Art in Cuba and the Traveling Painter

Jane Barton in Italy

Jane Barton in Italy

There are no starving artists in Cuba. One reason for this is that each person receives food from the government each month: one quarter of a chicken, 5 eggs and 5 pounds each of rice, black beans and sugar. (Sugar is cheap in Cuba and heath care is free to the rising numbers of diabetics.)

Artists there make more money than doctors, lawyers or university professors. Why? Because they are not, like the others, state employees, and are able to keep more of what they make. Again, why? Because Castro considers them cultural ambassadors and curators, and very important to keeping the Cubans….Cuban.

Would it be worth it to live in Cuba, with the restrictions that entails, to be at the top of the food chain for a change? Not for me. But I can tell you that in many ways the young, hip, vibrant artists that I recently met on my trip to Havana were no different from artists here in the U.S. They were enthusiastic about their current work at the Biennial, complained about the price of art supplies which had to be imported from Europe and knew how to party. The Art gene is a powerful one.

I’ve just started paintings from that wonderful trip. The Cubanos are a beautiful, friendly group. The city of Havana reminds me of a stunning woman “of a certain age” whose beauty is still there under the surface of time’s wear, and I don’t know what they do to the black beans and rice (known as “Moors and Christians”) but my mouth waters just thinking about them. The Buena Vista Social Club music is in the air and makes you want to get up and dance in between endless rounds of mojitos and pina coladas.

"Pit Stop" by Jane Barton

“Pit Stop” by Jane Barton

Oh, and then there are the cars–I took 360 photos of mid-century Chevys, Buicks and even one of the few 1956 Lincoln Continental Mark Twos in the western hemisphere. My first painting, shown here, is a common scene in Havana: a car is stopped dead on a city street and Cubanos are all over it, once more figuring out how to make it run again with no parts and no gas. That’s what I really loved about the people–they may be captive on their little island, but they sure know how to, in the words of Tim Gunn, “make it work.”

Traveling Tips for Oil Painters

I wasn’t able to paint on this trip, but I’m often asked about the nuts and bolts of managing it all. Travel with art supplies takes some careful preparation. Finding art stores can be challenging, if not impossible, in some countries. Besides that, we all have our favorite colors and canvas surfaces and painting in a foreign country can be intimidating enough without trying to make do with unfamiliar supplies.

Since 9/11 the rules regarding combustibles are strict. I often avoid the problem by taking watercolors, but even then those little tubes often look suspicious to a TSA agent. I’ve had no trouble (so far) packing oil paints in my luggage and I thought I’d share what I do, with the understanding that we can but try…

  1. Before you leave, try to determine how many canvases you’ll be able to complete each day: one in the morning, one in the afternoon, one for good luck? How much paint will you need? If you don’t know how much paint you use in a week or two, start keeping track of what you use before you leave. You’ll probably need a lot of white paint and small (37ml) tubes of colors you use regularly, but just half a tube of specialty colors, like reds for flowers. Paint tubes are heavy, so find out the weight limit for your airline and pack carefully to avoid extra baggage charges.
  2. I make sure that I include a very visible note (see below) to the TSA on the outside of a double zip lock bag of paints. The note assures the TSA people that the contents are not combustible. I learned on the Gamsol site and others NEVER to refer to the contents as “paint”! The double bag is because the paints might pop open due to baggage hold pressure and you probably don’t want to wear dioxizine purple all over your clothes…for a week.
    ATTN: TSA
    THESE ARTIST COLORS ARE MADE FROM VEGETABLE OIL AND
    CONTAIN NO SOLVENT.
    ARTIST GRADE COLORS ARE VEGETABLE BASED WITH A FLASH POINT ABOVE 550.
    THEY ARE NOT HAZARDOUS.
  3. "The Boys from Peru" by Jane Barton

    “The Boys from Peru” by Jane Barton

  4. The next question is how to transport those precious wet canvases home. Once you know how many canvases you think you’ll need, there are several ways to carry and pack them efficiently. On my first trip to France I precut my 8 x 10” canvas with a 1/2 inch border around them. I carried three or four 1/8 inch gator boards that were another half inch larger than the canvas. (Wildlife painter Carl Rungius just thumbtacked the corners, so you can try that.) At the end of a painting session I pulled the wet canvas off the board, set it aside to dry, and taped a fresh one on for the next day. You can bring dozens of canvases this way with a minimum of weight and space. By the end of the trip–a week or two–the first canvases are pretty dry and can safely be stacked with sheets of waxed paper between them. The wet ones can be mounted on both sides of the boards and taped together with push pin “spacers”, then wrapped tightly in plastic for the trip home. You can also use a light weight card board wet box to transport them home. On my last trip to Italy, I brought Raymar’s Featherweight boards and loved them. Whatever method you decide to use, it helps to bring just one size board so they’ll stack and pack easily. You can always adjust the size with tape if you decide you need a different shape for a particular subject.
  5. Be sure to carry on the things you can’t live without. I carry a 2 to 3 oz. plastic bottle of Liquin in my carry on “liquids” bag and add a little of it each day to my white paint. That ensures that most of the colors will have some drying agent in them to help speed up the process. I carry on my brushes. We all have our favorites and are unlikely to find them in little out of the way towns). I also include a few canvases, boards and masking tape. These are the things that are hard to replace if my bag gets lost for a few days.
  6. Needless to say, you cannot pack or carry on Gamsol or turps–the first adventure in each town is finding some at a hardware store or art store if they have one! It helps if you can look up the words for “turpentine”, “mineral spirits”, “solvent” and “odorless” and write them down before you leave the country.
  7. I also make sure that my brush washer container is as odor free as I can make it–I wash it out in soapy water and double zip lock bag it to avoid having any problem there. I pack my palette knife in my luggage, too, and pray for it’s safe arrival.
  8. "Working On The Nets" by Jane Barton, 12x9, Oil on board, 2011

    “Working On The Nets” by Jane Barton

  9. Finally, my “insurance kit”: I always carry on a very compact kit of watercolor paper, paints squeezed out in palette cups and left out to dry before I pack them, brushes and old film containers for water–if the oils don’t make it for a while, I still can hit the ground running and start painting when I arrive in town.
  10. There are no guarantees and the rules change, so be sure to check airline websites before you leave, but these ideas have worked for me and I’ve had so many wonderful experiences painting abroad! I hope you’ll share any travel tips you’ve discovered in your travels with us on this blog. Happy painting–wherever you may be!

    “A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. and all plans, safeguards, policies and coercion are fruitless, we find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
    -John Steinbeck

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  • Oil Painters of America

    Jane, your traveling tips are a live-saver! I would never have known to mark my supplies with a note to TSA. Good thoughts for an artist to keep in mind while traveling. Thanks!

  • Gloria E.Moses

    Thank you for your travel tips, it is always hard to figure out what is allowed for travel and what to bring. I remember being so worried about the razor blade in my pencil sharpener as I was going through security. After that I presharped the pencils bought a cheap disposable and hoped for the best. I have yet to try oil paints although I have thought about it many times.

  • Migdra

    I am from Cuba and also an oil painter artist who didn’t know art was alive and well there. I enjoyed the article about the land I left even before Castro took over when things were, oh, so different. Thank you for sharing.

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