Activating the Mind Through Abstraction

 
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After the New Year, I got back in to making abstracts again. I go through this every few years (see these old posts- one, two three, four), and I always love the process. Abstracts, at their best, to me, are what we get when we break down the nuts and bolts of art-making, and play with the pieces again, making whatever we want, freeing ourselves from the need to represent objects, and instead allowing ourselves to more directly express thoughts and emotions. The goal, experentially speaking, is to pay attention so strongly to the process that painting becomes a form of walking meditation, where I can allow myself to be guided by a heady mixture of intuition and sharp, clerical thought.

Most often I have a broad concept from the very beginning- a title or a thought or a color scheme (or shape!) that expresses an emotion or experience. Sometimes, I have to make a set of marks first and let the fact that it “is” then guide me. Either way, it’s surely not something I just dive in to higgledy-piggledy, where I throw paint and just “go for it”. Very very early in the game, I must have something to hold on to, that will center my thinking.

I never pre-design it fully. Because of that, starting can be hard. Of course, starting is often hard, even when I know what I’m painting first. ;) But once I’ve begun, patterns become clearer and clearer, contrasts build that I can take advantage of, and an expression of some kind of order often builds itself. Always I must activate my mind and assess what is already there, guiding my eye compositionally, and, comparatively, where I might like to lead the eye next. So there’s a kind of “flow” I try and catch ahold of. It’s always a process.

The goal, if there is one beyond paying attention, is for the piece to itself reflect the process of its being built. In many ways, it’s like watching a movie, where all the frames have been stacked on top of themselves. Spatially, the finished piece is a static object, but it’s also a document that expresses action-through-time.

I have four pieces to share. Let’s take a quick look at each. Perhaps something from my process will inspire others to try some abstracts themselves.

Thinking of Spring

This is the first one I did, starting from the center and moving outwards. I wet the back, like normal, but the front was dry. It’s all wet into wet, done in one go, perhaps over 2 hours. Staring at it, the power that draws me in is the two semi-opposing patterns- one of value contrast, and one of hue contrast. The center, with the white paper, is clearly very strong as a value contrast. And yet the yellow spokes are also very dominant as the palest, most vibrant hue. I have a hard time focusing on both at the same time. My mind has to shift. The orange body does all the heavy lifting, providing the “meat” for the two contrasts to push against. On a technical level, wetting the paper lets me explore things for a long time, dropping in thick wet applications relatively late in the game to help push contrasts.

 
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Order Versus Order

Here I literally started with a table top full of pan lids, bowls, jam jar lids, etc. and a ruler. I started with circles, building patterns where lines led to lines, pulling us in to certain areas, and then began to cut the energy with straight lines, balancing shapes and leaving spaces open. This early phase was really informed by many years of placing boulders as a landscaper. There’s a lot in common, truthfully, between abstract composition and boulder placing- it’s purely forms relating to forms, gravity versus dispersement, density versus spaciousness, guiding lines and points of focus. I’m sure there’s other forms of building and crafts that have similar spatial elements in them too.

Here you can see the two compositional experiences side by side-

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Once color was introduced, with that too I began to play with warm versus cool hues, letting some bleed into each on purpose, eventually glazing in greys to create a more dynamic exploration of high versus low chroma too. At the end, the darkest darks are applied, as I pull the eyes in. Always, by this time, there’s lots of backing up and staring at it from a distance with my eyes squinting. Very Clint Eastwood. LOL. Rotate it this way, rotate it that way. Look at it again.

Really, the process is very similar to a normal painting- compositional sketch first, light to dark, glazing, darkest darks at the end. If you can paint a compelling landscape, you can paint a compelling abstract. If you are struggling with representational painting, abstracts may help you learn to see better. The skill set is the same, just the abstract is naked.

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When Small Things Become Important

Like many paintings, I get in a draft on some of these abstracts and let it sit. I didn’t get an earlier photo of this, before the first set of darks went in, but in the beginning it was very ambient. Greens and yellows and soft edges. I noodled around for a while, looking for contrasts and patterns, and then put it away. Later on in the week, I came back to it and dropped in the first set of darks. These too are built on the precept of contrast. Dark and strong and linear, the goal was to see what happened when I isolated areas and shrank the point of focus. The darks channel our vision and make the colors sing, makes them vibrant. Like a laser, my eye goes to certain spots.

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Once more, a few days later, I came back and dropped in my darkest darks. Very very dark and thick applications of paint. You can see how they begin to build a sense of depth in the image plane. The strips begin to stack, one upon another. Certain contrasts grow even stronger. And on top of that, again, I dropped in very opaque highlights, activating the darker areas. Yes, I try and pay attention to what I’m interested in expressing, but also what the image offers me.

Pulse

This was a big one, on a full sheet. I worked on it for 4 or 5 days, bit by bit. Sometimes these images start with a certain concept in mind, and it changes over the course of the painting experience (“Rotation Into Spring”, “Rotation Into Green”, “Green Pulse”, “Pulse”). That was the case here. Again, I started in the center (but I’ve been thinking of doing one from the outside inwards too!), and painted with a goal to make green a dominant experience, and to make it “move”. Thus, the yellows and oranges and magentas as contrasting hues, and the movement from light to dark to light to dark. I enjoyed doing the first stained glass style painting, and worked on this as a kind of counterpoint.

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This painting is very detail oriented, full of patterns and a kind of geometry. Doing these sorts of details is slow and painstaking. I look at it as an opportunity- watching my breathing as I paint, staying focused. Eventually, however, I came back to it and decided it was too tight. Too crisp, too dark. I couldn’t escape from the flower I’d created. It wouldn’t pulse. The edge was too strong. Bah! I wondered and wondered what to do, and decided, as always, to go for it. You have to be willing to fail if you want to succeed, right? What’s the joy in playing it safe? As such, I filled up the bath tub and dropped the painting in!

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As is often the case, these sorts of experiences are both scary and liberating. There was some bleeding, and some paint in the thicker areas (the leaves pointing outwards and the center-most circle) “flaked off” and created some aging and worrying to the paint surface. Of course, I knew some of this was going to happen- it was practically the point of submerging it in the bathtub- but you never quite know how it’s going to play out. Here, the lightening of the paint helped bring back the color. That’s what makes it exciting though! The painting was back on! A finished painting is an artifact of a moment, sometimes a beautiful artifact, but a painting in the process of being made is alive!!

Time to go for it…

 
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I built the swirling sense of motion and heat wet into wet, around the exterior, and dropped in the hard, plant-like objects around the exterior, to help your eye escape from the wheel. If I stare at the center for a bit, there is, for me, a definite gentle sense of motion- a pulsing and rotating. This is when I knew it was time to put the brush down… I was looking for things to add, but was already as far as I needed to go.

Doing an abstract is very liberating. It’s exhausting, but liberating. Doing a series can be highly educational. I often allow myself to try things I wouldn’t in a representational painting. Sometimes this helps me learn things I can apply elsewhere. While it’s most definitely a meditative practice, totally outside the concept of success or failure, in it’s own way it’s also a skill-stretcher. Can I make a compelling image without the typical story-telling elements I use? I have to ponder color contrasts and value contrasts and edge contrasts. A title can mean a lot, to lead you in. A bit like ballet or listening to music without words, abstracts try and express something without the typical story-cues we love and anticipate- barns and trees, cars and skylines, shadows and memories.

If the abstract is successful, it’s because of all the same factors as a more typical representational painting. If it fails, it’s for the same reasons. As an artist, that’s compelling.

If At First You Don't Succeed, Fail, Fail Again!

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I went to Navaro State Park back in September, and panted in this location. Heaven! The park is up the rural northern coast of California, past Booneville. It follows a river, and the air is rich and humid and warm under the trees. The duff on the forest floor is so deep that walking on it actually becomes spongy and soft. The fragrant, heady smell of bay trees and redwoods is everywhere. Deep in the quiet woods… the creaking of the redwood boughs high above. An easy place to get suckered in to painting terribly difficult subjects! Hahaha!

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Here’s the little sketch I did on site. I had to jet, and it was towards the end of the end of the day. I might have spent 20-30 minutes max. I just wanted to capture the mood— that sense of deep recession under the redwoods and bays, like a vaulted ceiling. Little did I know, however, how hard it would be to get a completed painting out of this.

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Later that week, I grew the painting to a quarter sheet, wondering if making them more vertical would capture that sense of a vaulted cathedral that I got there. But to me, no love…

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What was so hard was that the foliage up above is really just an ambient texture. It’s hard to add it in and make it read as leaves attached to a branching system.

A few weeks later, I decided to try it again as a half sheet, adding more visual texture to the canopy while also focusing on that stretching, arching feeling by changing to a wider format. In an effort to increase the sense of depth, I also tried to preserve some highlights on the ground plane plants, to help separate the values between the foreground and midground some.

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I finished it, and although I liked it better, I still really wasn’t satisfied. There wasn’t a sense of cast light on the floor of the forest, nor a sense of vibrant light pushing through the canopy. Where were all those deep shadows I remembered?

In answer to these issues, I did it a fourth time a few weeks later. I brought in the edge of the canopy on the left, to help create an “umbrella.” You can see that I’ve retained some new highlights on the upper canopy, as well as a greater set of vibrant highlights down below, on the little ferns and leaves.

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Once again… better, I thought, but even so, I still wasn’t really satisfied. Where was that vibrant light? The heady smell of a humid forest floor? The deep, magical, recessive shadows that I wanted to wander off into? After 4 attempts in a month, I let it go. Sometimes, you just can’t get an image to work. You have to learn more, or change, or fail in some other new way to get that special key you’ve been looking for. I set it aside, and two months later…

I came back to it.

I just couldn’t let it go, and my attitude about paintings I’m dissatisfied with is to go for it. Who cares if I screw it up? I didn’t really find it successful anyways. From here, over the next few weeks, bit by bit, I sort of snuck up on the painting, doing a half hour here and there, thinking I was done, propping it up so I could look at it from a distance now and then while doing stuff in the kitchen, only to still not be sure, and jump back in again.

First, I dropped deeper blue shadows into the shade, cast shadows from the trunks on the right, deeper shadows in the foreground, etc. I also added more opaque highlights in that area, trying to get a sense of depth and layering. Again, better, but still I wasn’t satisfied. I set it back into the discard pile and worked on other things.

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Here, I decided that the image was too “far away” and cool. I wanted to be down under the canopy myself, and that warm lime-green light, not looking at it from afar. I dropped in a wash of yellow-green over the sunny foliage, to warm things up. Then I brought the branches down from the top left to close the composition off and bring the foreground into the top as well. I added highlights and bits of scruffiness to the lower foreground too. Once again, I did a scruffy glaze in the deep shadows along the horizon line, getting it a bit darker again.

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In the next step, I brought the foreground foliage down around the front left, pushing all those cast shadows and backlighting in. Thank you to my wife for the thought! :) Now, I could finally see, after a few months working on this on and off, that I was getting somewhere. Failing a lot is hard. It’s disheartening, but if you’re doing your job right you’re atleast exploring and trying new things. Often, succeeding is when the painting process is most difficult creatively— because you begin to want to play it safe. You don’t want to ruin it! But this is just when I think you should go for it!

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I figure go big or go home. What are we here to do, if not to share and express our inner selves as truly as we can? How can be do that tentatively? Bah!

I decided to push my darks even farther down within the canopy. Screw it. I wanted those woods to be deep and murky and full of texture, and for the foreground to be bright and sunlit by comparison. Did I push it too far? I don’t know. But the final affect is strong, and there’s no going backwards. This is where I set down my brush on this one, and taped it up on the “recently finished” wall.

If I decide I’m not happy with the final results, there’s nothing to do but paint it again!

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Recent Work- What We Can Learn From Photographing Our Work

 
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Today I am going to touch briefly on the interesting experience of photographing your painting and figuring out that you actually prefer the photo. !! This can be disconcerting, but it’s also very instructive. There are clearly times I prefer my painting over the photo, and photo work (of the iPhone variety) is definitely limited in terms of the of color-diversity it can accurately capture. If you are pushing contrasting hues, photos will almost always push a Mother Color and nudge everything one way or the other. But photos are also very good at pushing contrast, and there are times when this is what a painting really needs.

Here’s my reference photo. It’s not much.

 
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I took this last winter in Yosemite, as the last light was setting behind me, and the mountain across the valley was lit up, misty and glowing. Crappy photos like this (LOL!) can sometimes be good reference photos. They provide the basics of shape relationships but they’re deficiencies also leave a lot up to memory and artistic interpretation. I very much remember the mountain being warmer, and the foreground trees being cool and shady. Sometimes, after I take a photo, if it’s not quite correct (like this one) I even type out some sort of color notes as well, for future reference. So, here I relied on memory and got to painting.

This is what I got on the first-go around.

 
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A successful piece, to me. Muted and cold, with that nice wet, soft-edged mist up top. Done, right? Well, what was interesting was that this is the photo I actually took first, before I color corrected things-

 
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I really liked some of what the photo did to the image. The contrast is definitely stronger. This was achieved by opening up and brightening the paler area. Notice also that everything has a gently warmer cast. To me, in this image, it works- mostly because the image is so cool already. By pushing the warmer elements a bit more, it actually creates a richer complimentary hue-contrast.

A week later, I set to work, repainting the image. Of course, being an artist, this was painted on the last possible day to submit to the Yosemite Renaissance show. So, it was either hit a good one or go home. LOL! I used my memories, the original painting, and the skewed photo as references, and went for it. I focused on two basic things- keeping the central area paler and warmer, to provide a honeyed backdrop for the darker green trees to pop against, and pushing the blues down in the foreground to really accentuate the hue-contrast and make the mountain glow.

 
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Is it better? I don’t know. It’s definitely different though, and was what I was aiming for. So, by my judgement, yes.

As always, part of the charm of working in watercolors (to me, atleast) is that every image is it’s own. You can’t futz with it too much, to get it “just right” the way you can with acrylics or oils. Instead, you have to keep moving forward, iterate an image if you want to do it differently, and accept each painting as it’s own artifact from a moment in time.

Step by Step- It Was a Secret View

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I wanted to share this painting I recently did, as I had the forethought to take photos as I went along. This process is definitely a version of the “slow painting” I went over in a blog post earlier this year. Some paintings I hammer out in an hour and a half or two hours. Others take 5,6… 10 hours. I fiddle with them, put them aside, photograph them, assess them, fiddle with them some more, add a wash, etc.

With this painting, it was an exploratory process. I could never give a demo with an image like this—when I started, I wasn’t really sure how I was going to paint it. Oh, I have enough experience that I had some vague ideas at the beginning (work light to dark, etc, block in values and hues, etc), but after that… basically you’ve just got to start, and find your way, and keep working until you think you’re done. !! That’s messy, but sometimes it’s the truth. The more complicated the shapes and shifts in value and hue, the more so.

Step 0- You Think You’re Done, And Then You’re Not

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Sometimes, you work on it, until you think you’re done, and then you recognize you’ve gone too far. With watercolors, there’s not much going back. There’s nothing to be done but to let that painting be. Either you accept its faults as part of the whole, or you’re deep enough in to an image that you’re prepared to spend another 5+ hours re-building it from scratch in “round 2”.

I finished this piece, and later on I recognized a few things I didn’t like. It was these critiques which guided me in repainting the image-

1) The perspective is skewed in the window panes and the cabinet door. I don’t care much about this sort of stuff normally, but here, the geometry is really very dominant visually. Practically the whole reason I’m painting the image is because of these repeated panes and the dingy empty cabinet. To me, they’ve got to be right or what’s the point in painting them? I need the shapes to be correct so I can tell the story I want, and not have them detract from the experience.

2) The image is, in my opinion, too dark. The contrast is too strong, like a hammer on the head.

3) The exterior view is not compelling enough. At first, I thought the exterior through the window could be soft and ambient like in this image-

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But the truth is that the exterior here is comparatively a much larger portion of the painting, and much closer to the viewer. After I finished, I recognized I wanted more “push and pull” between the interior and exterior. I needed more compelling details.

4) The image is just a little too static with just the panes and the cabinet. I felt that I wanted a third location to draw the eye and circulate you around. I had additional source photos, and used them to nudge things around.


Step 1- Building a Composition

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I don’t have a photo of my sketch, but with all the above thoughts in mind, I brought together different source photos and began to build my image. As you’ll see, none of them are good photos. I’m not copying the photo, that’s for sure. I paint partly from the photos, salvaging and cobbling details together as I need them. I paint partly by feel, and discover things as I go along. I paint partly from memory, from a sense of smell and emotion and tactile input, and just trust that I’m listening and being true to what feels right.

Here, I brought the exterior view in from a different photo that had shifted ever so slightly to the left. It’s just off-screen in the other photo.

 
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I took the dog door from another photo that showed those details under the window…

 
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and the cabinet shelves came from another. I added in the other box on a shelf to activate the area visually and hold the eye a bit more.

Step 2- Initial Global Washes

Sometimes, you can’t do big global washes. The edges and white areas are too distinct, the hues too different, and the values too similar. You have to approach things differently and paint each area individually. Each windowpane is a small painting. The cabinet is a painting. The wall is a painting. The old dog door, etc. It’s slow and more painstaking, but if you want control over your shapes and hues and values, it’s the only way I know.

Step 3- Layering In Darker Shapes

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Here you can see me beginning to layer in darker shapes- the darker trees in the background go in, the shadows under the leaves that have a crisp edge, the shadow on the little exterior wall to the left. The exact same process was used earlier for the dog door, the brown mat outside the windows, the odds-and-ends and darker shelves in the cabinet, etc. These shapes are blocked in now partly because they’re a darker value than the areas around them, but even more so because I want the edges to help separate things. As I put in washes later, the edges will soften some, but the shape of things will remain.

Step 4- More of the Same

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Here you can see the shadow on the door, where I have a hard edge on one side and a soft edge on the other. The surface of the paper has to be dry to get that crisp edge. The dark warm interior of the cabinet, the dark cool wall around the cabinet, and the area under the window are all glazed too. Note the large (though not very dark) cast shadow out in the garden.

Step 5- Window Trim and Global Darks

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Here you can see two things I’m focusing on. The first is that I’m beginning to work on the window trim, creating my shadows. But also, I begin here to drop in big, semi-global washes to darken whole areas. All the prep work earlier, cutting edges and dropping in localized, shape-specific darks, begins to pay off. I can make a big wash over the whole area for the cabinet and everything in it, and I retain my individuated shapes, and yet everything is bonded together and softened by the wash. Same goes for the doggy-door area, where I’ve dropped a global wash in, with a darker, graduated area under the window sill. This helps that area feel recessed, as if there’s a very soft cast shadow within the cavity.

Step 6- All The Little Details

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My desire to paint this has a lot to do with paying tribute to this space. So all the scruffy little bits mattered to me. The left over duct tape on the window to seal a crack, the scruffy patch on the wall, the window putty to seal the panes, the cobwebs, the dusty grime on the windows, the little specks and nails and scratches. This is a meticulous part, but done with love and precision. I darken things up too, here and there- the wood around the dog door, the trim around the panes, etc.

I got to this point after a long day of painting, about 7 or so hours straight. Got a kink in my neck. Took some Ibuprofen, etc. I thought I was done. I even framed it up to share for Thanksgiving, but….

Step 7- You Think You’re Done and Then You’re Not

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Framing and photographing things is very instructive. They often help you see things objectively, like someone else painted it, instead of how you dream it looks. Photos often change things too- push contrasts and shift hues, etc. Sometimes, I like the photo better, and understand how I should change a painting. Sometimes, I can tell the painting is done instead, and I have to correct the photo to match it.

So I framed this up and shared it. But once I got home, I thought “What is this painting about? Where do I want your eyes to go?” The light was a little too flat, the contrast too muted. Where was the drama?

The reflected light that seems to have no source (bouncing off the hidden side of the open cabinet door) was compelling to me. Some of it, honestly, happened by accident, but some of it was on purpose. I recognized the preserved highlights, and decided to push the effect. I wanted to pull you in to the edge of the panes, where that warm raw lumber is, and the light arrives from both inside and out. This is not really how it is in any of the photos, but I could see now, towards the end, the story I wanted to tell.

I pushed the transition in value on the right side of the window pane, lightening and lifting up top, while darkening the values in the bottom right corner. I gently darkened various things once more- the edge of the window sill, the area by the dog door, the cabinet interior, and the bottom right corner of the room. I also darkened the far left side of the painting- the window sill and the panes- to push your eye in towards the gentle glow.

And then I was done. Sometimes, these things are a meandering affair and you end up at the finish line unexpectedly.