Even artists who confess no particular belief in God, cannot deny moments or periods of inspiration. Inspired art however continues to be decried by the critics as something to be downplayed. The opposite of de-bunking any kind of inspiration is not painting at all until a supernatural feeling or image is conjured.
Living near the California coast I often watch surfers. They will surf set after set of mediocre waves before catching anything good. They might be out there day after day waiting for a truly good wave. They know however that they must practice on the average to be ready for those which have excellent shape and length. When an experienced surfer catches and rides really good waves it is truly wonderful to see.
It seems to be an inspired moment but perhaps I am stretching the meaning to broadly.
Being inspired means experiencing something quite beyond our normal range of awareness. We see something we never quite saw before. We are able to follow a line of nature that had eluded us, a particular hue is mixed that was unattainable before, a look or feel is imparted to a painting that goes beyond a natural ability. In between these apparent bursts of insight are often long periods of mechanically working out a composition. We follow principals, work on balance, symmetry and contrast for effect. We are like the surfer catching all those mediocre waves while trying to perfect technique.
Inspired art translates into all phases of life. In business we come up with a solution we never imagined before. It just comes to us. It seems to have been inside us all the time, but from beyond us as well. We see inspired moments in sports, in music, in carpentry, in architecture, in the way a nurse treats a patient. There is a certain joy we experience. Because it is so illusive, it is a waste of time to seek after it. All that we can do is be about our task, pay attention, concentrate, be aware. It is the process that we must enjoy…the journey.
If God, a supernatural understanding, the Muse somehow pays us a visit and expands our experience, then all the better. Regardless, inspired art comes in remarkably small portions. If we are not paying attention it might elude us time after time. If we are not busy with our craft we will of course, never notice at all. It is my feeling that even the greats like Delacroix or Picasso or Rembrandt, out of the hundreds and hundreds of completed works, count to themselves but ten or twelve they hold especially dear.
As the story goes when John Singer Sargeant was painting outdoors in Paris with Manet he asked his friend for black to which Manet replied, “I have none, I never paint with black”. Singer then replied, “ah well, then I cannot paint.” True or not, it speaks to how we perceive shadow and shaded items. There probably are fifty shades of grey and not attained just by gradations of white and black but infinite variations that may include, for example French Ultramarine, Hookers Green Deep and Cadmium red mixed of course with Raw Umber. It is my guess that Sargeant could have done well enough with Raw umber.
When one studies Rembrandt’s portraits we rarely see true black in the dark shadows of the face (the side opposite the source of light) but very deep shades of violet. He seemed to retain black itself for the rich, velvet black sateen that men often wore in those days as capes and such. Indeed, by using French Ultramarine which inherently has a violet cast, Raw Umber and Cadmium red deep, one can mix tones deep enough to emulate black. These three pigments in fact lend a certain luminosity to shadows that black cannot match.
In landscapes where foliage in shadows becomes very deep and dark, adding in Hooker’s Green deep to the Raw Umber and to the Ultramarine Blue/Cadmium mix seems to bend the shadows tone nicely towards the other, lighter greens in the landscape. Veridian I find is just too brilliant to use in shadow. There is a new tube grey out now called Torrit Grey which I bought as a whim and I like how they have bent it towards a dark, green grey. Adding white gives it a pleasant transition hue – a quicker way to achieve a grey/green tone. This is by the way distinctly different than Payne’s grey which leans markedly towards dark blue. When we think of Van Gogh’s work we think of very bright, rich pigments but his famous painting the Potato Eaters was somber in tone, extensively using deep shadows for effect and of a predominate green cast with gradations towards blue greys. His winter landscapes I think are his best work where he carefully picked his way through subtle shades of greys within the snowy fields and shadows of trees, walls and figures along the road.
Of course every painter will eventually discover that various shades of grey carefully mixed and rendered adds an important ‘base’ to a painting – even one titled White Line by Kandinsky. The stark bent, white line gains importance vibrating in front of the beautiful green, umber and blue greys that border the painting. Some painters even prefer to paint the entire canvas grey before beginning. This deep tone provides an entirely new reference than stark white when first starting a new painting.
Choosing to produce a drag painting on ply board is a tedious process. The end results however are not possible with canvas. The canvas is too flexible and the weave is not conducive to the desired effect. The photos show the first drag of just basic colors. The second completed image shows the finished product…notice the dark shapes in the foreground which were also dragged over the base layer, giving some wonderful surprising effects. Here are the steps briefly for the drag painting process outlined:
Choose any size 1/2 in. ply board and you will tell the supplier you want one good side. Prime twice and sand thoroughly. I routinely sand between coats but a good sanding after the second is critical. Use an orbital sander with 100 grit. A water based primer is acceptable.
If the panel is three feet or larger you will need to reinforce the back with stiffeners to keep the panel from bowing or warping. A flat, even surface is necessary for a good drag effect but also when you frame the piece. I use 1 x 2 hardwood as a frame stiffener on the back, glued and nailed. Yes, you have to putty the nail holes and prime those as well. Like I say, tedious work. I try and do three of these at at time which helps on labor time.
Work is best done flat. Squeeze paint directly from the tube unto the surface – mostly along one edge. Try to think in terms of horizontal bands of color and which hues you would like to see near the top and which in the middle and which colors will predominate on the lower section. Squeeze your paint out accordingly. Use a squeege that is at least half the width of the primed panel. Place it on the edge where the paint is and applying even pressure now drag from side to side without stopping. Now drag the center section and then if necessary the lower section.
You will be quite surprised at the wonderful blending of all the paints. Take time now to study what you have done. This is just the beginning. You may want to drag certain sections again or add paint and drag again. Some areas may require lightening or darkening. Remember that once this first pass dries you will come back with additional passes in a couple weeks. Also in a couple weeks after the base has dried is when I add in certain overlays with a brush.
Summary: This is a wonderful way to get started in painting abstracts. The drag painting provides an immediate and s
It is possible, to some degree to remove the mystery in starting an abstract painting. There are painters who suggest it is a magical and spontaneous affair, that it cannot be defined and that the process cannot be understood. In my own experience I do not find this to be the case. Kandinsky broke down his own work into several ‘categories’. When we read how he separated these categories it is clear that he was identifying the process.
In this brief article I will suggest several styles or directions to you. I think this will be helpful to get you started. If you already are painting abstracts this might suggest a new direction for you to discover. The most well-known abstract ‘living’ artist today is Gerhardt Richter. He is best known for his drag paintings. This is a method of applying paint to one end of a canvas or board in fairly random gobs and then dragging these across horizontally with a wide, flat squeege. With his very practiced eye, he produces some wonderful effects. These effects are part by accident and part by planning. Not knowing the exact outcome is what makes this process so intriguing. I have found this to be an excellent way to free oneself from repeating realism.
A second method for abstract painting is what I classify as free form shapes applied by brush. There are many YouTube videos of this style. Artists seem to be attracted especially to this means of expression. Large and small shapes are created in swirling patterns giving the canvas a very free-form, spontaneous effect. The challenge in this type of painting is having some good fundimentals in color harmony. However, color can be quite forgiving when one color is juxtaposed adjacent to another. Often sharp, contrasting lines are added to this type of abstract expression. This type of art reminds me of good jazz. There is nothing recognizable, it is definitely spontaneous and relies on sub-conscious responses. Some artists would say it is an effort to express an inner feeling or a composite of inner feelings. Hans Hoffman was one of the first to paint in this fashion.
A third example of abstract art seems to stem from the cubist movement begun by Braque, Picasso and Juan Gris. Also the tightly constructed work of Marcel Duchamp. These are typically more thought out compositions. They may even have recognizable elements. Objects, colors and shapes are in defined planes. Abstract paintings such as these often appear geometric or architectural. If you have painted realistic scenes of buildings and landscapes and are wanting to express yourself more freely, this type of transitional abstract painting may be an excellent springboard for you.
These are three to consider. There are of course many. Starting out with one of these will no doubt help you to define your own vernacular and your own special means of expression. Emulating another style provides a direction and by studying the abstract artists of the past gives us an opportunity to choose our personal path.
Are you new to oil painting in general or just to oil painting of abstracts? In either case you will want to have an understanding of what defines the Abstract genre. What defines Abstract and Non-Objective painting? If you can have a clear aim in sight, this will help you develop your work, right?
Kandinsky attempted to define what he was doing when he worked as a teacher at the Bauhaus. He wrote the small book titled, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Considered the ‘Father’ of Abstract art it was apparently necessary for him to define his new directions. We read for example of his painting from an inner need and from an inner compulsion. This required a break from conventional known or recognizable forms. I think the book explains his position fairly well and his departure from object forms.
It is an interesting comparison in reading Ekhart Tolle’s book, The Power of Now. This book talks about the relative illusion of form. He describes a process of seeking a higher consciousness by recognizing form as being an illusion. He points out that true reality lies within and is quite separate from what we perceive as form. This seems to resonate with what Kandinsky wrote fifty years ago when he states the need to paint from an inner resource and to give that inner feeling expression. Tolle however is able to give us a more clear understanding of that inner dimension. His book is a valuable resource for an artist.
I was watching a Facebook video clip of a niece, just three at work on a painting. The painting was nearing completion and she was standing before it brush in hand. There were all kinds of swishes and circles and dashes of varying colors – a very exciting painting. She began to mix on her brush some reddish tones and then carefully reached up and put two deliberate swatches of red near the top but separate from each other. Why did she choose to do that? Why were they the final strokes to the painting? This process should be similar to our own means to create Abstract art. We should be studying the canvas and placing shapes and colors in response to an inner feeling. We should also be sensitive to the other colors and shapes on the canvas so that we create a symphony. As in a symphony all the various components work together to create an effect.
Ultimately painting an abstract oil should be a joyful expression. We should not worry about ‘wasting’ paint. This should be our time to draw out our inner feelings and to express them with relative freedom unrestrained by the forms we see around us. This is what makes Abstract art, for me so special and so intriguing. The other advantage is that we have a more broad free range of colors to implement. As a painting develops we can creatively use colors that best suit the needs of the painting – we need not be bound by ‘what is before us’.
How to start an Abstract painting
Especially for the novice painter, commencing an abstract painting can be intimidating. There are no visual clues or subject references which realistic painting offers. I will briefly describe the process I often use – the ‘drag painting’ technique. Gerhardt Richter is probably most noted for this method. I recommend using hardboard or primed plywood panels, preferably large and reinforced to keep them straight. Using the board instead of canvas takes more setup but helps immensely with the process when it comes time to literally drag paint across the surface. This drag technique is an excellent way to start an abstract painting.
It is best to work flat. Squeeze out the colors you want across the board, with a liberal use of white. These might appear as semi-planned globs on the hard panel. Take a squeegee and pressing hard go from one side to the other in a firm, deliberate pass across the board. Keep working yourself down the panel in this manner,dragging the pigment horizontally. Try to be quite firm to leave a minimum of paint on the surface. Stand back and admire the accidents and surprises that will come from this effort. I am always surprised at the affects that are created. It is necessary to wipe and clean off the squeegee through the process so that each swipe is fairly clean.
This can be done in one sitting. I rarely consider this the final step in developing an abstract painting but this provides an excellent background or base to work from. I set this aside to dry for about two weeks. If I am anxious to work on it, setting it out in the sun speeds up the drying. I try to have a couple of these laying around to work on after they dry. The purpose of this brief article is to give you an idea how to start an abstract painting. This drag technique will give you an excellent way to get paint on the surface. It is certainly possible to make it tonally very deep or very light depending on the colors you use. White will quickly be absorbed. You will quickly discover the best locations to apply the ‘gobs’ of pigment. Admittedly this does tend to waste expensive oil paint. What you do get, as a beginner or a novice is an very creative way to create a base for your painting. It already has the look of an oil painting.
Canvas of course can be used though the effect is not as dramatic. If you use store bought canvas, I suggest at least two coats of gesso first to fill the exposed pattern of canvas — in other words the smoother surface, the better. I intend in the near future to do a demo video which will quickly explain this process more completely.