Activating the Mind Through Abstraction


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.


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-

rock garden.jpg

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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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…


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.