Waiting for inspiration is a little like asking the waiter for the check. I am not however one of those artists who debunk inspiration (per sey). But perhaps we should clarify the term by saying that this is something clearly beyond our normal bounds, our normal interpretation or our normal range of vision. THis is something quite beyond our current mental and emotional barriers. Inspiration comes (if it does at all) when we have hungered for quite some time for that ‘otherworldly’ experience that typically lays hidden under the rocks and trees and the scars of our emotions.
When it does come it does not come with the playing of drums. There are just subtle but beautiful insights of vision. These can often dictate a painting which is precisely why I prefer abstract painting versus anything pre-conceived. Regardless, inspiration may come or not. It may come three times a year in very small and incremental degrees. But it is these that the artist aspires to recognize. Once recognized the artist must act, or be tormented by that vision that becomes more and more veiled. It is the response, the act that is critical here.
The purpose of this short article is to convince the reader for the necessity of practice. Read the book, the Natural Way to Draw and you will get a good bit of direction on how to practice the art of drawing. Drawing or painting – we simply must be about our task. It is not good to let a week or two go idle. Paint anything. There is no endeavor that will not lead and improve your handmanship and of course that vital connection between hand and eye and mind. Those three are uniquely brought to the fore when it comes to painting. Practice so that when inspiration comes – that desired element that so illlusively lives beyond our normal experience – we will be more the ready. We will be like the gunslinger who has practiced his draw and aim and can now pull and fire with decent precision. What good is it to attain some level of ‘other-worldly’ experience if we are ultimately un-able to manifest that expression in our work through poor facility? In short, practice makes us ready for those bursts of insight that we as artists hunger for- ala Jackson Pollack. There are often long travails through the desert until we come to our oasis. I suppose this is just the way the universe operates.
It is however always the case, that the paintings tell the story best. We only need to look more carefully.
It is not unusual to wind up with a painting that becomes extraordinarily difficult. Sometimes as artists we try something new and we get half way and get stuck. We are just not sure how to proceed – we are faced with a difficult painting. When this happens it is best to put our brushes aside and to rest on it for awhile.
After a time pull out that painting and have another look and ask yourself what is it you are trying to do? What mood, what effect?
Try to establish a basic, fundamental direction for the painting.
WHen I have a difficult painting – one that I am just not sure about, I will attempt to get one small area of the painting right. This may mean getting a particular design correct, or just the right hue or shading but get it just the way you want it. Be very satisfied with that one small part. It is surprising how a painting can develop once there is one section that is done perfectly. All the other parts can then begin to relate to that first successful area.
A work of two dimensional art typically represents one of two fields of art psychology. The first is the more typical painting which essentially gives us a window into another world, the world the artist has discovered and now wants to represent. It is a slice of time. We are drawn into it in the same way we are drawn to look out a window. The window frames the world outside – a home or building across the street, a wide field, a backyard, a lake. The second field is really a shift in our psychological view. IT is where the ‘The Image as the Thing’ becomes the image itself and it does not point to another world…we do not look to another slice of time because the painting itself is the message. The Image as the Thing, has the inherent intent of being the construction itself. It does not point to another. It creates its own identity rather than attempting to duplicate another.
I call it two fields of psychology because there is a distinct and conscious effort that describes the second effort and this is quite different from the first. THis requires some adjustment for the viewer who is used to seeing that window into another world, something we might call the standard view. The artist however who seeks to paint ‘The Image as the Thing’ is after an effect quite different. The painting becomes the object and we no longer look to see beyond it. Our focus is only on the painting as object. When we look at a typical landscape or portrait or still life we see the objects that are painted. This becomes our focus. When an artist chooses to abandon those objects to create a painting that is itself the object, then we have something that is quite different. Assuming each become framed, the first provides us a framed image that points to a particular scene. In the second the frame encompasses the object itself. This may sound like I am splitting hairs but the intent and the resultant effect are actually quite distinct. It is important that we understand the differentiation especially if you are an artist wanting to understand just where your personal style is going – what are you trying to do?
To give you some example of what I am talking about here – the distinction of these two very different ways of painting, let me point you to the works of Klee, Rothko, Jackson Pollack and of course Kandinsky. Those artists chose an entirely different psychology, a different point of reference that abandoned any particular point in time, any geographical location. In many cases the application of the paint itself became the focus or the characteristic design, or more often, the effect created by both. The idea was to have The Image As the Thing. Those artists I have mentioned and there are many more, didn’t want you to focus on any particular bucolic scene but wants the viewer to fully experience the painting itself. The painting no longer looks to an image beyond but is itself the image…immediately reflecting the viewer’s response. This is certainly one of the main reasons Abstract Painting intentionally lacks depth and perspective.
These artists changed the way we view art. Perhaps what they were after was a more honest psychology, not an idealic setting but a candid view of our own diverse and often opposing reflections of the world we experience. Those artists were perhaps wanting to honestly express personal and inner impressions. The various methods of Abstract painting made this easier. Stripped of the need to represent natural scenes which even Van Gogh was bound to, contemporary abstract artists were able to express themselves more intuitively and more spontaneously. Though Picasso was curiously bound to the female image right to the very end of his career, he nevertheless was probably the first to point in this direction. He did this by abstracting form. The form however remained but he pointed towards the need for a new method of interpretation – Braque and then Kandinsky and the others picked up where he was, shall we say, wanting to go. They abandoned the natural form.
What can be more fundamental in any artistic endeavor than developing concepts? This represents the beginning, the essential kernel that spawns the artistic project. However I feel that artists are stymied when their concept (however it is conceived) is not fully developed, either emotionally or visually in the case of the visual painter. All of my articles are essentially about the visual painter as artist but it is quite easy to see how many of these written constructions also relate to the other arts such as music, dance and sculpture. We begin with a concept and then the process begins with developing those concepts.
In my own case I rarely am fortunate enough to begin a painting with a fully developed concept or idea. There is a germ, a spark, a feeling but this is often all we can go with. We have to rely on that to begin. We have to believe that this small spark of an idea can lead us into a finished product, a painting. The process of developing a concept is however quite different than the actual process of completing a painting which is I think, often misunderstood in the art world. Gerhardt Richter has a very large, expansive studio. His process is to take a ‘so-called’ finished painting and bring it physically in to another room. This room is uniquely un-cluttered and separated from where the painting had been conceived. In the entirely new environment Richter will study the painting on and off for sometimes several weeks. He studies it to ascertain how technically this painting should be completed, what nuances should be added, what tones need adjusting, if the painting ‘works’. Most of us do not have the space or opportunity to remove our painting in to an entirely different environment for study. The point is that the initial thrust of the painting strives to attain the concept. The second part of the work is done by technically bringing the painting to its full completion. Shapes and forms may have been articulated but in the second part of the painting’s development, those shapes and forms should be carefully delineated and the brushwork refined.
This refinement is noticeable in Kandinsky’s work. Each shape is technically refined and beautifully rendered. In the developing concept this would have been impossible…it is enough to get the concept down in terms of location, design and coloring. The second part of the process is necessary to bring the painting to its fullfillment. In my own experience this is best done by studying it a week or two after the painting had been initially developed. It is very rare when I find a painting that does not need further attention. Elements inevitably need modulating. Perhaps the best example might be the sculptor who works with the chisel to establish the basic shape of the form. He or she gets it quite close to the concept or idea. After that, however begins the long, tedious work of sanding and refining the various shapes. Without this final attention the work is not truly ready, not truly finished.
Visualizing abstract art projects is the essential first step in creating a painting. Visualizing (or developing a concept) is the process of creating a basic construct of the painting in your mind. Through practice this process can become a more natural and less forced mental effort. We all realize how incessant our mental activity is and often it is only with great difficulty that we can shut down our mental activity. The visualization comes by channeling that mental energy towards your goal of creating art. The mind then becomes a useful tool for the artist. We can play with images, move them around, distort them and place them in different arrangements to fit what we are imagining. This is not unlike a musician working up a new song or a choreographer imagining a dance routine or an athlete picturing a practiced extension to achieve a desired result.
This is however not always immediately effective. Patience is required. Sometimes our imagination will give us just a hint or suggestion and a sensitive artist will pay attention to this and meditate on this bare image. Personally I try to keep a sketch pad handy in several areas of the home or studio to quickly sketch the suggestion. These seem to be sub-conscious images that creep up in to our minds in small segments. I have found with practice I can freeze, in a sense, these images and then begin to develop them mentally. By directing our mind away from unimportant thoughts to those of the desired art image we begin to use our mental constructs to advantage. For the artist this visualizing process tends to go with the trade – artists by nature can ‘see’ the forms mentally. There are times when an image will keep re-occurring over and over when I meditate but nothing seems to follow. There seems to be nothing beyond the simple form presented, even after several days of mulling over that particular simple image. In those cases I will go out to the studio and prepare to paint that simple image. Often and remarkably after that initial start, the painting will begin to suggest the next form or color or shape. The painting then develops, for lack of a better word, organically. It seems to come from its own quite naturally. There is a sensitivity required to this natural development. Past experience is fused with these new developments. Personal preferences and color choices are employed to enhance the developing painting and curiously the imagination begins to expand as the painting develops.
Conversely a painting is often more thoroughly imagined before it is begun. In this case the visualization process is taken to a more complete stage. It is remarkable in these cases that a painting can be so substantially established even to the point of color selections. On these occasions it is essential to have a drawing pad handy to draw out the development. Fortunately once the drawings are made (and sometimes I will do several) the image becomes fairly locked in mentally. The drawings are signposts and I find that inevitably the painting will become considerably changed and refined as the paint is applied. In these cases I do draw out the visualized image on the canvas or board. Between these two extremes of something starting from just the smallest seed or idea and from a highly visualized starting point are many, many variations that artists employ to begin a painting. The point behind this article is to encourage the mental or meditation visualization process. With practice you will discover that it becomes a fairly natural process to use the mind as an effective tool – tool of the imagination. There seems to be a deep and vast wealth of sub-conscious material that is waiting to be discovered, waiting to be manifested by the abstract artist. The key is patience. Allow the images to come without forcing them but once they arrive (however small and insignificant) pay attention to them…begin the visualization process.
Perhaps more than any other painting genre, abstract art employs lines to border forms. Line value in abstract art becomes practically an art in itself. Line value in this sense refers to the relative strength and thickness of the painted line. It often also refers to the shade or darkness of the line.
Line value in Abstract art is used of course to enhance a particular form and to draw attention to a certain feature. It is used selectively and rarely is every form bordered with a dark line which would appear repetitive. Van Gogh would often employ lines to border forms and figures in his paintings so that they would stand out from the background or from other forms. Van Gogh was not one to carefully blend his forms from dark to light. The use of the heavy line served to distinguish his forms. In one painting of a friend sitting in a chair, he used a heavy red line completely around the figure which literally popped out from the background. It appears he painted this dark, red line while the painting was still wet so that in places the red line mixed with the image of the figure.
Kandinsky appears to paint his lines after the forms have been placed, set and dried. This allowed him to paint very distinct, sharp delineation. Line value in abstract art took on a whole new meaning as Kandinsky began to explore true abstract art. His lines are remarkably painted with highly skilled brushwork. I expect he used very refined round sable brushes for this kind of delicate work, especially the circles that he drew so often.
There are several important tips on hanging custom art work. When you make a purchase of an original art piece you will discover that the painting is ‘ready to hang’ or it is not ready. By turning the piece and looking at the back it will become immediately apparent if the frame has been fitted with two hangers and a stout wire. Hopefully you are in luck and the painting has these already attached. When purchasing on line you can certainly ask if the painting you wish to buy is ‘ready to hang’.
If your painting arrives at your home or office without any means to hang, then you will have to either buy a ‘hanging kit’ or pay someone to make the painting ready to hang…that is a frame shop that specializes in hanging art. Hanging kits can be purchased at Hobby stores. Make sure you buy the kit that will be suitable for the weight of the painting. A store clerk should be able to guide you through this decision. Some tools will be required to do the work by yourself. Frankly, for the effort and money I would be inclined to bring the painting to a shop that does this kind of work routinely.
Once you have the clips secured and a substantial wire cable strung between, then the next step is to locate actual studs to hang from. Finding a stud is necessary for heavier paintings – a stud or two. Studs by the way, are 16 inches on center so if possible locate and utilize two. If the painting is lighter then it is certainly possible to install anchors in drywall and then screws. Once the screws are installed in the anchors then you are ready to actually hang the painting. I recommend someone help you to guide the wire over the screws. You have to flatten the hand and reach back to insure the wire cable has ‘hooked’ over the wire. Of course make sure you have a level handy so that each screw is level to the other. Certainly give some consideration to the height of the painting off the floor – many paintings are hung too high for proper viewing. Lastly, please have adequate lighting for your new painting. Often paintings are most appreciated at night and a proper spot light which highlights the painting can be truly stunning.
It is always best to trust your eye and not the critics when buying art. This is especially true when buying abstract art. Critics might suggest there are few reference points in abstract art – that there are no guidelines to follow. This of course opens the door for their own personal evaluation regardless of the validity of a critique. Ultimately, the published art critics today when evaluating abstract art, typically come up short both in experience and true perception. Trusting your own impression – your own eye is often the most reliable means to determine a purchase that suits your taste.
Actually good abstract art (specifically the masters) employed tried and true art fundementals in their work. As some critics suggest, they did not abandon established art theory. Elements such as balance and rhythm are essential elements used consistently by the masters such as Kandinsky. I have studied many of the modern masters and have found this to be true. There is a force and dynamic in his paintings that captures the eye and holds our attention. This dynamic is not halfhazard and it is certainly not by chance. Kandinsky was a student of music as well and had already learned the mathematical sequences provided by music composition. It is clear in his writings on art just how carefully he employed art theory – eventually expanding the essential components of line and form in abstract art. Contemporary artists such as Gerhardt Richter have benefited from his studies. Jackson Pollack’s work seems completely random yet contains remarkable cohesion and force.
In the example in this article (a painting called Elsie, painted by myself) there are two opposing forces left and right. THough they are very different forms in composition they each balance the other out. They create a tension that works towards the center, that pushes against the center so that the painting seems to have an inherent energy. I learned from Kandinsky just how important the background is – that it too must generate force and interest and that it must support the forms which are forward. There must be an interplay between the back drop and the forms which are more forward. Without this balance, without a sense of rhythm it is almost impossible to create a painting that has a dynamic, inherent force.
There are four main choices in buying abstract art. The costs between these can vary dramatically. Following is a brief guide to help you navigate through these options. One very safe and obvious option is to buy a print of a known and famous abstract artist such as Kandinsky or Klee or Miro or Pollack. Prints are inexpensive so I recommend spending money for a high quality frame. You will need to find a true, custom frame shop for this. Try to insure that the print you buy is large enough to suit the intended wall location. Sometimes an interior designer is needed to scale the work correctly because if the the painting is too small it will not look appropriate on the wall. Always measure before you order to insure the scale is right for the wall.
When buying abstract art keep in mind there are many, many very good abstract artists at work today. A few are quite well known and there are many more who are producing good art but are not yet on the critic’s radar. It is very possible to buy an excellent abstract painting by a contemporary artist for less than $5,000. These are usually shipped without a frame. These can be easily found by searching the internet. Again, make sure of the scale and size of the painting. It is impossible to determine if the artist you buy from will ever gain any degree of fame and if the art you acquire will gain in value. Buy it because you really like the piece. A good frame shop can determine the best frame for your new acquisition. Especially in the past five years a number of excellent art sites have become sources on the internet. They host a number of different artists and charge a percentage of every sale. You will find a wide variety to choose from.
Private galleries and showings is another choice. This will take more time but the effort can be most rewarding. Seeing an original hanging with good light represents an excellent way to decide what kind of abstract art you prefer. In most gallery showings there will be a number of pieces by one artist which gives you more choices. Cities will often host outdoor shows and for a fee an artist can set up a booth to show his or her work. You might be amazed to see just how good some of these paintings can be. In the trade we call these ’emerging artists’. Paintings hanging in galleries will always reflect a spike in pricing, especially over art that is sold in ‘open, City sponsored’ shows.
Most artists, myself included are rarely able to establish the correct tone of a painting right from the beginning. How to establish the correct tone and hue in a painting is of course vital to the effect of the piece.
Tone and hue in a painting is different than contrast. It has to do with color saturation, how much white is added, how much umber or black, but also describes the actual color or hue for any given area of a painting. Because a painting builds incrementally in relation to all the adjacent hues, creating the right tone and hue is nearly impossible from the beginning, unless you are Michelangelo reincarnated. For narrative paintings that have background, figures, objects and foregrounds I try to apply the first paint application with careful and delicate brushstrokes so that it lays in flat and even. As the painting develops and you can better understand what hue and tone is correct, you will not be hampered with halfhazard and distracting brushstrokes.
In oil painting all base coats are dry enough in a few days to go back and adjust them. Usually in my case, they are typically deepened. You will find as one area is deepened (less white added to the pigment), then adjacent tones will also require the same relative treatment. In this way, little by little the painting develops into a unified whole where all colors are suffused with a pleasing balance, one to the other .
The point to stress is not struggle getting started by not getting the right tone of the painting. Put down what you think it might be in your imagination. Make your best mix and paint. Remember that later tone changes are easy enough, just paint over the existing. Sometimes a very pleasing effect is created when overlay tones are applied almost as a wash allowing the original tone under the wash to come through. This kind of painting requires patience and time. The result however will certainly pay off creating the tonal effect you were after.