June 29, 2018

Spray Painting and Collaging Found Polaroid Photos With Artist Andrew Millar

From the very beginning of his artistic career, UK-based artist Andrew Millar has worked with Polaroid film stock and complex, multi-stage collage technique. When venturing into charity shops, he would come across boxes of old Polaroid photos, spray paint them, and add other elements like text, typography, and gold and platinum leaf. For Millar, the multimedia results have always been his preferred format.

“All of my university lecturers kept saying, ‘Okay, these are good, but you need to make everything really, really big,’ like the size would make them have more impact,” recalls Millar. “But, I just stuck with making them really, really small. Polaroid is such a small format, and I felt it was really restrictive in what you can do in that space, so you have to find the right balance,” he adds. “You go over the top, you lose that balance.”

Millar loves the creative limitations afforded by the Polaroid format’s limited space. And as he tells Polaroid Originals, he tries to do something every day, even if it ends up being bad. For Millar, painting and collaging his Polaroid photos originated from observations of how other artists were working with the medium. He felt like everyone was doing the same thing with Polaroid photos (manipulating emulsion), and he wanted to introduce something that was slightly different.

Millar’s process involves creating a collaged image, then sending that collage into a television screen. Once there, he ramps up the contrast and photographs it with a Polaroid camera, before adding gold or silver leafing to give the images their dreamlike metallic quality. Millar also manipulates the emulsion during the development process, whether by separating it from the film base, creating a double-exposure or by playing with radical temperature changes.

One might suspect that Millar’s use of spray paint has graffiti origins, but this is not so. Millar uses spray paint because he likes the immediacy of it. Unlike many oil and acrylic paints, the spray paint dries quickly. Because of this, Millar must act quickly in applying the spray paint to his images.

Instead of spraying directly onto the photographic surface, Millar used an intermediary surface. He explains that he first sprays the paint onto another surface, then dabs the paint with a brush, and applies it to his Polaroid photos. “It’s quite fast drying, so you’ve got to be quick, but these are challenges I like.” says Millar. “ I tried to produce screen prints, but I was really bad at it. I don’t have the patience for it, even though I love it.”

To create that dynamic spray paint build-up on the images, Millar uses 1920s Indian woodblocks. These are the surfaces onto which he applies the spray paint, before transferring the paint onto the Polaroid photos. “I just keep adding layers,” says Millar. “So in one Polaroid, there might be ten different elements.” But Millar doesn’t just spray the woodblocks and apply without thinking about it. He says he might spend a week contemplating how he will ultimately apply the paint, before actually doing so.

It was while in New York City, several years ago, that Millar decided to add gold and platinum leafing to black and white instant analog images. Not to give the images the appearance of containing a precious metal, but to “lift” the image. “I wanted to give it a more three-dimensional quality,” Millar explains of the leafing process. “It took me eight years to get it to the point” where it worked. He applies the gold and platinum leafing as the final stage in his artistic process; although, with his new screen prints (more on these below), Millar applies the leaf first and then prints atop the material.

Anyone who has seen one of Millar’s painted Polaroid collages will notice the female figures that populate his images. For a time, Millar tried to use the male form in his work, but he said it didn’t work. “It just didn’t feel right, and it looked quite soft in the face,” he says. “The female form is always on the albums and psychedelic art, and I always sort of just go back to that. They kind of look like the icons in stained glass artworks.”

Millar arranges his Polaroid works in a number of ways, but most often they appear as grids or irregular groupings of images. In this way, Millar can experiment with the size of his female portraits, or even with landscapes. One recent gold leaf collage portrait, for instance, is comprised of two columns and three rows of Polaroid photos, with each image—striking in and of themselves—building toward a larger whole.

And while Millar has long been focused on creating smaller artworks, he recently branched out into the larger format realm for a recent exhibition at Moniker Art Fair in Bushwick, Brooklyn for Nelly Duff editions, which featured large screen prints of a few of Millar’s smaller intricate Polaroid photos. Working with a screen printer with a photographic background, Millar was able to give the large prints the minute detail of the originals.

One of these larger works, New XXL Dark Sunrise, is a departure of sorts for the artist. Instead of his highly saturated black and gold works, Millar frames a highly saturated female face—with black shadows, lips, one eye socket, and other minimalist features—inside white negative space, around which he adds various colors and shapes. Millar, for his part, gets the irony in going large, as his university lecturers originally suggested. “To see this small object and then see the detail that’s in the large-scale version, I’m blown away by it,” says Millar. “I’m just going to keep pushing it.”

See more of Andrew’s Originals on IG: @andrewjmillar