a large size depending on how much paint is there and how viscous it is.

I also like to spray tiny droplets of silicon oil onto the painting using a toothbrush. I put a drop of oil on the toothbrush and use my thumb dragged across the bristles to send tiny droplets flying in all directions. When I don’t want the spray in all directions I control it by holding a piece of paper close to the painting, blocking where I don’t want the spray to go. It is really difficult to control this kind of spray. If you are painting with others you will probably hit their paintings if they are within a few feet. But, the results can be stunning, looking like a spider web or sponge or less zoomed in photomicrograph of some living thing.

The advantages of the filled zone technique include:
  • Automatic scaling of the amount of paint to the size of the canvas
  • Leads to many layers of colors, which leads to fabulous cells
  • Lets you control color distribution before any panning takes place
  • Limits or eliminates color mixing until you swipe or pan
  • You retain control of the first color to stain the canvas

Of these, the first is one of the most important to me. I had a hard time knowing how much paint to use with other techniques like the flip cup and dirty pour. When working on larger canvases I had problems: I’d use too much or too little paint.

Too little paint rarely looks good in my experience. If the painting needs more paint, I add more paint somehow.

Too much paint is a waste at best. At worst, your lovely painting slides off the canvas onto whatever shelf it is drying on. Even if the shelf is exactly level (is yours?), too much paint will mean it slides off all the sides of the painting, not just one side. You might end up with a masterpiece. Or you might wonder what happened to the painting you put there last night. The more viscous the paint the thicker it can be; however, at the viscosity I use I find that I really don’t want too much paint on there and the filled zone technique helps me avoid that.

The second advantage is lots of layered colors. When you swipe over a filled zone painting the colors overlap as the ones on one side end up on top of all the colors further along in the swipe. While at the beginning it is only the swipe color(s) over the underlying zone color, once the swipe reaches the next zone the swipe colors cover two zone colors. As the swipe reaches each zone the swipe colors cover one more and one more color, and so on toward the other end of the canvas, until you run out of zones. Multiple swipe colors on top help ensure that even the first part of the painting has several layers. But, the cells might be better closer to the middle and the end of the swipe where there are going to be more layers.

The rest of the advantages are all about retaining control of the paint. Of course, I want chaos in my paintings - that’s why I use one or two swipes after laying out the paint in filled zones. But I want to choose when the chaos begins.

If I use a cup technique like a dirty pour, kiss pour or flip cup then when I work on a larger canvas I want to use enough paint to cover it. The colors mix and interact a lot before they cover the whole canvas, and I’ll have to pan the painting to get the paint near the edges and corners. I sometimes coat a canvas with paint first so that the cup pour doesn’t need to reach the edges or corners. I like negative space. But, if I want the paint to reach the corners I have to use a lot of paint and pan it around or use another technique to help the paint reach the entire canvas. By the time that happens, the colors have mixed or interacted a lot.

By comparison, you retain control of the colors for much longer through the process of covering the canvas. In fact, if the background lines are thick enough the colors in different zones won’t mix at all. But, they might mix with the background lines themselves, which is a nice effect sometimes.

You can do a lot of different things after using the filled zone technique. For example:
  • A swipe from one or two directions
  • A circular swipe
  • Pan to shift and mix colors
  • Blow on the paint with a straw or hair dryer, as with a dutch pour
  • Use balloons (or those air pillows they use instead of packing peanuts when shipping packages) and press them onto the painting and then remove them
  • Do nothing at all and let the painting proceed on its on

Filled Zone Gallery at Captured Chaos Art
This painting:

This painting:

This painting: