In the creative visual arts world there tends to be an inbalance which leans heavily towards inspirational force. Technical skill becomes undervalued. It is the great theme, the inspired idea which is paramount and true skill in handling becomes the third rate cousin to the creative process. I have become increasingly fascinated with comparing the visual art process with all the other arts such as music, dance, writing and architecture. Can you imagine a wonderfully choreagraphed dance where the dancers clearly lack experience and technical skill to execute the choreograph movements? The performance would be a failure. Imagine a majestic piece of music where the pianist clumsily transitions between notes, or an inspired idea for a story but the author lacks the ability to create simple and proper sentence structure. Especially as we mature as artists then we realize how critical ‘technical skill’ to the success of a painting. In fact, it might even be said that a mediocre idea for a painting, if skillfully rendered will be perceived as evocative and even beautiful.
Especially in the past several years I have developed the habit of consciously pulling out paintings which were conceived several months prior. I consider it a period of gestation. The original painting was put down with the intent of keeping intact an original idea, a first impression. I find it is often difficult to get an idea ‘set’ and then also to carry it out with all the technical skill necessary for full completion. They often comprise two fairly distinct efforts. A form may be put down accurately but the edges are not refined or they do not blend in with adjacent forms. Choice of the original color hues may often need refinement. An area that is a wash may need to become completely opaque or line quality needs to be rendered more carefully. This is the second effort relying now on the artists technical skill. The beginning artist therefore must be patient in developing these necessary skill sets.
There is much to be said and appreciated for that initial inspiration, that great bust of energy that brings an artist to the canvas in the first place. I love the story of how Frank Loyd Wright kept putting off the design of the now famous Falling Waters Home. When the owner grew impatient and announced he would be driving up to the architects studio in six hours Wright brought his apprentices in to the studio. They kept sharpening his pencils as he furiously drew out the concepts for Falling Water. When the client arrived and Wright presented the drawings the couple were astonished. No doubt Wright had been pondering and conceiving of the structure for months prior to actually drawing it out on paper. That was the inspired moment, the inception, the spark but it would be many months later when finally the technical drawings were completed. In terms of technical skill the builders and carpenters and masons had to then re-create those drawings in to a three-dimensional world. Architecture in my view is an almost perfect example of the fairly sharp distinction between the ‘concept development’ and the requisite technical skill that must follow. Good and skillful workmanship must accompany good architecture.
We admire the masters because they tirelessly mastered their craft, became skillful with the brush, with design and with proper justapositions of color, hue and harmony. The so-called simple and straightforward portraits by Rembrandt are spellbinding because of the great technical skill he employed in manipulating paint and light on the surface plane. I admire the brilliant watercolors by Sargeant because of the great skill he employed in rendering light in nature. The history bending painting, Nude Descending the Staircase has a remarkable luminosity and harmony that had not been seen before and this could not have been succesful without unusual skill with the brush and without an uncanny eye for color. It appears rapidly executed but was in fact rendered with great care and skill and intention. For those of us desiring to improve our own work, we can take heart. By tirelessly devoting ourselves to improving the quality of our brushwork, the consistency of our lines, the blending of forms and backgrounds we can transform even a common representation to something that truly is art.
Still lifes for Beginners may seem like an innocuous title for an article but the practice can yield comprehensive results. It is also an excellent way to chart your progress from year to year. Try to do five or six every year. They don’t have to be large paintings and use just common items around the house or fresh fruit, or vegetables or flowers are always a fun challenge.
What will you learn by painting Still Lifes? You will learn several distinct and important aspects of painting in oils. First you will discover what is good and not so good composition. As you progress you will find better ways to place objects in space. You will discover that there is a certain energy between objects and placing them side by side, forward or back is an important part, even a critical part of painting. You will find it helps to have large and small objects in the painting – this will add interest and you will learn about ‘scale’…that is, relative scale and how large to make things appear on your canvas. A look at Cezanne’s Still Lifes will be revealing in that regard.
The other important aspect of Still Lifes that will help you as a painter is the subject of shading. Irrespective of color, the dynamics of shading is vitally important to the success of a painting. Make sure you establish a distinct light source. If you cannot come up with a natural light source then by all means create your own with an incandescent bulb off to the side. By learning to paint from dark to light and then from light to dark is greatly facilitated by the relative innertness of the Still Life. Personally when I look back at my early paintings I rarely included enough contrast…that is, my darks were not dark enough and my lights were too insipid.
If painting a number of Still Lifes helps you improve your ability to compose a successful painting and helps you to be skillful in establishing shade then you are definitely making strides as an artist. Take a look at Fantin La Tour who produced a very large amount of Still LIfes in his career, because after all it is not always possible to have a suitable live model on hand.
I am about to go on a vacation for a week or so. I thought, ‘what would I write if this might become my final article on abstract painting’? Knowing that beginners as well as more advanced artists read these, I would say to both, ‘Now is the time to paint!’ If you are an artist then paint. I have said that often. Don’t wait for inspiration. You have a canvas or board before you, brushes, thinner, a pallete and pigments….paint a square and then next to it paint another square and then relate them to one another. There, you have made a start. See where it takes you. How good are you at painting circles within a circle? Paint one. See where that goes.
What is important here after all? The arts, your own progression, you expressing yourself, your experiencing inner feelings, the manifestations of those feelings! Now more than ever as our civilization becomes more and more mechanized, more absorbed in the vast internet we can easily lose our own development and our own inner fruition. Art is there to serve that great hunger and that great need. Art is personal expression and personal interpretation. Much in the way that dreams are to reflect back our feelings and experiences unconsiously, art serves to do the same only consciously and deliberately. The curious thing is when the ‘border’ is reached between the un-conscious and the conscious, between form and spiritual or…when we are able to manifest (bring forth) what we are trying to understand internally. Art is intuitively a form of discovery. That is its supreme purpose.
Now is the time to paint….now is the time to discover. Great themes, perfect diagrams, wonderful effects are irrelevant and even stand as blockades. Don’t foolishly wait for weeks for them to come. By painting you will inevitably become better with your brushstrokes. You will learn more about mixing colors, about balance, about transforming shapes but most importantly, you will discover yourself. Like peeling an onion you will discover what is vital for you and even what is essential for you as a progressing human being. Abstract painting is the perfect vehicle.
Universality of Abstract Painting refers more to its broad range of source than its’ general appeal. An artist who is attempting to paint in the abstract or more exactly, non-objectively does well to understand the source for inspiration. This source is a curious, visceral and energetic mix of both the sub-conscious and the conscious. The two co-mingle to create a visual form on canvas.
Carl Jung was the first to really probe and define the impact of our sub-conscious on our conscious selves. He discovered how vast and inter-connected our sub-conscious truly is, affecting our personal psyche and the many ‘choices’ we make as individuals. His extensive research discovered that it is our sub-conscious that primarily dictates our responses. Therefore by understanding and nurturing an awareness of our inner selves (our sub-conscious) we become more complete and more balanced individuals. More recent teachers such as Eckhardt Tolle have given us good tools to more directly be in touch with this inner development. He represents this evolution as a more correct means to view our lives – that of emphasizing our inner development over reliance on exterior form.
It is helpful for a painter of abstract work such as myself to understand these concepts because it provides an important road map to artistic progress. Universality in this context refers then to the broad range and depth that we can utilize within our own personal psyche. This association is similar to a meditation. It is getting in touch with our own inner selves but as Tolle points out, also connects us to a much broader and far reaching spiritual connection. This broader and deeper connection takes on a Universal characteristic. We become, by increments part of a larger whole, part of a greater understanding and part of a more Universal sense of those elements that are important and meaningful. Abstract painting then becomes a very direct way of manifesting important Universal concepts and developing feelings. This is one paramount reason why I am attracted to painting in abstracts and even non-objectively instead of painting known visual form. Painting non-objectively provides a platform for distilling these sub-conscious responses…the sub-conscious becomes manifested through paint and design. This characteristic then, the Universality of abstract painting becomes an important platform for the artist to work from.
We have all seen humorous cartoons of artists lazily sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike. The wife or girlfriend is stirring a pot of beans, waiting as well, but for money to buy groceries and essentials. The article topic, Gestation in abstract art is something I have been thinking about for some time. Gestation of course refers usually to the period of time a baby is in the womb, prior to birth. However the term can be aptly applied to bringing forth an abstract work of art.
Because abstract art finds its source and inspiration from something other than nature, an entirely different set of constructions needs to occur. These partially reside in our sub-conscious and come from a source that is not seen. One can’t go out into the hills, set up the easel and begin to paint. Abstract art heralds a different form that must first come from an inner resource. I have learned to develop or allow to develop this important first step and I think it could be aptly called the ‘creative period of gestation’. There is something stirring, an emotion or a feeling or a hint of some abstract form and this needs to develop internally. Exterior references do not seem to help.
Earlier in my career I spent time designing homes. There was always considerable time just thinking about the design before anything could be drawn. Fortunately I was fairly good at visualization. The process for painting, especially for painting abstracts is not too different. Sometimes there is just a very brief glimpse or hint or direction or feeling. If we can be very still we can internalize this and develop the image. It is however impossible to develop the work completely, or even partially but it is possible to get a good ‘lock’ on an impression. That impression or shape or form or feeling begins to go through this gestation process before it is eventually given birth or in artistic terms, manifested on canvas.
The beauty and wonder of abstract painting is that once we provide the impetus to a painting, a certain magic comes about and the painting begins to develop its’ own force and identity. Sometimes there is a feeling that I am just the facilitator and that the painting begins to dictate which direction to go and which hues to incorporate. This is a fantastic experience. I suppose not unlike the process of seeing good jazz develop.
STARTING A DRAG PAINTING IN OIL
From previous articles I have tried to describe the process of starting a drag painting. Without some motivation, some method even – a painting will sit dormant within one’s psyche, unmanifested. I have also mentioned in the past that there is no need for some grand theme, some profound thought or something that resembles symbolism. These certainly will come, for example we can see symbolism in so many things. Today at the stop light the young man behind me took out and lit a cigarette while we waited in traffic. There was an edge to him, a certain nervousness as he tapped and popped out a cig., then lit. There was a furtive look in his eyes as if he was not quite sure how this day would turn out – for the better or for the worse. When the light turned green I pulled forward to make the first left as he drove by to the side in his black, noisy’ guys truck’ – vroom. Right there is a lot of symbolism that I might interpret…all kinds of layers having to do with ‘if there is true peace in our lives and what might be the right path?..’ Or just the eagerness of youth, the searching and even the bravery of becoming a man or woman – expressing themselves, discovering their own unique motivations. All kinds of imagery and symbolism.
But that is not the stuff paintings should be made of. It tends to appear false, plastic and disassociated. It is the kind of intention that stops too many artists from actually painting. I think too often we are straining to paint something significant. IF we do not paint then we are not truly artists. The process must be much more intuitive and inspired not from external influences but by internal responses. These responses come often in the most slight bits of information, small visual ticks, short, brief hints that sometimes appear only as feelings or sentiments but portend much larger contexts. We need to respond to these as authentically as we can. It may only begin with just a very small brushstroke. The thing that fascinates me about drag painting is that the brushstroke is then dragged off by a small plastic squeege. The plywood then shows through and there is a distinct accidental quality to the two processes – first the brush applying the pigment and then the squeege dragging most of it off, indenting into the pores of the wood.
Inevitably, if you will just get it started, the motivation to work more will tend to rise up if we can keep from being distracted. A very large part of being an artist resides in his or her ability to block out distractions – both mental and outside of us. It might be like playing in a concert as a musician. The same concentration is required and more so because something is being created that is completely reliant on an organic response and then transmuted to a physical response by the artist’s hand. We are indebted first to the impressionists who declared that what was before them, without contrivance was quite adequately beautiful. They created their beautifully intuitive paintings with honesty, trying to be authentic to the impression. In a similar way, so do abstract artists, only they are transmuting something honestly from an inner source. THese inner sources often just unfold in small windows. We open one and then discover another, and then another. It is a fairly natural process which sometimes feels quite magical. The key is allowing yourself time to open that very first window – that small dab of impression as when a child makes an arc in the wet sand. Because of its inherent accidental qualities, drag painting is an excellent way to begin to paint abstractly. By starting a drag painting in oil you will be surprised at the good results.
There is a very distinct difference between the education system that I came out of and the experience of the art studio. It lies fundamentally in the fact that by and large our education system does not deal in problem formulation but only in problem solving – the answer of course is always at the back of the book. We are solving problems which have already been thought through…there is already an answer. Our job as students is to discover through study that one answer.
The experience in an art studio – at least mine, is the very first thing is to formulate the problem to solve, which is vastly more complex that solving a prescribed problem. What does that mean to formulate the problem to solve? In my view it goes very deeply into the existential question of discovering one’s own self and because each of us is unique and individual we must do the hard work of creating our own particular formula – our own blueprint to follow, our own map to chart. This is after all at the core of the creative process. In the purest sense the art studio is where we discover our own personal inner selves, our own essence and our own unique experience. Even if the studio is only a corner of a closet with a small desk lamp, this must be the place where form is expressed from an inner awareness, an inner discovery. Art is manifestation but only after the artist first lays out a course of formulation.
The so called artistic formula however is in my experience constantly in flux. Every small increment of growth, every artistic expression that becomes manifested opens an even new portal and so our old formula is outdated right away. We find ourselves searching yet again, like peeling off the petals of a rose we discover the need for yet another formula relying, by the way, on intuition and a certain sensitivity to inner impressions. The much heralded artist Francis Bacon created a decent enough formula for his own personal discovery but then froze it in time. He shut himself off from any future portals. He just keeps re-examining and re-hashing an old formula for personal growth and very quickly got himself caught in an eddy. This is my view.
An art studio to have any real purpose and any real vitality must strive to be authentic. I believe fervently that authenticity must be immensely sensitive to each and every small inspiration and then, once discovered must begin again from that new vantage point. This is artistic advancement, this is artistic growth – but it is also and no less important, personal inner growth. I expect the word formulate must be related to the term fermentation which we all know is that chemical response that causes vapors to create spirits. This is so vitally important to an artist – this process of allowing ourselves to discover our own personal images. There is meditation involved. There is effort here to get a ‘fix’ on something and this is what I mean by formulation and then, with that fix (even if initially vague) begin the creative process. We are not artists if we are not expressing – we cross over from being formulaters and become artists. The formulation of the problem which is our own personal interpretation of our ‘condition’ should be conscientiously sought after before the work commences. This is what gives life to a painting and its relative force.
Fortunately for the artist, again in my experience, we can definitely begin with just a kernel of conception. Our own personal formulation might be disturbingly illusive and so, we need courage to begin the process of manifestation. Very small beginnings will often open up incredible new vistas of expression – one movement of the brush seems to trigger another slightly different movement, one hue seems to inspire an adjacent and contrasting hue. A certain vibration that was just hinted at in early formulations begins to take on a truly resonate tone, a vibrant tone. This is when a painting truly begins to develop its own energy and force. This is why abstract art can be such an invigorating way to discover oneself as an artist. This is the kind of thing that should be occurring in the art studio.
It helps me and it may help you to consider your painting in progress, not as a whole but in terms of co-joined areas. I prefer to call them passages. These so-called passages in oil painting abstracts are important as individual units and when these units are reasonably intact then they can contribute to the whole more effectively. I am sure there are parallels in the other arts. I know music refers to passages of a piece of music which ends and flows into another part or passage of symphony.
Especially in large paintings it is easy to become a little lost. I have found that going back and working carefully on getting one section properly in balance then it allows progress to another section. It is better to do this than to have an entire painting which is only partially rendered. I will often develop these passages somewhat at the same time – that is dabble with one and then dabble with another to bring them along at roughly the same pace. In this way the painting begins to take shape and the whole begins to be recognized.
It is important to study a painting and determine strong or weak areas (passages). Inevitably you will find some passages as you go along are quite fine and are standing on their own and they have even successfully integrated with the rest of the painting. When all the components are integrated then the painting is of course, nearing completion. By thinking in terms of passages or sections you can visually breakdown a painting and concentrate on getting that one section correct or at least develop it further to bring it up to the level of the rest of the painting.
Many emerging artists will eventually ask themselves, why paint abstract oils? Or even further, why paint non-representational art or art that has no reference whatsoever to known objects? Painting abstractions of course is mis-leading because it can imply that a vase or a cup or a tree is recognizable but has been bent or elongated through artistic abstraction. Both non-representational and abstract art expression provides an important vehicle for authentic artistic expression.
When the breakthrough painting by Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending the Staircase, was presented it shocked the art world. It is almost a shame that he titled the painting because without a title the viewer needs to look more deeply to discover the painting. It is indeed a figure or figures descending a stair. There is great movement, wonderful dynamics and force, even with a limited pallete. Why did he depart from a realistic image to this abstraction of form? It might be simply that he was attempting to paint more authentically. He wanted to paint a certain vital essence. By concentrating too much on the nature of form he would have neglected the great action. This effort paved the way for an entirely new way to paint on canvas – one that relied on an inner response and not one that pointed outwards to some exterior form or place or person.
Kandinsky went further by making no reference to any known form. In Duchamp’s painting if we look carefully, we can see the abstracted cubist form descending. In Kandinsky’s work shapes and designs stand on their own merit without reference to anything beyond themselves. This direction in painting can be exhilarating. It can free up various hang-ups, especially the need to accurately represent something real. As an artist you might measure yourself with how well you represent a scene or a still life or a face, but this can be limiting and even detrimental to creative growth. Allowing for freer expression by painting abstractionally can help to discover your own personal style.
Fortunately art (painting) is evolving just as music, dance and architecture evolves. We no longer need be tied to reality. There is a strong inner realm that we can experience which often more directly reflects our own personhood. By responding to internal feelings rather than external sources we come in contact with something very valuable and also very powerful. This alone is an excellent reason to paint abstract oils.
Anyone seriously considering an art purchase has probably asked themselves, ‘What is abstract Art’? When did the shift occur from realism to abstraction? Just what is so special about abstract art?
Bending realistic images and painting canvases where there is nothing recognizable was of course a major shift in how we view art. Most agree it essentially began with Cezanne and then truly exploded with the remarkable output of Wasily Kandinsky. Cezanne experimented with bending and refracting landscapes and still lifes but it was Kandinsky which evolved the painting process to make no reference to anything visually known. Entirely new material was manifested. Apparently the art world was ready because he received acceptance and eventually even embraced as a pioneer.
Abstract art takes us away from viewing a specific subject. We are forced to look at something that takes our attention to color relationships, obscure forms and completely different interpretations of style, balance and relationship harmonies. Abstract art begins to feel more like jazz than structured classical ensembles.
Using traditional oil painting techniques abstract artists began to discover the means to express more authentically inner emotions and sub-conscious responses. The outer world became less exciting. The inner world began to be explored and then visually manifested. We now know that the inner world (our essential self) is far more complex and more vast than our limited mental constructs. New emerging psychologies are helping us to understand our relationship to this inner life which ultimately connects us to each other – to humanity. Truly authentic abstract art painted with sensitivity and awareness helps us to bridge over into this new awareness. Connecting us to our inner selves may be abstract arts more endearing qualities.