Whenever I teach classes on alcohol ink, I tell participants that this fickle medium is like a lesson in Zen.

That is, “controlling” this fickle medium is a lot like herding cats, so you sometimes just need to go with the flow and learn to embrace whatever happens.

Granted, the end result is sometimes disastrous and winds up in the garbage can. But every once in a while, something miraculous happens, and you wind up with something a lot cooler than you’d ever imagined.

This happened to me last week, when I was trying to use the inks to create a lovely, “wispy” effect that I’ve been admiring on YouTube tutorials for months. Alcohol inks are similar to watercolor in that they are activated, moved, lightened and manipulated by liquid, except they respond to isopropyl alcohol instead of water. The true masters of the wispy style use a blow-dryer, diluted ink and extra alcohol to transform this bright, transparent, quick-drying ink into a soft, ethereal mist of color that resembles folds of satin fabric.

But for the life of me, I can’t figure out how to do this. I’ve watched various tutorials, tried different inks and tested every possible mechanism from a blow-dryer or heat gun to a simple household straw to move the ink into a swirling mist. More often than not, my lovely cloud turns out vaguely unsettling, looking more like a cross section of a liver or a strip-mining operation than like a heavenly tableau.

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But when I again tried the technique a couple nights ago, I was determined to get it right this time. I’d just invested in a blow-dryer that seemed to generate just enough flow to create that lovely, rippling look. Initially, I managed to create a gossamer swirl of paint in a soft violet. It almost looked like a velvety flower.

Then, prematurely optimistic, I decided to gild the lily. Literally. Following my YouTube teacher’s lead, I added a few squirts of gold metallic ink to my creation for added glamour. Within seconds, I knew it was a mistake.

The metallic ink turned sticky and dark, overwhelming the picture. It had transformed from diaphanous vision to a cross between a post-event mud run and a misshapen uterus. And whatever I tried just made it worse.

Tammy's attempt at using alcohol inks to create a "wispy" effect resulted in this, at least before she made a couple changes that resulted in a better image than she had even hoped for. Tammy Swift / The Forum
Tammy's attempt at using alcohol inks to create a "wispy" effect resulted in this, at least before she made a couple changes that resulted in a better image than she had even hoped for. Tammy Swift / The Forum

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Defeated, I splashed alcohol ink all the way across the piece so that the ink would wash away. Then, just out of curiosity, I propped it upright so it would continue running until it dried. I knew alcohol ink has a mind of its own, and can continue to shift and change as long as it’s exposed to alcohol.

An hour later, I came back to discover a happy accident. Thanks to gravity, the dripping inks had formed a murky woods with a trace of a path in the center. So I used more alcohol to make the path more distinct and to brush in a series of very tall birch trees. I also added a distant figure walking through the woods while clutching a red umbrella.

I was shocked by the result. If I’d given up, it would have wound up in the trash. But with a little ingenuity, curiosity and faith, a picture somehow emerged that was better than my original intent. After posting the two pictures on my Facebook, I was surprised by the number of people who said they actually preferred the “pre-tree” version, as it was murkier, more abstract and less literal.

The finished product looked even better than Tammy's original intent. Tammy Swift / The Forum
The finished product looked even better than Tammy's original intent. Tammy Swift / The Forum

So I guess I learned another lesson: Maybe the image had needed even less human interference and it still would have been effective. (I personally like the birches though.)

The moral of the story? We can’t control everything, so we may just have to let go and let nature take its course. Sometimes this requires opening up our eyes to possibility and seeing a forest where others might have just seen blobs of mud.

And most of all? Sometimes, you gotta take lemons and build a lemonade stand in Sherwood Forest.

Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at tswiftsletten@gmail.com.